Amanda Knox Finds Herself
June 5, 2013
Jun 5, 2013
15 Min read time
Sascha Pohflepp (flickr.com/saschapohflepp)
In Amanda Knox's new book, teen chick lit gives way to an insightful memoir from behind the prison walls.
Waiting To Be Heard
by Amanda Knox
Harper, $28.99 (cloth)
“The angel-faced killer.” “Luciferina.” “Foxy Knoxy.” “The Wicked Fox.” These were some of the nicknames coined by tabloid journalists to describe Amanda Knox: the pretty American exchange student in Perugia, Italy, who, along with her Italian boyfriend, was convicted of the 2007 murder of her British flatmate Meredith Kercher in what prosecutors described as a marijuana-induced, psychosexual rage. In the Italian court of public opinion, Knox’s criminal behavior was symptomatic of something larger than her idiosyncratic insanity. It reflected something pervasively rotten in the state of American expatriate culture. As investigative reporter Nina Burleigh claimed in her 2011 book The Fatal Gift of Beauty, even Italian feminists were convinced that “the young woman was a sick product of America’s excessive morality, a repressed girl who had gone murderously wild as soon as she landed on the more liberated European shores.”
To the Italian prosecutors and criminal psychologists who put her behind bars, Knox was worse than the average Pilgrim daughter enjoying her junior year abroad. Her unfettered libido, her self-proclaimed urge to “do what every American girl does” in Italy and “get fucked up,” was all the more damning because she was a bonafide “graphomaniac.” Or, in plain speak, a compulsive writer who nursed a pathological sense of narrative entitlement. Knox chronicled her dangerous liaisons abroad in a handwritten journal, a Myspace blog, and letters to her family and friends. In an interview with Burleigh, an anonymous friend explained that Knox perceived her life in Italy as an ongoing story of which she was simultaneously the author and protagonist. Knox’s belief in her life’s narrative telos was an aesthetic commitment that rendered her, to the outside world, both naïve and narcissistic. This was a surefire sign, according to prosecutors, of her perversity. “She’s not a rational person, not one hundred percent,” this so-called friend divulged. “She believes she’s an artist. And she believes she’s a writer. She believes that her life is all a developing movie, a plot that . . . is not designed yet. There’s no screenplay. She’s making the screenplay.”
The female protagonists of study abroad novels rarely aspire to acts of aesthetic creation.
But what kind of story did Knox’s detractors believe she was writing herself into? Without the horrific twist of Kercher’s murder, Knox’s semester in Perugia would have simply reenacted the plot of many a study abroad novel, a popular subgenre of young adult chick lit that features the American girl on a cosmopolitan courtship quest in the Old World. Armed with teams of female romance novelists, trade publishers such as Penguin and HarperTeen routinely churn out these glossy paperbacks, whose very titles betray their thematic and formal staleness: Wanderlust, Anna and the French Kiss, Heart and Salsa, Swede Dreams, French Kissmas, When Irish Guys are Smiling, multiplied ad infinitum and ad nauseum.
But while a nickname such as “Foxy Knoxy” undoubtedly taps into the sexual motifs of young adult chick lit, Knox’s alleged sense of narrative self-consciousness bucks an important generic trend. The female protagonists of study abroad novels rarely aspire to acts of aesthetic creation. Rather than imagine their characters as writing their own stories into existence, the creative teams represent them as objects amenable to their readers’ projected desires for material and erotic experiences. They are but vessels whose stories can vicariously “bring you all over the world” through “travel, adventure, and, of course, romance!”
For the more bookish critics who have followed Knox’s trial, the tragic contours of her story suggest another, earlier literary analogue: the expatriate fictions of Henry James. In an interview with The New York Times in December 2009, playwright and Knox fetishist John Guare asked, “Is [Knox] Henry James’s Daisy Miller, the archetypal American girl in Europe who comes to a disastrous end?” That hypothetical question launched a serious and sustained discussion on the Jamesian plight of Foxy Knoxy among U.S. and U.K. gossip rags, bloggers, and serious book reviewers, many of whom concluded that James had predicted Knox’s unseemly “end” a full century before she was even born. Not only does Knox’s story smack of James’s early flair for the melodramatic, but the archetypal American girl’s impulse to treat her self consciousness as an artistic or literary work was the basis of James’s most famous expatriate fiction, The Portrait of A Lady. And, like Knox, Isabel Archer’s narrative consciousness in The Portrait of a Lady gravitated to metaphors of literary production. “She herself was a character,” James wrote of his protagonist. “She could not help being aware of that.”
Unlike Isabel’s, Knox’s belief that she was crafting her life story abroad proved more than just a suggestive metaphor. Immediately after successfully appealing her murder conviction in November 2011 and returning to the United States, Knox signed a $4 million deal with HarperCollins for the memoir Waiting To Be Heard, a book whose very existence enacts her friend’s testimony that Knox “believes she’s a writer.”
• • •
One thing is for certain: Waiting To Be Heard is no Jamesian fiction. Nor is it study abroad chick lit, although Knox does spend the first half of the memoir dangling familiar tropes from both genres in front of her expectant readers.
Most obvious among these tropes is Knox’s desire that her semester at the School for Foreigners in Perugia transform her from a 21st century American ingénue—a goofy pothead and aspiring creative writer clueless to her own sexual desirability—into an upper-middle class cosmopolite. This airbrushed projection of what Knox frequently refers to as her “grown-up self” awaits her somewhere on the Continent, imaginatively displaced from her hometown of Seattle by a semester’s worth of time and space. But Knox doesn’t yet know how to go about finding her future self. In August 2007 this is her biggest problem—a luxury unto itself. “As I got ready to leave for Perugia,” she worries, “I knew I hadn’t become my own person yet, and I didn’t know how to get myself there.”
If Knox’s preoccupation with her self-development strikes a familiar chord, it’s because the notion of “finding yourself” has such widespread purchase in contemporary American culture. In the past decade or so, this has been especially (if not exclusively) borne out by the navel-gazing fictions of young female talents, yielding an uneasy alliance between pop feminist thought and cheaply distilled notions of human subjectivity. Think of Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO series Girls, whose lead character Hannah is fond of making such proclamations as, “I’m busy becoming who I am!” Think of the personal essay form as it’s practiced by the likes of Tracy Clark-Flory, Rebecca Curtis, and Elizabeth Wurtzel. Think of how Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be? (2012) places the putative problem of being—and crucially, the problem of being a woman—front and center.
Knox ends up playing the role she’s fought so hard to escape: a defendant of her own life.
For these women, as for Knox, the answer to how a person should be has something, if not everything, to do with sex. Or more specifically, the causal relationship one draws between sex and a thorny constellation of intersubjective relations and feelings such as empowerment, insecurity, and dependence. “For me,” Knox writes, “sex was emotional, and I didn’t want it to be anymore—I hated feeling dependent on anyone else. I wanted sex to be about empowerment and pleasure, not about Does this person like me? Will he still like me tomorrow?”
Of course, the problem here isn’t casual sex. The problem is that even in hindsight, the through-line from sex of whatever kind, caliber, or quantity to becoming one’s grown-up self provides both the narrative and the moralistic propulsion for the first half of Knox’s memoir. As Knox’s describes it in retrospect, each international liaison—there are four in total—climaxes in a life lesson that treads heavily on YA territory and counters the literotic testimony of the European press and the Italian prosecutors.
In the beginning, there was Cristiano, Knox’s seatmate on a train from Milan to Florence, who is “tan, blond, and wearing a tank top that showed off his lean muscular frame.” Although he has “the chiseled good looks of a California beach bum and the alluring accent of an Italian,” he also has herpes, which Knox contracts after “fooling around like crazy” with him. (Voyeurs beware. The memoir offers nothing by way of juicy detail.) “I couldn’t believe this was the first wild thing I’d done in my entire life and—bam! I’d made an impulsive decision, and now I’d have to pay a lifelong consequence,” she writes, a chapter ending that could double as a public service announcement for practicing safe oral sex. After Cristiano, there are Mirko and Bobby, one-night stands whose emotional detachment make Knox feel “regret” and “emptiness,” respectively. When she shares her hang-ups about single-serving sex with her roommates, it’s Kercher who issues a statement of moral absolution. “‘Amanda,’” she said, consolingly, ‘Maybe uninvolved sex just isn’t for you.’” Shortly thereafter, Knox meets Raffaele Sollecito, who quickly becomes her boyfriend for one week—the week when she feels “the warmest, safest, most enveloped” since she’s arrived in Perugia—only to become her co-defendant for the next four years.
If Knox is guilty of anything, then, it’s that she plays right into the hands of her vilest critics: the Italian prosecutors, the British press core, The Daily Beast’s summa slut-shamer Barbie Latza Nadeau, all those who relentlessly worked to make the private minutiae of Knox’s sex life fodder for judicial deliberations. One can imagine a more graceful version of Waiting To Be Heard that simply refused to address the pernicious rumors and misinformation about Knox’s behavior prior to the trial: how many sexual partners she’d entertained, her lingerie purchases, the small pink vibrator she kept in a plastic make-up bag, the kissing and cooing that she and Sollecito engaged in while waiting to be questioned by the police, even her brief shift from casual sex to committed relationship.
These “facts” are hardly relevant to the question of Knox’s culpability, but the weight they’ve been given in official courtroom transcripts and reportage speaks to the material triumph of misogyny’s narrative double standards, pure and simple. By connecting the prurient dots made visible by the media and the prosecutors, if only to challenge them with her own narrative of sexual awakening gone awry—or, more cynically, to sell books—Knox ends up playing the role she’s fought so hard to escape: a defendant of her own life.
• • •
By now, it’s common knowledge that the investigation of Knox and Sollecito, and the joint trials that ensued, were marked by flagrant police misconduct every step along the way. The contaminated DNA samples on Kercher’s bra and on a kitchen knife from Sollecito’s apartment—the smoking guns that landed the couple in jail for 1,427 days—are just two examples, and relatively tame ones at that, of how incompetence and bias came together in the service of injustice.
More appalling still are the routine abuses of juridical power that took place while Knox was held at the Casa Circondariale Capanne di Perugia. There’s the sexual harassment that Knox was subject to at the hands of Vice-Comandante Raffaele Argirò, the prison chief of the Capanne. (“Would you have sex with me? No? I’m too old for you?” Argirò asks on a nightly basis.) There’s the fake HIV-positive test result that sends Knox into an impotent rage, a self-immolating desire to “undo everything—to be out of my body, out of this prison, out of this life that had caved in on me.” (To which Argirò gamely responds, “Don’t worry. I’d still have sex with you right now. Promise me you’ll have sex with me.”) There’s the prison handyman who tries to sexually assault Knox while fixing a clogged drain in her cell bathroom. And finally, there’s the confiscation of Knox’s letters, notes, and prison diary by the police, materials that are later peddled to the Italian press in an effort to shore up prosecutor Giuliano Mignini’s accusations of graphomania. “The physical chaos” of the raid on her cell, Knox writes, “was nothing compared to the chaos in my head. They’d penetrated my innermost space.”
The prison does make Knox into a new person, and a literary subject to boot. Under the Capanne’s disciplinary practices and protocols, writing quickly morphs from an act of recording the exotic and unfamiliar—“just like a tourist who writes a travelogue,” Knox writes soon after her arrest—to an act of willful self-preservation. Physically and linguistically isolated from the Italian prisoners around her, Knox finds that writing is “psychologically essential” and the only way to “find a silver lining in my imprisonment.”
The stronger, darker second half of Waiting To Be Heard thus offers its readers a reflexive prison memoir: a compelling account of writing as a form of metaphysical self-defense that parallels Knox’s status as a defendant on trial for her freedom. In prison Knox prefers books with characters who are lost in the “surreal, existential way,” fictional models of how life on the inside recalibrates one’s sense of self. She now claims to prefer hefty novels such as Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed and Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle over chick lit goddess Jackie Collins or other YA fare. (One is tempted to point out that desperation drove Knox to acquire a literary and linguistic education superior to anything Perugia’s School for Foreigners had to offer.)
The prison does make Knox into a new person, and a literary subject to boot.
Intriguingly, it is also this institutional genre of writing that enables Knox to draw nontrivial connections between self and gender, gender and national identity, as social phenomena. This is a particular virtue of Waiting To Be Heard as a prison memoir. As Angela Davis notes in her seminal essay “Writing on the Wall: Prisoners on Punishment,” prisoners who turned to writing as an assertion of agency also “came to be viewed as producers of insider knowledge regarding one of the major institutional structures responsible for the perpetuation of racism, poverty, and male dominance” in society at large.
Where self and sociality meet is in the second half of Waiting To Be Heard, in which Knox offers her readers brief yet jarring vignettes that panoramically reveal the population of the women’s prison as the disempowered dregs of Italian society. Without any explicit theorizing on Knox’s part, it becomes abundantly clear from the examples culled from her prison diary how virulently patterns of social oppression—sexual, racial, and class-based—are reproduced by the prison’s discourses of criminality: Cera, Knox’s bisexual roommate for some months, is in jail for allegedly murdering her boyfriend, a crime the wardens interpret as a symbolic rejection of heterosexuality; Pica and Falda are zingare outcasts (a derogatory term for Roma) and petty thieves who insist that the earth is flat; Laura, Knox’s closest friend and guardian, is a fellow American citizen turned accidental drug mule by a scheming Italian boyfriend. Most heartbreaking of all is the story of Gregora, an illiterate mother for whom Knox writes letters, and her toddler Mina. In one of Knox’s darkest days, Mina is placed in an orphanage when Gregora—who cannot “read, write, add, or subtract,” let alone defend herself in a courtroom—is unable to calculate her child’s birthday. What Mina’s fate will be, we can only imagine.
But like all prison memoirs, Knox’s has its blind spots. Most problematic is how she accounts for—or rather, fails to account for—her own biases as a privileged white exchange student in Perugia, the barely veiled racism that prompted her to finger her former boss, club owner Diya “Patrick” Lumumba, as the perpetrator of the Kercher’s murder. Unsurprisingly, Knox refuses to acknowledge it as such, choosing to attribute her false accusation to the coercive interrogation tactics of the police. It was their roughness, she claims, that led her to believe she was “deeply disturbed and very frightened of Patrick, the African owner of . . . Le Chic.” Throughout the memoir, allusions to the “seediness” of Lumumba’s bar, a porthole to the “dark side” of drug trafficking in Italy, gesture to an urban underworld populated by poor immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa.
It is a world that Knox, a naïf to the very end, cannot properly comprehend in all its complexity. Rudy Guede, the man eventually arrested and convicted of Kercher’s murder, is one of those poor, dark-skinned immigrants. Knox never gives a second thought to his guilt, which she judges on the basis of a television news report that obliquely mentions DNA evidence placing him at the scene. (Waiting To Be Heard is littered with such ironies.) “I’d met but didn’t know Rudy Guede. I didn’t know if he was capable of murder. I couldn’t imagine why he might do something so brutal. But I believed that he was guilty, that the evidence could only be interpreted one way,” Knox writes in a passage that’s astonishing for its lack of self-awareness. If the prison memoir knowingly constructs and circulates insider information through its stories of sexual coercion, the inadvertent glimpses it provides into Knox’s racial biases are no less valuable. They illuminate structures and ideologies of punishment so deeply embedded in social thought that even those who call themselves prisoners cannot see the woods for the trees.
• • •
Given all the media attention centered on Knox, it’s easy to forget about Meredith Kercher. With Knox’s memoir emerging as the focal point of debates over class, race, gender, and due process—as it does in this review—Kercher’s life and the real tragedy of her death are, at best, further obscured by austere literary-critical analysis and, at worst, subject to gossipy hearsay. The aching question remains: How can anyone do justice to Meredith Kercher?
Perhaps this is the saving grace of Waiting To Be Heard. While her ordeal is indeed excruciating, Knox never forgets, “With all I’m going through I’m the lucky one”—an empathetic sentiment, but also a self-renouncing one, implicitly taking to task the misguided impulses of trashy exposés and good investigative journalism alike. For Knox’s account is the only one that insists on remembering Kercher, as it revisits the senselessness of her death in myriad passages rooted in Knox’s anger, sadness, and desire for justice.
At its most mature moments, Waiting To Be Heard is a convoluted apology to Kercher’s family, a gesture of symbolic atonement that Knox never had a chance to convey personally and was dissuaded by her lawyers from delivering in writing. As her appeal approaches, she drafts a letter to the Kerchers that never makes its way into their hands, but it is reproduced in the book, with the same intention to communicate. “I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to say so. . . . In the relatively brief time that Meredith was part of my life, she was always kind to me. I think about her every day.” Reading Waiting To Be Heard, one comes to appreciate more fully the tragedy of Kercher’s death through this tragic interlude in Knox’s life—her terrible journey to her grown-up self.
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June 05, 2013
15 Min read time