Who Owns My Name?
Does my name belong to me? Does my face? What about my life? My story? Why is my name used to refer to events I had no hand in? I return to these questions because others continue to profit off my name, face, and story without my consent. Most recently, the film Stillwater.
This new film by director Tom McCarthy, starring Matt Damon, is “loosely based” or “directly inspired by” the “Amanda Knox saga,” as Vanity Fair put it in a for-profit article promoting a for-profit film, neither of which I am affiliated with. I want to pause right here on that phrase: “the Amanda Knox saga.” What does that refer to? Does it refer to anything I did? No. It refers to the events that resulted from the murder of Meredith Kercher by a burglar named Rudy Guede. It refers to the shoddy police work, prosecutorial tunnel vision, and refusal to admit their mistakes that led the Italian authorities to wrongfully convict me, twice.
In those four years of wrongful imprisonment and 8 years of trial, I had near-zero agency. Everyone else in that “saga” had more influence over the course of events than I did. The erroneous focus on me by the Italian authorities led to an erroneous focus on me by the press, which shaped how I was presented to the world. In prison, I had no control over my public image, no voice in my story.
This focus on me led many to complain that Meredith had been forgotten. But of course, who did they blame for that? Not the Italian authorities. Not the press. Me! Somehow it was my fault that the police and media focused on me at Meredith’s expense. The result of this is that 15 years later, my name is the name associated with this tragic series of events, of which I had zero impact on. Meredith’s name is often left out, as is Rudy Guede’s. When he was released from prison recently, this was the NY Post headline.
In the wake of #metoo, more people are coming to understand how power dynamics shape a story. Who had the power in the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? The president or the intern? It matters what you call a thing. Calling that event the “Lewinsky Scandal” fails to acknowledge the vast power differential, and I’m glad that more people are now referring to it as “the Clinton Affair” which names it after the person with the most agency in that series of events.
I would love nothing more than for people to refer to the events in Perugia as “The murder of Meredith Kercher by Rudy Guede,” which would place me as the peripheral figure I should have been, the innocent roommate. But I know that my wrongful conviction, and subsequent trials, became the story that people obsessed over. I know they’re going to call it the “Amanda Knox saga” into the future. That being the case, I have a few small requests:
Don’t blame me for the fact that others put the focus on me instead of Meredith. And when you refer to these events, understand that how you talk about it affects the people involved: Meredith’s family, my family, Raffaele Sollecito, and me.
Don’t do what Pete Hammond did when reviewing Stillwater for Deadline, referring to me as a convicted murderer while conveniently leaving out my acquittal. I asked him to correct it. No response.
And if you must refer to the “Amanda Knox saga,” maybe don’t call it, as the The New York Times did in profiling Matt Damon, “the sordid Amanda Knox saga.” Sordid: morally vile. Not a great adjective to have placed next to your name. Repeat something often enough, and people believe it.
Now, Stillwater is by no means the first thing to rip off my story without my consent at the expense of my reputation. There was of course the terrible Lifetime movie that I sued them over, resulting in them cutting a dream sequence where I was depicted as murdering Meredith.
A few years ago, there was the Fox series Proven Innocent, which was developed and marketed as “What if Amanda Knox became a lawyer?” The first I heard from the show’s makers was when they had the audacity to ask me to help them promote it on the eve of its premiere.
Malcolm Gladwell’s last book, Talking to Strangers, features a whole chapter analyzing my case. He reached out on the eve of publication to ask if he could use excerpts of my audiobook in his audiobook. He didn’t think to ask for an interview before forming his conclusions about me. To his credit, Gladwell responded to my critiques over email, and was gracious enough to join me on my podcast, Labyrinths. I extend the same invitation to Tom McCarthy and Matt Damon, who I hope hear what I’m about to say about Stillwater.
Stillwater was “directly inspired by the Amanda Knox saga.” Director Tom McCarthy tells Vanity Fair, “he couldn’t help but imagine how it would feel to be in Knox’s shoes.” …but that didn’t inspire him to ask me how it felt to be in my shoes. He became interested in the family dynamics of the “Amanda Knox saga.” “Who are the people that are visiting [her], and what are those relationships? Like, what’s the story around the story?” My family and I have a lot to say about that, and would have told McCarthy…if he’d ever reached out.
“We decided, ‘Hey, let’s leave the Amanda Knox case behind,’” McCarthy tells Vanity Fair. “But let me take this piece of the story — an American woman studying abroad involved in some kind of sensational crime and she ends up in jail — and fictionalize everything around it.” Let me stop you right there. That story, my story, is not about an American woman studying abroad “involved in some kind of sensational crime.” It’s about an American woman NOT involved in a sensational crime, and yet wrongfully convicted.
And if you’re going to “leave the Amanda Knox case behind,” and “fictionalize everything around it,” maybe don’t use my name to promote it. You’re not leaving the Amanda Knox case behind very well if every single review mentions me. You’re not leaving the Amanda Knox case behind when my face appears on profiles and articles about the film.
But, all this I mostly forgive. I get it. There’s money to be made, and you have no obligation to approach me. What I’m more bothered by is how this film, “directly inspired by the Amanda Knox saga, “fictionalizes” me and this story.
I was accused of being involved in a death orgy, a sex-game gone wrong, when I was nothing but platonic friends with Meredith. But the fictionalized me in Stillwater does have a sexual relationship with her murdered roommate.
In the film, the character based on me gives a tip to her father to help find the man who really killed her friend. Matt Damon tracks him down. This fictionalizing erases the corruption and ineptitude of the authorities.
What’s crazier is that, in reality, the authorities already had the killer in custody. He was convicted before my trial even began. They didn’t need to find him. And even so, they pressed on in persecuting me, because they didn’t want to admit they had been wrong.
McCarthy told Vanity Fair that “Stillwater’s ending was inspired not by the outcome of Knox’s case, but by the demands of the script he and his collaborators had created.” Cool, so I wonder, is the character based on me actually innocent?
Turns out, she asked the killer to help her get rid of her roommate. She didn’t mean for him to kill her, but her request indirectly led to the murder. How do you think that impacts my reputation?
I continue to be accused of “knowing something I’m not revealing,” of “having been involved somehow, even if I didn’t plunge the knife.” So Tom McCarthy’s fictionalized version of me is just the tabloid conspiracy guilter version of me.
By fictionalizing away my innocence, my total lack of involvement, by erasing the role of the authorities in my wrongful conviction, McCarthy reinforces an image of me as a guilty and untrustworthy person. And with Matt Damon’s star power, both are sure to profit handsomely off of this fictionalization of “the Amanda Knox saga” that is sure to leave plenty of viewers wondering, “Maybe the real-life Amanda was involved somehow.”
Which brings me to my screenplay idea! It’s directly inspired by the life of Matt Damon. He’s an actor, celebrity, etc. Except I’m going to fictionalize everything around it, and the Damon-like character in my film is involved in a murder. He didn’t plunge the knife per se, but he’s definitely at fault somehow. His name is Damien Matthews, and he starred in the Jackson Burne spy films. He works with Tim McClatchy, who’s a Harvey Weinstein type. It’s loosely based on reality. Shouldn’t bother Matt or Tom, right?
I joke, but of course, I understand that Tom McCarthy and Matt Damon have no moral obligation to consult me when profiting by telling a story that distorts my reputation in negative ways. And I reiterate my offer to interview them on Labyrinths. I bet we could have a fascinating conversation about identity, and public perception, and who should get to exploit a name, face, and story that has entered the public imagination.
I never asked to become a public person. The Italian authorities and global media made that choice for me. And when I was acquitted and freed, the media and the public wouldn’t allow me to become a private citizen again. I went back to school and fellow students photographed me surreptitiously, people who lived in my apartment building invented stories for the tabloids, I worked a minimum wage job at a used bookstore, only to be confronted by stalkers at the counter. I was hounded by paparazzi, my story and trauma was (and is) endlessly recycled for entertainment, and in the process, I’ve been accused of shifting attention away from the memory of Meredith Kercher, of being a media whore.
I have not been allowed to return to the relative anonymity I had before Perugia. My only option is to sit idly by while others continue to distort my character, or fight to restore my good reputation that was wrongfully destroyed.
It’s an uphill battle. I probably won’t succeed. But I’ve been here before. I know what it’s like facing impossible odds.