“She’s a complete blank,” the playwright John Guare once said, trying to explain the public fascination with Amanda Knox, the American student accused (along with two men) of murdering her housemate Meredith Kercher during a sex escapade gone awry in Italy. “You can project anything on to her. Is she Henry James’ Daisy Miller, an innocent young girl who goes to Europe for experience? Or is she Louise Brooks, the woman who takes what she wants and destroys everything? Or is she Nancy Drew caught up in Kafka?”
Since the arrest of Knox in 2007, the case — with its attractive young cast and lurid details — has been heatedly debated in the news media on both sides of the Atlantic, with a glut of coverage on TV, online, in newspapers and magazines and in several books. While prosecutors and some European tabloids depicted her as a cunning “she-devil,” the Knox family, which hired a public relations company specializing in crisis management soon after her arrest, and her supporters have promoted an image of her as an American innocent abroad who got caught up in the gears of a dysfunctional Italian justice system.
The self-portrait Knox draws in her meditative memoir, “Waiting to Be Heard,” is very much that of an all-American student whose junior year abroad went off the rails through a series of unfortunate mistakes and misunderstandings. She emerges from these pages less as a Jamesian heroine or Kafka-esque protagonist than as a naive, impetuous, somewhat quirky girl who loved soccer and the Beatles and who suddenly found herself caught up in a Hitchcockian nightmare, with bad luck and some bad judgment calls leading her into a labyrinth seemingly without end.
She and her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were initially convicted in a 2009 trial that caused an international uproar, then were acquitted by an appeals court jury in October 2011, after which Knox returned home to Seattle. (The murder conviction of a third defendant, Rudy Guede, in a separate trial, was upheld on appeal.) Just last month Italy’s highest court ordered a new trial after prosecutors and lawyers for Kercher’s family challenged that acquittal.
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The tabloids liked to refer to Knox as “Foxy Knoxy” — giving her schoolgirl soccer nickname a wily sexual subtext — while the author describes herself here as a frightened “mouse in a cat’s game.” She says she was “a lost pathetic child” who, at 20, “still had a childlike view of people” and who didn’t have as good a command of Italian as she liked to think. Of her early dealings with the police, she writes: “I didn’t want them to think I was a bad person. I wanted them to see me as I was — as Amanda Knox, who loved her parents, who did well in school, who respected authority and whose only brush with the law had been a ticket for violating a noise ordinance during a college party I’d thrown with my housemates in Seattle.”
By turns evocative and verbose, sympathetic and enigmatic, Knox says she wants to set “the record straight” in this volume. There are some tidbits of new information in “Waiting to Be Heard,” but large portions of the book’s account of the murder case and trials will be familiar to readers who have followed the voluminous media coverage of the story. It’s difficult to know how much public interest there will be in the book (which reportedly earned Knox a $4 million advance), given that it is being published in the wake of a much larger and more significant crime story, the Boston Marathon bombings, which have seized the public imagination. (The book’s scheduled release date is April 30, though various publications, including The New York Times, managed to obtain copies last week.)
In these pages Knox tells us that, while in prison, she thought about what it might be like to commit suicide using a garbage bag and gas canister, that she was told by a doctor that she’d tested positive for HIV (this turned out to be false and was perhaps a ruse, her lawyers suggested, to make her feel more vulnerable), and that she was subjected to lewd comments from a prison official and an unwanted advance by a guard.
She gives a detailed account of what she remembers doing the night of Kercher’s murder: She and Sollecito smoked a joint (“around our house, marijuana was as common as pasta”), she played Beatles songs on the guitar for an hour or so and then they went to Sollecito’s place, where they downloaded the movie “Amelie” and rolled another joint, and she read aloud from a Harry Potter book in German.
Along the way Knox argues that the couple of flings she’d had with men in Italy — which detractors seized on to underscore an image of her as a dangerous femme fatale — were simply her attempts to be more grown-up and comfortable with the casual sex other members of her generation practiced. Regarding assertions that she acted inappropriately after her housemate’s murder, Knox acknowledges that she did behave somewhat oddly: For instance, when she went with the police to the crime scene and put on protective bootees and gloves, she sang out “Ta-dah” and thrust out her arms “like the lead in a musical.” It was an attempt, she writes, “to ease the tension for myself, because this was so surreal and terrifying.”
As for signing a statement in Italian that implicated herself and an innocent man, Patrick Lumumba (who was her boss at a bar where she worked), she says she was confused and exhausted and terrified after being interrogated by the police for hours and being slapped by an officer.
Because her two trials have been endlessly dissected by the news media, Knox’s minutely detailed efforts in these pages to act as her own defense lawyer (including discussions of prosecutorial excess, botched police work and questionable DNA results) can feel long-winded. However, she spent a lot of time in prison writing journals, poems, stories, letters, even lists of what she would do with her life (i.e., things she would do if she got out immediately, or things she would do if she were 46 when she was released). All that practice and all that introspection have given her an ability to convey her emotions with considerable visceral power — the shock of feeling the supremely ordinary morph into the utterly surreal, the vulnerability of being on trial in a foreign country in a language she had not completely mastered, the isolation of being in prison and at the center of a swirling media storm.
If, as Knox tells it, she was too gullible and naive about people when she first arrived in Italy, she seems to have developed sharp powers of observation during her years in confinement, mapping out the emotional geometry at work among prisoners and guards, and the mental arithmetic she would perform in her head to get through each day.
In the end her book is not only an effort to make a case for her innocence but it’s also a kind of bildungsroman. In the time between her two trials, Knox writes, “One thing had changed: me. I was different. In the year since my conviction I’d decided that being a victim wouldn’t help me. In prison there were a lot of women who blamed others for their bad circumstances. They lived lethargic, angry lives. I refused to be that person. I pulled myself out of the dark place into which I’d tumbled. I promised myself I’d live in a way that I could respect. I would love myself. And I would live as fully as I could in confinement.”
During the first trial, she adds, she believed her “innocence would be obvious.” It hadn’t saved her, and the second time, she vowed, “I was determined to help myself.”