What I Learned from “Making a Murderer”


Like all good breaks, I twiddled my time away eating lots of snacks inside crinkly bags and watching an insatiable amount of Netflix. And in this zombiefied state of passive binging, I felt my isolation in more than just the solo butt impression left on my couch cushion.

The answer to this vacation anti-socialization I found swarming across just about every social media platform: “Making a Murderer.” (Have you heard of it? Are you reading this article right now?) Yes, there it was, the series everyone and their uncle was discussing, the documentary of apocalyptic popularity decrying the criminal justice system in a case from our own backyard of Manitowoc County. What better way to reconcile my winter seclusion than to glue all attention to the must-see story of the moment, surely making me feel both in-the-know and passionately, righteously enraged.

Yet what caught me off guard after my ten-hour immersion was more than the indignation the series is meant to have induced (sprinkled with all the second-guessing and self-doubt one can squeeze into true crime). Beyond the documentary’s memo to re-think who the criminal justice system really serves are layers of thoughts that appear straight out of an existentialism lecture, and its intellectual cookie crumbs were therefore more feast than morsel. I found myself munching on a few sweet-and-sour reflections.

People are neither good or bad, yet civil institutions function as if they are. The first half of this statement is almost too obvious to even write. Yes, individuals are such an intricate tug-of-war of biological necessities, desires and cognitions that to classify everyone as black or white seems shortsighted, yet a process-driven judicial system needs dichotomies by their operating nature. They’re forced to in order to be productive. You’re innocent or you’re guilty; you’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth or you’re a liar. Police are good; law-abiding civilians are good. The severity of this spectrum is so two-dimensioned that it almost begs for series like “Making a Murdererto be made, in order to get people thinking about human nature–and the civil institutions that stem from it–in a more vigorous style.

Gaining, losing or maintaining face is indispensable in civil society. My heart goes out to Steven Avery’s parents, Delores and Allan, two central figures in the docuseries whose reputation has been all but annihilated through association. That doesn’t even cover the rest of the Avery family, their businesses and day-to-day interactions with a public who lumps their character with Steven’s. This is only the empathetic voice in me sighing. Consider the reputation of Manitowoc County’s police, detectives, judges, prosecutors and investigators. Of course they adamantly defend themselves; that’s how status works. People go to great lengths and adopt rigorous customs to maintain others’ perceptions of them. A criminal justice system isn’t somehow exempt from this behavior–it in fact defines it, stamping with a legal seal that society can frown upon and treat accordingly.

Read Nietzsche. “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” Nietzsche’s writings on truth seem just about the only digestible aid when considering topsy-turvy cases such as this. Whether this truth is an existing device that we as subjective beings can never fully grasp or altogether doesn’t exist can be a debate we can leave for philosophy essays. Nevertheless, in a courtroom there are two sides fundamentally arguing that they, indeed, bear the truth. This doesn’t actually make what is truth spoken fact. Still, it’s the juror’s job to proceed as if it is, when, in all actuality–and as Nietzsche might attest–the procedure is nothing more than one big hypercritical construction.

On that rather unsetting note, I’ll end with a shout-out to the lady interviewed at a Manitowoc dive bar in episode two, the one passionately defending the Averys and crediting conspiracies behind the big man’s power–and who is, in the most fashionable manner, sporting a St. Norbert sweatshirt.


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