Making an Existentialist

by James Renner

As if the blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.Albert Camus

Binging on Making a Murderer is a descent into despair. Eventually there comes a moment in the ten-episode Netflix documentary series when the viewer's heart breaks. For some it's watching the cops coerce a confession out of a young, mentally retarded teenager named Brendan Dassey. For others, it's that moment you realize it was detective James Lenk who found the damning keys in Steve Avery's trailer after it had already been thoroughly searched eight times. For me that moment came when prosecutor Ken Kratz looked at the jury and said it "shouldn't matter whether or not that key was planted."

Pop culture is suddenly filled with similar stories that make us despair. We felt that darkness during Serial, Season One, when we learned that the prosecutor in the Hae Min Lee case hooked up a defendant with a pro-bono lawyer. We felt it at the end of The Jinx when Robert Durst forgot his mic was on during his potty break and said, "What did I do? Killed them all, of course."

Our despair elicits philosophical debate: Is this what we call Justice? It causes us to consider linguistics: If this is Justice, what does that word even mean? Finally, it brings us to the big question: Is there any meaning to be found?

I suspect, for the first time, many people who never would have asked themselves that question are coming to it and thinking: What if there isn't?

The answer lies in the subtext of these New Existentialists, in the tricks of these filmmakers and writers. Their stories reflect our world and lately that world feels very existential: climate change, poison water, the Trump candidacy, Jared from Subway... There is meaning and point to the pointlessness.

When you're from Cleveland you learn not to go searching for meaning. We have the Browns, after all. And serial killers. Sometimes when we're not looking, our river catches on fire. I was an investigative journalist in the city when the politicians who ran it were indicted for accepting bribes and kickbacks during the financial collapse of 2008. Mostly, I was a crime writer.

A few years back I wrote a book about the unsolved murder of a ten-year-old girl named Amy Mihaljevic, who was abducted from the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village in 1989. She was taken across the street from the police station on a sunny Friday afternoon. I figured out early on why the investigation had gone cold - the spread of suspects was too large. There are simply too many men who had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. The case has never been solved. There may never be closure in this life.

"Closure is for doors," Amy's father told me, recently.

In 2006, I met with the families of two missing girls - Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus - at the FBI office near the lake. At the time nobody really thought the cases were connected. The police had an excellent suspect in Berry's case and he didn't know Gina. I walked the rough stretched of Lorain Avenue where they were last seen. I spoke with a lot of people who knew the girls. I had planned to speak to Arlene Castro, the girl who last saw Gina DeJesus, too. But Arlene was underage. I didn't want to push her and I figured she didn't have any helpful information, anyway. I get to think about that forever, now. I get to wonder if maybe she would have said something to implicate her father years before he was caught.

What does any of it mean?

Near the end of Making a Murderer the affable Dean Strang, one of Avery's defense attorneys, grows frustrated with the absurdity of his client's murder conviction. "If I'm going to be perfectly candid," he says, "there's a big part of me that really hopes Steven Avery is guilty of this crime. Because the thought of him being innocent of this crime and sitting in prison again for something he didn't do, and now, for the rest of his life, without a prayer of parole - I can't take that."

This is the guy who defended Avery, who knows the prosecutors and cops played dirty to win, and he tells us that he hopes his client is guilty... because at least then, there would be some cosmic reason for it all. I can understand that. I can empathize.

But all the evidence suggests there is no reason. There is no meaning.

The word you eventually come to is: indifferent. The world is indifferent. There
appears to be no referee. God did not step forward to intervene in Steve Avery's first wrongful conviction. A mystery man in a black trench coat never showed up at Adnan Syed's trial with video evidence from the Best Buy parking lot. I didn't bump into some wise old man who said, "Hey, talk to Arlene. She knows something."

What Making a Murderer and Serial are teaching us - and by us, I mean the gluttonous consumers of American pop culture - is this: We are alone. Or, at least, on our own. And with that realization comes despair. Twitter is alight with despair right now. In the past hour alone, the following cries of anguish were tweeted:

"Sitting in an office alone crying at making a murderer" - @xocourtneydonn

"@MakingAMurderer omg I finished that it made me so sad" - @glitzynourry

"Making a murderer is breaking my heart" - ChelseaSpencer3

"legit in tears for Steven Avery @MakingAMurderer this just isn't fair at all" - @tomlinsxnstyles

"This show is making me go crazy!" - @el_lee7

A smart guy named Jean-Paul Sarte once said, "Life begins on the other side of despair." That is where existentialism begins. And what's happening on Twitter right now is an existential crisis of some importance to our culture.

If you're new to existentialism or ever heard the term used by hipsters you would never invite into your home, there are many ins to the philosophy but a 1942 essay by Albert Camus addresses many of the spiritual headaches viewers experience after binging on Making a Murderer, and it's worth consideration. It's called The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, as you may recall from that week in high school English when you had to read about mythology, was the poor Greek fellow sentenced to roll a boulder up hill and then watch it roll back down at the end of the day, only to start over the next morning.

The Myth of Sisyphus deals with what happens after we realize the absurdity of our existence. Camus suggests we might wish to commit suicide. After all, once we learn, as Queen warned us we would, that nothing really matters, we cannot unlearn it. "Man is always prey to his truths," he writes. "Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them."

With the knowledge that there is no inherent point to this life, comes the realization that there is no universal code of ethics and no great power holding us accountable. Camus might as well have been talking about Ken Kratz when he wrote, "I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules."

So what's the point of deliberately living in a world of Steven Averys and Adnan Syeds and Amy Mihaljevics?

The struggle. Camus believed that the struggle to live life to the fullest is a worthy goal, an appropriate stand-in for the point of it all. We have this annoying thing called consciousness that allows us to recognize the absurdity of the world around us. But we also have the audacity and spiritual strength not to kill ourselves in spite of it. We can take solace in the fact that, while the world is not good, it's not bad, either. It is simply indifferent. We're free to make of it what we will.

"The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart," writes Camus. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The Serial crew gets it. In Serial, Season One, "Episode 5," as Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis investigate cell phone ping hotspots around Baltimore in hopes of shining light on a tragic cold case, Chivvis notices a sign: "There's a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib!" she says.

Hae Min Lee is dead. Koenig and her producer know that will never change. But shrimp is on sale, today. So they've got that going for them. Which is nice.

After the success of Making a Murderer, unresolved crime stories are only going to become more popular. A third season of Serial is in the works and rumor has it that Errol Morris, himself, is creating a new documentary series for Netflix that will be more absurd than anything we've seen before. Despair is so hot right now. We would do well to remember Camus in the coming months and to be grateful for the New Existentialists and the meaning they are giving to this weird world.


James Renner is the author of two novels and several works of nonfiction. His new book about the unsolved disappearance of Maura Murray and his own obsession with finding her, True Crime Addict, will be published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books in May.

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