What do domestic violence, terrorism, the apparently renewable cold war and the repeat trials of Amanda Knox have in common? In a word, the devolution of humanity.
Knox, if you managed to miss the media storm about her, is the young American exchange student convicted, acquitted, then convicted again of the 2007 brutal murder of her roommate in Italy. She is currently living in her hometown of Seattle while awaiting yet another trial, an appeal to the Italian Supreme Court later this year.
From the very first, I’ve found this case more than perplexing. As a clinical supervisor who specializes in assessing complex mental health cases and offering feedback and direction to therapists, I’m accustomed to looking at the big picture and sorting out what may need course correction in the therapeutic approach.
In this legal case I see what psychotherapists call “countertransference” — an emotional reaction that belongs more to the practitioner than the client. In effect, due to social, cultural and religious predispositions, the prosecution concocted the following: two middle-class college kids without any criminal records or history of mental illness, who, in the first week of young romance, smoke some dope, watch a movie and then decide to hook up with a drifter they’ve never met before to have a “sex game” that then leads to extreme savagery. With that story having run its course as a fiction, another judge has decided it was arguments over rent money and household hygiene that led to murderous rage.
Knox’s original conviction — with the Italian courts reflecting the bias of a worldwide media-blitz — is now back on the books. There is no concrete forensic evidence. It is a classic police-induced false confession. The actual murderer, Rudy Guede, was tried, convicted and is now serving a 30-year sentence (reduced to 16 years for implicating Knox and her boyfriend).
How and why did this happen? Why is everyone so much more interested in this young woman than in the man who confessed, was tried and convicted, and is serving time?
Nina Burleigh, an American journalist who was present at the trials and wrote The Fatal Gift of Beauty, says she felt she was present at a session of the Spanish Inquisition.
The lead prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, is alleged to be obsessed with satanic rituals, Masonic occult practices, and sex cults. Before taking on the Amanda Knox trial, he was charged with prosecutorial corruption in another case. Looking at the vile and misogynistic comments about Knox that still race around the Internet, it’s obvious something regressive is going on that needs to be named. It’s as primitive as our ancestors’ instinct to drive evil from our midst.
The phenomenon of this modern-day witch trial brings together the “viral” quality of an Internet lynch mob with something as old as the ancient Greek practice of stoning or exiling selected slaves, cripples or criminals at times of disaster, in order to “purify” the community and protect it from cosmic punishment. As soon as Amanda Knox became associated with archetypes of female evil, the so-called trials become a way to purge the sins of those downloading the very heart of darkness onto the universal girl next door.
The term “scapegoat” comes from the ancient biblical practice of offering a blood sacrifice in the form of a slain goat. The reward to the community? Cleansing of its sins. In the Christ story, Jesus of Nazareth willingly became the human scapegoat, removing the burden of sin for all humanity. Same deal. He takes the hit, and we’re off the hook.
In the twenty-first century, scapegoating still happens in legal courts as well as the court of public opinion. We may not be heaping sins on the head of the goat whose death serves for our atonement. Yet, according to the teachings of psychologist Carl Jung, we still have a tendency to deny or split off the darker sides of human nature, at our own psychological risk.
It’s completely understandable that we do this. Splitting off parts of ourselves allows us to look away from the ugliness within ourselves. But here’s where the trouble comes: The “shadow” traits don’t just go away. They continue to fester under the surface, periodically erupting in condemnation of the moral shortcomings we ascribe to others. They are dubbed the evil ones who then deserve the worst of punishments.
Amanda Knox had the misfortune of being the perfect carrier for the shadow side of Perugia, an Italian city with a medieval collective unconscious. In Perugia, she was the archetypal anti-Madonna. In the Western press, she epitomized our fascination with the good girl/bad girl persona.
When Knox first appeared in the news after the murder, she was way too cool. In my estimation, this was either a remarkably pure form of sociopathic personality disorder, or a young woman showing amazing “grace under pressure” (probably dissociation posing as self-composure).
She was also not “normal.” She was weird and quirky, an ingenuous free spirit not wise to the ways of the world, apparently with a naïve trust in people’s good intentions.
She was caught on camera kissing her boyfriend right after her roommate’s body was discovered. In the days following the murder, she repeatedly visited the police station, trying to help, where others might have kept a quiet distance. When she failed to show sufficient sorrow as a grieving roommate, she was instead cast as the poster girl for American moral licentiousness.
The grounds of her evident innocence receded and the figure of evil personified emerged. In turn, the archetype of a literal “femme fatale” was amplified by mushrooming media attention.
Knox’s shortcomings might mean you wouldn’t want her for a roommate. But are they cause to demonize her? I think not. Her story shows the power of projection that can take over the collective psyche and induce individual psyches to blame, shame and shun the perceived evil of others. This is what Hitler depended upon during his rise to power.
Carl Jung warned us that if we didn’t learn to own our shadow nature, we would seek to destroy each other personally and the world would polarize into factions trying to eliminate each other at the risk of humankind’s very survival. That’s what this case has in common with domestic abuse. A husband sees in his wife the image of his own vulnerability, and raises his fists to smash that mirror.
A religious fundamentalist sees his own “impurity” in the compromised moral standards of a secular culture, and, in denial of gray, white must defeat black, even if it means terrorism. A political leader perceives a threat to his power and decides to play God by rearranging the world.
The integration of justice and mercy begins in our own hearts. We require awareness of how we, as individuals and communities, can get caught up in dirty, deadly projections of our own meanest nature onto the nearest convenient target. We bravely need to face all our demons. Let Amanda Knox go back to creating her own story, not living out someone else’s.