The murder of Ashley Olsen last week has shaken and saddened the Florentine community. Not surprisingly. By all accounts (I did not know her), Olsen was a talented, kind-spirited young woman, well-known and well-liked in her Florence neighborhood, with many friends and professional ties in the community. She came to Florence to study art. Like so many of us, she fell in love with the city. She made a life here, one that to any observing outsider seems to have been a very good life indeed: creative and energetic, full of love, friendship, beauty. She was thirty-five years old.
Even as I write these words, I’m not entirely sure what I want to achieve with this post. I imagine my thoughts on the crime itself, the brutal and horrific end to a woman’s life, do not differ much from those of thousands of others. But something forceful is compelling me to write. In a word, it’s The Stupid. For our purposes here, The Stupid refers to a vast group—mainstream and alternative media outlets and those in their employ, rabid social media pseudo-pundits, armchair experts, racists, sexists, a-holes, and all your run-of-the-mill mouth-breathers in between. I’m so very sick and tired of The Stupid. Today more than usual.
Less than a week has passed since Olsen was found dead in her apartment. Over the past few days, an investigation that appears to have gone very much by the book (an autopsy, DNA evidence and fingerprints collected, video surveillance reviewed, interviews, etc), has led to the arrest of a suspect who just this morning admitted his involvement in Olsen’s death. Some must surely be relieved. Many others are skeptical, expressing opinions verging on paranoid and bent on drawing connections between this case and the Amanda Knox trial (the same Florentine official is leading the investigation). This line of thinking, summed up, is that since Italians mucked up one case involving a (white, female) expat, surely they cannot be trusted to oversee any case with similar components. Suspicion among this camp is high; and those in it intractable in their convictions, despite the much more complex and convoluted nature of the Kercher murder. This morning, just after news of the arrest, I saw many comments on Facebook similar to this example:
‘mmmmmm…arresting someone makes them look good, if nothing else’ …’given the experience of the Amanda trial I have little hope’. What qualified this person to make such assumptions?: ‘I have lived in Italy for over 40 years and am very familiar with the way things are done here.’
The skepticism itself is not what troubles me. Surely a skeptical view forms part of a critical thinking process we’d all do well to practice more often. What’s bothering me is the quantity of individuals making broad proclamations about what must be this investigation’s inevitable faults and ultimate failure, when so far there’s been nothing to suggest mishandling of any kind. Very few are actually privy to all the details at this point, yet somehow everyone’s suddenly a bloody expert on forensic, investigatory, and legal processes. And anyway, if we are to judge the entire Italian criminal justice system by the Kercher case alone, then we must be prepared to accept the non-American’s (endless and nasty) assessments of our own system based on the example of the O.J. Simpson case. Or, as a friend put it today, ‘Not to mention the number of people on death row who should never have been there in the first place. And, worse yet, those executed who were instead innocent.’
The media doesn’t help. Facile and speculative reactions from news sources feed into The Stupid, fostering a cycle of uninformed, superficial debate. I call this ‘the pounce.’ We’ve seen it before, of course, too many times to count. Lacking relevant, concrete details, media outlets pounce on any informational tidbit in the race to hit the publish button. In this case, aside from the basic specs on her residence, livelihood, and reputation among neighbors, in the two days following the discovery of Olsen’s body, several local publications published stories that I’d categorize not only as irresponsible, but unethical and offensive as well—with a disturbing focus on her physicality, her youth and beauty. Here are some examples taken today from various media outlets (my rough translations):
‘Piccola di statura, molto carina, capelli biondissimi, quasi bianchi’ (‘Small stature, very cute, very blond, almost white hair’)
‘I capelli biondissimi di Ashley e il suo viso delicato dai tratti anglosassoni non sono passati inosservati nella piazza più battuta dell’Oltrarno’. (‘Ashley’s super blond hair and delicate face and Anglo-Saxon features did not go unnoticed in the Oltrarno quarter’s busiest piazza.’)
‘la bella americana bionda dal sorriso luminoso’ (‘the pretty blond American with the bright smile’)
‘Silenziosa, bella e biondissima, Ashley era la pin-up di Santo Spirito’ (‘Quiet, pretty and blond: Ashley was the pin-up girl of the Santo Spirito district’) This was, if you can believe it, a headline from an established Florentine newspaper.
The most disturbing line of reaction to this case relates to the sexual aspects. Early on it was determined that Olsen had engaged in sexual activity with her killer, and this together with other evidence (such as the lack of defensive marks on her neck) led to swift speculation by the media about the possibility of a ‘gioco erotico’ (could any two words be more click-baiting than ‘sex game’?). Leaving aside a woman’s right to engage in any form of consensual sexual encounter she chooses, this rush to cast Olsen’s final hours in a lurid and sensational light represents the rock-bottom of journalism. Yes, she was found nude. Yes, she had sex, most likely willingly (the suspect has said their sex was consensual; the post-mortem apparently confirms this). These facts play a part in the investigation, to be sure, and while I personally find the onslaught of the words ‘nude’ and ‘erotic’ to be at best in poor taste, I concede they are relevant factors. Police have subsequently established that there was no ‘game’ going on at all. Yet the resulting character assassination backlash from The Stupid has been savage:
‘In questa triste vicenda mi fa pena il suo fidanzata (sic) che era innamorato di una zoccola’ (‘This sad business makes me feel sorry for her boyfriend, who was in love with a whore’)
‘Ottima idea scopare con un clandestino….avanti cosi donne…naturalmente passerà solo il concetto di femminicidio…perchè è questo che fa comodo al vittimismo…avanti avanti così…’ (‘Great idea fucking an illegal immigrant…keep it up, ladies…naturally femicide is the only explanation…since this serves the purposes of victimization…keep it up’)
Italy is not exactly famous for its gender equality. Worse, in many ways rape culture thinking still taints this society, and female victims here must often confront the odious medieval mindset that justifies rape. This is not a rape case, yet those inclined to blame the victim as a rule cannot resist viewing the Olsen case through the same abhorrent lens. For being out late, for (allegedly) having used drugs, for taking a man home to her apartment—she asked for it. I don’t wish to delve too deeply into this cesspool of commentary, as it is obvious how very ugly this vein of thought is from just a couple of examples:
‘Se l’è cercata? Si, se l’è cercata. L’integrazione ‘funziona’ solo nel crimine e nel degrado. Particolarmente bene nel mondo dei tossici’ (‘Did she ask for it? Yes, she asked for it. Integration ‘works’ only in the world of crime and slums. Especially well in the world of druggies’)
‘Se le cercata, una troia che andava con cani e porci! Il mondo ne può fare a meno.’ (‘She she asked for it. A whore who lies with dogs and pigs! Good riddance.’)
(A racial element is at play here, as you might have gleaned from one of the comments. The man charged is a Senegalese man who has been in Italy only a short time. What’s more, he’s reportedly a drug dealer. Many of the more, shall we say, uncharitable comments I’ve encountered today manage to not only stereotype and offend across a broad range of issues, but also extrapolate from this one tragic act a rationale for all anti-immigrant propoganda. Some of the worst, which I’ll not reprint here, cast both victim and perpetrator as similarly and equally immoral and depraved.)
As I’d like to conclude this ramble with something positive, I’ll point out how many sensible, sensitive, rational and balanced reactions I’ve come across in the past days. I strongly recommend reading this post from the blog Abbatto i Muri, which addresses (more or less, and more eloquently) what I’ve been attempting to say here; and this from Saverio Tommasi (both are in Italian).
The letter from Olsen’s friends published by The Florentine, so far the only piece published that speaks sincerely to the victim’s humanity, reminds us that it was a person, not a type, who was murdered in Florence last week. That sense of her humanity was particularly strong today when, while looking at Olsen’s Facebook page, full of photos of friends and travels and inside jokes, I saw her post of the song ‘Miss World’ (from one of my favorite albums ever, Live Through This), whose refrain I am the girl you know I’ll probably never hear again without thinking about this awful episode, and the girl known, truly, to very few of us.
As for The Stupid, thankfully it suffers from a short attention span. Barring some titillating turn of events to hold its gaze, The Stupid will move on to other targets soon enough, leaving those who knew Olsen to mourn and remember her free from the vicious scrutiny of the masses. And that must be some consolation, however small.