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The perils and rewards of studying abroad

By Alice Kaplan

June 10, 2013


 

 

Waiting to be Heard: A Memoir, Amanda Knox, HarperCollins, 463 pages, $28.99

Count me among the millions of fans for the network television hit Scandal. Every week, no matter what my worries, I can relax under the stern yet tender gaze of Olivia Pope, head of a crisis-management team in Washington, D.C. Successful crisis management, according to this weekly drama, involves a deft combination of surveillance, public relations spin, and psychological coaching. One week the client is a Senate candidate who looks gay but is sleeping with his sister-in-law; the next, the mistress of a deceased civil rights leader negotiating for her illegitimate child. While these cases are the bread and butter of her firm, the biggest scandal of all is in the life of Olivia Pope herself, managing an on-again, off-again, love affair with the president of the United States. And it turns out she helped rig his election.

The stories on Scandal are byzantine and addictive, but none approaches the existential density of the Amanda Knox saga, a terrifying demonstration that the life-altering, horizon-expanding promise of study abroad can morph overnight into an indictment for murder and a prison sentence. It would take a full season’s worth of episodes to cover even half the twists and turns of that indictment, and of Knox’s ensuing battle with the Italian legal system.

In 2007, Knox’s English roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in their apartment in the university town of Perugia, where Knox was enrolled in the University for Foreigners and Kercher was an exchange student at the University of Perugia. Knox confessed during an initial police interrogation that she had been on the scene with the murderer, but retracted her story the next day, claiming the confession was made under extreme duress.

Eventually, a small-time drug dealer and drifter named Rudy Guede was convicted of the rape and murder of Kercher in a 2008 trial: his DNA and fingerprints were all over the crime scene, and the body. This might have ended the case against Knox except that Guede insisted that Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were with him, and that they had partaken together in a sex orgy gone violent—a claim that earned him a reduced sentence of 16 years behind bars.

In 2009, after her first trial, Knox was condemned by an Italian criminal court to a sentence 10 years longer than Guede’s. Key evidence in the case against her was a kitchen knife belonging to Sollecito. The prosecution tested it and claimed it had traces of DNA from Kercher, Knox, and Sollecito. An appeal of the conviction showed that the DNA evidence was shoddily obtained and unreliable, and the conviction was overturned in 2011. Those are the barest facts of the case.

After four years in Italian prison, Knox returned to Seattle, only to learn in March that the acquittal itself is now being re-appealed by the prosecution. But she is home, and protected from extradition by American law. Not entirely free of legal entanglements, yet relatively secure, she has written a memoir, Waiting to Be Heard. The publication of her book was a national media event, accompanied by a prime-time interview on ABC. “Did you kill Meredith Kercher?” Diane Sawyer asked the young author in her fiercest investigative voice, and Knox answered “No.” The surprises in Waiting to Be Heard are not to be found in her one-word answer, but they are many, and they emerge slowly in this strangely engaging memoir.

Just like a character on Scandal, Knox had a crisis-management team, hired by her parents shortly after her arrest. She also had a writing coach. Both have played a role in her rehabilitation and both appear in her acknowledgments, along with her defense team. A different memoir might have dealt head-on with the difference they have made. Personal trainers, crisis managers, life coaches, and reputation managers: these are new jobs for very old situations.

Since Knox’s conviction has been overturned, the photographs of the affectless zombie with dangerously piercing eyes have given way to wholesome images of America’s sweetheart, an athlete, a serious student, and—the ultimate sign of her gravitas—a reader. The New York Times has interviewed her about her reading habits in a column usually reserved for Pulitzer Prize winners and best-selling novelists. And the penultimate scene of her memoir has her packing up box after box of the books that nourished her throughout the horrific years in prison.

By publishing her autobiography, Knox has given substance to this new image. Only the most hardened reader can finish it without feeling outrage at the media that demonized her for being a sexually active young woman and at a judicial system that declared her guilty before she was proven innocent. She is much more winning on the page than on television, where she still appears stubborn and strangely flat in affect. Waiting to Be Heard is structured both as a legal argument for her innocence, told in the first person, and as a story of redemption. It also offers, along the way, an indictment of the shadow side of a beloved undergraduate ritual.


It’s an open secret on American campuses that the “right” study abroad program can offer a respite from the stress of U.S. schools, easy grades, and a chance to travel, party and shop. The University for Foreigners in Perugia is devoted solely to teaching Italian as a second language—it offers none of the academic subjects of the nearby University of Perugia. Knox was among a very few students at the University of Washington, where she was enrolled, to choose it. She found herself in Perugia completely on her own: there was no help finding housing, and little direction of the kind you would find on a program sponsored by an American university. Students take a placement test when they arrive, and at the University of Washington, the Italian Department works with them after the courses are chosen to determine the appropriate credits. What is strange is that a program like this one could appear challenging to a strong-willed, independent student precisely because of the supervision it doesn’t offer. What the University for Foreigners’ own website promises is an open-minded and social environment, a “cultural laboratory” that prospective students can interpret in their own way:

Founded in the early 1920’s with the aim of teaching Italian civilization and artistic heritage to foreigners, this University has distinguished itself from the beginning as a symbol of open-mindedness and tollerance [sic] and as a meeting point for people of different cultures, now a real “laboratory” of intercultural education.

After Knox’s legal troubles began, reporters who descended upon the old center of Perugia described the smell of marijuana hanging heavily in the air and the sight of drunken students staggering through the streets. Given the way word gets around on college campuses, Knox might have heard that Perugia was a party town. As she tells it, she had the very opposite impression. She reasoned with her parents that the University for Foreigners would be more rigorous than an American program: “I won’t be part of a herd of American students. It’s a quiet town, and I’ll be with serious scholars. I’ll be submerged in the culture.

In lieu of the quiet, scholarly town of her imagination, she found the European capital of heroin addiction, a bacchanalian city whose medieval center was a stage set for masses of foreign students living on their own in apartments. As for “serious scholars,” there is no mention of any faculty members or their credentials on the University for Foreigners website. There is no indication in Knox’s memoir that she had any advising, any meeting with a professor. About the first month of her education, she says only that there was no homework given in class, that classes always started late and that teachers would suspend them with no warning for collective cigarette breaks. The only academic exercise she does describe more than once was apparently of her own invention: she liked to make her way, dictionary in hand, through an Italian translation of Harry Potter. Adults seldom entered her world until her arrest.

Knox found an apartment and got a job at a bar, like the job she had in Seattle. She hung out in her apartment, smoked dope. An awkward girl, a self-described “geek” in high school, she was looking for love and trying to fit in with her new roommates, Italian and English. After a few empty hook-ups, she met an adorable Italian boy, Sollecito, and they quickly became inseparable. The night of the murder, Knox was at his apartment. She read Harry Potter to him in German—Harry Potter again! (She had learned German as a child from her grandmother.) Then they watched a video of her favorite movie, the French postmodern romp, The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain—an odd detail later taken up by her defense. In the morning she returned home to find her apartment broken into and her roommate, Meredith, stabbed to death. The Italian police pegged her immediately by as a prime suspect, while she understood her own role as “help mate” to the police to avenge her friend.

It didn’t immediately dawn on her that it wasn’t help they wanted, but a confession. She was told that asking for a lawyer would only make things worse. She was told that her boyfriend had implicated her. Too much Harry Potter, not enough Law & Order: she didn’t understand that the first way to protect oneself against a false accusation is to remain silent. In the strongest scene in Waiting to be Heard, she recalls the hellish night of interrogation in a language she barely understood, and the false confession it produced. “Just wait, and your memories will come back,” the police told her. She was hit on the back of the head, above the ear, and told to stop lying.

She signed two confessions in Italian, so-called “spontaneous declarations” at 1:45 a.m. and 5:45 a.m., accusing her boss at Le Chic bar, Patrick Lumumba, of raping and murdering Meredith. She admitted to having been at the apartment with him. She wrote a second document on her own, the next day—four pages in English, in which she tried to cast doubt on everything she had said under duress: “Please don’t yell at me because it only makes me more confused, which doesn’t help anyone. … I’m doing the best I can, just like you are. Please believe me at least in that, although I understand if you don’t. All I know is that I didn’t kill Meredith, and so I have nothing but lies to be afraid of.”

Because her Italian was weak, she handed the retraction to a policewoman saying it was “un regalo”—which she hoped meant “explanation,” but which actually means “a gift.” Literally, a cause for celebration. “What is it—my birthday?” quipped the policewoman, and Knox, missing her sarcasm as she had missed so much else in her encounter with the Italian law, concluded that she had successfully cleared her name.


Language is the hero and the villain of her story—the language she went to Italy to perfect. With German as her heritage language and English as her native language, Italian was going to be her chosen language of culture and the arts, and when she arrived in Italy, she was only a beginner: “My Italian was fine for exchanging pleasantries over a cup of tea. But in no credible way was it strong enough, after only six weeks in Italy, for me to be defending myself against accusations of murder.”

One of the sentences used against her in her interrogation was the text message she sent her boss Lumumba the night of Kercher’s murder: Certo ci vediamo piu tardi, buona serata! (Okay, see you later, have a good evening!) The interrogators saw it as proof that she had left her boyfriend’s apartment. She couldn’t convince them that she was using “see you later” as the vaguest formula, not the promise of a definitive rendezvous which, if had taken place, would have destroyed her alibi.

While she was awaiting trial, the prosecution seized the diary she was keeping in prison, a diary in which she tried to fathom the evidence being used against her—in this case, the incriminating knife. She wrote:

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 fingerprints 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 diary entry was translated into Italian this way:

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.

Defending herself meant learning to express herself in Italian, learning when her language was being misinterpreted, and learning, more generally, that words can do harm.


Waiting to Be Heard is the story of two kinds of study abroad, the one credited by an American university, devoid of culture, and a second study abroad experience from behind bars, this one much more meaningful. Between her first police interrogation in 2007 and her release in 2011, Knox learned fluent Italian, and in the great tradition of jailhouse conversions, she became a prison intellectual, writing letters in Italian for illiterate inmates. Once flummoxed by her interrogators, she perfected her language skills to the point where she could plead her own case in court without an interpreter. Nothing could better exemplify her aimless studies during the first month in Perugia than the vision of her reading Harry Potter books in German and Italian translation. In prison she encountered Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn and even Marilynne Robinson; she made the transition from fantasy literature to literary realism. By the end of her time in prison, the naive, goofy girl who reacted inappropriately at every tragic moment—doing stretches in the police station, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “All you need is love” to court (where was her crisis management team that day?), laughing when the public expected tears, and remaining silent when the public expected expressions of grief—that inappropriate girl learned to size up her cell mates with insight and empathy and to understand, and protect herself, when she was under attack. Her fellow prisoners didn’t like her; they were nonetheless her best teachers.

In the 2009 trial that exonerated her, her defense team compared her to Amélie Poulain, the heroine of her favorite French movie:

The extravagant bizarre personality, full of imagination. If there’s a personality who does cartwheels and confesses something she imagined, it’s her. I believe that what happened is easy to guess. Amanda, being a little bizarre and naive, when she went into the questura, was truly trying to help the police and she was told, “Amanda, imagine. Help us, Amanda. Amanda, reconstruct it. Amanda, find the solution. Amanda, try.” She tried to do so; she tried to help, because she wanted to help the police, because Amanda is precisely the Amélie of Seattle.

The Amélie Poulain defense was a way of redeeming Knox’s foreignness and her eccentricity—that combination of awkward naiveté, bruised good will, and a magical belief in happy endings that had gotten her into so much hot water with the police. As intellectual biography, Waiting to Be Heard tells a great story: Harry Potter, Amélie Poulain, and Perugia had led Knox into a world of dissociated fantasy, where she wasn’t accountable. In prison, the tragic Russians, Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn, and the prison priest, her secular spiritual confessor, lead her back to reality. Even if only a small percentage of what she says about her four-year prison education is accurate, it was surely 10 times more effective than a semester in Perugia would have been.

It’s impossible to know how much of the sober and lucid account of her struggle to disprove the case against her is her own and how much is the work of her writing coach. Her thoughts are represented in the text by short sentences in italics, such as when Guede testifies and she thinks, You! You killed Meredith! or she when reads the indictment and thinks, Oh my god. I’ve been formally charged with murder—a cartoonish technique for putting the reader inside her head. In addition to the four-page explanation she wrote in custody in an attempt to retract her false confession and two brief passages from her prison diary (“We are angry. We want justice. But against who? We all want to know, but we all don’t …”), a letter sent to her mother on the eve of her appeal trial doesn’t rise above new-age cliché:

The shit we can’t control, the things that make us suffer, challenge us to be stronger, give us the opportunity to survive and be stronger, smarter, better. We are the only ones who know just how much we and our lives are worth, and we must choose to make the most of every passing moment, no matter where we are.

So there remains a nagging doubt at the end of this memoir and after its attendant publicity—a doubt about whether the young woman behind the curtain bears much resemblance to the narrator of her memoir. It’s a doubt already planted in the public mind by television dramas like Scandal, which tell us that our heroes and heroines are only as convincing as the spin artists who manage them. But being shallow or clichéd, inappropriate and disconnected from reality, or young and naive are not capital crimes. And just because she had a writing coach and a media handler doesn’t mean that Amanda Knox isn’t innocent.

 


Correction: In the original version of this book review, we referred to a knife smeared with Kercher’s blood. In fact, the prosecution claimed that Kercher’s DNA, not her blood, was on the knife. 


Alice Kaplan teaches at Yale and is the author of Dreaming in French.


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