Heartfelt descriptions of rough justice, Italian-style
Waiting to be Heard: A Memoir
By Amanda Knox HarperCollins, 461pp, $29.99
ITALIANS (the ‘‘ beautiful people’’) have a beautiful word you won’t find in any dictionary: dietrologia. Behind (dietro) any event there is likely to be an explanation other than the obvious one. Think of it as the antithesis of Ockham’s Razor, if you will.
The idea encompasses what we recognise as conspiracy theories, but often, in more sinister vein, allusions to the occult. Superstition and suspicion run closely together, especially in Italy’s police forces.
So it was that in November 2007, when the half-naked body of a young British university student named Meredith Kercher was found in her room in Perugia, raped and stabbed through the throat, the real clues and the most obvious suspect were disregarded.
Instead, the Italian police seized an American housemate of the dead girl, Amanda Knox, and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. The prosecutor then concocted an implausible scenario of a drug-fuelled sex orgy that had gone wrong to explain the murder. Even when the real murderer was apprehended and jailed, he persisted in his persecution of the two lovers.
Welcome to justice in Italy. That could well have been the title of Knox’s memoir of her ordeal. Instead, she has called it Waiting to be Heard. It’s appropriate. On her own admission, Knox was a naive, immature, overconfident and consequently stupidly trusting girl, adrift in a foreign country and unable to speak its language. Six years after the murder, she still seems to find it hard to come to terms with the fact her childish intent to ‘‘ help the police’’ worked to incriminate her.
The world has indeed been waiting to hear her take on a story that provided years of salacious fodder for even the most respectable newspapers. A trans-Atlantic feud developed between supporters of the British victim and the American accused. In the US, antiAmanda bloggers created two websites, True Justice and Perugia Murder File, to create a vicious furore. The editor of online newspaper The Daily Beast wondered if Amanda’s ‘‘ pretty face’’ was perhaps only a ‘‘ mask, a duplicitous cover for a depraved soul’’.
Sorry, no. Anybody who still believes Knox and her boyfriend were guilty of Kercher’s murder hasn’t been paying attention.
Readers of this memoir may be disappointed that Knox has suppressed natural feelings of anger and grief. Waiting to be Heard offers no new facts on the case. The thoughts and feelings are hers, but the prose was shaped by Washington journalist Linda Kulman. It is a bland, straightforward account in diary format of her apprehension, interrogation, two trials and four years’ incarceration in the concrete prison built on the freezing plain below Perugia for the mafia trials of the 1990s. Earlier books on the case, such as Barbie Nadeau’s Angel Face and A Death in Italy by reporter John Follain, a reporter for Britain’s The Times, eviscerated Knox’s reputation. Whether she was counselled that an unemotional style was the best way to counter her critics and the sensationalism surrounding her case, I don’t know. But I suspect what we now hear is the real Amanda Knox. And understand how inept police and a corrupt prosecutor saw her as a blank page on which they could write their fantastic script.
She begins simply: ‘‘ I walked into the ancient Perugian courtroom, where centuries of verdicts had been handed down, praying that a tradition of justice would give me protection now.’’ It didn’t. But that sentence sets the tone for her recall of an experience that only a 20-year-old with extraordinary reserves of character could have survived. Midnight interrogations, sexual harassment, weird and sometimes violent cellmates, a corrupt prosecutorial process married to a feral media pack through lies and police leaks, solitary confinement, a 26-year sentence without remissions — it all comes tumbling out as in a dream.
This book will persuade nobody who still thinks she conspired in the murder. But what lifts it above a crime and courtroom story is her heartfelt description of life in an Italian jail. Two people helped her. Laura, the bisexual cellmate who taught her: ‘‘ You come first, second, third, then everyone else .. Everyone here is fake.’’ That saved her sanity when every woman in the block refused to speak to her. And the prison chaplain, Don Saulo, who let her play his guitar and didn’t try too hard to convert her.
She wrote letters for illiterate mothers and played with their children. Facing a quarter -century behind bars, where most women of her age would have crumbled, she clung to her innocence and perfected her Italian so she could follow the appeal process and make her final plea to the court without an interpreter.
The warders did little but security — all the work, including cooking (with knives!) and cleaning, was done by prisoners. Knox learned the best and worst ways of committing suicide, but never really considered them. In her time, two prisoners in the men’s wing chose the preferred method: a garbage bag and gas canister suffocation.
Then there are the superstitions of hope. A prisoner going to court to learn the judgment leaves her bed unmade as a sign she’s not coming back. On acquittal, she must break her toothbrush in two and leave her bedsheets to her cellmate. When she leaves, she must scrape her right foot along the ground, just before she gets into the car. ‘‘ It means you’re promising freedom to the next prisoner.’’
As she was being convicted in 2009, the prosecutor who tormented her was found guilty of abuse of office in another case. The deputy chief prison warder who harassed her has now been charged with the rape of another prisoner. This book was meant to end with Knox’s acquittal on appeal and triumphant escape from Italy. But a month before the print run, Italy’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial, on grounds not revealed at the time of writing.
Knox is safe in Seattle. She broke her toothbrush; she would be a fool to return.
British papers report Knox’s successful appeal