Amanda's View: Mask-making

By Amanda Knox

In my experience, conferences can make you feel high. Between the panels, plenaries, and a sea of old and new faces, you end up inevitably spread thin, over-stimulated, and under-slept. And it’s great, because during those few days packed with professional, social, intellectual, and emotional activity, you’re swept up by a frantic, inspired joy that’s supposed to carry you through another year.

So it was at this year’s Innocence Network Conference. Giddy and exhausted, Chris and I rode the elevator up to the fifth floor of the hotel towards an out-of-the-way conference room, purposefully set apart for a therapeutic session lead by a foundation called Healing Justice. As we stepped inside, I felt more than I heard the soft instrumental music sweep over me. It was so different from the exciting and incessant chatter of the rest of the conference rooms below. The leaders of the session, Jennifer Thompson and Britt Stone, explained in whispers that this session was about the masks we wear to hide our emotional scars: only by first acknowledging the cover can we reveal and address the trauma beneath. They steered Chris and I in front of individual prepared work stations equipped with paints, markers, glue, stationary, newsprint, and our canvas: a plain, white mask. Quietly, we set to work.

The Innocence Network Conference is perhaps even more overwhelming than most conferences. Just this year, over 750 people attended, 190 of which were exonerees like me. Altogether, we had served 2,953 years of wrongful imprisonment, 222 on death row. 42 of us were newly exonerated within the past year, most after decades in prison. This was Chris’s first time at the conference, the fourth for me and my mom. As usual, Mom blossomed with boundless energy; she stayed out late and was immensely popular with exonerees, family members, and lawyers alike. Chris was particularly inspired by the measurable difference these lawyers and scientists had in real people’s lives, and by how the Innocence Movement was founded above all upon inclusive, honest, critical thought. As for me, I return to the conference every year to reconnect with my tribe, with that profound sense of purpose and community.

As I dabbed at globs of paint, I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing with my mask. Though I used to be pretty good at drawing when I was a kid, I don’t consider myself a very visually creative person. I thought about the prompt—What is the mask I wear to hide from the world?—and I felt a jolt of anxiety. I didn’t know. For all my introspection, this question stumped me. I didn’t feel disconnected from the way I presented myself to others, but surely I felt shame and fear and inadequacy that I didn’t like to advertise. My ever-simmering anxiety came to mind, that vague pressure to prove myself socially fit and emotionally whole. It was complex, contradictory; it made me feel disfigured and dysfunctional, but also strong. Could something cripple you and empower you at the same time?

I was asked to present my mask at the final plenary, and going up to the stage, I barely knew what I would say. So I said this:

“Hi, I’m Amanda Knox. I was imprisoned in Italy for four years for a murder I didn’t commit. This is my mask. It’s ugly. What it says up here is “SMILE SAD GIRL” and it has this gruesome smile that is contrasting with a lot of darkness and depth. You can interpret that however you like. The thing that I want to say is—and it was really hard to make this, surprisingly—I wanted to tell a story to explain it. After I was convicted, that was this huge, devastating, existential blow, because I knew that I was going to be found innocent when it all came down to it and it didn’t happen. So that’s when I realized that your innocence doesn’t necessarily mean that you are freed. I had to wrap my mind around the idea that I was never going to leave again and that was my life. My mom noticed that the tone in my letters changed, that I was suddenly taking on this tone of, “How do I make meaning out my new life that is here inside prison?” And she kept telling me, “You can’t lose your optimism. You can’t lose who you are. You’re the smiley, cheerful girl. You need to smile.” But I didn’t have a smile. I didn’t. And that was the truth. That was the truth, and that’s what mattered. I’m not trying to call my mom out for saying, “Smile, damn it!” but it was a little bit like that. I’m just trying to say that smiling brings back the light in your life. You should smile through the stuff that hurts. But you also have to know that it wounds.”

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.