Agatha Christie novels have such convoluted plots that they sometimes feel like protracted solutions to SAT questions. Sometimes I wonder why they’ve been so successful and continue to be so. This morning, at about 4am, a piece of the answer came to me.
I was listening to a terrific audiobook, narrated by the gifted Emilia Fox, and it was to her great credit (and perhaps my great detriment) that the narration was so fantastic that I could not go back to sleep. In the first few chapters she describes the train voyage of Mrs. McGillicuddy, in which she witnesses a horrible crime through the window near her seat.
I really recommend listening to the whole thing, but especially to the first few chapters:
The solution, etc., is interesting, but what I find really grabs my attention is Christie’s sensitive and deeply relatable description of Mrs. McGillicuddy’s frustration at not being believed. She doesn’t have to spell out “ageism” and “sexism” for the reader (or listener) to be irate on Mrs. McGillicuddy’s behalf, as she is being pooh-poohed by various railway employees who think she is fantasizing. The relief you feel when she gets to her destination–her old friend Jane Marple’s home–and is finally believed, her evidence taken seriously and respectfully, and her mind set at ease as Miss Marple takes over the investigation. Whether or not one loves the usual Christie machinations that follow, those first few chapters are such a gem.
Our family tragedy kept me in Israel for three and a half months, during which my weekly escape was the second season of HaShotreem (“The Cops”) on Israel’s Channel 12 (all episodes available on the Mako website.) The show’s first season closely followed real-life events that occurred in Nahariya in 2006. At that time, northern seaside city Nahariya was controlled and terrorized by mob boss Michael Mor, whose stronghold on drugs, protection money, etc., extended to the city’s legitimate businesses and political structure. By contrast to the U.S., Israel has a national police force, rather than independent units for different municipalities. Nonetheless, the Nahariya police could not take on Mor and his organization; national headquarters refused to offer them help, because Mor was perceived to be a local threat, rather than someone serious on a national scale; and, consequently, their intelligence and covert operations units fell apart. Major Yaniv Ashur was summoned to rehabilitate the unit and confront Mor’s organization. Ashur’s invigorated, aggressive investigation saw some success: Mor was sentenced to seven months in prison for criminal threats.
But the retaliation from Mor’s side took a sinister turn: his people targeted the investigative detectives and threw grenades into their home, and even tried to kill the current mayor, vice mayor, and former mayor. The inability to protect themselves and their families, and Mor’s impunity, brought the cops, who received no backing or protection from the station or from headquarters, to hatch a desperate plan: they decided to shake up Mor’s confidence in order to push him to make a mistake. After consulting with an explosives expert, they laid pipe bombs under Mor’s vehicle and close to a home he owned. No one was hurt, and the investigating officers initially suspected Mor’s underworld competitors. Eventually, however, through an informant, the police arrived at the truth and managed to turn one of the “avenging cops” state witness against the others. The officers were tried, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison.
The whole affair was silenced, but somehow, the names of the suspected cops leaked to the newspaper in the form of a fictitious obituary. Mor and his associates were suspected of paying for the ad, but have declined. In any case, even after the cops’ release from prison, they continued to be targeted by Mor, until his recent arrest.
The second season of HaShotreem, which ended last Tuesday, was fictional, but shared some elements with the first. In the series, the cops, recently released from prison thanks to a campaign spearheaded by their families and generally regarded as heroes in Nahariya, are unable to return to the force because of their criminal record and face dangerous retaliation efforts from the underworld. In their despair, they take a deal offered by their colleague who turned state witness (and, in the show, remained a cop): they agree to become undercover agents working for the crime boss’s competitor and bring him down in return for restoring their efforts. In the meantime, an anti-corruption candidate challenges the current mayor (who is mixed up with the underworld). The cops engage in dangerous missions as double agents, sometimes exceeding the framework and permissions of their jobs, and end up bringing down both their nemesis and his competitor. Here’s the first episode of the second season:
Commentators and reviewers have praised the acting and action scenes and the show’s riveting plot, but complained that, beyond that, it does not offer a moral center. They make a valuable point. At no point during the narrative are the viewers conflicted about the goodness or moral validity of the cops’ actions. They say to their commander, “we’ve learned from our mistakes,” but have they? No one makes any convincing argument that crossing the line like this could be problematic and, in the long run, erode what little legitimacy the police still has in high-crime neighborhoods. In that respect, the cops are quintessentially Israeli heroes: good guys fighting bad guys with the end justifying any means, and with no questions about shades of gray in “goodness” and “badness.”
Admittedly, I too have empathy for the show’s protagonists and for their real-life counterparts. They were placed in an impossible situation, with serious life threats against them and their families, with no backup or protection from their superiors, and later faced a thankless system. But one does not have to eschew this narrative wholesale to ask more difficult questions about how such events can affect the legitimacy of the police overall, or about whether we truly believe that, whenever the police crosses the line, it’s for a laudable goal and against a deserving target.
It’s been especially demoralizing to think about this slippery slope in light of what is happening as the show is broadcast: the increased military and border patrol support for horrendous settler violence in Palestine; the deliberate boundary-blurring similarities between police officers and rightwinger goons beating up protestors; deliberately sloppy police investigations leaving rightwing murderers free; and the constant talk of creating right-wing militias that will further blur the line between goon and lawman. How could the show’s producers not notice that this issue raises concerns that every Israeli should be pondering in 2023?
Filmmaker Omer Yefman and I went to school together and, after wanting to see his films for years, yesterday I finally had an opportunity to attend a screening of Holding It In (2020), his film with his partner Chen Rotem, an honest, no-barred-holds window into their surrogacy journey.
I’ve been interested in Omer’s work since hearing about All Happy Mornings (2012), in which he and Chen opened up about Omer’s bisexuality and their complicated journey into nonmonogamy (something I had written about from a legalandsociologicalperspective.) I remembered him vividly from our school days as an authentic, real person, who met the world around him with humility and curiosity, and it was a pleasant discovery (though not at all a surprise) that Chen is also a fantastic and openminded person. I especially appreciated the film’s entry into a fraught conversation in Israel about surrogacy. Israel’s limited adoption market, a product of its decided natalism, means that people aggressively pursue IVF treatments with enormous social backing, and that queer couples and people for whom IVF is not an option pursue surrogacy. This has produced a ferocious debate in the queer community about the power differential and exploitative potential of surrogacy, as well as legislation that excluded same-sex couples from surrogacy in Israel (surrogacy is still an option for opposite-sex couples and single women.) Some surrogates have spoken up against the assumption that they are exploited or powerless in the relationship, while other commentators have dismissed their perspective as privileged and not representative of the overall population of surrogates.
Issues of money and power are not at the center of Chen and Omer’s journey–they are frank and vulnerable about conversations of partnership, giving, children, family time, and camaraderie before and during Chen’s pregnancy–but they are not far from the surface. In one scene, Chen and Omer’s two young kids are asleep in the back seat of the car while the parents discuss Omer’s discomfort using “surrogacy money” to go on a family vacation abroad. Earlier in the film, discussing their decision with friends, Chen is adamant that she would insist on paying for surrogacy, and there’s an agreement that payment is fair and important given the sacrifice and risk. “It’s our money,” Chen says. “I’m still uncomfortable,” Omer replies.
Surrogacy and adoption are distinguishable in important ways: by contrast to surrogacy, which is a service from the get-go (in one touching scene, Chen explains to her young kids that the baby is “a guest in our family” who “will return to his parents” after he is born), the decision to place a child for adoption can only be made after the child is born, no matter what theoretical agreements birthparents and adoptive parents reach before the birth, and therefore there is no compensation, as such, beforehand, which could be constituted as bribe. But to say this is to some extent hypocritical. I’ve written before about the fact that, like surrogacy, adoption is a situation in which a baby usually passes from poorer hands to wealthier hands, while money changes hands in the opposite direction. The meticulous limitations on what is, and is not, remunerable, obscure this important point–an effort to quantify the unquantifiable. Regardless of the legal or ethical taxonomy of payments (support? compensation?) the quantification of such a fundamental and immense human process is at the heart of the discomfort.
Because of this deep truth, people on both sides of either adoption or surrogacy relationships would do well to remember that there are some things that this money should not buy. One of the most stunning moments in the film, for me, was when Chen returned from a medical checkup and told Omer that the prospective parents discussed a C-section with the doctor–without having discussed it with her first. Here’s the scene:
I felt rage bubbling in me while watching this scene. I’ve been in a similar situation from the opposite side, I thought. Someone else gave birth to my child. And it would never occur to me to make any demands, requests, suggestions anything at all about the birth. I feel very strongly that the only person who should be entitled to make decisions about a birth (what form it would take and who would be in the room, to name just two factors) is the person giving birth. As the scene progressed, Omer’s resentment toward the parents was palpable, while Chen explained that she did not want him to be angry on her behalf and that she was listening and trying to see things from their perspective (in the conversation we had after the movie, some details emerged that somewhat ameliorated, though did by no means eliminate, my deep concerns about the parents’ stance.) I had to actively remind myself that it was also Chen’s choice whether to feel resentful or not, and that adoption was fundamentally different from surrogacy. A birthmom gives birth to her own child and therefore makes her own decisions. A surrogate gives birth to someone else’s child. But a birth is a birth, I thought. What can be more personal than giving birth, regardless of the genetics of the child? The greatness of the film is that it is willing to ask these difficult questions without giving pat answers that rely on definitions and self righteousness.
And this is at the heart of my deep appreciation for the film: more than a film about an unusual, deeply stirring journey, it was a film about two incredibly brave and honest people, who are willing to confront not only complicated social and psychological questions, but their own demons, and to do so authentically in front of a camera. Their struggles and epiphanies are never self-serving, and never take the form of the all-too-common “lived experience” narrative one encounters all around us, where people marinate in their own goodness publicly. We’re flawed, just like everyone else, they seemed to say, and we want to share our process with you. In our conversation after the show, the filmmakers mentioned that, while documenting their experience, they weren’t thinking “people will be seeing this later”, but I think that there is a profound act of service in making this film that parallels the profound service of surrogacy. By opening a window into their personal life, far from generalizing their experience or making ethical proclamations, Chen and Omer are offering me and you an opportunity to engage with our own sense of ethics and question even the assumptions we clutch most tightly. What more can one possibly want from a film?
Michal Kravel-Tovi, When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017
Mattir Agunoth (Television mini-series), Kan 11 (Yossi Madmoni, Tamar Kay, David Ofek, creators), 2019
The opening scene of Kan 11’s dramatic series Mattir Agunothfeels more like a spy thriller than a drama about religion. The hero, Rabbi Yosef Morad, is conducting a wiretap in a hotel, monitoring a diamond purchasing deal. The buyer is enthralled by the diamond’s clarity and beauty; imagine his astonishment when, as soon as he makes an offer, the seller, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew, says, “sure, as soon as you give your wife a gett.” At that instant, Rabbi Morad bursts into the room, ktav gett in hand, explaining that the deal can go through only after the recalcitrant husband releases his wife. The buyer tears up the ktav gett; Morad, undeterred, produces a copy. Cut to a Rabbinical court, in which three rabbis and various witnesses watch Morad—now delegated the gerush authority by the husband—hands the gett to the elated wife. She is finally free. The rabbis chant in unison: “Megoreshet, megoreshet, megoreshet!”, and then burst into joyous congratulations: “Mazal tov!”
In any secular, modern country, the position of a mattir agunoth – part rabbi, part psychologist, part private eye, entrusted with the authority and resources to pursue deadbeat husbands and persuade them, gently or not-so-gently, to grant their wives a divorce—would be entirely unnecessary. But in Israel, all matters of marriage and divorce between Jews are adjudicated through the rabbinical courts and subjected to halakhic law. Consequently, rabbinical authorities are bound by the requirement that divorce be by mutual consent. Halakhical solutions for men who are denied a divorce by their recalcitrant wives are easier to find (as are the rare, but by no means nonexistent, permissions to remarry without obtaining a divorce); women can be financially extorted by stubborn husbands in exchange for a gett, sometimes for decades.
In the last few years, as religious scholar Masua Sagiv explains, some refreshing solutions have emerged outside the confines of Jewish Orthodoxy. Private batei din, established with the goal of helping women in these desperate situations, sometimes rule for a gett when the Orthodox establishment would not. This provides respite for women who feel bound by the halakha, but does not remedy the situation for women who need to prove their divorce so that they can remarry without committing bigamy. In some cases, as Shlomo Riskin explains, the rabbinical courts can engage in “hafka’at kiddushin” as a workaround. But these remedies are few and far between. Consequently, and under pressure to resolve these problems, rabbinical courts find themselves twisting the halakhah to permit the impermissible: forcing the husband to sign the gett.
As Mattir Agunoth evocatively portrays, and as experienced by Morad’s real-life counterpart, Rabbi Eliyahu Maymon, this is not an easy task: divorce withholding is an obvious and frustrating act of pettiness and bad faith, motivated by greed, spite, or both. However, since the gett must be given in free will, rabbinical authorities throughout Jewish history have struggled to find ways to kosherize the coercive methods sometimes necessary to bring the gett quest to a successful close. In Mishne Torah, Maimonides tackles this problem with considerable interpretive gymnastics:
When a man whom the law requires to be compelled to divorce his wife does not desire to divorce her, the court should have him beaten until he consents, at which time they should have a get written. The get is acceptable. This applies at all times and in all places.
Similarly, if gentiles beat him while telling him: “Do what the Jews are telling you to do,” and the Jews have the gentiles apply pressure on him until [he consents] to divorce his wife, the divorce is acceptable. If, however, the gentiles compel him to write [a get] on their own initiative, the get is [merely] unacceptable. The rationale is that the law requires him to give a divorce.
Why is this get not void? For he is being compelled – either by Jews or by gentiles – [to divorce] against his will [and a get must be given voluntarily].
Because the concept of being compelled against one’s will applies only when speaking about a person who is being compelled and forced to do something that the Torah does not obligate him to do – e.g., a person who was beaten until he consented to a sale, or to give a present. If, however, a person’s evil inclination presses him to negate [the observance of] a mitzvah or to commit a transgression, and he was beaten until he performed the action he was obligated to perform, or he dissociated himself from the forbidden action, he is not considered to have been forced against his will. On the contrary, it is he himself who is forcing [his own conduct to become debased]. 
Mishne Torah laRambam
This sense of deep hypocrisy, hopeless entanglement in dogma, and interpretive gymnastics to resolve the resulting intractable problem, permeates Michal Kravel-Tovi’s book When the State Winks in the same suffocating way. Tovi opens the book by presenting the halakhic challenge: Orthodox conversion erects thresholds and barriers aplenty in the path of people seeking conversion to Judaism, which can feel mandatory to non-Jewish women who seek to marry Jewish men. Converting through alternative denominations (Reform, Conservative, Renewal) may feel more meaningful and less oppressive to non-Orthodox women. But therein lies the rub: the State of Israel only recognizes as Jewish those born to a Jewish mother or converted through Orthodox Rabbinical channels. The Rabbinate must, therefore, exert its authority on women who are not religiously observant, often new immigrants removed from the Israeli experience and thus not accustomed to the commingling of church and state, who need their seal of approval so that they can marry Jewish men. Ironically, as Tovi explains, many such women are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and while they are viewed as non-Jews by the Israeli state apparatus, they do self-identify as Jewish—partly due to the Soviet Government’s patrilineal systems of recognition, and partly through their secular integration into Israeli society. Piling difficulties in their path also stands in the way of preserving a Jewish demographic majority—perceived as an essential condition for Zionist prevalence— which creates surprising collaborations between the Ministry of Religious Services and nonreligious bodies such as the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, and the Israeli army.
Tovi recounts how these conflicting goals—striving for halakhic purity and maintaining a Jewish majority—played out in a religious scandal involving a woman who had undergone conversion by Rabbi Chaim Druckman. Thirteen years later,
[a]fter filing for divorce at the regional rabbinical court (staffed by Ultra-Orthodox rabbis), her conversion was annulled retroactively by one of the rabbinic judges on the panel. The rabbinic judge, who had interrogated the woman about her religious observance, ruled that her level of observance was inadequate and that her conversion was therefore invalid, By implication, the ruling invalidated both her marriage and her children’s Jewish identities. . . [on appeal, the Great Rabbinical Court] not only upheld the lower court’s ruling but also appended another general ruling that sweepingly undermined Rabbi Druckman’s halakhic authority to convert.
Tovi reviews the aftermath: Druckman, motivated by a desire to advance the Zionist agenda, had presided over thousands of conversions. The scandal pitted him and his counterparts against the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who dominated the rabbinical courts. The conflict deepened two years later, when these rabbinical courts looked askance at conversion by military rabbis: “The latter spoke of national and moral responsibility, while the former chastised the army’s winking conversation.”
Steeped in this dilemma, rabbinical courts look for ways to facilitate conversions that will conform to halakhic rulings while, at the same time, accomplishing the demographic objective. Tovi’s ethnography follows women who immigrated from the former Soviet Union from their journey to a conversion Ulpan—whose endorsement of the prospective convert “carries a lot of weight”—through the rabbinical courts, to the mikvah. Akin to Mattir Agunot and Maimonides, the whole journey might feel coercive and oppressive—which, let’s face it, it is, given the need to satisfy the religious requirements to get the required credential—but the converts must show to the court that they are sincere, as free will is one of the conditions for a halakhically proper converstion. Tovi examines how the women are tutored in the legible performance of sincerity: they are warned against lying, even as their teachers admit that the “don’t have x-rays for examining souls.” She recounts an especially excruciating dialogue between Kati, a prospective convert, and Rabbi David, who questions her motivation in converting, accusing her of seeking Judaism solely because of her boyfriend:
Rabbi David: Who changed your fate?
Kati: I did, but through him.
Rabbi David: Should everyone convert?
Kati: Everyone should make their own decision.
Rabbi David: What, anyone who was badly off and now is better off should convert?
Kati: We weren’t badly off there. We came to be in Israel.
Rabbi David: Most olim don’t convert and aren’t religious.
Kati: I am. This reflects my decision to be at one with the Torah and the commandments.
Rabbi David is suspicious of the sincerity of this performance because it is “too sweet. . . on the surface, everything is fine, but I felt something.”
These performative contortions continued in the rabbinical courts. Tovi recounts incidents in which boyfriends, who felt themselves and their non-Jewish girlfriends obligated to participate in a religious charade, rebelled before the court, negotiating the extent to which they could present their genuine, secular life. In one memorable exchange, an Israeli boyfriend, Motti, is furious that his girlfriend’s application is rejected for lack of religiosity when he himself is not observant:
Motti: So I should have come here a liar? Come with a skullcap and say amen and promise to observe everything? How should I have felt about this? “Ah, I tricked you.” I would have turned out a liar but I don’t want to. I am a truthful man. I came from a religious home, but I chose to be a secular Jew.
Rabbi Blau: Everything you say is true. But I cannot help you. I want to help you, but can’t.
Motti: What do you want from me? Do you want me to come here with a mask?
Rabbi Blau: It is not a mask.
Motti: It is because I am not a religious person.
The irony of Motti’s position is completely lost on him when, later, he comments: “I want Orly to immerse [in the ritual bath] before the baby is born.”
Both When the State Winks and Mattir Agunoth center around the frustrating entanglement of hypocrisy and invention in Orthodox Judaism. In both cases, religious authorities, holding the reins to secular state bureaucracy, face a halakhic uphill battle in the quest to do what at least some of them might feel is fair: liberate long-suffering women from the extortion of the scoundrels they married and promote Jewish families and Jewish life through conversion. In both cases, the halakhic problem, when viewed from within its own confines, is intractable: they must follow halakhic gett and conversion proceedings. But these prescriptions are impossible to follow in the face of immoral extortionists and people who refuse to lie about keeping kosher and Shabbat when they don’t. And in both cases, complicated halakhic workarounds allow them to proceed with their eventual objectives while ostensibly staying within Jewish law: forcing men to sign the gett “out of their own free will” through trickery and violence, and forcing women to perform piousness they don’t actually feel in an accepted, legible manner.
As a secular Jew, my indignation about this system prompts me to view the solutions outside the halakhic box, but I know this is far less simple than it seems. Ostensibly, both of these problems would be solved if the state of Israel, formed with an identity both Jewish and democratic, took religious purity off the table for divorces and made them an entirely secular, no-fault proceeding, or granted equal rights to all its citizens regardless of their religious identity. The problem is that halakhic purity laws are so entrenched in Israeli society that even secular people like Motti find themselves attached to the idea of having their girlfriend immerse herself in the mikvah before giving birth, and even the secular women seeking Morad’s help in Mattir Agunoth feel a sense of revulsion and dread at the prospect of giving birth to a mamzer (bastard) because their divorce was not properly completed. The power of these religious taboos will not be swiftly undone through state action, and will require the courage of progressive, pragmatic rabbis to transform. Such courage is, sadly, in short supply in Israel’s current religious establishment. But works such as When the State Winks and Mattir Agunoth may help awaken in the secular public a sense that their personal integrity requires forging their own virtue ethics, unencumbered by centuries of misogyny.
Mattir Agunoth (Television mini-series), Kan 11 (Yossi Madmoni, Tamar Kay, David Ofek, creators), 2019
 Isaac Shiloh, Marriage and Divorce in Israel. Israel Law Review , Volume 5 , Issue 4 , October 1970 , pp. 479 – 498.
 Sagiv, M. (2017). The State and New Religious Movements. In: Feraro, S., Lewis, J. (eds) Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel. Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
 Riskin, Shlomo. “Hafka’at Kiddushin: Towards Solving the Aguna Problem in Our Time.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, vol. 36, no. 4, 2002, pp. 1–36.
 Sherry Makover-Blikov, “Every man has a key. And if you can’t get the key, you must break the lock.” Yedioth Acharonoth, Nov. 12, 2019.
In the last few months, due to a combination of insomnia and long workouts, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, many of which are true-crime themed. Some of these are long-form podcasts, which follow an individual case, and some feature numerous cases, devoting an episode or two to each. This has led me to rethink about the victims’ rights movement and consider how the new landscape of crime podcasting has changed its focus.
The criminological literature tends to paint the emergence of the victims’ rights movement in the U.S. as a monolith: comprised primarily of white, middle- or upper-class people whose relatives were victims of stranger homicide, pioneers in victim advocacy have tended to advocate for harsher punishments, the death penalty, abolition of parole, harsher prison conditions, etc. In some cases, as Josh Page documents in The Toughest Beat, they partnered with California’s prison guards union. In other cases, as I documented in Yesterday’s Monsters, they pioneered victim presence at parole hearings, with the only possible approach being clamoring for parole denial. Our harsh habitual offender laws were largely the product of Mark Klaas’ advocacy, in the aftermath of the murder of his daughter Polly.
My extensive, though unsystematic, course of listening to true-crime podcasts suggest that today’s true-crime media lends its voice to multiple victim perspectives, incorporating some critiques of punitiveness, excessive policing, and mass incarceration, and rejecting the victim/offender dichotomy that characterized so much of the early days of the movement. Many episodes include frank descriptions of victims’ lives, including their criminal records, drug abuse, and mental illness–not to blame them, or cast a negative light on them, but rather to point out that even people who struggled in their lives deserve to be found and for their fate to be discovered. Many episodes explicitly feature victims of color, victims who worked in the sex industry close to their demise, and victims who had complicated relationships with their suspected killers or abusers. In many of these episodes, the podcasters explicitly point out that they are looking to bring attention to these left-behind cases.
I’m also noticing that the podcasts feature plenty of rage over inappropriate policing, such as the forceful extraction of confessions or sloppy forensic works. This falls in line with much of what I’ve been thinking about recently: that the problem is not so much overpolicing or underpolicing, but rather the wrong kind of policing altogether (more focus on stop-and-frisk harassment and humiliation than on, well, solving crimes.) Podcasters’ voices become emotional not only when describing the victims’ plight, but also when describing harsh incarceration conditions suffered by wrongly convicted suspects. Notably, podcasters feature ambivalence toward family members who (wrongly) maintain that someone cleared of all connection to the crime (through DNA and, say, proof that a confession was coerced) is guilty: they offer empathy but, plainly and politely, state that they disagree.
Because podcasters have to provide what their public is interested in hearing, one can tell that criminal justice issues percolate from public debate into these programs–first among which is the issue of racial justice. I’ve seen extensive coverage of hate crimes, complete with fundraisers for racial justice organizations, and in cases that involve black perpetrators and victims the focus is on getting justice and attention for the victim, rather than punishment for the offender.
Relatedly, these podcasts also choose to feature a variety of different victim voices. Some families, you’ll hear, are staunch supporters of the death penalty, wishing for the murderers of their loved ones to suffer. Others say that they don’t much care about the punishment, but rather about solving the crime. Many podcasts offer no judgment, letting the victims be themselves rather than the world curators of criminal justice. I really appreciate this perspective.
Much of this pluralistic, multifaceted approach relates to the fact that many true crime podcasts focus on unsolved crimes. The main question driving the narrative is what happened, rather than what the sentence will be. This, to a great degree, depoliticizes the content, focusing it on something we presumably all want: to solve serious crime cases.
This change of focus reminds me of something different, but related. In a really interesting, clear-eyed piece, Keith Findley argues that the emergence of innocence as a topic of conversation has, to some extent, broken the impasse between crime control and due process enthusiasts. Even the staunchest crime control proponent would not like to see an innocent person behind bars; even the scrappiest due process advocate wants solid proof of a crime at trial. I think a similar maneuver happens with these podcasts. The idea that we need to find out what happened eclipses the focus on retribution, just deserts, and what happens later, breaking the impasse and finding some depolicitized commonality among victims of unsolved crime.
I may write something about this at a later date; I think that these podcasts offer an interesting counterpart to the usual crime daytime TV, reviewed by Danny LaChance and Paul Kaplan in their book Crimesploitation. Let there be no mistake: true-crime podcasts crimesploit to the Nth degree. But I think they do it in a different way that is worth exploring.
A short while ago, I chaired a panel to celebrate Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance’s new book Crimesploitation, which examines the lowbrow and middlebrow shows that shed glamorous and lurid light on crime: Cops, To Catch a Predator, etc. As I wrote in my review of the book, this read coincided with the week in which Adnan Syed, whose case was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial, was set free by a Baltimore court after serving 23 years of incarceration. Here is a timeline of Syed’s case, which clearly indicates that the push to exonerate him came from the investigation in the podcast. Following in Serial’s footsteps was Undisclosed, a more pro-defense oriented podcast, which highlighted more discoveries.
In the book, Kaplan and LaChance examine a TV show that came out more or less when Serial emerged on the scene: Making a Murderer, which followed the murder case against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s hard to argue against anything that creates a push for justice, and the authors don’t do that, but they do voice a critique against these wrongful conviction media products: by singling out specific cases of injustice, Kaplan and LaChance argue, they “fail to achieve the goal of critiquing the substance and structure of the criminal justice system and the bigger picture of hegemonic power relations in the United States that supports it” (94). In other words, “the protection of factually innocent people from the devastation of incarceration. . . becomes the most pressing criminal justice policy imperative, leaving untouched the question of why such a devastating punishment is so easily and readily meted out.”
Kaplan and LaChance’s critique is well taken. The concern is that the focus on innocence will gloss over the fact that guilty people, as well as the innocent ones, don’t deserve neglect, sadism, cruelty, incompetence, and other cruel and, sadly, not unusual aspects of incarceration. I saw some of this play out in the conversation about vaccines, when jail vaccine advocates referred to the presumption of innocence to make a bid for vaccines that everyone, guilty and innocent alike, should have received immediately simply by virtue of being human and in a congregate setting with little control over their surroundings (and said so here.) But wrongful convictions are their own genre of awfulness, and while we need to support everyone who is incarcerated, I don’t think that infighting between innocence projects and prison advocacy projects helps the overall goal of making the world a better place.
Moreover, I think I am more optimistic than Kaplan and LaChance about these shows. For every person who might watch them and think, “wow, this is a unique instance of miscarriage of justice” there must be several who walk away from it thinking “if this atrocity happened in a case that was highlighted by a podcast, imagine how many more people are languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit who haven’t been featured in podcasts yet.” I said as much in my commentary on the podcast and on the radio.
Happily, the high-profile success of the vanguard shows of this genre led to a whole slew of podcasts seeking justice for the wrongfully convicted. Just recently, the podcast Proof led to the exoneration of two men in Georgia. At the same time, a seemingly contradictory trend is visible: podcasts that reopen cold cases and present theories of the case can help revive interest in unsolved murders and sometimes put terrifyingly violent people behind bars, as well as highlight atrocious behavior that might or might not be criminally defined in an effort to get justice for the victims. I say “seemingly” because, in both cases, the underlying assumption seems to be: podcasters can grease and speed up the wheels of justice faster and better than, say, Innocence Project lawyers.
Why is that? Consider what might be the first example of this genre: Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2, the documentaries about the murders of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the convictions of Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin. The documentaries evoked enormous interest in the cases, and with the weight of celebrities and advocates, within a few years, everyone who knew something about these cases became convinced that the three were wrongly convicted. This newly fueled interest led to some movement in the case, ending in a new trial for Echols and, eventually, in an Alford plea for all defendants that set them free. Shortly after the plea, understanding the power of media, Echols and his wife Lorri Davis produced a documentary of their own in 2012, which featured better forensics and more novel analyses of the evidence.
What happened with the West Memphis Three case is instructive. The media can bring to the public voices form the scene. Unbound by technicalities and rules of evidence and of legal ethics, they can reinterview witnesses, examine forensic evidence with improved technologies, and have candid conversations with legal actors (some of whom might be retired at that point.) They can tell a story in emotionally artful ways that can persuade the public that an injustice has been done. I’m beginning to think that the Innocence Project might want to invest a considerable part of its budget in podcasting.
One argument against the use of podcasts in this way might be that they draw arbitrary, sporadic attention to certain cases at the expense of others. That is surely a problem. But isn’t sporadic, arbitrary attention that corrects injustice better than no attention at all?
The other challenge might be that the proliferation of these podcasts, with every fresh journalist or journalism aspirant hoping to be the one to stand on the courtroom stairs and celebrate, their impact will become marginally smaller, to the point that we will stop paying attention. I don’t think we’re at that inflection point yet. Moreover, the exoneration technologies (primarily the improvement and lower costs of DNA testing) are exposing more and more of these cases (there are also stark racial patterns) and I think we still need all the podcasts we can get.
“The British justice system is the envy of the world; but, in the past, mistakes have been made.” So begins every episode of the British series Murder, Mystery, & My Family. It has an interesting, if formulaic, premise: in each episode, a relative of a deceased person who had been convicted of murder (most often hanged, but sometimes imprisoned and later died) seeks to revisit the circumstances of the crime and the trial and, possibly, obtain a judicial decision that the conviction is “unsafe” (i.e., reversible on the basis of a legal error or insufficiency of evidence.) The featured crimes are murders and serious felonies from 1970 and earlier, in which there is a question mark over the conviction.
That the investigation is initiated and driven by a family member, rather than by the legal officials–barristers Sasha Wass, QC, and Jeremy Dein, QC, as well as Judge David Radford–provides a curious emotional hook to the narratives. Even for crimes committed more than a hundred years ago, the relatives begin each episode deeply invested in “clearing the family name”–as if their dead relatives’ crimes can blemish later generations–and become even more convinced of their relatives’ innocence as the investigation progresses. When they speak of their deceased ancestors, they sound like someone testifying for a relative at a sentencing hearing today; in one case, in which several sailors were accused of harassing and raping a woman before driving her to jump off a vessel and drown, the relative referred to one of the sailors, who was hanged before she was born, as “a bit of a lad, but he couldn’t have done this.” Family ties and family shame run deep, and the relatives speak to social historians and crime writers who illuminate some of the period details: why people were having frenzied extramarital affairs shortly after the war, how poverty would have impacted family dynamic, why a doctor’s word about the medication of a patient would matter more than a nurse’s, etc. The relatives also visit the courts and prisons in which events unfolded, invariably exhibiting deep grief and distress when finding a grave or a place of execution.
While this emotional journey unfolds, Wass and Dein investigate the legal aspects of the case. They consult forensics specialists–usually pathologists and ballistics experts–as well as forensic psychologists, who read letters by the victims and perpetrators and opines as to their state of mind. They also take a close look at the court transcript. Their conversations about the evidence are a great display of the ideal roles of prosecutor and defense attorney: Dein zealously searching high and low for reversal grounds, Wass an impartial officer of the court who sometimes agrees with Dein about due process violations but whose prosecutorial lens is unmistakable in her descriptions of events (“and after they got the victim to transfer her estate, they figured they’d bump her off.”) The standard for declaring an historical conviction unsafe, per Judge Redford, seems to resemble the U.S. standard for reversal on collateral review: either a blatant legal error or new evidence that could not have been (and was not) exhausted in the proceedings many decades ago.
In both cases, they face problems of anachronisms and retroactivity. In many of the featured cases, the forensic evidence itself has long been destroyed or lost, and all the experts have to go by are reports written by doctors and scientists who might have been the luminaries of their time, but had to contend with their contemporary methods and technologies (in one memorable episode involving arsenic poisoning, we learn that arsenic occurs naturally in the body, a fact unknown at the time that the victim’s body was exhumed and examined due to uproar and conjecture.) On their face, the reports sometimes show biases (the deceased is said to have been poisoned, when the poison may well have been self-ingested.) In other cases, some forensics remain, but are difficult to analyze because their condition has deteriorated. One is left with the uneasy feeling that hundreds of cases, now final, involving less zealous relatives (and perhaps less made-for-TV facts) could be reversed on the same grounds.
As to the legal grounds, Judge Radford is put in the complicated position of calibrating what counts as due process today with the standards of yesteryear. It’s easier to find legal errors when procedure would have been unacceptable at the time as well as now, such as when the accused was not represented. One example involves the repeated uncovering of what Dein refers to as “police verbals”–unverified paraphrases of what the suspect supposedly said by investigating officers–which seem absurdly unreliable in the face of today’s UK practice of recording all police interrogations. But what about judicial remarks to the jury that would be considered biased today, and merely reflected prevailing values and mores at the time? Many such remarks feature references to gender and class that would have seemed natural and proper to judges in the late 19th century but today are beyond the pale. How Judge Radford dukes this out remains somewhat opaque because, by contrast to the approachable, TV-friendly self-presentations of Wass and Dein, the judge remains in character throughout, and is not part of the debrief at the end of the episode. Nor does his reasoning always satisfy the relatives who, when the conviction is upheld, vow to continue digging into the case.
Anyone interested in legal history, postconviction remedies, and forensics would find this show, despite its contrivances, interesting and well worth watching.
Against this backdrop, the choice to focus now on Ramirez and his heinous crimes is a curious one, and the series does not offer a lot in the sense of narrative or cinematic innovation to justify the subject. The story is told from the perspective of two intelligent and sympathetic LAPD detectives–then-newcomer Gil Carrillo and veteran Frank Salerno–and several retired crime scene technicians, who in four episodes follow through the trail of horrific murders. The still shots from the various murder scenes are enhanced through cinematography that somewhat brings them to life and accompanied by chilling music. Thankfully, at least the victims themselves–both those deceased and those who survived–are portrayed with restraint and respect, and on occasion (albeit not always, which struck me as somewhat distasteful) their relatives comment on their lives, evoking sympathy and humanity. These graceful interview scenes lift the series from a sequence of excessive gore, and I wish there were more of them.
As to Ramirez himself, the show does not delve much into his own mind beyond short, clichéd quotes about the “inherent evil in all human kind” and “Satan [as] a stabilizing presence” displayed between scenes. Having read and watched a lot of the Manson literary and cinematic canon, I think a deliberate choice was made here not to glorify Ramirez in a similar way. At some point, one of the detectives even said that they considered whether Ramirez was a Manson copycat, which strengthens my belief that this approach was carefully considered. The choice not to follow the legacy of Mansonist efforts to delve into the minds of heinous murderers a-la Dahmer, only recently continued with Aquarius and Mindhunter, means the focus of the show is mostly on the police investigation.
But even here, the show’s coverage of the LAPD’s eponymous “hunt” offers some contradictions. Carrillo and Salerno are sympathetic, interesting interviewees; Carrillo’s background is explored in depth, including his early prescient conclusion that seemingly unrelated crimes were perpetrated by the same person. He attributes this insight to a class he had taken, in which Robert Morneau referred to “a deviancy that says, ‘I like to see the frightened look on your face.'” Rather than digging into the motivation, this illuminated Carrillo’s crime scene analyses and explained why the murders were perpetrate in a particular way (i.e., why the killer had waited for the victims to see him, rather than kill them from behind or in their cars.) But at the same time, we get glimpses into what appears to be epic incompetence in interagency collaboration. A golden opportunity to zone in on the killer through a distinctive sneaker shoeprint was wasted, even though only one pair of black sneakers of that brand had been shipped to Los Angeles. Similarly, the opportunity to fingerprint a car that the suspect had touched in the course of a traffic stop was squandered. And amazingly, a clever trap at Ramirez’s dentist’s office did not function. Eventually, Ramirez was caught not by police officers, who allowed him to walk before them unnoticed after his appearance was already well known, but by alert members of the public. The focus on Carrillo and Salerno’s solid crime scene investigation draws attention from the sad conclusion that, had the LAPD had their act together and collaborated, Ramirez would have been caught earlier and lives would have been saved. Having studied the Manson murders in detail, it seems that little was learned since the fiascos of the Tate-LaBianca investigations, which were also characterized by department siloing and insularity (Bugliosi is full of braggadocio about his own heroic role in the case and very eager to throw blame onto the LAPD, but at least in that instance the objective facts seem to support his perspective.)
Even as the focus on audacity, deductive work, and targeted legwork draws attention away from omissions and organizational hurdles, Night Stalker is a reminder of what good policing should be. It is poignant to watch an investigation in the 1980s, with 1980s technology, as the FBI pieces together last week’s insurrection at the Capitol and attempts to track down the perpetrators, a job much easier than Carrillo and Salerno’s because of the plethora of social media evidence and the availability of facial recognition technology. It is also poignant to think about the most recent example of excellence in policing: Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman’s clever, creative, and courageous act of baiting and tricking the mob away from the unguarded door behind which the legislators hid, armed only with a nightstick and facing dozens of angry insurrectionists yelling racial epithets at him. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think the problem is too little or two much policing; it’s the wrong kind of policing altogether, which relies on crude, humiliating, and ineffective methods like stop-and-frisk at the direct expense of the classic crime solving work features in the Night Stalker. Give me a police force full of Eugene Goodmans, Gil Carrillos, and Frank Salernos, and I’ll be a happy camper. If the show reminds us (and the FBI, and the LAPD) that good policing is valuable and scarce, then it has been a worthwhile endeavor.
My two biggest research interests–criminal justice and animal rights–come together in Karen Morin’s new book Carceral Spaces, Prisoners and Animals (New York: Routledge, 2018.) Morin, a geographer by discipline, applies insights from carceral geography to both human and nonhuman confinement contexts.
Carceral geography is a growing area of scholarship that examines prisons through a lens of spatiality. Building on work by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, carceral geographers problematize the overly simplistic notion of prisons as carceral spaces, arguing that prison boundaries are porous and that carceral ideologies of domination through confinement permeate spaces beyond the prison–beyond the formal dichotomy between “inside” and “outside.” Some themes studied by carceral geographers include spaces within prison and how they affect the experience of incarceration (“public” and “private” spaces within the prison; the impact of prison on the body); the interface between prisons and surrounding communities (prison towns, family members, transportation); mobility within and between prisons; and prison architecture and design. Carceral geography is directly relevant to my current research project, which is a book in progress about the COVID-19 catastrophe in California prisons; I rely a lot on the idea of prison permeability, which brings together notions of carceral boundaries, logics of opportunity (for people and for the virus,) insights from situational crime prevention, and miasma theory. In addition to this, I’m deeply interested in animal rights, and am working on a project involving the criminal prosecutions of animal rights activists who break into factory farms to release suffering animals.
In many ways, my interest in liberating nonhuman animals is an obvious extension of my interest in alleviating suffering in prisons. But the comparison is socially fraught from many directions. I often hear prison reform activists and abolitionists criticize prisons for treating people “like animals,” as if treating animals this way is fine; I’ve also heard animal rights activists criticize experimentation on animals, proposing to experiment on prisoners instead (Justin Marceau criticizes the myopic assumptions of the latter phenomenon in Beyond Cages.) I’ve also had to contend with people who find the comparison deeply offensive. Morin is well aware of these emotional and political landmines and writes:
I recognize though that the politics and ethics of making comparisons between racialized and classed human lives and that of nonhuman animals in respective carceral spaces can be problematic and fraught. It is challenging for humans who are embedded in violent, racialized, and criminalized human histories and spaces to not be offended by posthumanist comparisons to animal suffering. As noted above, the category of ‘human’ is contested in any case, and it is important to not move too quickly ‘beyond the human’ without acknowledging the continued exclusion of many human lives from full incorporation within it. And yet thinking particularly about race and animals together is important, precisely because of the way that racialized people have been and continue to be animalized in carceral spaces (Chapter 3). Moreover, the carceral logics of domination are intertwined across human and nonhuman groups. To take one more example, as Deckha (2013b) has shown, animal anti-cruelty legislation has the double effect of selecting certain animals for protection while targeting the behaviors of certain minoritized populations of people as deviant and transgressive. Meanwhile, industrial practices involving the dominant culture – as well as the abuse and killing of most animals – remain immune from critique.
Morin, Karen M.. Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals (Routledge Human-Animal Studies Series) (p. 15). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
This avenue is deeply productive, not only because the analogies and similarities are analytically interesting, but because solidarity across movements is essential for success. Morin’s analysis ties together the prison-, agricultural-, and medical industrial complexes, showing the intricate connections between them and the profit logics that underpin them.
Morin’s book proceeds to analyze a series of contexts in which she sees parallel developments between human and nonhuman carceral spaces. She compares execution chambers and slaughterhouses, discussing the notions of “humane” slaughter and of death sentences that are supposedly not “cruel and unusual.” She discusses the intersection of the medical and carceral spaces in the context of medical experimentation. She even asks difficult questions about prison boundaries when discussing zoos and supermax facilities. The book also makes an important contribution to two seemingly unrelated growing literatures: the one about forced labor in prisons and the one about the possibility and structure of labor rights for nonhuman animals. Throughout these topics, Morin shows deep sensitivity to the broader social structures that allow cruelty to persist.
My favorite part is Morin’s comparative analysis of prison towns and cattle towns. She shows how the introduction of an exploitative industry into a “company town” shapes the economy and the tenor of the entire town, without granting much in the way of economic benefit to the town itself (by contrast to the industry that exploits the town.) Morin doesn’t explicitly say this, but a big thing here seems the creation of a municipality that is collectively impermeable to compassion, which I think is a serious issue even when the industry is profitable.
We often talk about dehumanizing conditions in prisons. But perhaps the question is not whether or not we’re all human; the question that should matter is whether we are sentient and whether we suffer. A few years ago I read Michael Dorf and Sherry Colb’s Beating Hearts, which compares the logics of sentience underpinning the pro-life and animal rights movements and finds a way to reconcile them into a cohesive pro-choice and pro-animal perspective. I think there’s a way for advocates and activists to find peace with Morin’s comparison in a way that allows them to support both movements.
Morin admits that she has not analyzed all the scenarios that her comparison speaks to, and I found at least two that I would like to read future works on. The first has to do with the concept of overcrowding. Morin discusses issues of caging in depth, but the book does not delve into the movement toward humane farming and “cage-free” chicken facilities. Now a major selling point for eggs and for pig meats, the notion of no-cage or no-crate is deeply misleading, and some states, such as California, use various parameters to try and measure overcrowding. I’ve seen parallel developments in the context of prison population reduction orders. It’s no big secret that I think the measuring yard used in Brown v. Plata–percentage of design capacity systemwide–was deeply shortsighted, and a more careful calculation of minimal per-person area, as in other countries, would have helped us mitigate the COVID-19 catastrophe we’re experiencing right now.
The second issue I would want to read more about has to do with movement strategy, and with the reform-versus-revolution debate in the prison advocacy community. There is a parallel debate–quite a heated one–in the animal ethics community, between animal welfarism and animal liberation. Movement strategy and tactics, attention to incremental reform, and the use of the criminal justice process to challenge cruelty and obtuseness are relevant to both movements, and I think there’s more room to write about this.
These two issues notwithstanding, the book makes a fascinating read. Unfortunately, Routledge has priced it quite prohibitively, but prospective readers should know that you can rent it from Amazon for a reasonable price.
In an effort to set aside the horrors of the present, I am returning to the online Noir City International festival to enjoy this dark Swedish musing into criminality and its causes, A Woman’s Face (1938.) It stars one of my favorite actresses of all time, Ingrid Bergman, in one of her last Swedish roles before being catapulted to Hollywood stardom.
Bergman plays a woman with a disfigured face who leads a criminal extortion gang. When she tries to steal money, she sustains an injury and is caught by the homeowner, a plastic surgeon; he learns more about her and decides to fix her face. His kindness gives her a chance at redemption and at overcoming the trauma of her disfigurement. But the gang has already set in motion a plan that requires her to insert herself as a governess in the home of a dignitary and play a role in the murder of his little grandson so as to affect inheritance plans.
I was engrossed in this movie, which is notable because, as mother to a small child, films with plots endangering children are often too much for me. It didn’t help my blood pressure that the child in question, Lars-Erik, looks and talks a lot like my own son! But the film was captivating because of the origin story of Anna’s criminality. This is not the only noir to suggest that the trauma of physical disfigurement can push people into criminal careers; consider Peter Lorre’s The Face Behind the Mask (1941.) But there are a few notable things here.
Deviance–to the extent that we can even agree on its definition–is complicated. From the 1920s to the 1950s, lots of theories for explaining it emerged, many of them looking at juvenile delinquents’ backgrounds. Some theories attributed it to lack of legitimate opportunities and others to the presence of role models in crime. There’s a wonderful book by James Bennett, Oral History and Delinquency, which goes into how criminologists of the early 20th century dug into people’s narratives about their backgrounds to seek an understanding of how they drifted into criminal behavior. The idea that a person’s experiences, the twists and turns of life, are important milestones in a path toward or away from crime, is again important in criminological theory: life-course criminologists look for milestones in encouraging criminality and desistance.
The thing about narratives, though, is that it’s dangerous to overgeneralize from anecdotes. One needs to systematically analyze life stories of many people to find generalities; not all people who go to college or marry desist from crime, and certainly most of the people who grow up in poverty and trauma don’t go into crime. Which is why the constant reliance on psychological trauma as an explainer of villainry, a-la origin stories of comic book villains, is fascinating and at the same time discomfiting. This is part of what I struggled with when viewing A Woman’s Face: the narrative suggests that Anna’s entry into a criminal life is a direct consequence of her disfigurement, whereas the external remedying of this disfigurement holds the key to her own redemption. It’s a powerful story, and I don’t want to reject its power outright–I know what a difference changes in appearance and external circumstances can make. But I also know some very conventionally beautiful and fortunate people who engage in quite a lot of villainy, so I would enjoy the narrative for its own sake and hesitate to generalize too much from it.