Exoneration is just the beginning


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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 29 Comments



Published by the West Seattle Herald 10/24/2016.

A world away, I still heard the stories. My friends wrote me letters. January to June, my childhood best friend was deep in Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign, extolling her virtues to folks who still owned a home phone. Other friends were all about Obama. After years of economic difficulty and military involvement abroad, Obama was a vision of hope and change, the vehicle for progressivism. Not to mention, Obama was also the most eloquent rhetorician and charismatic public speaker EVER, hadn’t a grey hair on his head, and upon earning the Democratic nomination, was the first black man to ever run for president. People were discussing politics over family dinners, in the hallways between class, over rounds of beer pong. They were going on marches and making art. On social media, they cried out “Yes We Can!” and on November 4th, 2008, my friends were dancing in the streets along with the rest of them.

Somehow, I don’t see that happening—especially the dancing in the streets—this November 8th. This presidential election cycle has felt less like a party, and more like a horror show that you can’t look away from. Hillary Clinton is struggling, as always, against the vague but prevailing perception that she offers nothing more than a reinforcement of the dysfunctional, uninspiring, and patronizing status quo. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has succeeded in coming a step away from the most powerful position in the world merely because he is a destabilizing agent. No matter that he is inexperienced, uninformed, and irresponsible (to say the very least). Both candidates seem disturbingly disconnected, in their own ways. Hillary Clinton from the people. Donald Trump from rationality.

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around what I think about this election, about what it means to me. Unfortunately, the first thing that comes to mind is that this shouldn’t be my first big election. 2008 was exciting and momentous, but I missed out. I was wrongfully imprisoned in Italy. 2012 wasn’t a contest and doesn’t really count. 2016 has been characterized by exasperation and disgust. I feel cheated. In the lull between debates and voting day, I mope and worry, worry and mope.

Except, there’s one thing.

During the last debate, I was reminded of how I learned about abortions—partial birth abortions—in health class at my Catholic high school. We were shown a comic book-like diagram of a “baby” being twisted around in the womb by an “abortionist” who proceeded to “jam scissors into the baby’s skull” and “suck out its brains.” The lesson then concluded with an open discussion of whether or not this was ethical, which, horrified as we 14-year-olds were, wasn’t much of a discussion. Watching the third presidential debate, it was like Donald Trump had taken health class with me, and never looked further into the matter. He didn’t have to.

It’s not the same for women. As soon as we become sexually active, the stakes are real and life-altering. Ignorance about our reproductive health is not an option. Like every woman, I realized that abortion is not as simple as “ripping the baby out of the womb.” In Trump’s world, there is no consideration about the health of the fetus or the mother, or mention that the vast majority of abortions are medically induced before the 20-week-mark, or that surgical late-term abortions are expensive and invasive procedures that both women and medical professionals don’t take lightly. In Trump’s world there’s only black-and-white idealism and the sinister innuendo that anyone can and will get an abortion at any time by any means for any reason—which is simply not true.

In Hillary Clinton’s words,

“The kinds of cases that fall at the end of pregnancy are often the most heartbreaking, painful decisions for families to make. I have met with women who toward the end of their pregnancy get the worst news one could get, that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy. …I’ve been to countries where governments either forced women to have abortions, like they used to do in China, or forced women to bear children, like they used to do in Romania. And I can tell you: The government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith, with medical advice.”

When she said these words in the third debate, Clinton became a champion in my eyes. She demonstrated that while she may not be the obvious and most relatable champion, she’s the champion of nuance, and complexity, and reality. If Obama’s song was a rousing anthem, Clinton’s is a subtle symphony. And Trump, a broken trumpet.

Chris put it another way. “It’s crazy,” he said. “It’ll be an historic moment when Hillary wins. But she doesn’t just have to defeat a man to become the first female President. She has to defeat the Worst Man, the most misogynistic man imaginable.”

I’m feeling less apathetic about this election. It’s not that Clinton has shown herself to be more than just the lesser of two evils. It’s that her impending victory represents the triumph of nuance and poise over prejudice and childishness.

And that’s something I can get excited about.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Photo Sphere


The first Photo Sphere I ever saw transported me to the Valle de Cocora. I was standing in the middle of rolling hills so green they looked radioactive. I turned around myself, slack-jawed and gazing up at impossibly tall palm trees with bright white trunks and pom-pom heads. The sky was a happy Pantone 292, stretching out forever, pierced only by a burst of white gold that was the sun. It was a scene straight out of The Lorax, but all green and white and real.

I didn’t even know there was a place in the world that looked like the Valle de Cocora. I had never seen anything even close, and I’ve traveled to Germany, Mexico, Italy, Canada, Japan… And this wasn’t like looking it up on Google and looking through the postcard perfect images. This Photo Sphere felt like stepping into the paradise frozen in time. And it was. This was from Chris’s trip to Colombia—a moment he documented in every direction.

Sounds complicated, but really, a Photo Sphere is just a 360° picture composed of about twenty regular pictures stitched together. If you have a Google/Android, LG, or HTC phone, the software is already built into your camera app, called Photo Sphere, VR Panorama, and Panorama 360 respectively. If you have Samsung, it’s an optional download called Surround Shot. Check out this tutorial to see how to use it.

Once you’ve created a Photo Sphere, you can view it on the screen of your phone, scrolling and zooming around the picture by swiping and pinching, but the real beauty of these images is the opportunity for immersion. All you need is a Google Cardboard—a super cheap ($15) VR headset that you insert your phone into—and the free Google Cardboard app, that puts your Photo Sphere images into VR viewing mode. That’s how Chris transported me to the Valle de Cocora while I was standing in the living room of his apartment in Seattle.

Since then, I’ve become an enthusiastic Photo-Sphere-er. At the end of July, Chris and I took a walk through the Japanese garden in the Arboretum. It was sunny and warm, the garden was lush, the water was glistening. Even the koi fish and painted turtles were frolicking and paddling around like California wake boarders on spring break. Standing on the bridge, I took the Photo Sphere attached to this article. If you have a Google Cardboard, feel free to download it and give it a gander. It’s not perfect—there are some stitching errors where the program tried to piece together photos I took revolving around myself, as opposed to around a perfectly fixed point. There are also some vanishing ghosts—where the koi fish moved between shots. But even with those imperfections, the experience is remarkable. It’s the difference between “Wish you were here!” and “Welcome! Come on in!”

Published by the West Seattle Herald 10/17/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments


West Seattle HeraldIt was partly travel fatigue, but mostly the placement of the the TV screens. Splitting huevos rancheros for breakfast at the airport, Chris and I kept catching ourselves trailing off in conversation and looking over each other’s shoulders. A game show called “Let’s Make a Deal” was on. A pretty woman wearing a midnight blue gown, a pageant sash, and a tiara was debating whether to risk her winnings in order to go for the dining room set. In the background, the rest of the audience was in costume too—there were cowboys, clowns, robots and Peter Pans. I gave myself over to it.

“It’s remarkable how much people in costume look like people in costume,” I said.

“You mean, instead of looking like the thing they’re dressed up as?” Chris said.

“Yeah. Like that Roman gladiator in the back row with the plastic shield and helmet all askew.”

“Is this a Halloween edition? They probably just gave all the audience members cheap costumes as they walk in the door.”

“Yeah. Like, that guy does not look pleased to be wearing those pink bunny ears.”

“What’s this guy supposed to be? Hip-Hop?”

The next contestant, a pudgy man wearing a large, cardboard boombox around his neck, was jumping up and down about winning a BRAND NEW motorcycle. His red T-shirt was decorated with the round heads of famous rappers with stems sticking up from them, like musical notes.

In the last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time slumped in the seats of airport terminals. Those seats, by the way, are just comfortable enough for sitting, but are strategically impossible to lay down on—which is, of course, what I really wanted to do. I ate bagel breakfast sandwiches which didn’t taste like they were made of bagels and eggs. I drank too much coffee and not enough water. I zoned out—too tired to even browse through my phone. My brain was fuzzy. Slumped in my chair, feet resting on my luggage, I felt myself slip into a two-dimensional reality, where people were not so much people, but ideas of people.

For instance, I imagined the woman sitting across from me was a blue-collar, southern-bell bombshell in the 70s, but now, she hid the softness and slack of her body in drapey clothes, bling jewelry, and heavy makeup. Her hair—which was cut short with feathered layers, dyed dark brown and streaked with highlights—made her feel young. She liked to drink Orange Julius and watch interior decorating game shows on TLC.

On the flip side, in two-dimension-land, Chris and I were the impractical hipster couple. We disguised our sloppiness with gender-bending, thrift-store style. We talked too loudly and theoretically about things we only superficially understood. We shopped at Trader Joes and didn’t have real jobs. We liked to Netflix and chill.

Ha. It was funny, because no one can be so simply reduced. It was interesting, because in allowing myself to inhabit that two-dimensional space, I discovered what characters—like ill-fitting costumes—were lying dormant in my mind, picked up from sloppily-written cultural narratives. Back in three-dimension-land, a facade is so obviously just a facade. I am curious about what lead a person to cross my path in just such a way, even if only to share in the passing of time at the gateway between one place and another. Friend, where are you coming from? I wonder.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 10/10/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

At the heart of Romeo and Juliet: City Opera Ballet produces a new, intimate take on the classic tragedy

The creaky, old Value Village off Pike St. on Capitol Hill may have been gutted and closed to the public, but the building itself still shows signs of life. Upstairs, where the men’s and children’s sections once resided, the scratched wood floors have been tiled over with large, black, vinyl mats. Here, every Wednesday, ballerinos and ballerinas wearing long johns and knee socks pounce, pirouette, and plié.

They are rehearsing for City Opera Ballet’s original production of Romeo and Juliet, which is unlike any take on the classic tragedy that you’ve seen before. Amber Willett, director and choreographer, has crafted a production around the overlooked aspects of the story: the immaturity of Romeo and Juliet, the loving bonds within their separate families, and the dignified grief that they all share. Where you’d usually see mature, principle dancers in the title roles, Willett has chosen the young and free-spirited David Strong as Romeo, next to the waiflike Alison Epsom as Juliet. Willet has expanded those world-building scenes that shed light on the supporting characters. Juliet plays hide-and-seek with her governess. Romeo’s bros tussle playfully and slap high-fives. Paris and Juliet go through with their wedding. And both the Capulets and the Montagues are given more stage time than usual to grieve over Romeo and Juliet’s bodies and ultimately come together through that grief.

Willett has also mixed elements of modern dance and charades-like acting into the classic ballet style. She’s encouraged her dancers to play around with their characters and loosen up about traditional forms of expression which can come across as more artful than genuine, like the grand, sweeping kisses that leave a good 12 inches of air between lips and cheek. The result is a classically beautiful dance amply speckled with surprisingly fun and endearing gestures.

Willett herself has been a professional dancer for many years, but this is her debut as choreographer-director. She’s had a hand in all parts of the production’s creation and coordination: casting, directing, scheduling. She even consulted Jon Steinmeier in the writing of the music. Steinmeier’s original score also seeks to emphasize world-building and relationships. Willett describes the music as “moody,” a portrait of the how the characters are relating to each other on stage.

Set within Meydenbauer Center’s intimate, 400-seat theatre, City Opera Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet promises to bring the audience closer to the raw and relatable humanity behind the epic tragedy.

City Opera Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet plays Oct 8 & 9, 2016 at The Theatre at Meydenbauer Center (11100 NE 6th St., Bellevue, WA 98004). Tickets ranging from $17-$45 are on sale now and may be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com or by phone at 1-800-838-3006.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

International Wrongful Conviction Day

West Seattle HeraldInternational Wrongful Conviction Day celebrates its third anniversary on Tuesday, October 4th. In honor of that, here’s a layman’s crash course in the causes of wrongful conviction, and a brief introduction to the Innocence Movement.

The Causes

Wrongful convictions are not some weird anomaly. Studies estimate that between 2.3 and 5% of people currently incarcerated are actually innocent. The causes of wrongful conviction are well-documented and stem from systemic problems. They are:

1) Inadequate defense

It would be nice if the simple fact of your innocence were enough to protect you from having to face criminal charges. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Time and again, innocent people are forced to stand trial, and their futures depend not so much on the fact of their innocence as on how well their lawyers make a case for their innocence. When an overworked or incompetent lawyer fails to make the case, an innocent person will be wrongfully convicted.

2) Invalid forensic evidence

In the last thirty years, extensive scientific research has enhanced our ability to accurately and reliably analyze biological evidence. As a result, DNA testing has become the most effective means of identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent. Still, there are innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted based on forensic techniques that have proved unreliable—bite mark and shoe print comparisons, for example—or because of the results of valid forensic techniques that have been conducted improperly, misrepresented, or fabricated entirely.

3) Government misconduct

Even the most well-intentioned investigators and prosecutors can cave under social pressure and be influenced by their biases, prejudices, and overzealousness. They can make terrible mistakes, particularly when they develop tunnel vision. They focus their attention on the wrong person, blind themselves to other avenues of inquiry, and overlook, undervalue, or suppress exonerating evidence. Still others are simply corrupt, caring more about securing convictions than ensuring justice.

4) Incentivized informants

Incredibly, studies have shown that in 15% of wrongful conviction cases, prosecutors incentivized informants to testify, and those testimonies were crucial towards convicting the innocent person.

5) False admissions

As difficult as it may be to imagine how an innocent person could be induced to falsely confess or falsely incriminate themselves, it happens more than 25% of the time. The fact is, studies have shown that currently implemented interrogation techniques are terribly effective at making anyone admit to anything. Young, uneducated, and mentally impaired individuals are particularly vulnerable, but even smart and competent interrogees can find themselves under duress, coerced to believe or say anything. Those false admissions are devastating in the courtroom, often convincing juries of the innocent person’s guilt despite overwhelming objective evidence proving otherwise.

6) Eyewitness misidentification

Eyewitnesses misidentified an innocent person in over 70% of wrongful conviction cases. Whether this is because prosecutors pressured them to make a definitive identification when the witness was not sure, or because of an honest mistake, experience is teaching us that our eyes play tricks on us. Jennifer Thompson, a woman who misidentified her rapist, is one of the most heroic advocates raising awareness of the danger of relying solely on eyewitness testimony to secure convictions.

Who is wrongfully convicted?

Anyone can fall prey to the wrongful conviction. That said, innocent people who are poor and from ethnic minorities have proven to be more vulnerable. They have less access to resources to defend and prove their innocence, and they are more easily dehumanized by authorities and juries represented by the ethnic majority. Despite the fact that black people represent only 13% of the U.S. population, they represent 63% of exonerees.

The Innocence Movement

In response to the growing technological advances and the rising awareness of the systemic issues that contribute to wrongful convictions, many private individuals, organizations, and communities have come together in defense of the wrongfully convicted. Since the first Innocence Project was founded in New York in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, similar projects have been founded in nearly all the states in the U.S., as well as in a few other countries, like Ireland and Argentina. Together, these projects form the Innocence Network, which leads the way in offering legal assistance to the wrongfully convicted, and campaigning for legislative reform of the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system services and represents all of us. It’s failures are our failures. In light of that, I encourage everyone to take a moment on Tuesday to read up on the Innocence Movement, which is working to correct the mistakes we’ve allowed to happen. They could use your help.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 10/03/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , | 35 Comments


West Seattle HeraldLast week Chris and I threw a housewarming party. It used to be that a couple didn’t move in together until they were married and ready to start a family. In the 1950s, my Oma lived in an all-female dormitory, and only came into contact with men her age at specially organized dances, like the one where she met my Opa. Social norms loosened up significantly by the 1980s, but my mom was still living with her sister prior to getting married and moving in with my dad.

Back then, a housewarming party was like a baby shower. It was expected that the new couple needed furnishings and housewares. Furthermore, it used to be much more common that couples settled into their new homes for the long run. Even if they couldn’t afford to buy their house yet, they were investing themselves in a community. They could expect that their future kids would be riding bikes and building forts with the other kids on the block.

Times have changed. In order to move in together, Chris and I didn’t need more housewares, we needed fewer. We whittled down two full sets of household items into one, disposing of the extra couch, coffee grinder, salad bowl, etc. When we sent out the invites to our housewarming party, we specifically requested that guests not bring presents.

Nor do we expect to ultimately settle at our present location. While we hope to own our own home one day, we have to wait until we can somehow afford to in spite of the discouraging housing market. In the meantime, I’m applying to graduate school in the winter, which means that we might need to relocate as soon as next September. And the job market being what it is, it’s never certain when and where professional opportunity might strike, or how long it will last. Like many of our peers, as we each build our careers, we have to stay flexible.

So why even throw a housewarming party?

It started with the neighbors. The very first day we moved into our new house, sweaty and loaded down with box after box of books, our new neighbors made a point of stopping by to say hello and even offer us popsicles and cheesecake. In the following days, when they saw us constructing our bedframe and bookshelves, they offered to let us borrow their power tools. In the following weeks, when the trees carpeted our backyard with rotting plums, they let us deposit them into their yard waste bin, because ours was too small. Not since my childhood in the burbs have I felt so acknowledged and welcomed by my neighbors. That kind of relationship tends to fall to the wayside when you’re accustomed to urban apartment living. It was a nice reminder that, even if our presence in this new community is ephemeral, it still matters. Whether or not we have a relationship with our neighbors will affect all of our experiences of living here. One good reason to throw a party.

In a similar vein, although we are only moving in together—as in, we’re not yet getting married or starting a family—that’s still a big deal to us. Our intimacy advanced to the point that we decided to join forces, combine resources, and weave together our separate strands. Temporary or not, we nested the crap out of our new place, to make it as cozy and functional and reflective of ourselves as we possibly could. It was an act of love towards our relationship, and we were proud of our achievement. All that was left was to bring together our people—his friends and family, my friends and family—under one roof (that isn’t Facebook). Further good reasons to throw a party.

In some ways, Chris and I have grown up in a world that is far more secure than that of our parents and grandparents. In other ways, our world is more temporary and uncertain. Our generation moves through more residences than previous generations did. We take on more shorter-term work. That might make a housewarming party seem less important, but really, it makes it more important. The difference between a house and home is warmth. That’s why you have a housewarming party—to transform a house into a home. If our generation’s world is a series of passing-throughs, then we need something to feel settled. A party.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 09/26/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , | 41 Comments


West Seattle HeraldAt 29, I’m fortunate to have not yet lost very many loved ones. To date: two grandparents, a great aunt, a cousin, an uncle, and a family friend. Having just returned from the funeral of one of those grandparents, I realize that I still haven’t fully wrapped my mind around the end of a life. I feel confused, and conflicted when taking part in the funeral rites which are as much concerned with respecting the dead as with reconciling the living with the general idea of death itself. It makes me wonder about what my own death will mean to the people who love me, how I would prefer that manifest itself, and whether my preference even matters.

I understand parts of the ritual. The loss of an individual life tugs at the social network. Dispersed relatives and friends are drawn together to the empty space the person left behind, and it’s like the weight of our combined presence amplifies the afterimage of that person. We exchange memories and condolences. Well-wishers recognize the burden of the bereaved and offer assistance: a ride to the airport, a prepared dinner. My late grandmother’s jocular neighbor staged rubber turkeys wearing Seahawks scarves in the front yard, to cheer my widowed grandfather’s spirits.

I even understand the somewhat crude but necessary wrap-up. We sift through the stuff left behind by the deceased and everyone goes home with an artifact of sentimental value. A scarf. A cane. A necklace. The rest is dropped off at the nearest Goodwill.

Somehow, it’s the more traditional parts of the ritual that I have trouble digesting. The ceremony, the recital of religious tenets, the reception. These rites come across to me as impersonal, one-size-fits-all, automatic. I have trouble reconciling them with the unique individual whose death brought us together. I sit on my bench, avoid looking at the coffin, and wonder, Is this what I would want? Viewings are quite common in the U.S., but do most people actually cherish the idea of their body being embalmed and on display? And the eulogy! Why is it so often that the person summing up our loved one’s life is someone (usually religious) who didn’t actually know them? Why does the funeral parlor serve ready-made appetizer platters, chips, and macaroni salad on a line of fold-out tables in a generic cafeteria? It all seems very mechanical, mourning via conveyor belt, and it makes me squeamish.

And yet, when I deconstruct these traditions, I can’t dismiss their value. I recognize that some people find closure through seeing and saying goodbye to the physical presence of the person after they’ve passed on. The mourning process is already such a burden, it must be a relief to rely on a culturally-approved, time-tested institution to coordinate the endless series of small tasks that seem impossible to handle when someone close to you has died—the food, the drink, the seating, the programs, parking, accommodations, not to mention the burial. When the depth of your grief leaves you speechless, it helps to have a figure of authority, religious or otherwise, host a service that does justice to a loved one’s memory and addresses the congregation’s grief and existential anxiety. If these rites comfort the bereaved, does it matter whether they reflect the wishes of the dead? And if they do reflect the wishes of the dead, does it matter that they don’t comfort me?

My grandfather smiled throughout the reception, and kept saying, “Grandma would have liked this.” He’s right. And because of that, I’m glad everything went down just the way it did, even though I felt worse after the funeral, instead of better. I guess I’m just not the ideal funeral attendee. I’m distracted by existential questions and a desire to personalize tradition. I’m self-conscious about expressing emotions I’m struggling through. And deep down, I feel like closure is an illusion, that loss can’t be punctuated. I don’t have an easy answer for how to reconcile the desires of the dead with the needs of those left behind. I only hope that the response to my death will better resemble how I experience mourning: an unfolding, an opening, an invitation.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 09/19/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , , , , | 38 Comments

Social media: At the intersection between normalcy and public-figure-hood

West Seattle HeraldBack in 2007, it seemed only people like me were using social media. College students. We were staying in touch with our friends from high school. We were finding out who was taking Math 221 with us next quarter. We were organizing study groups and house parties. We were socializing in a whole new environment catered to just us barely-adults. Real adults didn’t have Facebook profiles. Real adults had resumes. Social media was where we defined ourselves. It was the clubhouse where Mom and Dad weren’t allowed, where kids could be kids.

I was twenty years old, and just starting my junior year of college, when I arrived in Perugia to study Italian. Because the cottage I lived in didn’t have internet access, I stayed in touch with my family and friends back home by frequenting Internet cafes to use Skype and Gmail. Social media wasn’t really a part of the scene in Perugia yet. We kept in touch with our new classmates by exchanging phone numbers and loitering on the steps of the Duomo in the main square. Even so, I posted pics of the sites I had visited in Germany and Italy—smiling shots of my sister and me, my new roommates and me; silly shots of me pretending to fire a machine gun in a museum, or bashfully pointing my finger at the Statue of David’s business bits. And when I was struck with bouts of homesickness, I looked back at old pics I had posted of family gatherings, of dressing up with my college friends last Halloween. This was the new normal.

A social media platform succeeds when it facilitates what best resembles real-life human interaction. As Data Scientist Nick Berry pointed out to me when I visited the Facebook Seattle office earlier this week, MySpace couldn’t compete with Facebook because Facebook’s users had real names and real faces, which meant social accountability. We demand authenticity from each other on these platforms, and in turn, we withhold condemnation of our friends when they post an embarrassing or silly photo. Social media is just a digital upgrade for old-fashioned community.

We don’t treat public figures the same way. Politicians and celebrities, we assume, are equipped with PR teams to address the pros and cons of a lifestyle of overwhelming scrutiny. Every tweet is vetted. Every Instagram photo carefully cropped. We demand authenticity from them—we reject celebrity profiles that are too white-washed—but we also hurl judgment at the slightest indiscretion. But that’s the life of a celebrity, right? It’s convenient to think that there are two kinds of people—public figures and the rest of us. But it isn’t that simple. Social media has blurred the line between public and private, peer and stranger.

The line between normalcy and public-figure-hood is ever-narrowing. Whether we know it or not, all of us are all teetering at the edge of public-figure-hood, the slightest push could plunge us into the spotlight, and we don’t have PR teams to hide behind. I know because it happened to me.

At the heart of both a wrongful conviction and a tabloid article is tunnel vision: the journalist or investigator targets a suspect, draws a conclusion about them, and looks only for evidence to support that conclusion. What causes tunnel vision? Profit, pride, pressure and sometimes just ignorance, laziness, or lack of resources. Reliable evidence is cherry picked and re-contextualized so that it no longer resembles itself. Unreliable evidence is treated as reliable. They opt for a false, but compelling conclusion. The truth is often too complex or boring to make a clickbait headline.

There are individuals like me who occupy the intersection between normalcy and public-figure-hood. I want to be myself on social media, but I’ve learned I have to be very careful about what I post, because the tabloids make their living by taking things out of context. This is why my Facebook and Instagram profiles are private. Even so, I have to worry about the pictures my friends and family post, because the tabloids also dredge their profiles for anything that could be twisted into a lurid headline.

When we click on those headlines, we contribute to the dehumanization of another person, who may have been, moments ago, just as anonymous as the rest of us. Our social-media-enhanced society is still in its adolescence. We have yet to establish robust ethics and etiquette. This limbo between normalcy and public-figure-hood highlights how we need to mature. Could and should Facebook auto-copyright all the photos we post under our own names? Would that protect us? I don’t have the answer. But if my only option to be safe from tabloid tunnel vision is to opt out of social media entirely, then our social media is fundamentally flawed. This is because all of us are a moment away from being unwittingly and unwillingly pitched into public-figure-hood, at risk of being condemned for whatever narrative can be created out of our public selves.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 09/12/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Others’ eyes

West Seattle HeraldI may be the oldest of all my siblings and cousins, but it’s not super often that I get to whip out my big-sister powers. Deanna’s just way better at it. She knows how to do hair and makeup, likes to go shopping at the mall, is good at keeping secrets, and isn’t insufferably analytical about everything, especially when you just want to be heard. Me, well…I’m good at helping out with homework assignments.

Just this past week I helped my cousin Ryan clean up the rough draft of his college application essay. It’s an assignment I particularly love to help out with, because I learn a lot about my younger relatives through their writing, and because the act of editing feels loving to me. Like good listening, editing involves reading what’s actually written on the page, understanding what was intended, and proposing solutions for closing the gap. It’s so hard to do that work for your own writing, so easy to second guess yourself, and second guess your second guesses. And many people, myself included, start writing without actually knowing what we want to say! It’s a relief when you can rely on someone to read your work, and say, “Oh, your thesis is X, Y, and Z. How about you cut out that tangent there, clarify your wording here, and reorder your evidence so it presents the causal relationship you’re trying to suggest?” Or even, “Huh. I can’t really get a read on your tone. Were you trying to sound so critical?”

I know, because my own work really suffers without others’ eyes. Just take my last column, about visiting the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire. My intention was to convey my happy immersion in a place that was impressive for its craft, occasionally imperfect in its artifice, and inspiringly authentic in its spirit. I wanted to describe the curious, functional mashup of fantasy, history, and modernity. I wanted to celebrate the serious silliness it takes for grown-ups to play pretend together, no matter the cost, or the insane heat. I typed it up, sent it in, and didn’t look back.

At least, I didn’t look back until a friend of mine read the published column and asked me whether I had enjoyed the faire or not. “Of course I did!” I exclaimed, inwardly panicking. I brought up the column, read it through again, and cringed. I still saw what I had intended to convey, but I also saw how one could read what I had written as an indictment against the faire for being only, and these were my own words, “sort of renaissance-y.” A somewhat random anecdote about being called “hun” by the nice crepe-stand-girl and how it made me think about the curious malleability of the English language came across as kind of bitchy. And I certainly didn’t do the Cirque du Sewer justice for how heartwarming the show was precisely because the animals were too adorably hot and sleepy to perform.


Mea culpa, my friends. I admit I still need others’ eyes, my own big-sister-figures looking over my shoulder, and a little (or lot of) editing love to say what I mean. In the meantime, thanks for understanding.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 09/05/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , | 20 Comments