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Amanda in Wonderland

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Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
Amanda Knox arriving at the court in Perugia during her appeal trial, four days before her murder conviction was overturned, September 30, 2011
“It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought! And when I grow up, I’ll write one—but I’m grown up now,” she added in a sorrowful tone….
—Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In May 2011, I went to dinner in Perugia with several reporters who had spent most of the previous three and a half years covering the Meredith Kercher murder case. They shared a sardonic, wary view of the proceedings, in which their reporting had played an outsized and perhaps decisive role. We met at a restaurant called, appropriately enough, Altromondo (Otherworld). It was underground, like so much of Perugia, including the courtroom where Amanda Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were tried and convicted for Kercher’s death. In Perugia, you almost always feel like you’re underground, even when you’re outside. The medieval city descends a steep hill in crooked, claustrophobic side streets that cross each other at absurd angles. The narrowness of the streets is enhanced by the tendency of the city’s ancient buildings to lean forward, as if about to fall on their faces. The sun doesn’t shine on most streets for most of each day. The mood is relentlessly clandestine, conspiratorial, paranoid.

At Altromondo the journalists ordered pasta with wild boar and carafes of house red. I was halfway into my tripe when one journalist said, offhandedly, “I don’t even know any more if Amanda is guilty.” (It was an affectation of the journalists in Perugia to refer to the case’s principals by their first names, just as the most junior staffer in a Hollywood mailroom might refer to Brad or Angelina.) The statement surprised me, because this particular journalist had recently published a book that accused Knox of murdering Kercher in cold blood.

Also at the table was a charming British hack whose byline regularly appeared under “exclusive” reports about the trials. The British tabloids had been inspired by Amanda Knox to great rhetorical heights, even by their own formidable standards. The greatest hits, all of which would later turn out to be misleading if not blatantly false, included “‘MEREDITH DIES TONIGHT’: CHILLING TEXT MESSAGE PREDICTED STUDENT’S SEX MURDER”; “THE WILD, RAUNCHY PAST OF FOXY KNOXY”; “FOXY KNOXY ‘HELD MEREDITH DOWN DURING DEADLY SEX ATTACK’”; “Meredith Kercher ‘SAID AMANDA WAS A DRUGGED-UP TART’”; “FOXY KNOXY, THE GIRL WHO HAD TO COMPETE WITH HER OWN MOTHER FOR MEN”; “AMANDA KNOX: I’M ONLY A TARGET BECAUSE I’M SEXY”; “AMANDA KNOX: ‘ANGEL-FACED KILLER WITH ICE COLD EYES.’”

Perhaps the best example was an article in the Daily Mail titled “CHILLING PICTURES OF MEREDITH MURDER SCENE REVEAL APARTMENT BLOODBATH HORROR.” It described the condition of the bathroom shared by Kercher and Knox in their odd hillside flat, which was perched on the edge of Perugia’s outer ring road, overlooking a steep ravine. On the morning after the murder, before Kercher’s body was discovered in her locked bedroom, Knox had taken a shower in the bathroom. She had claimed not to have noticed any obvious evidence of a crime—only two flecks of blood in the sink, and a reddish-brown splotch on the bathmat.

But in the photograph accompanying the article, the bathroom appeared to be drenched in blood. It was the kind of image you’d expect to see in a Grand Guignol horror film, and seemed incontrovertible evidence of Knox’s guilt—had the red liquid actually been blood. But it wasn’t blood. It was Luminol, a chemical used to detect blood, which itself turns red after prolonged exposure to the air. The journalist would have known this. Nevertheless, his article described the bathroom as “blood-soaked” and “smeared with blood.” It was one of countless fabricated reports that prejudiced the public and, by limited extension, the unsequestered Perugian jury, against Knox.

Over dinner the British journalist explained to me how he did his job. He had no contract with any newspaper, but auctioned each story to the highest bidder. If a competing reporter offered a more dramatic story to editors, or one that could be written faster, he would be passed over. He was under significant pressure to sell stories, for he had to pay his own way to Perugia, and stayed at a cheap hotel in order to keep expenses down. He also admitted to me that he had no idea whether Knox was guilty and didn’t care one way or another.

During ten days of conducting interviews in Perugia, including one with Giuliano Mignini, the case’s chief prosecutor, I learned that there was no persuasive physical evidence tying Knox or her rich Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, to Kercher’s murder.* Nor was there any coherent motive, a fact plainly acknowledged by one of the prosecutors in her closing statement. “We live,” she said, “in an age of violence with no motive.” Part of me, I admit, was disappointed. The story of two college students imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit was far more complicated, and less dramatic, than the prosecution’s theory: that a nymphomaniacal Knox, together with her boyfriend and Rudy Guede (the only suspect who left physical evidence at the crime scene), killed Kercher because she refused to participate in an orgy. But it was this lurid fantasy that proved irresistible to the journalists, television producers, and filmmakers who had descended upon Perugia during the previous four years. The story may not have been entirely convincing, but it sold.

Knox and Sollecito were set free at the end of their appeal trial, on October 3, 2011. “The only circumstantial evidence that remains,” concluded the court in its final report, “…does not, in any way, establish the guilt of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito for the crime of murder.” Knox had been in Capanne prison for nearly four years. During that time her family, by her father’s estimation, had spent more than $1.5 million on legal fees and travel. In February 2012, it was reported that Knox, who had never given a formal interview to the press, had signed a book contract worth nearly $4 million. The 461-page memoir was written with the assistance of a journalist, Linda Kulman, in about six months. It was published this April—less than a month after Italy’s highest court, in a surprising reversal, overturned Knox’s acquittal and ordered a retrial. The status of the retrial, at this date, remains uncertain, but it seems unlikely that Knox will be extradited (Sollecito, who still lives in Italy, may not be so lucky).

Waiting to Be Heard is, as her publisher put it, Knox’s chance to “tell the full story from her point of view for the very first time.” It is remarkable, though, how little of her story hasn’t already been told. The details of the investigation and the trials have been heavily documented for years, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy, in the press and in the obsessive Internet chat rooms devoted to her case. The determined efforts of Mignini and his colleagues to prove Knox’s guilt, and protect their own reputations, will be familiar to anyone with passing knowledge of the case, as will the portrait of Knox as a nerdy, sheltered Seattle teenager, guileless almost to the point of aberrance. As her stepfather told me: “She’s the smartest person you’d ever know” but “dumb as a rock” when it comes to “street sense.” She was the kind of teenager who sang loudly to herself in the halls of her high school and walked down the street like an Egyptian or an elephant. She approached homeless people in parks and asked them about their lives, and biked across Seattle at night without consulting a map. Her only serious boyfriend before Sollecito had a Mohawk and wore a kilt.

After four years in prison, Knox is no longer naive. But it’s clear from Waiting to Be Heard that she—or her legal team—felt pressure to justify her whimsical, often callow behavior during the investigation and trial. This is understandable, since much of her trouble derived from observations the Italian investigators made about her actions in the hours and days following Kercher’s murder. Still, the constant assertion of her former naiveté can be exhausting: “I was too naïve back then…,” “I was naïve, in over my head…,” “I was too naïve to imagine that…,” “As naïve as I now realize this was…,” “How am I still this naïve?,” “I was very naïve and not remotely courageous…,” “I was naïve.” These are also the sections of the book that seem to bear the heaviest imprint of an older, mildly patronizing collaborator—or a lawyer. It’s hard to credit a twenty-five-year-old writing sentences like “Casual sex was, for my generation, simply what you did,” or “Now I see that I was a mouse in a cat’s game.”

Yet the shattering of Knox’s naiveté is the memoir’s central and most gripping narrative. Naive: from Old French, naif, just born; Knox, when she arrived in Italy, was still a child. Waiting to Be Heard belongs to the coming-of-age genre, even if Knox’s transformation was unusually abrupt and violent (though not, of course, as abrupt and violent as what befell Meredith Kercher). The Italian criminal justice system provided Knox with an immersion course in disillusionment, cynicism, indifference, and cruelty. The lessons came too fast for her to digest, however, and she spent her first two years at Capanne in a state of denial.

When, after being convicted of murder and sentenced to twenty-six years, she was finally forced to make sense of her fate, she turned to literature. Her prison journals, in which she listed the books she read, reveal that she was educating herself in Existentialism (Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Sartre’s No Exit and Nausea), Magical Realism (Calvino, Borges, Eco), Absurdism and Despair (Kafka, Vonnegut, Beckett, Woody Allen), and its subgenre, Imprisonment (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy). She was studying the canon. She was trying desperately to catch up. And she was taking notes. One day, her father predicted to a journalist in 2009, “she will write her own book about this.”

A number of writers, beginning with John Guare in 2009, have described Knox as a modern-day Daisy Miller. “The urge to compare the two is irresistible,” wrote Sam Tanenhaus recently in The New York Times:

Like Knox, James’s American heroine left observers wondering whether her angelic exterior masked “a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young woman,” even if she was “very unsophisticated,” as James explains, “only a pretty American flirt.”
  1. *

    For a detailed account of the case and the trial, see my “The Neverending Nightmare of Amanda Knox,” Rolling Stone, June 27, 2011. 

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