Renaissance Faire

West Seattle HeraldOn a +95° cloudless day, the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire was a bustling strip stretched across a vast, dry, grassy, farming plot. Devotion won over reasonableness. A court of Lords and Ladies in full outfit—petticoats and collars—paraded to-and-fro between the royal tent and the half-timber towers of the front gate. Knights in full leather, chain mail, and plate armor grappled in the jousting field. Even the paying visitors braved the heat in wool cloaks and furr wraps.

The cashier at the crepe stand must have been no older than sixteen. She wore green eye-shadow, a brown, felt, lace-up vest over a frilly peasant dress, and corn-row braids on the just the right side of her blond head. So, sort-of renaissance-y. In this way she fit in with much of the rest, where decoration depended as much upon historical accuracy as fantasy and budget. The Red Dragon Pub was really a beer garden with a fence around it. Canvas cubicle shops sold everything from steel swords to paper parasols. Costumes ranged in authenticity from hand-embroidered leather to LED fairy wings. Alongside vendors offering smoked turkey legs and meat pies were those offering ice cream and pizza.

I remembered the crepe-girl because her stand was the only one that served iced coffee, and she kept calling me “hun.” This prompted my partner Chris and I to note the lack of codification of terms of social rank in English. For instance, there is no official English equivalent for the Japanese suffixes “chan” or “san,” nor are there ranked “you” conjugations like the “tu” and “usted”/“vous”/“Lei” of Romance languages. Instead, we have terms which tend to but not necessarily connote endearment/insult, respect/condescension, depending on who is saying them to whom in what context and in what tone. Calling a grown man “son” is different than calling him “sir,” and I was struck, to be called “honey” by a sixteen-year-old, when had she been sixty, I would not. Was she attempting to sound old-timey, perhaps?

I looked forward to Cirque du Sewer, supposedly the world’s one-and-only acrobat, cat and rat performance. At the hottest hour of the afternoon, acrobat Melissa Arleth wore her black bloomers with red polka dots and a matching corset over a red peasant top. Her hair was wound up in two buns, like rat ears. Sweat hovered on her face as she performed splits, handstands and walked the slack line. Pad Kee Meow, the acro-cat, reluctantly balanced on Arleth’s head, desperately panting. Of the acro-rats, only sprightly Bubonique could be coaxed off her chilled sleeping pad to run the gauntlet.

The knights! I was friends with a few of the knights—they throw awesome, Viking-themed birthday parties—, so I made sure to show up early and secure a front row seat on the bleachers for their jousting contest. The knights were divided into four teams representing England, France, Spain and Germany, and one knight from each team competed on horse, doing everything from chopping at rotten cabbages nailed to a post, throwing spears at targets on hay bales, spearing wicker hoops with their swords, and, of course, jousting. In between these events, ground-fighting knights squared off with swords, spears, daggers…

Of course, I understood that the stakes in these games weren’t “authentic.” Back in time, knights rode hard and aimed to break their lances against each other, often risking their lives in the process. Not so here, where the knights aimed to strike the other with as little impact as possible. Here, the ground-fighting was rough-and-tumble, but still a choreographed dance.

Even so, I was struck by how authentic the experience was. I cried myself hoarse, cheering, “Vive la France!” I winced at the bang of lance impacting shield. I had to concede that Spain’s rider the best, because of how precisely he sliced those cabbages in half. Back in time, people came from far-and-wide, and in their best costumes, to brave the heat and cheer on these exact same games. In my frilly skirts, I could be the Medieval Italian peasant girl Berenice for the day. Don’t mind my cellphone or rose-tinted sunglasses. They’re magic from the fairies.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 08/29/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

And for my next tattoo…

West Seattle HeraldIn a parallel, not-so-distant universe, I might have been a tattoo artist. In this one, I’m merely a tattoo person. I don’t have spider webs on my elbows or a big Chinese dragon coiled across my back. I don’t style my life or identity around being inked. That’s cool; just not for me. What I am is an enthusiast of the body as a canvas. I’m an admirer of the artistry. And I encourage everyone who’s on the fence about getting a tattoo to go for it. Just, be smart.

This past weekend my littlest sister, Delaney, turned eighteen, and to celebrate, she asked us—her three older sisters—to get a tattoo with her. It was chaos. In the days leading up to the big day, Delaney was out of town and incommunicado. Deanna, Ashley and I each separately called and visited the tattoo parlor multiple times, and offered the staff contradictory information. We changed our minds about the final design up to the last minute. We acted like a gaggle of newbs, except we weren’t. Between the three of us, we already had ten tattoos, and a bit of knowledge about the do’s and don’ts, the good and bad, and the right perspective to carry our littlest sister through her first tattoo.

Bit of knowledge #1: You’re a tattoo person.

A lot of people don’t fancy themselves tattoo people because they think you have to be invested in a very specific kind of lifestyle to get a tattoo. Like a criminal, or a hipster. Not true. Just like tattoo people, tattoos come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Depending on the placement, they can be public or private. Depending on the design, their meaning can be obvious or cryptic. A tattoo is art that becomes a part of you, but it doesn’t define you, or change who you are. So unless you’re allergic to tattoo ink, or may be traumatized by the sight of a little blood and/or the experience of being pricked with a needle over and over (kind of like a prolonged bee sting?), you’re a tattoo person.

Bit of knowledge #2: It’s all about working with an artist.

When I got my first tattoo at nineteen (with my aunt, Mom, and Deanna for her eighteenth birthday), due diligence compelled me to research parlors for their cleanliness and quality. It never occurred to me to research tattoo artists. I showed up to my appointment never having met or spoken with my artist, and brandishing a print-out from a Google image search. The artist was graceful and the tattoo came out well. But it was only when I got my second tattoo, years later and under very different circumstances, that I realized I had missed out the first time on the best part of the experience of getting a tattoo—collaboration.

I knew I should get my second tattoo because an idea compelled me. That idea was gentle victory, the survival of the prey, the ultimate triumph of the victim. I needed to affirm that idea as a part of me and the course of my life at the time I felt most hunted and victimized. I needed a tattoo talisman. But I only vaguely imagined what it might look like.

I knew my image didn’t exist yet, that no Google search would produce a result that could speak directly to my idea. Instead, I needed to find an artist whose work and style spoke to me. My friend Madison happened to introduce me to my eventual artist through the artist’s website, but in general I’d recommend just taking to Instagram and tumbling down a few long rabbit holes starting with #tattoo.

Just like reading makes you a better writer, so does scrolling through hundreds of tattoo art make you a better tattoo client. The designs of others will help you hone the idea of your personal image, and once you’ve settled on an artist, you will have much to reference as inspiration for the design they will craft for you.

Bit of knowledge #3: Tattoos are excellent reminders to keep perspective.  

It’s impossible to know if an idea/image that you are compelled by now is going to compel you for the rest of your life. Inevitably, all of us grow and change, in personality, trajectory, priority and aesthetic. The tattoo you would get at eighteen is almost certainly not the tattoo you would get at thirty-eight or eighty-eight.

The image I choose for my first tattoo was the symbol for Swadhishtana, the chakra associated with love, empathy, and relationships. It was very representative of that time of my life, when I was young underclassman in college nurturing new relationships and practicing a lot of yoga. I’ve experienced a lot of life since then, and much has changed, so much so that the idea of the chakra doesn’t speak to me in the way that it used to. Even so, I my chakra reminds to look back on myself and appreciate who I was in relation to who I have become, and then, to who I eventually hope to be.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 08/22/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Winning back Sylvia

West Seattle Herald“You should grab…that thing…that you know for sure…and put an exclamation mark…around it…and that’s the end…of that. Put the secret…around it…and whatever was…a secret…make it…for sure.”

This was the response my grandmother, Sylvia, murmured to me from her hospital bed when I asked her for a piece of winning advice. If it sounds cryptic, it’s because she was recovering from chemotherapy and a stroke. Each word came slowly, painstakingly, and there were drawn-out pauses that made me worry she had lost her train of thought.

This was very unlike the Sylvia I knew. The Sylvia I knew was gregarious, chatty, people-oriented, especially if those people were family. She knew the names of all the beauticians at the nail salon in the local strip mall. Her neighbors were intimate friends. To me, she was like all that’s good about a Hallmark card—sweet, sentimental, sincere, reliable, communicative, though lacking subtlety. Because she lives a seven-and-a-half-hour drive away in Montana, I even associate her with the holidays.

Last weekend, my sisters and I made that seven-and-a-half-hour drive to visit her in the hospital, after her health suddenly and unexpectedly took a turn for the worse. We had been cautioned to expect changes, especially resulting from the chemotherapy, but even so, it was shocking to take in the loss of not just her hair and weight, but her energy, and seemingly, her spirit. At first sight, it was like Sylvia had collapsed inward like an old mineshaft.

My sisters and I floundered for a bit. What could we say, when it was like Sylvia could barely hear us? What could we do, when it seemed like it took all of Sylvia’s energy just to exist? With Sylvia in such a state, and barely recognizable, how could we relate to her enough to interact with her?

We knew Sylvia was in there, and we imagined we just needed to give her a hand to draw her back out. I asked her if she wanted to write a column with me, imagining she might want to take up a genuine offer to be heard, about anything. I was even willing to hear her opinion about voting for Trump. Sylvia seemed interested, so I asked her what we should write about.

“Winning,” she said.

“OK. What about winning?”

“You keep on…”

“You keep on keeping on?” This was a Sylvia-ism. My sisters and I exchanged encouraged looks.

“One step at a time.”

I pressed on, trying to encourage Sylvia to examine the subject of winning from many different angles. How do you win? How do you know you’ve won? Do you have any winning advice? Her answers were either short and repetitive, or wandering and cryptic. She struggled with complex or distant concepts, like the past, or her own spirituality. It became apparent that Sylvia was firmly locked in her present moment, and her mind was almost entirely occupied with a necessary mantra: “Keep on keeping on. One step at a time.”

It reminded me of climbing a steep hill on my bike. To get through the pain and maintain the necessary momentum, I automatically fall into a hyper-focused rhythm. My mind thinks, “I think I can, I think I can,” and with each “think” and “can,” my feet push down on the pedals. “I think I can” and nothing else, all the way up to the top.

Sylvia wasn’t just existing. She was in the midst of a lonely, painful journey through her body and through time. And whether or not her body would follow, her mind was bent on making it. Hers was a whole other plane of existence, without distraction, without doubt. A survivor, surviving.

She did have room for one more coherent thought, though. I asked her, in her whole life, what was her greatest victory?

“Now,” she said. “You all are here now.”

As far away as Sylvia was, it turned out that what she really valued outside of her focus was us. Entrenched though we were in our distracted, complicated world, Sylvia needed our connection, because her love for us was such a big part of who she is. We were her world outside of the collapsed mineshaft, and she needed to know that we were there to witness her win herself back, “one step at a time.” The victory was in sharing it.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 08/15/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Hurts to hear

West Seattle HeraldAbout a fortnight ago, some friends and I decided to watch The Maltese Falcon together. Seeing as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? has always been one of my favorites, I thought I would like it. Instead, I ended up storming out of the living room. It turned out I couldn’t stomach sitting through this moment:

Brigid: It’s more than I can ever offer you if I have to bid for your loyalty.
Spade: That’s good coming from you. What have you ever given me beside money? Have you ever given me any of your confidence, any of the truth? Haven’t you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else?
Brigid: What else is there I can buy you with?
[Spade kisses her roughly]

Let’s back up. The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 film noir based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. The hero, Sam Spade, is a private detective investigating the case of a beautiful and mysterious client, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. From the get-go, Spade is portrayed as hyper-masculine. After his partner is murdered, he demonstrates no emotion except controlled aggression, because “it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it.” He openly despises effeminate henchmen like Dr. Cairo, who he can easily disarm. As for the women in his life, Spade’s demeanor depends on his sexual relationship with them. Spade patronizes his strictly-professional secretary, calling her “angel.” He barely disguises his contempt for Iva, his clingy ex-lover. And finally, Spade showers the principal femme fatale, Brigid, with judgement and possessive lust.

It’s one thing to know, on an intellectual level, that women have always been subordinated, degraded, and objectified by men. It’s another thing to see it with your own eyes, particularly when it is so taken for granted. What most struck me about the misogyny of The Maltese Falcon was how it didn’t pronounce itself. It just was.

It reminds me of my conflicted feelings when listening to one of my favorite genres of music: R&B. The soulful crooning of my favorite singers—Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Ray Charles—portrays a deeply misogynist America.

There are some obviously misogynist songs, like Jimmy Soul’s “If You Want to Be Happy.” He says women are untrustworthy because they’re not properly subordinate. Unless, of course, they are ugly:

A pretty woman makes her husband look small
And very often causes his downfall
As soon as he married her and then she starts
To do the things that will break his heart
But if you make an ugly woman your wife
You’ll be happy for the rest of your life
An ugly woman cooks meals on time
And she’ll always give you peace of mind

Barbara Streisand’s “My Man,” portraying the woman’s side, is even more devastating:

I don’t know why I should
He isn’t true
He beats me, too
What can I do?
Oh, my man, I love him so
He’ll never know
All my life is just despair
But I don’t care
When he takes me in his arms
The world is bright

These kinds of lyrics are occasional, and stand out as cringe-worthy—a kind of sweet, lullaby version of today’s pimps and hoes. Insidious are the much more common and seemingly innocuous lyrics about unrequited love. The man can’t afford his woman. The good woman’s place is in the home. The bad woman wants to be free. Oh, I just can’t live without him…

Nowadays, we’re used to hearing about bitches and sexual violence. It took me until my mid-to-late-twenties to come to appreciate much of hip hop and rap because I felt so alienated by its content in my more tender, impressionable youth. I internalized, rather, the subtler misogyny pervasive throughout classic entertainment—Dean Martin and Disney. Only with years of experience and introspection have I been able to reconstruct my own perspective and observe misogyny from a distance, so that it doesn’t hurt to hear.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 08/08/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

Moving Out, Moving On

West Seattle HeraldBy my weary, vacant look, you wouldn’t guess at how thrilled I am. I’m so exhausted, I forget myself. This is because all this past week, my partner Chris and I have been organizing, gathering, and boxing our separate households to move in together. We’ve been looking forward to the big day for a while, and now that it’s come, it’s easy to feel physically and emotionally overwhelmed.

I didn’t really realize, for instance, how much cumbersome stuff I had—and how heavy it was—until I tried to play Tetris with it. And, stuff is emotional. Packing up my belongings feels like packing up my history. As I disassemble, I’m reminded of what kind of person I am by the kinds of things that take up my personal space. By far, I have more books and clothing than any other kind of material possession. These are the things that feel most infused with my sense of self—hence my reticence to shed myself of them. Interestingly, books and clothes are also the majority of Chris’s possessions, and we’re enjoying anticipating the challenge of shared bookshelves and closets.

The cumulative effect is utter exhaustion, but as I take a writing break from the packing tape, I feel compelled to appreciate my other feelings. This is a momentous moment in Chris’s and my partnership. The coming together of homes has finally caught up with the coming together of minds and hearts. If all goes well, and we work really really hard, there won’t ever be another home for us without each other. Bam!

I’m excited to discover what our shared space will be like, because just as our relationship is more than the sum of Chris and Amanda, so must our home be more than the sum of our stuff.

I’m reminded of how my cell in Capanne prison transformed in character with the arrival or release of even just one prisoner. While none of us was allowed much in the way of material possessions, our combined emotional baggage, when bashed together without consideration, could make an already inescapable situation insufferable, even dangerous.

And that’s the other thing. As I sit here in a bookstore-café, sipping a Cortado, tapping away on my laptop in a line of similarly industrious mid-to-late-twenty-year-olds, I appreciate how normal this is. Momentous, yes, but normal.

It’s been four and a half years since I returned to Seattle from Italy. Until recently, those years were a nightmare roller coaster ride of unresolved legal drama. There was no feeling settled, hard as I tried. I graduated from college, set out on a career path. I fell in love, fell in love again, and again. All this in the time it took the Italian legal system to run its course, and in its wake, for me to recover myself.

My loved ones have stood by me through a decade of overcoming internal and external obstacles. Their struggle didn’t neatly wrap up with my return home, though they needn’t pass through prison barriers just to see me anymore. We were all surprised to discover leftover emotional and psychological barriers that had to be navigated for them to reach me, and vice versa. Not to mention the barriers that come between you and the rest of society when you’re a public figure. For better or for worse, I haven’t felt like any-other-person-my-age for a long time.

Slowly, bit by bit, I’m recovering. It may still be the case that, when I call Puget Sound Energy to set up a new utility account, I’m reminded that I’m “That girl in Italy?! That Amanda Knox?!” Yeah, I’m her. I’m also the Amanda Knox who is so excited to be living my life alongside people I love and respect, lugging furniture, scooping cat poop, paying the bills, moving on.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 08/01/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Are we leeches?

West Seattle HeraldThe paparazzi like to describe their relationship with celebrities as symbiotic, and when you look at the Kardashians, that seems like a reasonable way to frame it. But just because a few socialites have learned to exploit their own exploitation, as doctors have discovered medical uses for the leech, does not make the celebrity-paparazzi relationship mutually beneficial.

Do most celebrities sign up for their entire lives to be fodder for entertainment? Perhaps some do. And yes, famous actors and musicians benefit from being recognizable for their work. But the current media culture isn’t satisfied with covering just the art they make. The paparazzi interfere in their personal lives, humiliate, glamorize, defame and dehumanize them. Why? Because we want them to.

I’m not talking about the First Amendment. The paparazzi have the right to take pictures and report on anyone who happens to be in the public. I’m talking about the media culture we have jointly created as consumers. By desiring to live vicariously through celebrities, we deny them the right to lead normal lives. By paying to read about their intimacies and scandals, we dehumanize public figures.

It’s almost inevitable. At the check-out counter you glimpse the close-up of J-Law’s pores and skim the tantalizing headlines. You’re already reading it, so you might as well toss the rag onto the conveyor belt along with the Organic kale and Greek yogurt. It’s a guilty pleasure—like wasting an hour of the day watching a soap opera. It’s unproductive; it’s probably all made-up anyway. But it’s cheap, it’s entertaining. It feels better to know that even Jennifer Aniston hasn’t escaped wrinkles and cellulite. And the royal baby! How cute! What’s the harm? Plus, the tabloids would exist whether you bought them or not, right?

Except, that’s not how it works. If we didn’t consume it, it wouldn’t exist. But the consequences of our consumption seem so distant, as distant as the caliber of the lives of the celebrities themselves. And yet, we know Princess Di died trying to escape the harassment of the paparazzi pursuing her, and the flashing of their cameras was the last thing she saw in this world.

We tell ourselves that celebrities ultimately benefit from it, or, at worst, that it’s a necessary cost of being famous. Indeed, many people argue this in defense of paparazzi. I disagree, and I think how we zoom our lens says more about us than the celebrities we judge. Whether or not Johnny Depp, by acting in films, signed up to have his divorce scrutinized, is a question worth debating. What seems indefensible to me is that the media culture we have created also preys upon those who never signed up for the spotlight.

Some people have celebrity thrust upon them. They are often ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the pressure and impact on their life. That happened to me. All it takes is for other people to shine the spotlight on you, point the lens at you, speculate about you, and you are public figure. And as a public figure, you have less right to privacy than the average citizen. You have no legal recourse to prevent paparazzi from interrupting your day-to-day life, harassing your loved ones, or defaming you, unless you can prove malicious intent, which is notoriously difficult to prove. There was nothing I could do to stop people from defining me as a man-eater, slut, manipulative witch, and psychopath.

When we buy Star magazine and read TMZ.com, which invade the private lives of actors and musicians, we are preying upon them, and we are supporting a paparazzi culture that at its whim may prey upon any one of us. We have the right to be complicit in this kind of culture, as the paparazzi have the right to take the photos we pay them for, but is this the world that we want to live in?

Published by the West Seattle Herald 07/25/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

What was lost

West Seattle HeraldSome things are irrevocably lost. The time I spent in Perugia—when I was just another young college student in the crowd—feels that way. I had been there for only a little over a month before tragedy struck. I couldn’t say that I knew even my own roommates deeply. There is only so much you can know about a new place or person in so brief a time.

And then, for circumstances to turn on their head… It’s difficult to reconcile Perugia, the paradise, with Perugia, the prison, especially when the duration and intensity of prison dwarfed my experience of paradise. For that reason alone, looking back on my memories of blossoming friendships, cultural discovery, and delicious food feels painful. It’s as if wrongful accusation not only physically removed me from Perugia, but by redefining me as something I was not, it also stole from me who I had actually been in Perugia, and everything I had actually done.

Long ago I gave up dreaming that any piece of Perugia, the paradise, would ever be restored to me. Because that’s life.

A few days ago, my partner, Chris, and I attended our regular Lindy Hop lesson at the Century Ballroom, but instead of heading home afterwards to make dinner and watch Doctor Who, we stayed to eat in the adjacent cocktail lounge with our parents. It had been my birthday in the past week, and we planned to swing dance into the night with family members and friends. While we chatted over a bottle of wine, a young woman and her date were seated at an adjacent table. The young woman and I held each other’s gaze for a moment. Nothing more would have come of it had we not run into each other in the bathroom.

She recognized me first. As I leaned over the sink to wash my hands, she asked, “Amanda? From Perugia?”

I turned to her, scanned her face, and felt an undefined, but unmistakable recognition.

“It’s Ada. From Kazakhstan.”

Ada! From Kazakhstan! It almost hurt how fully I was flooded with memories, not just those long past, but memories given up as lost. Ada had been my classmate at the Università per Stranieri in Perugia. Both of us were new and relatively on our own, so we gravitated towards each other. She would come by my house after class and I taught her how to play “Hey Ya” on guitar. I remembered thinking about her from my prison cell, wondering what had ever happened to her, if she had completed her semester in Perugia, if she remembered me for who I really was, or if her memories of me had been twisted and tainted after my arrest, like what had happened with my Italian roommates. I never thought that I would ever see her again.

“I can’t believe it!” Ada said. “I talked to the police about you. I was so worried for you. I’m so glad you’re home and free!”

We hugged, exchanged numbers, caught up on some history, and I introduced her to Chris and our parents. We hugged again before she departed with her date, and later texted about meeting for coffee and catching up over the weekend. The rest of the night, the rest of the week, I felt rattled. Not in a bad way, but certainly as if my world had turned on its head again.

The calm after the storm never feels quite the same as the calm before. After a dense decade, Ada and I will be getting to know each other all over again. Even so, coming back into contact with Ada from Kazakhstan, Ada my classmate, Ada my friend in Perugia, feels like reconciliation of who I am and who I actually was. I’m no longer alone in remembering. I’m no longer lost. And I’m so grateful.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 07/18/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Meredith Kercher Murder, Personal | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Unity

West Seattle HeraldOn his birthday, my partner introduced me to this tradition he has, of writing himself a birthday sonnet. He read me a few from the last few years. They weren’t festive. Rather, they attempted to encapsulate sentiments for another year of life past, goals moving forward, what could be or could have been. They weren’t depressing, either! Just that particular combination of warm and cold often characterizing the thoughts of an adult on their birthday—another milepost on the mortal road.

I decided to take up the tradition myself, and for my birthday—July 9th—I’m going to break the usual mold of my weekly column by instead submitting my birthday sonnet. Because I can. It’s my birthday.

“Unity”

Juggling eggs, each one the one and only.

They’re potential, and serious; each a

transparent pre-hatchling, each a creature

worth being, but utterly, totally.

I struggle to warm one long enough

in hand for limbs to form, stretch, and break out

of their thin cast, to be. Be! Not without

dropping the others, equally worthy.

But, this is not adolescence. I have

responsibilities, opportunities:

people to love. I know how to behave

with my dance partner, how to turn one-half

ways, to cast us as upward entities,

unite momentum. No master. No slave.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 07/09/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged | 7 Comments

Doctor Who, paradox, and PTSD

West Seattle HeraldOne of the more frustrating questions I’ve been asked as a trauma survivor is whether or not I would have done anything differently. Would I have refused to speak a word to investigators without the presence of a lawyer? Would I have acted more “normal”? Would I have stayed in Seattle rather than study abroad? These questions are frustrating because they ignore or invalidate all my growth in response to suffering.

National PTSD Awareness Day was June 27th, and I spent much of the week thinking about PTSD—how complex the condition, how subjective the symptoms, how paradoxical the repercussions. Then I happened to watch Season 10, Episode Six of Doctor Who, “The Girl Who Waited.”

For those unfamiliar with the Doctor Who series, the Doctor is an alien time traveler who has a special affection for humanity. He always travels with a human companion or two, and he is frequently rescuing Earth from all manner of terrible catastrophe across all of time and space.

In Season 10, the Doctor is accompanied by a young married couple, Amy and Rory. They decide to visit a holiday-destination world, Apalapucia, only to discover that the entire planet has been quarantined because of the outbreak of a lethal disease. Amy gets trapped in a medical facility designed to slow down time so that terminal patients can experience a life-time in the span of 24 hours.

The Doctor and Rory promise Amy that they will save her, but in the minutes it takes them to organize their rescue effort, decades pass for Amy. By the time they reach her, Amy’s a hardened old woman who long ago gave up waiting to be saved. Rory, devastated, observes, “It’s like you’re not even her.” Old Amy replies, “36 years, 3 months, 4 days of solitary confinement. This facility was built to give people the chance to live. I walked in here and I died.”

The Doctor promises that they can still save young Amy with old Amy’s help. But to the Doctor and Rory’s astonishment, old Amy refuses. When Rory protests, she says, “He wants to rescue past-me from thirty-six years back, which means I’ll cease to exist. Everything I’ve seen and done dissolves. Time is rewritten. I will die. And other-Amy will take my place.”

I understand that feeling.

Even though I had never posed that question to myself before, sitting on the couch watching Doctor Who, I felt a strong, painful certainty. Looking back on who I was before wrongful imprisonment feels like looking back on a little sister—I was naïve, well-meaning, and worthy of being protected against the forces that would fall upon me. But my present self did survive, I grew so much in the process. If I could, I would tell my past self that although the trauma is prolonged and painful, everything is going to eventually be OK and she is going to survive and be stronger and smarter and better for it. But, there’s the paradox: my present self would know just what to say because my past self had to struggle through that trauma scared and alone.

What finally convinces Old Amy to follow through with the rescue plan is when she is able to communicate with her younger self. Young Amy doesn’t plea with old Amy for her own sake, but for Rory, the man she loved who missed out on growing old with her.

If I could go back and somehow stop everything bad from happening—stop Rudy Guede from murdering Meredith Kercher—and thus prevent her family, Raffaele and his family, and my family from going through what they went through, then the answer is obvious. Yes, I would give up who I am now. But just for my own sake? I don’t know who I’d be without all the trauma that happened to me in Perugia, but I do know that the person I am now is worth protecting, too. I can’t say that all trauma survivors would agree, but I bet I’m not the only one who, deep down, feels this way. This is the paradox at the heart of PTSD: surviving trauma means accepting the trauma as a part of your life and learning to value the experience gained, even while never letting go of the fact that you wish you never had to suffer trauma in the first place.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 07/04/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , | 43 Comments

Photographing Women: Waters, Reds, Writings, Wraps

West Seattle HeraldPrior to the final stage of Dawndra’s and my collaboration—the composition phase—Dawndra was very much a team-player, even more so than I expected. First, getting to know each other required a spirit of openness and imagination, because the information we gathered about ourselves, and the imagery we brainstormed, became our project’s subject material. Then, getting out in the field, setting up materials, posing and photographing, Dawndra and I each poured our physical energy into our shared ideas. Dawndra photographed, directed, encouraged—she even laid a towel over the bands of sharp pebbles on the beach so I wouldn’t cut my feet which were already frozen from wading in the Puget Sound. Finally, in this last stage, Dawndra took the reins, and I was eager to step back and witness her vision coalesce, and in what ways. What emerged is a series of portraits that sought to convey my inner world in response to my external one during a particular period in my life.

It’s both the most obvious and most pressing period of my life to respond to; the period of my life I’m best known for by the greatest number of people. It was a period wrought with pain, grief, isolation, and fear; a period of twisted plots, distorted characters, and overwhelming forces. Dawndra’s portraits respond through four phases of distinct aesthetic scenes which together tell an overarching story. The four phases I’ve identified as the Waters, Reds, Writings, and Wraps.

The Waters are dark images in black-and-white where I’m standing at the water’s edge, or in the water. A bit a la Joan of Arc, I’m bracing myself against the elements, which are alternatively gentle and violent—petals and smoke. Dawndra intended the ladder to symbolise a pyre, comparing the treatment of me to witch-burning, the layers of smothering smoke obscuring but small glimpses of me within it all.

Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
“Witch burning” by Dawndra Budd.

The Reds are crisp and colorful images which rely on symbolism. Here, I’m no longer in the cold or on the pyre, but I’m in suspended animation. I’m unconscious and vulnerable, precariously still. Like the Hanged Man of Tarot cards, I’m dangling, in a state of flux, paradoxically secure and insecure, certain and uncertain.

Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
“Time stands still” by Dawndra Budd.

The Writings are opaque, black-and-white images whose lens focuses on a prop. Faded into the background, I’m posed wearily, paused. In the bottle is a scrap from my letter writing days: Io lo so che non sono sola anche quando sono sola, meaning, I know I’m not alone, even when I’m alone. The keys are both in my hands and not. I can’t be the one to wield them for my own sake, so I entrust them to someone else, like a message in a bottle.

Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.

The Wraps are colorful and vivacious images. Where the Waters, Reds, and Writings rightly depict me as passive—because for much of that period of my life, I was severely handicapped and limited in what I could do—the Wraps are my favorite because they depict the part of me that I actually had control over, my internal self, which remained defiantly alive. The flying curls of my hair mimic the coils of the wire. I hold onto the last of what I can hold onto: myself. Nearly all the color and energy has been drained from me, but I try to make count the last of what I’ve got.

Photo by Dawndra Budd.
“Captured” by Dawndra Budd.

I didn’t know at the idea-gathering and photographing stages that these would be the images Dawndra and I would end up with. I also don’t know if Dawndra would offer the same narrative as what I’ve drawn from them. What I do know is that I feel like Dawndra saw me, saw into me, and the result is what she saw, rendered with sensitivity, imagination, and talent.

Thank you, Dawndra. See more.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 06/27/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments