A (semi) literary review of “Waiting to Be Heard” by Amanda Knox.
“That’s what arrest is: it’s a blinding flash and a blow which shifts the present instantly into the past and the impossible into omnipotent actuality.”
Aleksandr Solzenicyn – The Gulag Arcipelago
Why “semi”, why not just literary?
Because unfortunately this is a book narrating a sad reality and not a fictional tale, and because the reality exacted its toll, even on literature and not just on people’s lives.
The reality we are talking about is, of course, the murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, on November 1st 2007.
For that murder Amanda Knox and her then boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito (who co-authored with Andrew Gumbel his own memoir “Honor Bound”) have been first convicted, then acquitted then again controversially sent back to trial by the Italian Supreme Court.
Another defendant, Rudy Guede has been definitively convicted and sentenced to 16 years through a distinct, fast track trial.
If on one hand the murder is the necessary root cause of Knox’s book, which certainly would not have been written without it, the book indeed goes beyond the murder – above and beyond.
It is a personal and existential tale, the story of a traumatic individual maturation experience, prompted by the murder, fostered by the imprisonment caused by the investigations into that murder, which deals with the murder, but which is not just about the murder.
Indeed it is about life, about how life can be disrupted by a wrongful accusation, by a wrongful conviction, by a media frenzy gone wrong much more than any alleged sex game ever could have gone.
It is about a twenty years old naive girl with a part-hippy, part-Disney-like vision of the people and of the world, who wants to grow up through an experience abroad, far from home, in another country, in a town apparently full of allures and promises.
She also thinks that to become a fully free-spirited woman she has to freely experience her sexuality, so much so that casual sex seems to be the main theme of the first part of the book, the one before the murder.
But while some hasty newspaper article depicted a Knox “proud” of her sexual “adventures”, if one reads the book with just a modicum of sensitivity (which indeed seems to be rationed goods, especially in some media outlets), it is apparent that in her tale there is no careless, triumphant “pride” of sorts.
There is, yes, a sort of claim entitlement, there is indeed no “repentance”, because no repentance is necessary, but at the same time the admission that after about a month of such a “campaign for casual sex”, she felt the need of a “tether”, a more reassuring, continuous affection in her life, as represented by Raffaele Sollecito.
But there is more, because this is a book, unavoidably, with a before and an after, before the murder, after the murder, before the night interrogation, after the night interrogation, before the arrest, after the arrest, before being blamed for her sexual (and hence private, intimate) habits and after that, before and after the conviction.
The author is really good at expressing the lightheartedness of her younger self’s flirts, without censorship, without any false,retrospective prudery, but with the full consciousness of the impending doom, of how much everything which today is carefree and innocent will tomorrow be read, through malevolent and prejudicial lenses, as not just morally but even judicially guilty.
A street in Perugia.
How much of “Paradise Lost” is in Knox’s recollections of those pre-murder days?
Surprisingly, not so much, not at least in what concerns party life in Perugia, even campus life is just superficially touched and one could even feel some sort of gloominess even about the life together at 7 Via della Pergola, the cottage (“villa” in the book) Knox shared with Meredith Kercher and two Italian roommates (besides four male students in the apartment downstairs).
Gloominess, however feeble, comes from the consciousness in hindsight of what is about to come and in this twilight when the late summer flows into autumn and more or less consciously the text prepares the reader for the sudden tearing of the canvas, for the unexpected evil that will shatter more than one life, in all this, like an autumn leaf, in its beautiful colors but close to its fall, stands Meredith Kercher.
The portrait of Meredith Kercher painted by Amanda Knox is alive and sensible. Whatever the reader may think about Knox’s role in this story, her picture of the English student is real, as real and deep as a friendship of forty days could allow: there are small, simple recollections, a certain fondness of those afternoons together on the terrace, moments, images, without pretensions, without attempts at lyrical commemorations.
The only other “character” of the pre-murder narrative to earn (relatives aside) a devout, heartfelt description is Raffaele Sollecito.
There is heartfelt fondness in Knox’s recollections of their relationship in those short days, maybe with more sober hindsight and a tad less romantic exuberance than in Sollecito’s words in Honor Bound, but nevertheless the description of their first meeting, of their first walk together is the recollection of a really experienced feeling, not an ex-post fabrication.
But there is not just romance: Knox says, later in the book, that she “felt grateful that he [Raffaele], out of all the people in Perugia, was the person I was going through this with. Getting his first letter had renewed my faith in him, and we now wrote each other regularly. I knew I could trust Raffaele with my life. And I was.”, which is more than most twenty-somethings (and not just them) can say about their love stories.
The calends of November.
And then comes the murder, as unreal and unworldly as the meteorite who somebody else in this story referenced as an embodiment of the unlikely.
But it comes and it strikes.
The author’s life is going to be disrupted, her future totally different from her past, herself another person, but everything begins business as usual, with a shower, on the morning of November 2nd.
Now we have to leave for a while our literary review of sorts and highlight a few points concerning how the book deals with the critical events and recollections of the first days of November 2007.
One can safely bet that there will be those, according to a press article even an anonymous Italian prosecutor suggested just that, who will parse every sentence in the book concerning those events and scrutinize them in parallel with Sollecito’s memories from Honor Bound or with other court documents, in search of discrepancies, inconsistencies and whatever else may hint to circumstantial evidence of guilt.
The game is not new and it is usually played by the same people.
It is indeed not such a smart game.
Personal memoirs are not police reports and these have been written five years after the events and moreover after the two “suspects” had, if they so wished, ample opportunity to crosscheck their tales, so that differences are less suspicious than perfect matches.
But since in this story logic was killed the day after Meredith Kercher died, one cannot hope for much.
Now back to the book as if it were a book and not a court transcript.
The author’s words concerning the days after the murder and before the arrest are, with a fitting term taken from music, a crescendo.
They give the sense of the darkening sky above her Perugian life, of the exhausting hours of questioning, of the short, almost sleepless, nights, also of what in hindsight Knox admits to have been her unusual and potentially suspicion-raising behaviour, but above all it is the sense of the oncoming betrayal.
Betrayal by the Italian authorities, the police in particular.
Yes, because whatever can be thought of her words, this is the feeling they give.
There is a feeling of a latent hostility towards her growing day by day (and here it is difficult to say how much of it is hindsight, even beyond the intentions of the author) as if the night interrogation of November 5-6 is the unavoidable climax, the preplanned destination which cannot be avoided, the Bitter Cup.
During these last days of freedom the character personifying the impending menace in Knox’s narrative seems to be Homicide Chief Monica Napoleoni, much more than Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, who, in the book, makes his entry only in the early hours of November 6th.
As a reader I have honestly to say that while the author states that Guede is the only one she really could hate, nevertheless there is something in the scratching words she dedicates here and there to Napoleoni that points to some sort of “women’s quarrel”, of verbal catfight.
Not that Mignini doesn’t get his fair share, as well as, appropriately downscaled, others do, nevertheless there is a gut feeling that if Knox should ever use her talons in not just a figurative sense, well Napoleoni would be the first in line.
The night interrogation of November 5-6 is, in a sense, the book.
Nothing pervades directly and indirectly the book as that night, not even the murder itself: somehow it is as if the Amanda telling in Seattle to her parents she wants to go to Perugia is bound to arrive at that night at the Questura and as if the Amanda who comes back to Seattle more than four years later is the product of that night.
Nothing in the book is as detailed as that night, nothing is so painful.
Even more than the conviction because the conviction comes from that night, even more than the hurting smears in the media, because they come from that night, even more than four years in prison, because they too come from that night.
That night is in the mind of the author more important than the murder and one realizes it throughout the whole book.
And there is a reason: the author is saying (directly and indirectly) that she has nothing to feel guilty of about the murder but she feels guilty for having collapsed during the interrogation and having named Patrick Lumumba.
It is even evident, if the text is read just a little beyond the printed word.
That interrogation is her personal failure, after having pretended to be adult, independent, grown up, she fails the crucial exam.
Indeed it is an extreme exam, especially at that age, so that Knox rationalizes, and with reason, that it was too much for her, that she was wrong to consider herself so adult to begin with.
And she is right, that is true, nobody can know how he/she would react to such situations until one experiences them, no matter what any sort of “commentators” and journalists can say and write from their armchairs in a TV studio or in front of a keyboard.
But my impression is that this wound in her soul is the deepest one.
Trials and Prison.
If I longed for a phrase meant for effect, I could really define Knox’s entry into the Capanne prison as her personal descent into her own “concentrationary universe”, because, echoing Solzenitsyn words, the present instantly shifts into the past and the impossible becomes everyday reality.
But even without quoting Solzenitsyn or Ka.Tzenik, and Knox clearly pointed out she is no Mandela and no Holocaust survivor, it is undeniable that her most internalized, faceted, at one time repressed and expressed emotions (the night interrogation being more a wound than an emotion) come from her life in prison and from the rollercoaster of her trials and preliminary hearings.
Obviously the part concerning the trials deals with forensic evidence and witnesses: Knox does her best to counter (sometimes even going close to imply something more than errors) the prosecution case and claims but splitting hairs about Low Copy Number DNA or TetraMethylBenzidine is not really the task of this book and so the author keeps herself reasonably concise on these matters.
Even in the part devoted to the trials (particularly the first) the night interrogation is a key element: Knox deals extensively with the testimonies of those involved in it, with her own testimony about it and with whatever may be connected to it, even in Mignini’s closing arguments.
But what really counts from the beginning, from the first hearing in front of judge Matteini, is the feeling of seeing freedom and Seattle drifting away in the mist, the increasing certainty that years will be spent in prison.
The hopes, soon to be disappointed, of a quick and sudden end to the ordeal, which surface here and there almost up to the end of the first trial, are substituted, after the conviction, by a sort of resigned background thinking that indeed most or at least a big part of her life could be spent inside those dull walls.
Press previews made much of suicidal thoughts in the book, but in the end they are just a worst case scenario Knox prepared herself for. On the other hand, while not being so important in themselves, such thoughts go a great length to show the enormous difference between the two Amandas: the one who leaves Seattle and the one who comes back.
A journalist, showing an investigative talent which could be better employed at analyzing the case itself than at dissecting what ultimately is an intimate recount of feelings and perceptions, has argued that Knox’s memoirs about her prison treatment differ somehow from what she wrote during the first months of her imprisonment in a confiscated makeshift diary.
Maybe journalists, not all of them at least, should not be expected to have a knack for more literary subtleties, however one could reasonably expect them to understand the difference between what a prisoner and a free person can, indeed is allowed to, write.
Moreover, Knox at twenty had illusions, hopes, a candour in her view of people and the world which did not survive those four years and these memoirs were written by a somewhat different, more mature but also more disenchanted person.
In conclusion Waiting to Be Heard is the story of a person, fighting to be recognized as a person and not as the character she was reduced to, who left her home for a voyage she hoped could help her to grow up and who lived an experience that ultimately grew her up beyond her expectations but at a bitter price, and not just for herself.