What Do We Really Know About Hae Min Lee, ‘Serial’s’ “Beautiful” Dead Korean Girl?

Like countless other obsessed fans of Serial, the addictive true-crime podcast where This American Life host/producer Sarah Koenig investigates a murder, I was first drawn in by the dramatic possibility Koenig presented: Adnan Syed had been wrongfully accused and imprisoned for killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. With each episode, Koenig circles around the case. She paints a vivid portrait of Adnan’s life, presents conflicting reports of the events of the day Hae was killed, the strange turns of police investigation, missteps made by Adnan’s defense lawyer, and an entire episode devoted to Jay, the former friend whose testimony cemented Adnan’s fate.

But I soon realized there was something missing in the unfolding narrative. The listener never once gets a clear picture of Hae, the young Korean-American woman around whom this case revolves. Hae is the linchpin to this whole story, but she’s still a complete mystery to me, as Serial draws to its end.

Out of curiosity, I’d googled for an image of Hae when I began listening to Serial. The first result was a memorial page scanned from her yearbook. Underneath her years of birth and death, a list of Hae’s extracurricular activities (field hockey, lacrosse, and more) was printed next to a black and white photo. Hae was born in 1980, same as me. I’d known that she died in 1999 while a senior in high school, but I hadn’t done the math in my head. If she were alive today, she’d be 34 years old. I studied the photograph. The first thought that popped to mind was that Hae looked remarkably like my best friend T at that age.

In an excavation of Hae’s diary, Koenig characterized the victim as a “typical American teenager.” Whether this was done by intention or not, it seems to me that Koenig’s insistence on this portrayal of Hae — beautiful, athletic, opinionated, popular — relies on that narrow trope of an East Asian immigrant family whose parents are old-school and strict, while their second-generation offspring are simply trying to assimilate into some version of “normal” American life. Koenig also inadvertently plays up this angle with Adnan’s family, even as she attempts to show listeners that this was exactly the melodramatic narrative the prosecution rammed down the jury’s throats 15 years ago.

In an interview conducted by Koenig in one of the early episodes, Adnan’s mother explains: this was what my life was like in Pakistan, and so these were the values I tried to instill in my sons. She doesn’t make any generalized conjectures, like that all Muslim families are this way, or all mothers who emigrated from Pakistan do things like this. We get to hear Adnan’s mother’s unique point of view, which offers insight into how the dynamics of this particular family intersect with Muslim, Pakistani, and immigrant identities. To me, it’s still one of the more powerful moments in the entire series so far.

When it comes to Hae, however, we get little that’s as specific. In Episode 9, Koenig tells us about how Hae’s mother reacted in Adnan’s trials. She is pained, doubled over at times, and emotional (Koenig points out that there were multiple bench conferences to discuss whether Hae’s mother’s crying was a possible distraction to the jury). This segment closes with a description of the mother giving her statement at Adnan’s sentencing, which includes a heart-wrenching Korean proverb on grieving the death of a child, and her inability to forgive Adnan for what he’s done.

For the first time, we catch a glimpse of Hae in the context of her family, whose presence until now has only been obliquely referenced (an absent father possibly in California, the cousin Hae was responsible for picking up, and her brother, who called Adnan the day of Hae’s disappearance).

Still, I don’t feel that I know Hae at all. The details that Koenig supplies — that Hae was manager of the wrestling team, and a fan of the Dallas Cowboys for nothing more than the fact of their team colors — seem inexplicably specific yet insipid, and they’re used in a manner that compresses Hae’s personality into a raceless, “typical American teenager” narrative. In a much-discussed piece on The Awl, “Serial and White Reporter Privilege,” writer Jay Caspian Kang argues that Koenig’s depiction of Hae reads white, but this is only true if one assumes that the absence of a perceived racial difference automatically defaults to whiteness. Though Kang’s assumption is certainly a familiar trope in the master narrative of American racial politics, I don’t necessarily agree that it’s indicative of what’s happening in Serial.

My biggest quibble with how Hae is presented in Serial might seem strange, perhaps even judgmental. It has to do with Koenig’s repeated use of the word “beautiful” to describe her.

I’m interested in feminist critiques of normative beauty standards, especially in relationship to race and identity. It’s complicated, because as often as I’m attempting to define what “beauty” means to me as a woman of color, I’m also vastly aware of the privileges and benefits I receive for manufacturing and participating in a cisgender, able-bodied ideal of normative femininity.

In my youth, my Asian girlfriends and I traded tips for plucking and shaping our eyebrows to achieve that enviable Cindy Crawford arch, the best eyelash curlers for crimping pin-straight Asian lashes into submission, adhesives and clear tape strips applied to our eyelids to cause the skin to fold, and product lines that offered foundations and powders with the right undertone — yellow or brown, not pink.

These are quagmires I don’t trust a white woman to understand — as I’m sure there must be beauty regimens I’m not familiar with that apply only to white women (something related to freckles, maybe?). An ethnically East Asian woman who makes her life in the US contends with how her “beauty” is defined within a paradigm of white supremacy (the impossible-to-achieve blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie aspirations mixed up with the fetishization of desire steeped in Orientalism) as well as a particular aesthetic of East Asian sensibility.

That’s the one where my East Asian girlfriends can discuss eyelid surgery, for example, without any stigma attached (by the way, it’s not necessarily about the size or shape of the epicanthic fold — it’s about the amount of eyeball white that’s visible, according to a friend who recently went under the knife). This sounds entirely essentialist, I know. Maybe this isn’t an essay I should be writing; maybe these are statements which I will regret, later on. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Koenig calls Hae “beautiful.” By what standards? Who decides? Koenig? The descriptor is both empty and loaded with an entire universe of unexplored gender and racial implications. I don’t trust Koenig to determine or identify what “beauty” means for an East Asian woman, and this is why I don’t trust Koenig to tell Hae’s story.

My friend T, the one whose face I immediately imagine when I examine the few photos of Hae that are available online, is undeniably beautiful, by any standard. This wasn’t always the case. She’s 35 now, and she’s been various versions of beautiful in her 20s and 30s. Before that, when she was in high school, T’s features sat together awkwardly, presenting a gawky and sardonic effect. This is what I see in Hae’s high school photos, too. The eyes slightly too far apart, the face thin and angular, protruding cheekbones and a high, square forehead. You can perhaps sense that beauty lurks, waiting in the wings. Hae smiles sweetly in the yearbook portrait, but it’s not a far stretch to imagine her mouth twisted into a teenager’s sullen sneer.

Was she beautiful? Not quite. But perhaps she would have become so in a few years, when her face softened, her features settled. As we know, that never happens, because Hae Min Lee was strangled to death in 1999.

Maybe Koenig simply means that Hae was beautiful in the way that all teenage girls are, like shiny objects to be admired, their youthful exuberance and feisty spirits, the undimmed glow in their eyes. Or maybe she cannot help but allude to Hae as someone who was beautiful because women who are murdered, it seems, are always somehow surrounded by an aura of beauty that’s shaped by those of us who mourn a presumed innocence lost, even as we feed our voracious appetites for lurid violence.

Either way, Hae becomes a caricature. She loses her individuality, and thus her unique, nuanced, and complicated humanity, something she deserves now, more than ever, as Koenig and Serial are raising her ghost. But maybe that’s too much to ask for when the beautiful dead girl is Korean-American, with a real body — a corpse — once buried by a real Korean-American family, whose mementos are now being wrung through the imagination of a white journalist.