Unsolvable: A Summer of Real Life Mysteries

I am sitting on a hand-me-down chair on the porch of my first apartment drinking a cheap beer. It’s hot as hell. A couple years later, I read in Haruki Murakami’s memoir that out of the places he’s lived, he found the heat and humidity of Massachusetts in summer the most oppressive. Living in Amherst, my college town, in the summer of 2015, I felt about the same. The air inside my apartment became too thick to breathe around noon and stayed that way until dusk. Unlike in other parts of the country, the old homes in New England don’t typically have central air conditioning. When I would step outside to escape the humidity, any exposed skin would burn, in an instant, into a lattice pattern that mirrored the latticed enclosure of the porch. At night every piece of clothing would stick to my skin as I tried to fall asleep. Every morning I would wake up dehydrated in a pool of sweat. I would coast my bike down the hill near my house over and over to pretend the air had woken up from its summer sleep and uncoiled itself, maybe thinned enough to breathe.

I graduated college that May. My lease was good for a few more months. I was living with this guy who graduated the same year as me. I woke up at 5:30 every day to go to work, he stayed up all night. We didn’t see each other a lot. In the summer, I went to bed when there was still some light left in the sky.

A few weeks after graduation, he moved out of state. Before he left, he invited me to a going away party at his friends’ townhouse. When I showed up, a stranger opened the door and asked who I was. I told him, and he pulled me me inside. The first floor main room was packed with people, it was dark, there was barely any furniture except a beer-pong table and a small television. I didn’t know anybody. There was a disco ball, one of those electric spinning ones that projects big dots of color on the walls, and music playing from speakers somewhere. My roommate saw me, he had a lite beer in a red solo cup in his hand—the first time I saw him drink anything but water—“nobody thought you would show up!”

I left the party with a slight buzz, early and a little upset. The bus was packed on the ride back into town. Everyone was shouting—getting ready for a night out I guess. It was still pretty early. The bus driver told us he would call the cops unless we all calmed down. Someone kept pulling the stop request cord and not getting off, forcing the bus to make every stop. I went right to bed and slept well enough that I didn’t hear it when my roommate came home.

I had nothing to do at work the next day. Summer was a dead time. A day is good if sales pay to keep the lights on. Work in the summer in a college town is an extended period of training for the first week in September when fifty thousand kids and parents descend on the town, clogging the roads back all the way to the highway and demanding coffee and snacks and notebooks and bumper stickers. I felt a little off. What was it that day? Not enough sleep, a little hangover, not enough coffee, too much coffee? That’s when I first listened to Serial.

I had one earbud in my ear, the cord running down my sleeve so nobody could see. The narrator brought me to Baltimore, the last year of the old century. It was like I was a teenager again, trying to solve a high-school murder mystery. A girl turned up dead, her ex was arrested for it. But as the story unfolded, I got more and more fascinated by the little details. Zeno paradoxically claimed that an arrow, once fired from a bow, can never reach a distant target because first it must pass through infinite spacial points in finite time. Indeed, as more and more details emerged in the case, each one begging for a satisfactory answer, it became harder and harder to see them all added up into a perfect conclusion.

I spent the next week listening and then re-listening to the podcast. I found forums and discussion boards online where I could see original documents, interviews that weren’t included in the podcast, and fan theories and opinions. I found that I was less interested in the biggest question—whether the boyfriend was guilty—than I was with nailing down every detail. If you take out the murder, it’s a classic teen movie. Gossip easily becomes fact, reputation is everything, everybody’s personal life is everyone else’s business, and everything is garnished with a dash of forbidden love and a healthy dose of pot smoke. Somewhere in the mess is one universal truth, waiting to be uncovered. But there are also countless small moments of truth revealed through lies or misrepresentations. The beauty of documentary storytelling is that truth is not just presented as a statement of facts, but as a series of stories that the audience can interpret for itself; stories that may be untrue but which might reveal crucial information nonetheless. Whenever someone tells their story, you learn from listening to it. You learn what that person chose to emphasize, and to downplay, and to lie about. I dig as deep as I can into the archive of interviews and witness statements, looking for clues and explanations of the inconsistent stories I was hearing.

Researching Serial I found posts directing me to other podcasts about mysterious events. Some were other crimes, disappearances, weird artifacts, mysterious lights in the sky, aliens, conspiracies. A grab bag of stuff to keep you up at night. AM radio moved to the iTunes store. On some shows, the hosts just act as storytellers: they will go over the details of a case and stop there. In others, the hosts play detective and actually try to solve the mysteries or, at least, spitball theories. I prefer shows that fall into the second category. There is something thrilling about an unsolved mystery. A good unsolved mystery needs to have two qualities: first, it must have enough detail to generate multiple reasonable hypotheses about what happened, but, second, it must lack the one key piece of information that would point to any one hypothesis over another. In other words, multiple people need to be able to use the facts that do exist to construct narratives for what happened, but there can’t be any objective way to rank these narratives in terms of probability. Endless debates arise because the evidence points different people in a variety of directions depending on their personal psychologies.

A real unsolved mystery like this is my favorite type of case. There is nothing like the feeling of riding the waves of different theories out to sea, feeling completely on board with the evidence and the reasoning, then riding another wave back to land as holes are picked in the first theory. Then of course, riding another wave back out…. But an uncontrived mystery is rare. For instance, I don’t get any enjoyment out of so-called “conspiracy theories”. A conspiracy theory is usually a narrative that makes internal sense, but lacks any external reason for someone to believe it. It’s an ad hoc hypothesis. Conspiracy theories do not make up facts—a point which conspiracy theorists will gloat over, asking over and over “which one of my facts is wrong?” or inviting you to “learn the facts”—rather, they push for an unbalanced interpretation of the facts where more weight is given to, say, a coincidence or a slip of the tongue, than is given to physical evidence or expert testimony.

This type of contrived mystery is created out of fear. Their solutions are an attempt to prove that somebody somewhere is in charge, someone who is responsible for wonton death and misery, even if that person is a malevolent alien human hybrid wearing a Queen Elizabeth skin suit. Because of this desire, conspiracy theorists start to see design in randomness. Instead of certain events being unrelated tragedies or accidents, they are viewed as planned steps in someone’s scheme. Everything happens from the top down, not from the bottom up. The alternative is acknowledging that even the brightest among us—and conspiracy theorists are often very bright—have not been able to create a completely safe and stable world.

When I started getting deep into unsolved mysteries—listening to up to three or four hours a day of podcasts, reading books and magazine articles, posting in forums—I was after something different. I loved the chaos of the mysteries. There was something magical for me in seeing hundreds of people argue over an unexplained event from decades earlier. On my couch late at night, snuggling up with my cat, I would drink a glass of wine or cup after cup of herbal tea and try to solve the case of the week. I got frightened sometimes. I started checking that the doors were locked before I went to bed.

There’s been this shadow over me for a long time. It’s something that might come from Victorian England, from Sherlock Holmes and his derivative characters, or maybe it comes from history class: the enlightenment era in France, revolutionary America, Voltaire. It’s this feeling that everything can be solved. Magical thinking is absurd and outdated. Empirical analysis allows us to understand truth: scientific truth, yes, but also moral and practical truths. In the context of my obsession with mystery, this created a small paradox. Some events seem so unexplainable and random, yet the cultural history of success in empiricism tells me that nothing is truly unexplainable. In a more personal context, this worldview creates a sort of anxiety for me. If rational analysis can be turned on practical matters, it should be fairly easy to determine what the best course of action is for yourself for any given decision. Yet so often it seems impossible to decide. Of course, the fact that truth can be discovered through empirical study does not imply that I, or even anybody, has an unlimited ability to reason. Sometimes we lack the ability to access all the facts, sometimes we fall victim to cognitive biases we aren’t even aware of enough to address. The reason unsolved mysteries both frightened and excited me was the same: they showed the limit of empirical analysis. I became obsessed with finding a truly unsolvable mystery. I was addicted to the rush of coming up with theories and searching thorough clues, sure. But I also wanted something outside myself to assure me that, for some questions at least, I could forgive myself for not being able to find an answer.

Later that summer, I found myself sitting in a friend’s front seat parked next to a small pond in northern Vermont. It was dark, the stars were out. There was a small town a few miles away, its light pollution a dirty circle on the horizon. But directly above us, through a stained moonroof, was pure oily black. The milky way was visible splashed across the darkness like a glitter bomb. We sat reclined, music in surround sound playing from four car speakers via an aux cable and from an iPod classic resting in the center console, waiting for an appropriate time to open the doors and walk through humming mosquitos to the house across the pond. Conversations are like movies: the dark ones telegraph their hand from the start, dipping a jocular toe into gallows humor or the macabre. “Have you ever seen a dead body?” my friend asked in a pause between songs.

I told him I had: earlier that year.

Some families have a tradition of hosting a gathering in a room with the deceased loved one. For many, this involves staying up all night and consuming absurd amounts of booze. Others host more reserved events with a photo of the deceased and maybe some bouquets of flowers. But there is something fake about seeing a dead body like that. To really see a dead body it has to be unplanned. In the body’s natural habitat. It’s like if I ask if you’ve seen a lion and you say “Yeah at the Brooklyn Zoo.” Not the same.

The first time I saw a real life dead body was in San Francisco. I was on the public bus, not a cable car, standing facing my seated partner. The black women standing next to me saw it first. They started whispering about something and pointing out the window. We slowed to walking pace and I could see a stopped bus next to us. Almost under the front tires was a young man supine on the pavement. “Oh he dead,” one of the women whispered, louder and more excited. Yes in fact, his head was clearly cracked wide open and surrounded by blood. There wasn’t a cop car or an ambulance around. It was calm, mundane. An accident that went unnoticed by half the other passengers, though they were mere feet away. My partner’s back was turned and she missed the whole scene. We kept up our conversation like nothing was happening. The bus sped up again after we passed the scene, back on schedule. The women went back to their conversation. My partner and I got sushi for lunch.

Death makes more sense when it’s part of a story. Serial, in its purest form, is the producer’s search for a perfect explanation of a death. She generates different explanatory narratives and compares them for us to judge. Each one is a chain of events that tries to perfectly explain the death. Some are more elegant, some more far fetched, but they all presume to make sense of a tragedy. Up close, death can feel more meaningless and random. Sometimes there is no obvious explanation for why something happens. This is especially true in the case of unsolved cases. After all, mysteries are mysteries in the first place because there is no perfect explanation readily presented. The only thing we can be sure of for a mystery is that whatever happened, it was something improbable. In the case of Serial, the mystery angle seemed contrived and non-mysterious. The prosecution’s theory appeared eminently likely. Another theory could be true, but there was not enough wiggle room in the facts for me to fulfill my criteria for an interesting unsolved mystery.

I started looking around for a new obsession when I found a book called True Crime Addict by James Renner. Maura Murray was a name I heard a few times listening to podcasts or browsing the forums. She was a UMass student who, in the winter of 2004, disappeared after crashing her car on a snowy New Hampshire road near the Kancamagus Highway. The case didn’t stand out, and I wouldn’t have remembered it at all if I didn’t have connections to the place she lived and the place she disappeared. I started attending UMass seven years after Maura disappeared; I lived in the same part of campus. We both worked on campus, we parked in the same parking lot. When I read the description of her final week, I matched the names of stores, dorms, parts of town, and restaurants to memories from my time at UMass. Liquor store. Burger place. Driving ten minutes off campus to find an ATM without a fee….

I Imagine her driving up a winding snow-covered road in New Hampshire, with no cell service, past houses with no electric hookups, people drinking well water. It’s the kind of place where you go to get away, for a while or for ever, sure. Maybe she just disappeared on purpose. There’s a sort of antiquated amusement park near there with a mountain man mascot who chases you in a steam powered train car; they have dancing bears and trapeze acts. There’s a summer camp for hasidic jews nearby and black hat wearing young men with the traditional sidelocks can be seen in groups observing the contortionists or eating cotton candy made in a large spinning kettle. There used to be a libertarian convention where you could buy handguns with gold shavings, or bacon proudly advertised as “not FDA approved.” I can’t imagine the locals lining up to call the cops on every weird character they encounter.

Driving to a campground I was staying at in 2014, I nearly got in an accident on those roads. A family of moose came out of nowhere around a bend on a single lane highway. There was no time to brake. Incredibly, I managed to steer the car between them and almost immediately pulled over feeling like I was going to throw up. I looked at my phone. No bars of course, not up this far north. Your best chance up here is being passed by a lonely state trooper. The catalogue of hypotheticals is invisible except in circumstances like this, when it becomes impossible to ignore. I imagine this is how Maura felt.

Despite my familiarity with Maura’s college life, and my own near death experience just miles from the site of her disappearance, the case didn’t immediately draw me in. She was a college kid who crashed her car and probably wandered off and died of exposure in the New England winter. That changed when I was reintroduced to the case via James Renner’s book. Maura’s case is special because it contains a mystery within a mystery. Nobody knows why she was up in New Hampshire that night. The reason why might depend on what your opinion about her disappearance is. To some, the fact that she was up there without telling anyone is evidence that she wanted to start a new life. To some it’s evidence she was suicidal. To some it’s evidence that she had a secret relationship with an unknown guy. And to some, like Maura’s father, it’s a red herring. After all, she clearly did not intend to crash her car, so her plans might not matter. Whatever they were, they went awry and something unplanned happened to her. Maybe she was kidnapped by a stranger or died of exposure. The case is half an investigation into Maura’s life before the crash, an attempt to understand her thoughts and feelings leading up to the drive to New Hampshire, and half an investigation of her time following the crash including dog searches, interviews with witnesses, and arguments over the weirdest clue of all: a rag that was found stuffed into the tailpipe of her broken down Saturn sedan.

Online, leads pointed every which way. Some people were quick to fixate on a police coverup, arguing that there is no other explanation for how someone could vanish in a five minute window between crashing and police arriving on the scene, especially while multiple witnesses were watching the whole thing from their houses and their passing cars. Some, including James Renner, decided to dredge up every secret they could from the Murray family history. They found out about Maura’s sister’s drug problem, exaggerated her father’s odd behavior, documented her ex-boyfriend’s abuse allegations. This was all supposed to be evidence of… something sinister. It could be evidence that Maura was scared of her life and decided to run away, or maybe one of these weird characters lured her to NH and killed her. In Serial, the victim’s family was off limits; amateur investigators’ motives are good: either they want an innocent man freed or a guilty man punished. In Maura’s case, nobody knows what they want and everybody is fair game: victim, family, police. The only way to solve the mystery, the justification goes, is to find as much information as possible. Only then can a story be constructed to explain what happened. It looks an awful lot like mudslinging as entertainment.
I disagreed with this approach. Without some impetus to believe one theory over another, any details uncovered are just white noise. Such details about Maura’s life might be irrelevant and only obscure the case, or important details could be ignored because they are just items in a list next to some bits of hearsay. The difficulty with Maura’s case is not a lack of detail, it’s a lack of direct evidence. The arguments online go back and forth unresolved. There is evidence for any hypothesis, even the most absurd. But there is always more evidence pointing a different direction. This forces people to back themselves further and further into one position: discounting contrary evidence and playing up supporting evidence.

Participating in the discussion felt voyeuristic, and firmly supporting any hypothesis felt dishonest. Sometimes I would make posts pointing out omissions or flaws in someone else’s theory, but it felt like a useless addition to the cyclical argument. The case is not solvable with the evidence we currently have. It’s one of those cases where police are waiting for a confession, or a body, or some other chance discovery.

Until then, it’s exactly what I thought I wanted: an unsolvable mystery. A mystery where we know the four or five possible solutions, but have no means of choosing between them. This was a bittersweet realization about a month into my research on Maura Murray. I wanted an unsolvable case that everyone could agree was going nowhere. I wanted a consensus on the limit of investigation. Instead, I got an unsolvable case where everyone was sure they had solved it. Everyone except for me. Well, I admit I find myself dragged back into the case whenever some new detail turns up. I don’t know what the lesson is.

I came away impressed with the Sisyphean effort of the online community. The sole accomplishment of all those hours of investigation has been to keep the cycle of speculation churning for fourteen years. We don’t know any more now than we did in 2004. Yet, despite that, there is a living fervor that any day now the case will be solved by some minor discovery. I am not so optimistic. Instead, I believe that something major will need to happen to solve the case. Then, the evidence we already have will fall into place. Until then, Maura is just missing.

One day, later in the summer, I got off the porch and got into my car. The same car that I maneuvered between moose on the Kancamagus a year earlier. I backed out of my driveway and drove past UMass, slowing down as I passed Maura’s dorm. I pulled out onto Route 116 and drove to the Goodwill where she used the ATM the day she disappeared. I passed the pub she had dinner at on her last night. I passed the liquor store where she bought the box of wine that was found spilled inside her abandoned car. I drove up Route 9 towards the highway on-ramp she would have taken to drive north. I imagined getting on the highway myself and following her path. Her trip took a couple hours longer than it should have. Maybe she stopped somewhere? If I recreated her drive, would I get an urge to stop somewhere? If I drove past her crash site and kept going, would I eventually get to Maura’s destination?

I shook off the urge to turn onto the highway and drove on

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