It had all the dramatic ingredients of a must-see episode of Law & Order, with endless plot twists and delicious enigmas. It was not one story, but an epic four-year season’s worth of stories. It was the story of the Fresh-Faced She-Devil Thrill-Killer, followed by the story of the Innocent Child in the Clutches of the Evil Mad Prosecutor, with ever-shifting variations echoing in the blogosphere.
No matter how many sane, calm voices tried to remind us that there was really nothing to enjoy or crave here, just a terrible tragedy like others we hear about every day, the stories about this particular murder kept coming. And we kept devouring them.
The stories focused mainly on one young American woman, Amanda Knox, eclipsing the three men accused along with her as well as the victim herself, Meredith Kercher. The tabloids called her “Foxy Knoxy,” the London Telegraph reported that she had recanted her initial statement placing her at the murder scene, and a public relations campaign was launched on her behalf. The question that became an obsession for many was not, “What happened to Meredith Kercher?” but “Amanda Knox: Innocent or Guilty?”
Why the fascination with Amanda Knox? Many observers have remarked that her being young, pretty, and female might have something to do with it. Stories that combine attractive young women with violence are ever more popular on TV — in fact, a 2009 study by the Parents Television Council, found that depictions of violence against women in major network TV shows had increased 120% between 2004 and 2009.
Intriguingly, much of this violence appears in media with a primarily female audience, such as the Lifetime Network. Meredith Kercher’s family actually had to protest to keep the Lifetime Channel from using a scene re-enacting their daughter’s murder in a trailer promoting the 2011 drama, Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy. The family of a murder victim had to exert themselves to fend off revictimization by us, the viewing public and our media enablers. Adding insult to injury, the TV drama’s title made it clear that this restaging of Meredith Kercher’s death was done not in pursuit of the truth of how she died, but to entertain a viewing public hungry for a certain kind of story, which they found in Amanda Knox.
Compared with Kercher, who in all media accounts emerged as a grounded and much-loved young woman with a sure sense of herself, Knox was far more mediagenic. Knox came across as less formed and more vulnerable, “quirky” and protean. People could make up whatever stories they liked about her, and find quotes or photos that seemed to fit. Newspaper reporters and readers loved to wonder about Knox, whether as “Luciferina” or as “Bambi.”
This story attracted obsessive — as opposed to reasonable — attention, not only because it featured sex and violence, nor even because a PR firm was involved, but because in so many ways it reminded us, the readers and viewers, of our murkiest fears about ourselves.
We are a narcissistic culture, which means that we suffer mightily from unanswered anxieties about our own nature. (By “we,” I mean many of us, enough that these anxieties drive cultural trends.) We worry about our own guilt and innocence. We don’t know what kind of people we are, and we are prey to fears about ourselves. In our dark places, are we victims, or killers? Can we survive our own vulnerabilities and our capacities for violence? Uneasy questions that beg to be projected outward onto a scapegoat and worked out vicariously.
Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film, Memento, features an amnesiac protagonist lost in a world of violence, unable to put together a coherent picture of himself in relation to the violence he abhors. It is easy to imagine this fictional character becoming obsessed with Amanda Knox: seeing her picture on TV, having an instant epiphany — She is innocent! Or, She is guilty! — and then logging on to fight in the blogosphere’s trenches to defend his views from others who appear, as if by magic, holding the opposite stance with equal ferocity, though there is no rational way to explain their utter certainty.
Memento shows the torture of a soul who hates and fears violence so extremely that he cannot own his capacity to do harm. Just as the loudest voices in the media frenzy appear utterly disconnected from any awareness that real people are still being harmed by all of this intrusion, speculation, and noise, four years after Meredith Kercher’s tragic death.
There is nothing wrong with needing stories to help us work out our fears about ourselves, and about trauma and violence. If we’re a culture of narcissism, we come by it honestly; we’re a young nation in the throes of unprecedented change, and we live with toxic levels of uncertainty and dislocation. We can outgrow the worst of our narcissism, and possibly stories like Memento can help us do so through the transmuting power of art. But there is something wrong with intruding into the lives of real people to gratify our urges without empathy, without concern for the impact our storytelling has on them.
So I hope that those who have been feeding the media frenzy about Amanda Knox, whether for profit or misplaced idealism, will finally stop. There is plenty of room for anyone to quietly offer help and support to those whose lives have been changed by Meredith Kercher’s death, without feeding a level of obsessive publicity that can only add to the pain her murder has caused. I hope the paparazzi will stop following Amanda Knox around the ferries and gas stations of Seattle, and that editors will stop paying for such photos. If further legal developments arise in the future, I hope they attract only reasonable, accurate reporting, without all the PR hoopla.
Maybe someone will be inspired to write a novel, a Kafkaesque tale of false imprisonment, or an updated The Killer Inside Me for the study-abroad crowd. That would be all right, I think. That’s what novels are for.