The Real Lessons of Making a Murderer

by Tess Adair

(Yes, there are very mild spoilers for Making a Murderer in this.)


Watching Making a Murderer is a perfect screen-capture of my entire relationship with the internet: there’s so much I want to know, so much injustice I want to fight, and I feel a dark need to consume more, but it doesn’t take long at all for it to make me feel sick and sad.


On that note, I’ve only watched the first 3 episodes. I don’t think I can take any more.


Don’t get me wrong, it’s compelling as hell. I totally understand how so many people consumed the whole thing in a matter of days. But I couldn’t do it.


See, I started watching it to have something to help me pass the time while I did my elliptical/kettlebell/pull-up bar workout. And I have a rule: if something has the power to bum me out through that pumped-up workout, it’s time to switch to Colbert.


I’ll tell you exactly what forced me to turn away from it: the interrogation of young Brendan Dassey.


I started to feel a familiar rage--I’ve read about cases before where police conducted almost abusive interrogations of young, largely defenseless people, and coerced them into damning themselves. It’s hard to hear about, but it’s even harder to watch.


This has happened before, and it will happen again.


The series is, indeed, compelling, but I also realized at about this point that it was no longer telling me anything I didn’t already know. Yes, it’s good to be informed about things. But at a certain point, reading another article about rape culture (or whatever my topic of the day is) does little more than to fan the flames of rage, and what does that rage accomplish? Will it accomplish less if I don’t spend the next hour pouring over instances of slut-shaming and victim-blaming and generally ignorant, cruel behavior?


Of course, I still read every article I see about unarmed black people getting killed by the police. I like to keep the list handy in my head, in case I need to fight anyone throughout the day. But I’m trying to skip the rape culture articles for now; the sexism in the workplace articles; the everyday racism articles; anything about Men’s Rights Activists or Gamergate; anything even vaguely related to Donald Trump. I already know, and I don’t need to test how much I can take.


By the end of episode 3 of the show, I know that Steven Avery has already had 18 years of his life stolen away from him; I know the police have planted evidence in this new case; I know they coerced a confession out of an impressionable, stressed out 16-year-old without his mother or a lawyer present, and I know that the contents of that confession do more to prove his innocence than his guilt. I don’t know if Steven Avery murdered Teresa Halbach. Thanks to the police’s actions, I will never know.


And I just can’t spend another minute watching that poor kid unwittingly damn himself at these police officers’ insistence. (And I definitely can’t watch his public defense lawyer continue to screw him [possibly intentionally?])


Besides, I’ve already learned the real lesson here, and it’s the one we should all actually be talking about: if you are poor in America, the Justice System is one of many entrenched (some official, some not) systems of power designed to fuck you over as completely as it can.


It is what it is, kids. Brendan Dassey got fucked over in this trial, and it happened far too easily, because he is poor and under-educated, and he didn’t have anyone in his life who knew how to protect him from this.


I would say that my greatest privilege in life is probably the fact that I grew up with parents who always advocated for me, and who had the resources and the education to be able to do so as effectively as possible. This can manifest in the smallest of ways: like the fact that I have always known I don’t need to answer police questions without a lawyer present, or the fact that before I was 18, no way would my mother have let the police hold me for hours without seeing her or a lawyer. And I would have known that. Which makes me, off the bat, harder to coerce.


But Brendan Dassey didn’t know any of that. All he knew was that the police kept talking to him, and he wanted to go home. They kept pulling him in for hours at a time, over and over again for days. He didn’t know when it would be over. He didn’t know what the consequences were. He didn’t know that he had any rights that the police neglected to bring up to him. And then he got saddled with a lawyer who seemed to set throwing Brendan under the bus as a personal goal or something.


Whatever else comes of this, one thing is clear: the police abused their power repeatedly, and poor people paid the price.


And the great thing about Making a Murderer is that it’s happening to white people.


Obviously, the far greater thing would be if it didn’t happen at all. But it’s happening to white people--which means white people are paying attention to it. Finally.


(Dear fellow white people: before you get your panties in a bunch, I know, I know, some of us were paying attention all along. Can’t you just take it for granted that I’m not talking about you? [Or, like, only a little bit.] I’m talking to All Lives Matter and all their ilk, okay? Be cool, guys.)


America has a serious class problem. The effects of this class problem are infinite, worming into every facet of life there is, especially the justice system. This class issue affects people of color at an insanely disproportionate rate, and is magnified a hundredfold by independent issues of racism. Personally, I’m holding out hope that glorious miscegenation will, in a hundred years or so, actually render racism obsolete as all future generations turn a pretty brown-beige color, but we can neither wait that long nor hope that that will actually end our toxic class system as well. (And thanks to World of Tomorrow, I no longer believe we should eliminate sexual reproduction, so sexism and transphobia are probably here forever, yay!)


I hope more people watch Making a Murderer, but more than that, I hope more people start to get the point of it. It’s not really about Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey--it’s about the entire section of people they represent. It’s about the systems in place that do them great injustice, every day.


There is one point that comes up briefly in the documentary series that I think deserves greater investigation--it’s the idea that perhaps Steven Avery is no longer innocent. Perhaps his time in prison shaped him, broke what he was and warped him into something new. Perhaps he became someone who never would have existed had that initial injustice not taken place, and that new person murdered Teresa Halbach.


It’s just speculation, of course. Like I said, the police’s extreme misconduct in this case have made it impossible to say for sure.


It’s just an idea. But I don’t think it’s one we should ignore. Like I said, the issues of economic instability and income inequality worm their way into everything. We live in a country that hosts 1.35 million homeless children, and, simultaneously, a section of the uppermost tax bracket so wealthy they can spend millions of dollars on services that have effectively created an entirely separate tax system for themselves. Neither of these facts exist in a vacuum. Each one is dependent on the other.


We live with this inequality every day. How can we even pretend we know how far it reaches? How can we pretend we fully understands what it creates?


Here is what I hope we get from Making a Murderer: a true hunger for justice. And I absolutely do not mean punishment. We already love punishment in America, but that is not justice.


I hope we see the systems stacked against Avery and Dassey, and we understand that these systems are stacked against everyone in their position. I hope we take a good look at what our justice system actually accomplishes, from top to bottom.


I hope that our fascination with Making a Murderer turns into a hunger for real justice, and that hunger eventually eclipses our obsession with the idea of extravagance--that constantly just-out-of-reach carrot of the American Dream.


This has happened before and it will happen again. And again and again. Unless we do something about it.


Someday. I guess we’ll see.

In the meantime, everyone should get the fuck out of Wisconsin.

This is totally hilarious if you've seen the show. Actually, scratch that. If you've seen the show, this is mostly depressing.