Gift

West Seattle HeraldPublished by the West Seattle Herald 10/05/2016.

I suppose it’s a privilege that I’ve never had to rely on Black Friday to do my Christmas shopping. I know some people get a thrill out of competing to collect big on the best deals, but I don’t like to feel rushed, herded through a crowd, or pressured to make a purchase. The only thrill I get out of Black Friday is the thrill of knowing a bunch of black cats are going to get homes that day, because the Humane Society waives their adoption fees. Nope, Black Friday comes and goes for me without much notice. I tend to stay home, digesting leftovers.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t get into the gift-giving spirit. Post-Thanksgiving, I feel silly with glee at the prospect of stumbling across perfect gifts for people I love over the next month—unexpected, clever, fun, thoughtful, useful gifts. Gifts that will be just what the recipient wanted, without realizing they wanted it. Gifts that are as satisfying as the end of a Sherlock Holmes novel, or a cup of hot chocolate spiced with chili. Gifts that say, “I love you AND I know you,” but which also give the recipient something new to sink their teeth into.

That’s the aim anyway. I almost never manage it. I think the closest I ever came was a painting I made for Deanna of an emo cow, complete with purple hair falling over its face and tears streaming from its eyes, crying out in a caption above it, “Emooooooooooo!” In all my gift-giving attempts ever since, I measure my success against the look of bewildered joy Deanna’s face made when she unwrapped that painting years ago.

Of course, there are shortcuts. The most extravagant Christmas gift I’ve ever seen given was the brand new, crimson, racing-striped mini cooper my stepdad Chris got for my mom. Of course, it was the perfect gift because it was exactly what my mom wanted, and exactly what she wouldn’t splurge on for herself. But that wasn’t the whole of it. If you can afford it, it’s easy to blow someone away with unapologetic generosity. Rather, Chris’s gift-giving genius came in the presentation. He had managed to keep the purchase a secret, and first presented my mom with a toy version of the car to unwrap. He let her sit with the toy version a while, pretending that was the extent of it—“You know, because you like mini coopers!”—before he invited her to go take a look at the real thing parked outside.

Something new for me this year: Christmas cards. Growing up, I was rarely one to give or receive them, because nearly everyone I might send a card to I already spent the winter holidays with in person. All the same, this year I got the wild craving to take the cards Oma collected and gave to me—blank greeting cards from animal shelters with pictures of cats on them—, make them Christmas-y with stickers and gel pens, and send them off to friends across the country. As I get older, a simple gesture of acknowledgement a card represents seems more and more like a truly fine gift—especially if it involves some creative, irreverent orchestration of cat, metallic Sharpie, and glittery snowflake sticker.

The same wild craving is responsible for something else that’s new for me this year: a Christmas tree. Don’t get me wrong; like many other culturally-European Americans, my family has always put up a Christmas tree. Every year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I pile into my stepdad’s truck and ride the caravan of aunts and uncles out to one of those you-cut tree farms in Maple Valley. While the adults prowl around the grounds, debating height, diameter, trunk size, and dimension (“I want a Jabba-the-Hut-tree!” my stepdad Chris proclaims every year), I wander around absentmindedly, sipping cider and enjoying the fresh air. But not this year. This year, my Chris and I took up the mission and chopped down our very own tree. Like a pair of adults.

Like a family. Because the only discernable difference about this year is that Chris and I are together, and never before outside of the family I grew up in have I ever felt so a part of a family. It’s our unexpected, incredible gift to ourselves.

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Sharing Harry and Fantastic Beasts

West Seattle HeraldI’m actually glad Chris was just too old to be into Harry Potter back in the day. Although he was a fantasy and sci-fi nerd who read voraciously and regularly played Dungeons and Dragons, in 1997—when Sorcerer’s Stone was published—he was also fifteen. There were limits.

I, on the other hand, was the perfect age—ten. Thanks to the fact that my mom was an elementary school teacher who stayed apace of children’s literature, I received a U.S. first edition copy for my birthday just a month after it was published, and straight away, I read it all the way through. For the release of every book in the series since, I made a point of standing hours in line at Barnes and Noble, dressed in a hand-made purple cloak, waiting for midnight to strike so I could purchase my copy and stay up all night reading. I matured alongside the books. They made me laugh, cry, think. I returned to them again and again, read them in German and Italian. I even studied the supplemental material—Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages—and I gratefully absorbed Eliezer Yudkowsky’s epic fanfiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

Now I get to return to them again, this time with special purpose: Chris. We’re listening to the audiobooks in the car, while eating meals, before going to bed. I’m enjoying witnessing the dichotomous way he approaches the story: on the one hand, with a certain adult detachment as the writer in him takes note of narrative cues (“Snape’s looking pretty suspicious… Too suspicious to be the real bad guy… But what about that Gilderoy Lockhart?!”). On the other hand, he’s boyish and emotionally invested, clenching his fists and muttering darkly whenever Draco Malfoy enters the scene. I love that he can be both—adult and child—at the same time.

For my part, I get to enjoy omniscience—I’m always raising my eyebrows suggestively, gleefully squeezing Chris’s hand, and smirking knowingly. But even more than that, coming back to the series as an adult after already absorbing it as a child, I’m enjoying understanding aspects of the story that I overlooked before, simply because I didn’t yet have the requisite life experience to appreciate them.

Take The Prisoner of Azkaban, which Chris and I just finished. There’s political intrigue, betrayal, heartbreak…and on top of all that, Dementors:

Dementors…drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you…You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.*

Back when I was a kid, I didn’t really understand the Dementors beyond that they were terrifying monsters that can drain the magic out of wizards. It never occurred to me that what a Dementor did to people in the world dreamed up by J.K. Rowling could have anything to do with what people experience in the real world, like it never occurred to me how to relate to a werewolf.

Only since having lived a bit more do I recognize that Dementors are a magical manifestation of something very real and relatable—depression. Get too close to a Dementor, and you’ll be trapped in a cold, sad loop of panic and hopelessness, haunted by your worst life experiences and fears. Everyone feels that now and again; I felt that for the better portion of a day just last week. What I love about J.K. Rowling’s metaphor for depression—a soul-sucking monster—is how it accurately reflects a person’s ability to unwillingly but unavoidably obsess over our worst fears and memories, and lose sight of a better, more balanced perspective.

Just today, Chris and I went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in which J.K. Rowling introduces a whole new monster: the Obscurus. It’s a magical parasite that forms in a young witch or wizard when they are forced to suppress their magical powers, especially under traumatic circumstances. The Obscurus eventually takes over its host, dissolving them into a cloud of silky, black ash that lashes out and destroys anything in its path. Like the Dementor, the Obscurus is not just a monster. It is a magical manifestation of the kind of dissociative and aggressive mental illness that a person can suffer as a result of abuse, neglect, and self-repression.

Yes! As terribly tragic as the Obscurus is, it’s real. It means something. This is the take-away of the series, as I return to it again and again: Harry Potter is rooted in a deep, searching compassion for the human condition. And that’s a story I’ll never get tired of, especially if the world happens to be inhabited by Nibblers, Phoenixes, and the Weasley twins. On the drive home, we put on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

* J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic 1999.

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Oma’s Thanksgiving

West Seattle HeraldPublished by the West Seattle Herald

Oma’s first Thanksgiving in the United States wasn’t much of a Thanksgiving. She shipped off before the end of Opa’s deployment in Germany, alone except for their first child, my uncle Mickey. She spent the unfamiliar American holiday in Seattle with Opa’s mom, and didn’t think much of it, because she didn’t think much of her mother-in-law, who was in the habit of demanding extra rent from Oma at the end of each month. Also, they served raw oysters, and Oma disliked having to pick the sand out of her teeth.

Oma’s next Thanksgiving was much better. Ironically, it was back in Germany. My mom Edda was born by this time, on the military base. Another military couple joined Opa and Oma’s little family for dinner, brought the turkey. Oma contributed what has become her signature dish: red cabbage spiced with clove and apple. Opa told her the story about the Mayflower and the Native Americans, and Oma, a history buff, drank it up. This time, the holiday felt like family, and reminded her of Erntedankfest, the harvest festival, when the first wines of the season were uncorked.

When Oma and Opa finally settled back in the US, Thanksgiving turned into the holiday Oma preferred above all others. Even more so than Halloween, for which she spent weeks decorating the house and sewing our costumes. Even more so than Christmas, when she lit the tree with candles and sang to us in German. Halloween and Christmas were big to-do’s. Thanksgiving, though…Thanksgiving punctuated the year, and symbolized everything Oma loves about the Fall.

The Fall is Oma’s favorite season. She likes the colors and the wind. She likes “to stand outside in a jacket and feel the wind blow my head around.” But even more than that, the Fall is about coming back into oneself. It’s about coming inside, taking stock of what went well and what didn’t. It’s about slowing down. Taking it easy. The world turns inward; the mind turns inward.

It means coming together as a family. That’s always been important to her. In post-WWII Germany, it was a matter of survival, keeping close to the people who would be there for you when it all came down to it. Oma wants to be a part of it, a part of us, always.

I asked Oma if she thought she was the reason all of her children settled down within walking distance of her. “No,” she said. “They stayed close because, like me, they like to come together. They like to find excuses to be together.” But of course, she didn’t seem to see that she’s our anchor.

This year, Chris and his family will be joining us for Thanksgiving. When I told Oma, and her watery eyes lit up. It was something astonishing because, for all our vast differences in life experience, Oma and I felt the same: grateful that our big, loud, happy, grumpy, old, young family was only getting bigger and better, closer and closer. We made it somehow. Thankfully.

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“Amanda stands with Trump”

West Seattle HeraldPublished by the West Seattle Herald 11/14/2016.

Tuesday, I dressed up for a big celebration—pearl tie, rainbow-plaid pantsuit—and attended The Stranger’s countdown party at the Showbox. I rubbed shoulders with colorful Democrats sipping “Donkey” cocktails made with Bombay Sapphire gin. I joined in the sportsman-like cheers and boos as predicable states were officially called for Blue or Red. But as I witnessed Hillary lose Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania…my jaw dropped. I backed up against a wall, sank to the ground, and watched as people with gold H’s painted on their cheeks trickled out of the venue, miserable and bewildered. At the end of the night, I was relieved that Hillary decided to wait until the morning to give her concession speech. I was already crying.

Like all of my politically liberal friends, I still haven’t wrapped my mind around it. I’ve not strayed far from media and social media, scrolling for signs of perspective and direction. I’ve struggled to reflect on what’s happened, what’s going to happen, and what, if anything, I can contribute to the conversation. What unique perspective do I have on the whole thing?

Well, imagine if the President-elect of the United States had personally supported you during your worst crisis and most vulnerable moment. That’s my reality. Trump is on the record as supporting my innocence and my family when I was on trial for a murder I didn’t commit.

And now imagine that not only do people criticize you for opposing the pro-life, pro-death penalty, creationist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-NATO policies Trump represents, but they act as if you have no right to disagree with Trump, as if you supposedly owe Trump allegiance after benefitting from his support. That is also my reality.

Back in December 2015, I wrote an article called “Memes, Motivations, and Millennials,” discussing what I felt were the bigoted positions of the alt-right as represented in memes I came across in social media and in then-Republican-primary-candidate Donald Trump’s statements about Muslim immigrants. In response, one commenter wrote:

Wow. Like wow. I am really sorry that I ever supported you now. You have really turned into a left wing lunatic. You know nothing of what Islam teaches. It is a death cult bent on the domination of this world by force. Those “memes” as you call them are telling the truth. Go read the Koran and you will see for yourself. Yet you have the audacity to turn around and attack Christianity and spew left-wing lunacies about “climate change,” and gay “marriage?” When Christians are being literally exterminated by Muslims all across the Middle East? I see your experience in Italy has left you completely ungrateful to be an American. I thought you would appreciate the fact that our system and way of life was better than that of Italy or the rest of the world. When you were in trouble, I donated money to your cause, wrote letters to my senators on your behalf and defended you on several blogs. Donald Trump, who I plan to vote for, also defended you and stood by you but now you turn around and indirectly attack him? You should be ashamed of yourself for this article. Wish I had my money back.

There’s a lot to unpack in this comment, but what strikes me the most is that this person’s support of me hinges upon my politics, not the fact of my innocence. And this person believes that my own politics should hinge not on the merits of political policy, but on personal loyalty.

Again, last month, I wrote an article called “Champion,” describing how Trump’s statements about abortion in the second presidential debate were misinformed, and how Hillary’s position on women’s reproductive health was the source of my enthusiasm for her presidential candidacy. A commenter wrote back that, while I needn’t endorse or vote for Trump, my criticism of him wasn’t “nice,” seeing as Trump had stuck up for me.

The message was clear. Because Trump defended me in the past, how dare I not defend him now? And if I don’t defend and endorse him, at the very least I should keep my “left-wing lunacies” to myself.

Even worse, other media have simply assumed my support of Trump because of his support of me. In a surreal twist, I came across the headline: “Amanda sta con Trump: ‘È l’unico che mi ha aiutata davvero.’ Nel 2011 il presidente Usa invitò a boicottare l’Italia.” Translation: “Amanda stands with Trump: ‘He’s the only one who truly helped me.’ In 2011 the U.S. president invited people to boycott Italy.” This Italian newspaper, Corriera della Sera, not only completely made up that quote—I never said words even remotely similar—they also completely overlooked the fact that I’ve been plenty vocal about my support for Hillary and my opposition to Trump, and have been plenty criticized for it.

Politics is not a tit-for-tat game. It’s not: I helped you, now you help me. As my friend Gavin puts it, only in Banana Republics do rich political leaders dole out favors in exchange for your silence and your vote. Tit-for-tat politics are a threat to Democracy, and it troubles me that some Trump supporters subscribe to that policy.

Trump’s politics concern me in a very personal way. Chris and I want to start a family in the next few years, but since Tuesday, I’ve worried that my healthcare may be in jeopardy when Obamacare is repealed. I’ve worried that Pence’s history of invasive, obstructive, and misinformed policies about women’s reproductive health will affect my options should something go wrong with a pregnancy. I’ve fretted over the future of my LGBT friends. I’ve cried out in outrage over rumors of the immanent appointments of climate-change-denier Myron Ebell to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and creationist Ben Carson to head of the Department of Education. Trump doesn’t support the values I believe in, so I don’t support him for President. Simple as that.

Yes, Trump defended my innocence, pointing out there was no evidence of my participation in Meredith Kercher’s murder, and that the sole incriminating factor was “only something stupid that she said after being tormented for hours and hours.” In my case, Trump recognized that coercive interrogations produce false admissions, a well-studied and documented fact.

But Trump claimed the exact opposite in the Central Park Five case, calling for the death penalty to be reinstated in New York, even though their rape convictions rested solely on false confessions resulting from coercive interrogations. Even now he views them as guilty, though they were exonerated when the true perpetrator, a serial rapist, confessed to the crime. Why did Trump defend me and condemn them? Is it because I was an American on trial in a foreign country? Is it because I’m a white woman?

In a time when my entire family had already tapped into their retirement savings and taken out second mortgages, we were grateful when any supporters, including Trump, donated to my defense and spoke out about my innocence. And like some of my supporters, Trump had his own ideas and his own way; he called for the U.S. to sanction Italy until they released me—a pronouncement which only amplified anti-American sentiment towards me in the courtroom. Even if Trump means well, his schemes tend to be blunt, selfish, and short-sighted, rather than nuanced, empathetic, and thought through. Back then, when the stakes were highest, my family and I couldn’t afford to be so reckless. Now, at this crucial political juncture, the U.S. has decided to take the Trump chance, and I think our choice is just as blunt, selfish, and short-sighted as Trump himself.

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Addiction, face-to-face, part two: Tricks and triggers

West Seattle HeraldPublished by the West Seattle Herald 11/07/2016

I accelerated into the mostly empty parking lot and veered a wide arch into a spot. I pulled up the parking break at the same time that I unclipped my seat belt. Chris already had the passenger side door open. We were on a last-minute mission to buy temporary black hair dye for my Jessica Jones costume, before heading to a haunted house with my family, and we were running a little late. We bounded toward the entrance to Walgreens when, suddenly, I jerked to a halt. Chris swept by me, but paused after a few steps, looking back. “What’s up?” he asked.

I stared through the passenger side window into the other lone vehicle in the parking lot. Inside, a man—tall, lean, white, 30s, with short, dark hair, wearing jeans and a plain, long-sleeve T-shirt—was slumped in the reclined driver’s seat, apparently passed out. His right arm lay stretched out in his lap, and his left hand curled limply around a needle sticking into the cubital fossa of his outstretched right arm. I stared. “Look!” I said to Chris. “He’s…Should we do something?”

We weighed our options. We could rap on his window…and say what? Hey man, don’t do drugs. They’re bad for you. That wouldn’t work. We could call the police. But what would they do? Further cripple him by shunting him through the justice system? Send him to jail? I knew better. Jails and prisons are not well-equipped to treat mental illness and drug addiction. It would probably only make this guy’s life worse, entrench him deeper. Chris and I exchanged pained looks. We realized there wasn’t really anything good we could do.

When we came back out of Wallgreens, I strode close to the vehicle to check back in. The man was awake now, and busy re-sticking himself with the needle. He looked up and met my eyes as I passed. I looked quickly away, as if I had accidentally walked in on him undressing. “At least he’s conscious,” I muttered to Chris as we buckled up. I was quiet as we pulled out. Then, “It’s like when I got my motorcycle,” I said. “I never really noticed motorcycles on the road until I got one. And I never really noticed addicts in plain sight until I talked to Justin.”

When I had met my cousin Justin at the cafe, he explained to me that he had never intended to use pain killers recreationally. It all started when he shattered his wrist and was prescribed Vicodin to manage the pain as he healed. He shared his prescription with a friend who had a bad toothache and couldn’t afford medical insurance. But by doing so, Justin’s prescription ran out sooner than it should have, so he asked for another, and another. Finally, his doctor told him he’d been red-flagged.

But Justin still felt that he needed help to manage his pain. “I’ve since found out a lot about the chemistry of the body,” he said. “The more you take, the more it screws your body chemistry up. The addiction had started to kick in and I didn’t even know it.”

“But how does that work?” I asked. “Didn’t you get a refill to cover the period of time it would take to heal enough that you weren’t feeling as much pain anymore?”

“Yes,” Justin admitted. Then he explained: despite the fact that he had healed and should have been feeling better, the Vicodin had altered the chemistry of his brain so that it exaggerated his minor pains, and made him feel like he was in more pain than he really was. It wasn’t about getting high. “I felt the need. I was told, Hey, I have pain. Let’s use it for pain management. I considered the euphoria a bonus to feeling no pain. It’s like, I feel no pain, and I’m also in a great mood. I’m motivated. So it was kind of like a win-win. I didn’t understand at that time what it was doing to my body and what it was doing to my mind.”

I took a moment to let that disturbing idea settle. I’m a pharmacophobe myself. I avoid taking any kind of medication unless it’s absolutely necessary. As a kid, I once spent several weeks playing soccer on a broken foot, limping and cringing and crying, but refusing to see a doctor. Later, when all four of my wisdom teeth were surgically yanked out at once, I couldn’t manage even a single dose of the pain medication Oxycodone. It made me feel nauseated and sick, and I ended up vomiting it up. I preferred the pain. But I’m not usual in that regard.

“So…I’m curious, because I never realized that it’s like your mind is playing tricks on you to make you feel like you were in pain when you weren’t. So…I wonder, is it like hunger or thirst?”

“That’s what’s called a trigger,” Justin explained. “Pain is one of mine, because that’s what I associated it with for so long. Another trigger for me is the sound of pills being shaken in a prescription bottle.”

“That starts the craving?”

“Yeah. Because every time I heard it, I had it. So my mind and my body are like, Sweet. We have this coming. So that’s the thirsty thing you’re thinking of. It makes you feel what the pill makes you feel. I get that minor euphoria. So it’s like, Ooh! I’m going to get that and it’s going to feel like this, but better. Actually, just thinking about it, I’m feeling it right now.”

I felt a jolt to my heart. Like I had just accidentally run over a squirrel. Like I had just accidentally triggered my cousin into craving drugs. “Just thinking about it…” I muttered stupidly.

Justin continued, nonplussed, “Yeah, because I was thinking about the pill bottle shaking. It made me think of the noise, and I started to feel real relaxed and like I was going to take something in. That’s how powerful the triggers are. I’ve heard of that happening. But that’s the first time I’ve actually experienced it.”

What I had learned about tricks and triggers lingered with me after we parted for the day. Never having heard the origin stories, I tended to associate drug addiction with immature, irresponsible choices, and even, criminal behavior. But whatever Justin’s actions as an addict, the way he described it, he at least became an addict while using his medication the way it was intended to be used, under the supervision of a doctor. So early in the process, it seemed like the only difference between Justin and anyone else—me, say—was a factor that couldn’t be a known until it was too late: predisposition. My pharmacophobia and near-allergic reaction to opioids made me predisposed in the opposite direction, but my doctors didn’t know that when they wrote my prescriptions. They also didn’t know that Justin was predisposed to addiction until he became addicted. Suddenly, I felt lucky. What were the chances?

To be continued…

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Addiction, face-to-face, part one: My cousin Justin

West Seattle HeraldPublished by the West Seattle Herald 10/31/2016.

It all started when I watched Prescription for Change, a new documentary about the opioid epidemic hosted by Macklemore. Thinking to write a column about it, I sat down in front of my computer with a cup of coffee and a notebook. A few minutes in, I gasped. There was my cousin, Justin! Sitting right next to Macklemore in Recovery Café, a Seattle treatment facility where recovering addicts come together to share stories, solidarity, and support. My cousin Justin, a recovering addict.

When I came home from prison in October 2011, I quickly realized that I had missed out on even more than I imagined (which was a lot), especially in the lives of my sisters and cousins. Deanna had matured from a headstrong high school socialite into a career-driven medical-science nerd. Ashley and Delaney had transformed from little, doodle-drawing, gymnast prodigies into complex young women—bright, ambitious, stricken with anxiety and anger. My cousin Justin…well, he had a problem and no one really talked about it.

In the next few years before Justin submitted himself to rehab, I absorbed the fractured anecdotes delivered to me in hushed tones. They didn’t paint a clear picture of what had happened and what was happening. I felt like I had stepped into a confusing quagmire of hurt feelings and painful memories. Lines drawn in the sand. The unspoken agreement to leave it alone, for everyone’s sake. After all, what could Justin—or any of us—do or say? The situation made us all feel impotent and embarrassed.

“I’m Justin. I’m an addict,” I watched Justin tell the recovery group. “I broke my wrist, and then it caused me to get my first prescription of Vicodin. I’d heard about people getting hooked and I never thought it would happen to me. I was convincing myself it wasn’t a problem. I found out that I was full of shit.”

That was it. A shiver ran through me. I paused, rewound, pressed play again. My heart plummeted into my stomach. In that short clip, I learned more than years of being right next to Justin, as he was going through it. But also, there was so much to unpack in those five simple sentences. What he felt, what he had done, how far he had come…Justin’s whole adult life. And my heart broke at the devastating conclusion, “I was full of shit.”

I came to the sudden and haunting realization that Justin’s struggle with drug addiction has been running parallel to my struggle with wrongful conviction all along. Though the causes and consequences of drug addiction and wrongful conviction are not one and the same, of all people, I should have understood his loneliness, helplessness, and fear. Justin had recognized me, had reached out to me just the week before through a text message that read: Hey Amanda, one of the things I wanted to get your advice on was how you dealt with and fought through so much negativity and people thinking you were lying and guilty. But I didn’t see. I had kept my distance, because I didn’t understand his struggle, or recognize the parallels. The stigma of drug addiction was so ingrained in me that I was keeping my own cousin at a distance. Sure, I hadn’t been around for Justin-at-his-worst. But I also hadn’t been around for Justin at all.

I felt profound sadness and shame. It shouldn’t have taken seeing Justin in a documentary for me to realize that I should just reach out, hear him out, and if he wanted, help him share his story. Hey, Justin, I texted. We should talk.

I have so many questions. What happened? What needs to happen? Where are you now and how is this a part of you? I’m painfully aware that some of my questions are grounded in the misperception that drug addiction was something that Justin did, rather than something that afflicted him. I try to compartmentalize my own bad memories of witnessing drug addiction inside prison—how it seemed to transform people into animals—because prisons are mental health and drug abuse facilities that aren’t equipped for either. My heart hurts.

When we meet, I recognize the signs of how much time has passed since we last really caught up. Justin walks in with his hair in corn rows and wearing a look of exhaustion. I realize that this is going to be heavy, and more than just one conversation. But we start with a hug.

To be continued…

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Exoneration is just the beginning

 

screenshot-2016-10-24-09-55-28
Screenshot of a death threat

Published by USA Today 10/24/2016.

Every day for the past nine years I’ve been called a slut and murderer by total strangers. In prison, it was hate mail. Outside of prison, it’s social media and hate mail. “Teach me how to get away with murder.” “I hope you will be alone forever.” “Murderess.” “Psychopath.” “Whore.” One person promised, in a comment on my personal website, to kidnap me in broad daylight, rip out my teeth and fingernails, electrocute me, and carve Meredith Kercher’s name into my body.

Meredith was a kind and outgoing British student who was murdered by Rudy Guede. She was my roommate, and I was accused of her murder by a prosecutor whose insane theories and disregard for evidence landed me in prison for four years. Italy’s highest court ultimately exonerated me, finding “stunning flaws” in the investigation and “an absolute lack of biological traces” connecting me to the crime.

While the TV version of my life would end there, I have learned that condemnation doesn’t stop once you’re found innocent. From the moment I walked out of prison, my family and I have focused on healing and rebuilding our lives. But the beast of media sensationalism wasn’t satisfied. Tabloids snapped pictures of my every move, speculated on everything I did, and spun everything I said out of context. I was accused of buying my supporters, the media, and my freedom. I was shamed for having friends, opinions, fun — a life. Certain people made it their hobby to torment me and anyone close to me, so that we might never feel safe. And despite all the objective evidence confirming my innocence, the predominant narrative and subsequent discussion about my case still revolved around the question, “Did she do it?”

I can tune out the trolls, but the voices of seemingly reasonable people are more worrisome. “She brought it on herself,” some say. “She’s not the real victim.” Charlotte Gill, writing for The Independent, attributes public interest in my story to mere blood thirst and accuses me of capitalizing off Meredith’s tragic death. To her, my very presence is an affront. After years of wrongful imprisonment, having everything dear to me stripped away, I was released to an unceasing torrent of slut-shaming and slander. And Gill wants me to just disappear? I read that, curled up in a ball, and cried.

I didn’t get my old life back when I came home. No exoneree does. It took me years to feel comfortable and confident enough to trust new people. Random classmates at university took pictures of me and posted them to the Internet alongside lewd and aggressive commentary. Every employer who openly hired me was attacked for doing so. I took up self-defense classes, and everywhere I lived, I had an escape plan, just in case I was pursued by some crazy person who wanted to follow through with his threats.

I would like nothing more than to be simply Amanda Knox, family member, friend and writer, but I’ve had to accept that I’m also that girl who was wrongfully convicted of murder. It’s a realization that all exonerees must eventually face — once an exoneree, always an exoneree.

Many people can empathize with the murder victim and the murder victim’s family, but they cannot imagine being snatched up, as I was, as my family was, into a Kafkaesque nightmare. This is a problem because wrongful convictions happen more often than people realize, and they can happen to anyone. In many ways, mine was just an echo of the wrongful convictions that came before and a precursor to those that have come after. In other ways, mine was exceptional. My case was an international sensation that utterly dehumanized me, but that attention did put me in the unique position of being a rare exoneree whose voice is heard. I have the opportunity to shine light on the exoneree experience and the systematic errors that lead to wrongful convictions.

Professor Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan estimates that from 1973 to 1989, between 2.3% and 5% of death row inmates were innocent. He writes that 185,000 innocent people have served hard time. Since the first DNA exoneration took place, the Innocence Project has exonerated more than 345 people. There were 149 exonerations just last year, and every year that number keeps rising. Our media coverage often represents exonerees as two-dimensional artifacts, the fallout from brutal tragedy, or else in breezy, feel-good news flashes about “justice prevailing.” But after prison, exoneree lives grind on, and they suffer the consequences of society’s misconceptions and short attention span.

Most exonerees re-enter society with little support and even fewer guarantees. Government-sponsored programs designed to help guilty convicts reintegrate into society don’t normally exist for exonerees. Only 30 out of 50 states have compensation laws, and those are hamstrung by delays and a lack of uniformity. Those who were forced by police to falsely confess may not be entitled to any compensation. Many have also had to jump through numerous and expensive hoops to get their records expunged. Exonerees have lost years of networking and investment opportunities. They have a gaping hole in their résumé — the average number of years wrongfully served is 14. People who are young, poor and non-white are particularly vulnerable; the vast majority of exonerees are minority males. And while most don’t get international media coverage, they are marked in their own communities. Some don’t even have the support of their own families.

And of course, as I can attest, being exonerated does not mean that people will believe you are innocent.

To recognize the suffering of exonerees is to acknowledge that our justice system, and the people who implement it, may perpetrate injustice. It’s easier to believe that wrongful conviction is a distant anomaly, an unfortunate consequence triggered by questionable characters. We blame the wrongfully convicted for seeming suspicious just as we blame rape victims for wearing provocative clothing.

The exoneree also confuses our sympathies. When a wrongful conviction is overturned, the justice it represented evaporates. We had “closure,” and now we have nothing. But what feels like a loss is actually a gain, because that “closure” was really injustice disguised as justice. Every exoneration forces us to dredge up the original tragedy and accept the perceived perpetrator as a further victim.

Exonerees, for their part, provide us with unique perspectives that can improve the justice system and enrich our communities. For example, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle advocate to abolish the death penalty. Ryan Ferguson investigates cases of wrongful conviction on the MTV series Unlocking the Truth. Marty Tankleff, Chris Ochoa and Jarrett Adams earned law degrees and now work to correct legal injustices. Brian Banks, Fernando Bermudez and Juan Rivera speak publicly, motivating others to overcome adversity, and Damien Echols is an artist and philosopher. These 10 exonerees alone served more than 140 years combined of wrongful imprisonment. Other exonerees are entrepreneurs, nurses, counselors, teachers, builders, artists, chefs, neighbors and friends.

I’m not a lawyer, investigator, researcher, or scientist. I was just a 20-year-old who loved languages and literature when I was locked away for a crime I didn’t commit. But I was fortunate. Intense media scrutiny drew experts and advocates to my defense. And because of their hard work, I now have opportunity to voice my experience and humanity as an exoneree. Most exonerees never get that chance, so I mean to share it. I will not disappear. I will advocate, I will bear witness.

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