The Art of Being Lost
What my wrongful murder conviction showed me about how to get through 2020
This year— with its seemingly never-ending pandemic and economic recession and with the president and his enablers threatening our democracy — isn’t just disorienting and sickening. It’s also deeply familiar.
It’s been five years since I was definitively acquitted for a murder I didn’t commit, and I’m still unsure what my best path forward is. I don’t know if I can ever restore my reputation or achieve anything that will impact my life as much as this external trauma has.
I feel perpetually lost.
This year, the rest of the country has joined me. All at once, so many of us are having to figure out how to make the best of a shitty situation that none of us foresaw. We are an entire nation adrift. We are lost en masse.
Even if we emerge from the Trump presidency intact as a nation, the challenges ahead are rushing at us: rampant vitriol on social media, growing wealth inequality, mass population displacements due to climate change, the looming automation crisis that will eradicate tens of millions of jobs within the next few decades.
We can’t wish for a world where everything makes sense. That world is gone. The best we can do is learn to be productively lost, to thrive in the wandering, to make the lack of a road map an asset.
And I can tell you from experience, it can be an asset. Life is a never-ending series of problems, but problems are opportunities.
For example, before I was acquitted, my lack of Italian meant I was confused and vulnerable in prison and in court. So I spent hours every day studying. And soon, my fluency became my greatest asset. It didn’t just allow me to defend myself in the courtroom; it also helped me to find safety and stability in my prison community when I realized I could provide a useful service: writing and translating court documents, love letters, and medical complaints for the many illiterate women around me.
In freedom, my undeserved notoriety was a problem. I couldn’t go to school without being followed by paparazzi. I couldn’t get a job. What business would want my baggage? Making new friends or finding romance outside of the people I knew from before was simply out of the question. When I joined social media, I was hit with a deluge of hate, from casual misogyny to explicit death threats. I was the subject of fake news before that was a term and in the crosshairs of a still ongoing outrage campaign spearheaded by tabloids that profited off scandal.
These problems, too, were opportunities for important personal change. Seeing my character distorted for salacious entertainment made me a committed skeptic of the popular narrative and far less judgmental about people I’d never met. Being sexually vilified helped me connect with people like Monica Lewinsky and Lorena Bobbit. Seeing the mechanisms of justice go awry firsthand gave me insight into how well-intentioned but flawed people can make terrible mistakes when they have misaligned incentives. I count my prosecutor, who painted me as a sex-crazed she-devil, among those people.
Finding myself stuck in the glare of a spotlight that wouldn’t go away, I pulled out a mirror to shine that light on the problem of wrongful convictions that disproportionately affect Black and Brown men in our country. I helped tell the stories of other women who found themselves slapped with a “Scarlet Letter.”
Right now, our society is lost. But what has been true for me is true for us all. Facing a host of seemingly insurmountable problems, with no clear direction ahead of us, we have incredible opportunity. There is no more fertile ground for radical ideas.
The pandemic has devastated our economy, but it’s pushed the once-fringe idea of universal basic income into the mainstream. The scourge of police brutality and the cultural war over how we should think about the continuing ramifications of slavery have led to violent clashes but also to a movement to reimagine public safety from the ground up. The looming constitutional crisis is forcing us to become politically engaged to a degree we haven’t been in generations and generating (hopefully) the momentum to reform our democracy itself by imposing judicial and congressional term limits, instituting ranked-choice voting, and abolishing the Electoral College.
If any of these good ideas bear fruit, that will be cause for celebration, but it won’t be because we finally found our path or that the chaotic world coalesced into something simple and manageable. In our best-case scenario, we are still lost. But we are mindfully lost. We are lost and engaged.
I never asked for this life. But I wouldn’t trade it. Not only because regret and “if-only” thinking stifles imagination but because the opportunities before me are magnificent in all their confusion and peril. So when you wake up tomorrow, and it’s still 2020, and the dumpster is still blazing, ask yourself: What fresh hell is this? And what can I build here that simply could not be imagined in that older, safer, and simpler world?