The scapegoating of Amanda Knox
Amanda Knox is nothing if not a good story. The pretty young American who headed to Italy for her junior year abroad, fell for an Italian boy and then landed in the dock with him, accused, convicted and then exonerated on charges of murdering another young woman in a sex game gone wild.
Knox was never one of the usual suspects. Her roommate, Meredith Kercher, a British exchange student, was found on the night after Halloween 2007, raped, with her throat slit, in the Perugia apartment they shared. According to the European Council, 1 in 5 European females are victims of a sexual assault at some point in their lives. Ninety-eight percent of their aggressors are male.
When I went to Perugia in 2009, as Knox’s testimony began, to research a book on the case, I didn’t know whether she was guilty as charged, but I was certainly willing to believe it. Either way, it was a textbook example of our never-ending fascination with the supposed femme fatale. Men may batter wives and girlfriends daily, sometimes to death, but their perp walks rarely make it onto Nancy Grace’s show, let alone through a second cycle of the local news. “Foxy Knoxy” (as she called herself on her MySpace page), on the other hand, has been a continual headline grabber from the moment of her arrest.
After a few weeks in Perugia, I saw that there was something very wrong with the narrative of the murder that the authorities and the media were presenting. There was almost no material evidence linking Knox or her boyfriend to the murder, and no motive, while there was voluminous evidence — material and circumstantial — implicating a third person, a man, whose name one almost never read in accounts of the case. It became clear that it wasn’t facts but Knox — her femaleness, her Americaness, her beauty — that was driving the case.
In person, in prison and in the media, Knox was subjected to all manner of outlandish, misogynistic behavior. A prison “doctor” (he has never stepped forward publicly) tested a sample of Knox’s blood and then informed her she was HIV-positive, prompting Knox to list every man she’d had sex with. Authorities passed the names of seven men to reporters from the British tabloid pack, who printed it. Soon thereafter, Knox was told the doctor was mistaken and she didn’t have AIDS.
Outside prison walls, Italian criminologists were opining in the media and eventually on the witness stand that because the body had been covered with a blanket, the killer was surely female because such an act was evidence of feminine “pieta.”
Finally, there were the prosecution’s operatic closing arguments, repeated almost verbatim in the appeal that ended last week. Knox was a “luciferina” — a she-devil — capable of a special, female duplicity. She was “dirty on the inside.” Always, even from the defense lawyers, the closing arguments ended with appeals to God, in a medieval courtroom with a peeling fresco of the Madonna on the wall and a crucifix hanging above the judge.
The prosecution’s “angel-faced killer” had arrived in Italy a few months after turning 20, a high school ugly duckling who blossomed into a beauty in college and was still testing her effect on men. She appeared outwardly confident, but, according to people I interviewed, she was deeply averse to conflict. She was also a compulsive diarist, explaining herself in rounded handwriting filling hundreds of journals. She thought of herself as a writer.
But that penchant for unfiltered self-expression hastened her demise.
In her “prison diary,” a document police handed to reporters after she’d scribbled in it for a month, Knox was often upbeat, blithe, clearly a devotee of positive thinking. The reporters who read the diary explained it as evidence of a psychopathic mind. Tabloid reporters from Britain concentrated on the few instances where she appeared to have sex on her mind — when she wrote about the fan letters Italian men sent her in jail, for example. They ignored pages she filled with details about being sexually harassed by a prison guard.
In Perugia, reporters found people to talk about how the young American had attracted sexual desire and attention from men — willfully and not. She may have been doing only what liberated, self-absorbed young American girls do — having fun. But that liberation and fun — breaking into solo singing in a restaurant, doing yoga stretches and cartwheels in a police station — were read differently by Perugia authorities and more reticent peers, like the victim’s British girlfriends. To the Italian authorities, her careless seductiveness juxtaposed with the ghastly scene inside her house were clues to the witch, the deliberate player of men: Their theory was that she was not only a murderer but a murderous mastermind.
Knox was put through an extreme version of the test many young women face. She was endowed with compelling, mysterious powers. The focus on her sexuality suggests that civilization can easily tip backward to the primeval era when the feminine was classified, worshiped and feared in the form of powerful archetypes: Madonnas and Dianas, virgins and whores. Knox inadvertently fed these archetypes by the ways she behaved in public and advertised herself on the Web and, eventually, in her own compulsive writings.
In the end, however, it was precisely because she wasn’t that monster, because she hadn’t perfected that persona in the world, that she could do so little to defend herself. Knox had barely defined herself; she didn’t possess the language or the maturity to match, let along overcome, the authority of other people’s notions.
In Perugia’s archaeology museum, there are hundreds of ancient Etruscan funerary urns. For some reason, perhaps having to do with women dying in childbirth, many of them feature a carved relief depicting the Iphigenia fable. Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon, who agreed to sacrifice her so that his ships might sail to Troy. At the last moment, the goddess Diana replaced the girl with a deer. In prison, Knox’s jail mates nicknamed her Bambi, apparently because of her passivity in the face of accusations.
The young woman who first went to jail at age 20 was a cipher onto whose photogenic, smiling face some Italians could see the archetypal Madonna-whore and, in whose pale eyes, others saw a psychopath. She was arrested at a time and in a place where young sexually active women are endowed in the minds of grown men, and maybe women too, with propensities for fantastic adult kink that few possess. The gaunt, tense woman defending herself on appeal bore barely any resemblance to the fresh, pretty girl photographed kissing her boyfriend outside the murder scene. Only now, having lost the power to bewitch and beguile, has she been revealed as human — and also, apparently, not guilty of murder.
Nina Burleigh’s book on the Knox case, “The Fatal Gift of Beauty,” was published in August.
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