(not an article) New Hampshire Public Radio, May 13, 2013- my discussion of the ongoing reconsideration of Sylvia Plath, on the 50th anniversary of her death, on “Word of Mouth,” with moderator Virginia Prescott.
When I was in college, in the 1980s, my roommates and friends would occasionally get care packages from home—chocolate-chip cookies, an Easter box, a scarf, earrings, a new coat, or whatever it may have been. But my mother, who is deeply loving and irrepressibly creative, has an ironic sensibility (which she transferred to me in my tenderest youth) and is also a workaholic, so I never expected to receive a box of maternal Rice Krispie treats from her; and I never did.
Back then, she and my father were overwhelmed with responsibilities at home in Oklahoma: team-teaching a course at Oklahoma State University on the United States and the Soviet Union, chauffeuring my younger brothers to their high school classes and practices, and struggling to make my tuition. Our long, roving, hilarious weekly phone calls were all I needed as proof of love.
But in my sophomore year, unheralded, a package slip arrived for me at Yale Station. Going to the pick-up window, I found a brown cardboard box. In it was a throw pillow, on which my mother (who sews, knits, cooks, and plays piano and violin) had embroidered a quote that had convulsed her from that autumn’s evening news. In lavish colors, and in a highly ornamental script, it read, in full: “IF IT CAN HAPPEN TO LEON KLINGHOFFER IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE. —MEMENTO MORI - TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS - OCT. 9, 1985.”
Many of you may not remember this tragic incident from the warmup days of the current, prolonged “War on Terror,” but on October 7,1985, Palestinian hijackers took over a cruise ship called the Achille Lauro that was sailing outside of Alexandria. The next day, one of the hostages, a wealthy wheelchair-bound man named Leon Klinghoffer, was shot by the hijackers, then pushed overboard. (One news report claimed he bit the thumb of one of his captors, but I am not sure that was true. Other reports said he was singled out because he was Jewish.) Reporting this event on the 9th, Tom Brokaw had delivered the line in such a grave, rueful tone that my mother felt it needed commemoration: in red blue and green embroidery thread.
This relic is precious to me. It has traveled with me from dorm rooms to three different New York apartments, and is now faded, stained with paint marks, and slightly flattened from the attention of various cats. My friends who have never met my mother look at that pillow and feel they know her to the core.
My mother and father moved out East in the 1990s with my brothers in tow, and now are retired, living in the Shenandoah Valley. Though she’s been retired for almost a decade, Mama still routinely does all-nighters, feverishly painting basset hounds and small animals for Virginia art fairs, and writing a humor column for a regional paper. She remains tirelessly inventive, hounded by the desire to create. My father has been co-opted as her manager, which is kind of a full-time job.
Last year, Mama and Papa visited me in New York, bringing my six-year-old nephew with them, to indoctrinate him in love of NYC. Seeing how besmirched and pale the Klinghoffer pillow had become, Mama, I later realized, hatched a plan.Five years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and she can no longer do embroidery—even though she painstakingly paints, hour after hour, in the sunny studio she and my father built for her (it’s hexagonal, in loose imitation of the octagonal studio of the Russian painter Ilya Repin). Threading a needle is just too hard for her these days, given the motor skills inhibition caused by her disease.
But this spring, in Virginia, at Easter, Mama surprised me with another unexpected care package. In it I found a newly embroidered version of the Klinghoffer pillow. On Etsy, she had found a craftswoman who could do what my mother no longer could, and give her gift a longer life. The woman could not transmit the whimsy of Mama’s lettering, but the words were brilliantly there, clean, bright and fully legible.
Today, both pillows are on display on my battered sofa in my sunny living room. They still make visitors marvel, and they still make me laugh, and shake my head at my mother’s dauntless energy and capricious spirit.
An interview feature with the German journalist Malte Herwig, about his new book, “Die Flakhelfer,” which shows how, for decades, postwar German leaders suppressed records of prominent citizens’ Nazi pasts, with the acquiescence of the U.S. government.
Reported essay: poets discuss the importance of broadening Sylvia Plath’s legacy, on the 50th anniversary of her suicide. They seek to emphasize her craft and work, not her biography. Includes a discussion of Elizabeth Winder’s new book on Plath’s 1953 summer in New York, “Pain, Parties, Work.”
LET HER EAT BISCOTTI: REFLECTIONS ON THE MURDER TRIAL OF THE AMERICAN STUDENT AMANDA KNOX IN ITALY
By Liesl Schillinger
The foreign interloper was loathed by native patriots, who proudly, angrily festooned themselves with the colors of their nation’s flag as they condemned her. The popular press branded her as a frivolous, self-involved spendthrift, a sexual deviant and a cruel wildcat, circulating caricatures of her as a predatory leopard. Of what crime was she guilty? Evidence associating her with direct wrongdoing remains inconclusive, but there’s no question she was guilty of exciting intense hatred in the imagination of her adopted countrymen, and of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The woman described above is not Amanda Knox—the 22-year old middle-class American student from Seattle, known to the Italian public as “foxy Knoxy,” “the praying mantis,” and “a female Lucifer with an angel’s face,” who last Friday was convicted by a court in Perugia, Italy, of the November 2007 murder of her roommate, the British student Meredith Kercher.
No, the woman in question is Marie Antoinette, the Habsburg archduchess and scion of the powerful Austro-Hungarian empire who traveled to France when she was a teenager to marry the future King Louis XVI, became Queen of France in 1774, and was beheaded during the Terreur in 1793—by which time she had become a catch-all receptacle for every abomination and resentment that French republicans could sling at her–a slop-bucket for scraps of class hatred and xenophobia.
Listening to the round-the-clock news coverage last week of the verdict that condemned Amanda Knox to 26 years in prison, based on “virtually no evidence that would stand up in an American court,” according to the Vanity Fair correspondent Judy Bachrach, I remembered a book about Marie Antoinette I’d read and reviewed several years ago, by Caroline Weber: “Queen of Fashion.” That book vigorously and effectively tracked the wave of envy, suspicion, hatred, and contempt for the immigrant queen that built among citizens in revolutionary France until it engulfed her, carried her bodily to the tumbrel, and dropped her onto the Place de la Concorde to her doom. It struck me that public attitudes to both women bore much in common.
Amanda Knox, of course, is not a dead monarch with an exalted pedigree; by all accounts she’s an entirely ordinary, rather “spacey” young woman who has been caught up in extraordinarily appalling circumstances overseas; and whose exact connection to those appalling circumstances remains in dispute. But strong similarities emerge in the way the two women were received by the nations in which they met their comeuppances. Here are some of them. Just as the enemies of Marie Antoinette wore tricolor ribbons as an invidious display of patriotism, half the members of the jury in Perugia who sentenced Ms. Knox to 26 years in prison wore red, green and white sashes—the colors of Italy’s flag. In other words, the rancor displayed toward both women held a nationalistic element.
Just as the French public denounced the Austrian arriviste for excessive attention to her own adornment, the Italian press denounced the American suspect for shopping for lingerie with her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, days after her roommate’s death. That is to say, the rancor had a moralistic element. And just as the French pamphleteers endlessly spread rumors of la Autrichienne’s supposed sexual lubricity (lesbianism, promiscuity and sex toys) the Italian press endlessly discussed la Americana’s vibrator, her loose ways, her Myspace page. So the rancor had a prurient, voyeuristic component, too.
There are, to be sure, any number of differences between the two scapegoats.
For one, the Perugia prosecution team did not distribute drawings of Amanda Knox as jungle cat, as French cartoonists did with Marie Antoinette. They went one better: they created for the jury (both sashed and unsashed members) a Lara-Croft-style animated video that depicted a depraved sex-and-torture-à-trois scenario—a notional re-enactment of the crime—which cast Knox, Sollecito and a Côte d’Ivoirian man named Rudy Guédé as the bloodthirsty villains, with Knox in the assassin’s role, slitting the victim’s throat. This grisly artistic concoction helped produce the guilty verdict.
For another, Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake”—an attributed remark whose callousness inflamed the French populace against her; whereas Amanda Knox really did do cartwheels at a deposition in Italian court* —an action that outraged the Italian populace. But do cartwheels constitute proof of murder?
Last June, Timothy Egan wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times that, “The case against Knox has so many holes in it, and is so tied to the career of a powerful Italian prosecutor who is under indictment for professional misconduct, that any fair-minded jury would have thrown it out months ago.” But as Marie Antoinette’s history suggests, fair-mindedness plays little part in mob justice.
The experience of both women, separated by education, rank, nationality and two centuries, shows the pernicious, cynical uses to which feminine reputation can be put, when ill luck plunges a woman into controversy in a land not her own, among detractors who are as implacably bent on vengeance as Dickens’ sinister Madame de Farge.
But was Ms. Knox guilty of the crime she was convicted of? If she was, (many journalists who have reported on the trial doubt her guilt) the Italian legal system has not produced direct, compelling evidence. Before the creation of the fantasy snuff film, the prosecution already knew that Rudy Guédé had confessed to being with Meredith Kercher at the time of her death, knew that Rudy Guédé’s DNA and fingerprints had been found on the victim’s body, and knew that Guédé had fled to Germany after the crime, where he was apprehended, sent back to Italy, and later convicted and jailed.
Nevertheless, the Perugia prosecution team continued to suspect Ms. Knox. The prosecution claims that Amanda Knox’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon and Sollecito’s are on a bra clasp; the defense counters that the fingerprints were contaminated through shoddy police work, and insists that Meredith Kercher’s wounds were not consistent with the shape of the blade. A young woman was brutally murdered on November 1, 2007; and it is right to seek justice for such a horrific crime. If Knox and Sollecito actively caused this death, they should be punished. But what is the evidence?
Judging from the accounts now circulating, the only direct, compelling evidence that the prosecution possesses is that, several years ago, an American foreign exchange student nicknamed foxy Knoxy came to the town of Perugia, used hashish, bought underwear, did cartwheels, and sat in her boyfriend’s lap at inappropriate times. This evidence may be enough to keep her in Italian prison for more than two decades, whether or not concrete crime-scene evidence ever emerges. Knox’s family has vowed to appeal the verdict; but the chances of a reversal are as inscrutable and unknowable as the emotions that brought their daughter to judgment in the first place: emotions that show how very dangerous it is and always has been to be a woman of excessive interest, abroad alone.
Note: Amanda Knox was imprisoned in Italy for four years, between 2007 and 2011; and in 2009, was convicted of the murder of Meredith Kercher. In October, 2011, that conviction was overturned, and Knox returned to America. On April 30, 2013, she published her memoir, “Waiting to Be Heard,” and the next day, she spoke with Diane Sawyer of ABC News. In the interview, Knox said that, although she was widely reported to have done cartwheels, “I never did a cartwheel, I did do the splits.”)
My review of Claire Messud’s seething and arresting new novel, about a furious woman in her 40s who risked too little, early; and too much, later on.
VIPcats…2013 marks a feline apotheosis, in which cats are writing books, dazzling fans at SXSW, starring in TV shows, and appearing on the covers of magazines…as well as in the new, improved Monopoly game.
My review of “The Interestings,” Meg Wolitzer’s newest—and best—novel. NYTBR April 21, 2013.
My review of a new bio of Pannonica (Nica) Rothschild de Koenigswarter-the rebellious, jazz-obsessed heiress (and former Free French Army warrior during WWII) who left her husband and five children so she could move to New York and devote herself to bebop. She spent three decades in the thrall of Thelonious Monk and the giants of modern jazz.