Does my name belong to me?

Amanda Knox, a movie I probably won't get to see, and 7 other things worth your time.

When I started this newsletter, I had to make a little choice with big ramifications. I had to decide whether to call the whole thing something like, “Bill Murphy Jr.’s Newsletter,” or come up with another name.

I went with the latter idea. I guess you know this, since you’re reading it.

It was the right decision, but it was also an existential one—whether the name my parents gave me should simply refer to me, or be associated with something else, too.

With that, I want to talk about the new movie Stillwater, and three associated names.

  1. First, Matt Damon. Big-time actor-slash-movie star.

  2. Second, Tom McCarthy. Oscar winner and creator of the movie Spotlight, which took the Academy Award for Best Picture.

  3. Finally, Amanda Knox.

Stillwater is about an American student jailed in France for the murder of her roommate—and her fish-out-of-water father, from Oklahoma, who moves to Marseille to try to clear her name.

The story sounds familiar because it’s supposed to.

It’s “ripped from the headlines” or “inspired by” what happened to Knox, who was convicted of murder in Italy in 2008 and spent four years in prison there, only to have her conviction overturned and to have the highest Italian court find specifically that she wasn’t involved in the murder after all.

McCarthy told Vanity Fair (and other outlets) that he was fascinated by what happened to Knox, and tried to imagine what it would have been like to be her:

“There were just so many layers to that story that kept anyone who was following pretty riveted…. Who are the people that are visiting [her], and what are those relationships? Like, what’s the story around the story?

We decided, ‘Hey, let’s leave the Amanda Knox case behind. 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.”

O.K. I’ve managed to go 300 words into this essay, which is ultimately mostly about Knox, without letting her speak. So let me get out of the way.

Knox wrote a 3,000-word piece in The Atlantic, most of which will be stuck behind a paywall, but fortunately for our purposes, she also explained her perspective on Twitter and Medium.

Short version:

  • It’s bad enough (obviously) being wrongfully convicted of a crime and spending years in prison before being “definitively exonerated.”

  • But it’s an additional burden to have your name forever, repeatedly associated with a brutal crime that you didn’t commit.

Here’s Knox:

“[T]he 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.

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.

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.

Sometimes, I guess we don’t get to choose what we’re known for. But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep trying to claim your name.

Leave a comment

Understandably Live

Just a reminder about tomorrow’s interview with Becky Munsterer Sabky, former admissions director at Dartmouth University, about her new book: Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College.

  • Date: Thursday, August 5, 2021

  • Time: 1 pm ET

  • Signup: Right here

Sign up for Understandably Live

Related: In yesterday’s newsletter, I included a line about Jori Johnson, who was one of the “leads” that Vanderbilt University bought and encouraged to apply, but then didn’t admit.

“I just stared at my computer and cried,” Johnson said at the time. But as I noted, she wound up at New York University—and I was curious how things worked out for her.

“It’s really a questionable practice for sure,” she told me on the phone yesterday, speaking about Vanderbilt, but added: “I feel like I ended up in the place I was meant to. It felt like NYU chose me, instead of me choosing them.”

Among other things, Johnson says she loved the experience of living in New York City—obviously, something Vanderbilt couldn’t have provided.

She graduated in 2020, then worked at a casting agency, and she’s now about to start a new job at NYU itself. Plus, she produced a pilot written by and starring a classmate: Parked in America, which premiered at SXSW last year.

7 other things worth your time

Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Wikimedia. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.