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.”
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Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass

But Waiting to Be Heard follows a different literary model. In her own telling, Knox’s story owes less to Henry James than to Lewis Carroll.

Knox falls down the rabbit-hole four days after Kercher’s murder, at the moment when she is taken into police custody. This is also, not coincidentally, the point at which the memoir comes to life. It is where Knox begins to tell the only part of her story that is new: the details of her life at Capanne prison, and the ways in which it changed her.

Earlier that morning, after a bullying interrogation during which investigators used nearly every psychological and procedural trick available in order to secure a confession, Knox had signed two statements. The statements were written in Italian by the police. Both implicated her boss, Patrick Lumumba, the owner of a local nightclub, in Kercher’s murder, and in both Knox claimed to have been at the murder scene.

These were lies, albeit lies prompted by the interrogators, and in addition to her murder conviction, Knox would be judged guilty of defaming Lumumba; this ruling was held up on appeal, when she was sentenced to time served. Despite having a strong alibi, Lumumba was held in jail for nearly three weeks. He was released when forensics tests matched the fingerprints and DNA found on the crime scene to Rudy Guede, a low-level thief with no previous criminal record who had fled the country in the days following Kercher’s death. Guede was convicted in a separate trial and is currently serving a sixteen-year sentence.

Knox’s second statement was signed at 5:45 AM. By 2 pm she was already expressing doubt to investigators.

“What I described last night doesn’t seem like memories,” she says. “I feel like I imagined the events.”

“No, your memories will come back,” replies an investigator. “You’ll see.”

Knox is informed that she has to be taken into custody “just for a couple of days—for bureaucratic reasons.” She is led to a room where, before a male doctor, a nurse, and several female police officers, she is asked to strip naked and spread her legs:

The doctor inspected the outer lips of my vagina and then separated them with his fingers to examine the inner. He measured and photographed my intimate parts. I couldn’t understand why they were doing this.

Later that day she is dropped off at Capanne prison. One of her guards hugs her goodbye.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” says the guard, reassuringly. “The police will take care of you.”

Why the guards and police continually sought to reassure Knox, even after she signed her confession, is as puzzling as anything Knox did in the hours following Kercher’s murder (she would be criticized for stretching her legs in the police station’s waiting room, embracing Sollecito and sitting on his lap, and not crying enough for her murdered friend). When Knox questions her confinement, she is told that she is being held for her own safety. She accepts this explanation—Kercher’s killer, after all, was still on the loose. And she believes she is assisting the investigation. She wants badly to be of help. When Knox is handcuffed, she politely informs her guard that her cuffs are too loose. “Excuse me,” she says, “but I can slip my hand out.” Her handcuffs are tightened. “It didn’t occur to me,” she writes, “…that perhaps I should call a lawyer.”

Days pass. Her captors say “it’s only for a few days,” “bureaucratic reasons,” and “it’s all under control.” One is reminded of Alice, racing after the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle in order to arrive in court on time. “What trial is it?” asks Alice, panting, not realizing that it is her own.

In fact it is not until Knox’s first court appearance, a week after the crime, that she figures out that she is the chief murder suspect. Even then it will be another year before she receives a formal criminal charge.

At Capanne, things get curiouser and curiouser. One day a prison doctor informs her that she has tested positive for HIV. Distraught, Knox makes a list in her diary of her sexual history: seven sexual partners, three since arriving in Italy. The information is immediately handed over to prosecutors and used as character evidence against her. Two months later she finds out that she does not have HIV. Was her positive test result an honest error, or a ploy to elicit information? We can only speculate.

Knox is separated from the general prison population and kept under constant surveillance. Guards watch her while she showers or uses the toilet. Her only friend is a prison priest, Don Saulo, who tells her things like “No matter what happens, live your life to its fullest.” Her conversations with visitors are recorded, as are her phone calls. Her diaries, letters, even her grammar exercises are routinely confiscated from her cell. Her words, written and overheard, are taken out of context to justify the prosecution’s theories. During a visit with her mother, Knox, discussing her alibi (she was with Sollecito on the evening of the murder), says: “It’s stupid. I can’t say anything but the truth, because I know I was there.” She is referring to Sollecito’s apartment, but the prosecution takes “there” to mean the crime scene. A couple of weeks later, the London Telegraph runs a piece under the headline “TAPE ‘PUTS KNOX AT MEREDITH MURDER SCENE.’” The judge agrees with this interpretation. “It can certainly be read as a confirmation of the girl’s presence in her home at the moment of the crime,” he writes in a statement. This is proof, he adds, that Knox is “unattached to reality with an elevated…fatal, capacity to kill again.”

More gets lost in translation—due to incompetence or malice it is not always clear. Consider the following passage from one of her confiscated prison diaries, written after it had been reported that Sollecito’s DNA was detected on Kercher’s bra (a finding that was later revealed to be erroneous):

Unless Raffaele decided to get up after I fell asleep, grabbed said knife, went over to my house, used it to kill Meredith, came home, cleaned it off, rubbed my fingerprint all over it, put it away, then tucked himself back into bed, and then pretended really well the next couple of days, well, I just highly doubt all of that.

The Italian translation of this passage, here translated back into English, turned skepticism into assertion, doubt into incomprehension:

I don’t remember anything. But I think it’s possible that Raffaele went to Meredith’s house, raped her and then killed her. And then when he got home, while I was sleeping, he put my fingerprints on the knife. But I don’t understand why Raffaele would do that.

The subsequent Daily Mail exclusive took the game of telephone one step further: “Amanda Knox has now accused Raffaele Sollecito of committing the murder and planting her fingerprints on the murder weapon while she slept.”

It begins to dawn on Knox and her lawyers that the prosecution is manipulating the evidence. The hard drives of the computers belonging to Knox, Sollecito, Kercher, and another of Knox’s roommates, which might have validated the defendants’ alibi, are wiped clean by police technicians. They claim ineptitude. In order to account for the lack of physical evidence at the crime scene, the prosecutors posit that Knox erased her traces (but not Guede’s) with cleaning supplies. So a receipt for pizza, found among Knox’s belongings, is alleged to be a receipt for bleach.

Confronted with the absence of a murder weapon, a detective opens the cutlery drawer in Sollecito’s kitchen and removes a knife. When asked how he knew to test that knife, and not any of the others in the drawer, the detective cites “investigative intuition.” In a final bureaucratic twist, the prosecution sends Knox bills for “investigative expenses,” including fees for the translation of her journals, which means she must personally fund the state’s investigation against her.

Meanwhile Knox’s lawyers continue to bungle the case in the court of public opinion. Not wanting to sink to the level of the prosecution, they refuse to speak to the press about the case. One even runs away from journalists on the street outside the court. But this strategy proves disastrous, as each point of falsified evidence is reported without challenge. Knox understands exactly how disastrous this strategy is, because her cellmates keep the television on all day and refuse to turn it off. Much of the time, Knox finds herself watching herself on television.

“I felt oddly small,” writes Knox, “like Alice in Wonderland, when everything around her was so much bigger.”

Yet the reader of Waiting to Be Heard gets the unmistakable sense that, at least in that frantic first week of the investigation, Knox did not resent the sensation of growing much bigger. She had traveled abroad with the goal of “meeting maturity head-on.” For a year she had worked extra jobs, saving up money so that she could pay her own way to Italy, and she had fought hard to win her parents’ permission. Even during her interrogation, surrounded by investigators who slapped her on the back of her head and called her a liar, she never considered leaving Perugia.

“I was determined not to let this tragedy undo all I’d worked so hard for over the past year,” she writes. “The way I saw it, if I went home, I’d be admitting defeat.” Her roommate’s murder had forced adulthood upon her much sooner than she had anticipated. But despite the horror of the circumstances, and the fear of years in prison, how could the experience not also have been in some ways secretly thrilling? She had won her adulthood at last. And what she lost—which is what we all lose, when we leave childhood behind—was her freedom.

  1. *

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