Your Content, My Life
Eight years after my release from an Italian prison, I’m still someone else’s story
I’ve had more than my fair share of surreal moments. You probably know the obvious ones. The moment an Italian court declared me guilty of a murder I didn’t commit was mind-breaking. Up until that instant, I thought my innocence was a guarantee of my freedom. I was wrong. The moment I was acquitted was just as insane. I had prepared myself to grow old in prison. I’d forgotten what it was like to walk on grass.
I’m about to return to Italy for the first time since I was released from prison and fled the country in a high-speed chase, paparazzi literally ramming the back of my stepdad’s rental car. I’m doing so because I’ve been invited by the Italy Innocence Project to speak about wrongful convictions and trial by media. And as this homecoming looms (or is it a “deployment” or “madness” — no word seems to fit), a different sort of surreal moment is at the forefront of my mind.
In September 2016, Netflix released a documentary about my case. I had agreed to participate in this film, directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, after I had been reconvicted in absentia. I thought it might be my only chance to give my side of the story. And so I entrusted my life, my truth, to these filmmakers. Many friends and confidants urged me not to. But I thought Brian and Rod made a moving and honest documentary, a film that gave every person involved, even my prosecutor, the space to display their humanity. I had high hopes for the film’s debut. I hoped people would like it, that they would learn something about the dangers of unscrupulous media, that they might finally see at least a glimpse of the real me.
And then, of course, Netflix chose to advertise Amanda Knox with twin massive billboards in L.A. and New York: my face and the words “monster” on one and “victim” on the other. They were playing the “did she or didn’t she game” that I was already so, so tired of. I remember standing in Times Square underneath those giant photos of my face, pedestrians passing by me, none the wiser. That was bizarre, and it was bizarre in a way that forced me to reckon with what it meant for my life to be other people’s content.
We live in an era where we are all, myself included, converting our meals and our hikes and marriage proposals into content for the rest of humanity. Many of you have probably made that choice without a second thought. For me, it was measured and deliberate.
Thrust into the spotlight against my will in 2007, the year of the iPhone and the takeoff of Twitter and Facebook, the most intimate details of my life — from my sexual history to my thoughts of death and suicide in prison — were taken from my private diary and leaked to the media. They became fodder for hundreds of articles, thousands of posts, and millions of hot takes.
During my first years as a free woman, I remained very private. I had Facebook and Instagram accounts that no one but a small circle of my friends and family could follow. I knew what would happen if I made them public. Haters and trolls would harass me or call me a killer or psycho bitch when I posted a picture of my cat. The tabloids would lift my photos out of context and call me strange, as if I were so weird that I deserved four years in prison. And that’s exactly what happened when I made my Instagram public. I did so because I just wanted to have what every other person around me had, the freedom to shout into the wind and say, “Here I am!” The freedom to strike up an unexpected conversation with a friendly digital stranger. I have that now, but for me, it comes with the cost of absorbing insults and hatred and having my life fed into the content machine that seems endlessly hungry, especially now that I’m going back to Italy.
A few years ago, I gave a talk at Seattle’s Facebook office about how people like me, in this odd space of involuntary public figuredom, don’t have the same protections as the average person. Unless I can prove malicious intent (nigh impossible), people can say anything they want about me and I have no recourse. I have two options: keep all my social media private, that is, be antisocial, which would defeat the whole point, or go public and let anyone reshare my life as their content under whatever context they please, whenever they so desire. You do, in fact, retain the copyright of the photos you post to your social media accounts, but that doesn’t stop media outlets from embedding them in their own ad-driven content streams without your permission. This is not technically copying — plus, when you’re a public figure, your life is deemed newsworthy, and the fair use doctrine comes into play. It’s not a well-defined legal area, but practically speaking, the difficulty and expense of filing a lawsuit over this kind of infringement is a losing game.
The mistakes of the Italian judicial system and the ravenous appetite of a media that does not distinguish between a person’s life and clickworthy content pushed me into the public sphere. I’ve since chosen to remain here, to let the world see my salade nicoise and cat photos. But this doesn’t mean I’m happy with the way my life is consumed or how the lives of others get reduced to content. Responsible media must avoid this easy, reductive impulse. Someone’s life may make a great story, but it’s still their life, and as a journalist myself, I feel a moral duty to respect that.
While on trial for a murder I didn’t commit, my prosecutor painted me as a sex-crazed femme fatale, and the media profited for years by sensationalizing an already sensational and utterly unjustified story. It’s on us to stop making and stop consuming such irresponsible media.
I’ve had to grapple with this in my own work. My fiance, Chris, and I write and produce a podcast for Sundance AMC called The Truth About True Crime, where we attempt to re-humanize others who have been singled out as true crime fodder and elevate the standard for how we think and talk about those whose lives are thrust into the judicial and media spotlight. (We do everything together, and this essay is as much the product of his brain as it is mine).
Our current season focuses on the double homicide of Derek and Nancy Haysom and the wrongful conviction of Jens Soering. It’s a case that has haunting echoes of my own — the brutality of the killing, the police screwups, a foreign exchange student accused, the young lovers as suspects, the questionable forensics, the media spectacle — and yet Jens has been in prison since before I was born. I can’t help but see him as the version of me who was never freed. By connecting with him and telling his story, we’re hoping to raise public awareness of his case and turn public opinion toward a more open-minded and compassionate decision in his upcoming pardon petition. Jens’s life and struggle is an amazing story. It’s great content. And I hope people consume the hell out it. Not with a sense of entitlement, but with a sense of privilege, for that’s the mindstate we’ve had to inhabit while having intimate conversations with Jens through the prison phone system. It’s his life on the line, and if we can help him in any way by telling his story, if he actually gets freed from his wrongful imprisonment after 33 years, that will be surreal, too. For him but also for me.
Media can be compassionate. It can be brave. It can treat its subjects like the human beings they are. It can acknowledge, up front, the difficulty of capturing a complex human being in 800 words. Do I really think our media can shift en masse in this direction? No, not really. But if some outlets change, even a little, that’s progress.
Of all the surreal moments in my extremely surreal life, the one that brings me the most hope right now, while I’m polishing up the speech I’m about to give to a potentially hostile audience in Italy, came in the wake of that Netflix documentary. A woman approached me, crying, after I gave a talk, and she said something I’d been told before on Twitter. I wish I could say it’s been thousands or even hundreds of people who have tweeted the sentiment at me, but it has only been a few dozen. Still, hearing this woman say it to my face, it shocked me. She said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I treated you as entertainment.”
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