This month, Netflix released their documentary on Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who served time in an Italian prison for murdering her roommate. The case and trial were international sensations, but getting Amanda to talk on camera has proven elusive for many reporters. The documentarians for this project went to great lengths to secure her participation and make the most of it by anchoring the narrative through her.
The result is an arresting and haunting telling through the eyes of a young woman who has spent her adulthood having other people tell her who she is.
For anyone unfamiliar with the case, Knox was living in the Italian town of Perugia in November 2007. After a week-long whirlwind romance, she and her boyfriend, Rafaelle Sollecito, were arrested for the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. Both maintained their innocence, but were found guilty. On appeal, an Italian court found that the original investigation was botched and evidence was compromised. After a fight which lasted nearly a decade, the two have been completely exonerated of the crime. Another man, Rudy Guede, has since been found guilty and is serving time for the crime.
There are many threads to unravel in this case and the constrained and well-done documentary - just 92 minutes in length - focuses on the thread of tabloid sensationalism. As Kercher was British, the British press is a large part of this story and journalist Nick Pisa offers insight to that effect. The difference between Italian courts of law and American are also highlighted, as well as the perceptions of sex and young women that Western culture seems to hold. All of these are worthy rabbit trails to chase, worthy conversations to have.
I watched the documentary several weeks ago and have not been able to get it out of my mind. What keeps reverberating is the fact that people decided who Knox was, what the essence of her was, what kind of person she was, based on hearsay and a few photographs. This happens all the time in our era of blurry lines between public and private, but the consequences aren't always so intense.
In the court of public opinion, Knox didn't grieve correctly. A simple Google image search for Knox even now will produce photos such as this one, and media commentators tripped all over themselves to analyze her potential as a criminal. The documentary reminds us that her diary was leaked to the Italian press, that she was painted in the media as having devious sexual tastes, that photos from her MySpace page were entered into evidence as character pieces. It's also clear that the Italian authorities decided Knox was guilty almost immediately and saw all of the evidence at the crime scene through that lens.
We can talk at length about what grief is "supposed" to look like, but what I want to focus on here is the "supposed". There are so many facets of our personality which require unpacking, but the perception of others will outweigh truth almost every time. Some commentators have questioned as to whether she is on the autism spectrum, and others have posited that she is simply odd. Whatever the reasoning or explanation behind some of her behaviors and decisions (smiling in court, going lingerie shopping in the days following the murder, cartwheels in prison hallways), what is most significant to me is that public perception is what drove court decisions in this case.
Perception is reality, we're told, or the other idiom that politics is perception. Public figures are crafted entities, engineered to be most favorable to the perceptions of the masses. Do we remember, however, that the strength of that carries into all of our lives? Yes, perception is reality, but it is our reality. This is why empathy is so important as a life skill; it's the ability to realize our perception may be flawed and there may be another story.
I frequently work with leaders who struggle with this. They know they must be empathetic, but have no real idea how to put it into practice. They'll tell me of a conflict in their organization and I'll ask how a certain employee or team member feels and they'll say that they think or they assume or something like that. "So you haven't actually asked them?" I say and the person admits that no, they haven't asked. I then usually recommend they start there; after all, leadership is about knowing how to ask the right questions so you can make informed choices.
If Amanda Knox is anything, it's a stark reminder that perceptions without verification can be traumatic and misleading. This is as true for Meredith Kercher's family, who still maintain that the exoneration is wrong and the original pair are guilty, as it is for Knox and Sollecito and their families. It is also certainly true for a thousand moments, large and small, throughout our days and lives and a reminder worth heeding.