September 29, 2009KR OnlineEssay

Captioning Emily

The white supremacists put her picture on their website. She’s very fair, a little freckled, pretty, petite. Her head tilts to the left, as if she’s sizing you up, but she’s smiling. Ripples of reddish-brown hair fill the frame. They’ve put her there because she’s white and dead and her killer was a black man. The title of the web page is Resistance: The Soundtrack for White Revolution. The caption, in part: Does your daughters [sic] picture need to be on this site before you stand up?

They didn’t know her. They didn’t need to. Her pale face is enough. She became their poster child, a wakeup call to white survivalists, a cautionary tale. She would have laughed in their faces.

A little background first: Her name is Emily Sarah Aberle Murray. She and I both grew up in Shaker Heights, a suburb on the east side of Cleveland that’s known for being wealthy and progressive and diverse. We sat in the same homeroom all four years of high school, an accident of the alphabet, five people separating Murray from Ng. Our paths crossed and diverged and recrossed: we shared our poems while working on the literary magazine; we lounged backstage as extras in Taming of the Shrew; we dove into Hamlet in English. After graduation, I went east to Harvard; she stayed close to home and went to Kenyon College. We didn’t keep in touch. At Thanksgiving in 2000, home for vacation in the middle of my sophomore year, I heard she’d been missing for three weeks.

Her parents had moved to New York, and I wasn’t friends with her friends. To find out what happened to Emily, I turned to the Internet. I Googled her all five weeks she was missing, waiting for news. When it came, it wasn’t good. Two weeks before Christmas, the police found her body in a trailer an hour away from her college. She had been shot in the head.

After she was found the articles multiplied, each bulletin adding another piece to a puzzle that made no sense. The trailer belonged to Gregory McKnight, a cook at the restaurant she’d worked at, a man she hardly knew (how did he get her there? kidnapping? trickery?). There was no sexual assault (then why did he kill her?). They found other bones on the property, from an older murder, this one of a man (so a serial killer? an out-of-control temper?). McKnight himself, the obvious and only suspect, confessed nothing.

For the past eight years, I’ve followed the case online. McKnight has been tried and sentenced to death; he has appealed and the appeal has been denied and he awaits another appeal. He may wait for decades; the average stay on death row in Ohio is sixteen years. Every few weeks I do another Google, hoping this time the search will supply a reason for all that has happened. I type the same words—Emily Murray, Gregory McKnight—into the long white box and press Search, as if it’s a Magic 8 Ball that, if I shake hard enough, will offer a simple answer out of the liquid blue gloom.

What I find is that I’m not the only one looking for meaning in Emily’s death. People who knew her even less well than I did—people who never met her—plug the hole of her death with their opinions. They stencil her name across their cause, caption her face with their slogans.

“White Children the Innocent Casualty”

The white supremacist site looks as if it were designed by a brooding teenager. In the upper left corner, against a background of flames, a black eagle perches on a swastika. Overlapping its feathers, which look like puffy quilt squares, is the word RESISTANCE, followed by a skull and crossbones. The organization’s logo is, I think, intended to be a peace sign turned upside-down, but it resembles a bird’s foot with a circle around it more than anything else. The site sells all things white supremacist: flags, books, stickers, “Camo Death Head Beanies” and other articles of clothing, even a mouse pad with the words “I was RIGHT!” in red under a close-up of Hitler’s head. It’s mostly an online music store offering 818 albums, hence the tagline “Soundtrack for the White Revolution.” When I read the titles—Johnny Rebel, “Klassic Klan Kompositions,” Angry Aryans, “Too White For You,” Skrewdriver, “Boots & Braces”—it’s hard to suppress a guilty giggle.

But there’s not much that’s funny about’s less commercial side. Thirty-four message boards hold over 30,000 posts from 4,800 users with names like SiegHeil, Saxo-American, and TheForthComingStorm. The site’s “Articles” page features a piece on the “Holohoax,” a section on supposed racial hate crimes, and a list of “White Children the Innocent Casualty” [sic]. One of the “white children” the page lists is Emily.1

In the caption under Emily’s photo, the white supremacists that run this website describe McKnight as a “24 year old Black man” and his wife as “a 35 year old white race traitor.” They say almost nothing about Emily herself, except where she grew up. They don’t know, clearly, that Shaker Heights—Emily’s hometown and mine—is one of the most integrated cities in the country, or that our high school is split almost fifty-fifty between black and white students, or that Shaker Heights prides itself on promoting positive race relations. So they don’t know that Emily studied and joked and hung out every day with both whites and nonwhites like me, or that she would have found their page disgusting.

In part of her senior quote, Emily captioned herself: Romans 13:8-10. I look it up. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

None of that matters to them. All that matters is the fact of the crime: black man kills white woman. Under the list of “Innocent Casualty,” a paragraph pleads, “Will it take your child’s death before you realize something has to be done to save our people from extinction? Do you really believe the Non-Whites will be as benevolent to us as we are to them when we are the minority?” Emily’s death is just another addition to their list, a pretty face they hijack and relabel for their billboard of outrage.

“The Potential Impact of Financial Considerations”

Sad as it is, the murder of a young woman is hardly news. But Emily’s death attracted national attention in August 2002 when the case came up for trial. Emily, it seemed, had the misfortune of being murdered in small, poor Vinton County. There, a Common Pleas judge told prosecutors that they could not seek the death penalty for McKnight, arguing that the county could not afford a capital trial. “The potential impact of financial considerations,” Judge Jeffrey L. Simmons wrote, “could compromise the defendant’s due process rights in a capital murder trial.”2

The ruling passed from newspaper to newspaper like a wild rumor. But it wasn’t a rumor; it was true. No one had ever admitted so frankly that money factored into justice. The New York Times ran an article; CNN reported the case between a story on domestic murders at Fort Bragg and flooding in China.3 The coverage drew comments from people who’d never met Emily but had no shortage of opinions anyway. “Too bad for Cynthia Murray, mother of Emily Murray, that her killer was found in a poor county,” wrote one blogger. “I’m sure that makes her feel better.”4

Suddenly the case wasn’t about the death of one person, the guilt of another, the attempt to find truth. It was a legal brainteaser. Was it right to let a tight budget dictate the trials we hold? What did it say about Ohio—about America—if financial concerns could trump the legal process? Were we letting McKnight off the hook too easily? In Ohio, life in prison is an option only in a capital case. Without the possibility of the death penalty, McKnight’s longest sentence would be perhaps twenty years in prison with the possibility of parole. So if a county is honestly poor—and Vinton county was, and is—do we punish people as much as they might deserve under the law, or only as much as we can afford?

In this conundrum, Emily disappears, and so does McKnight. They morph into abstractions, faceless stand-ins in a practical ethics exam: If Victim (V) is murdered by Defendant (D) . . . The answer debatable, and debated, in their absence.

“Addled Liberals?”

In the end the judge reversed his ruling. It was all right to seek the death penalty after all; the state would scrounge up the money. The trial lasted nine days. After two days of deliberation, McKnight was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death.

But Emily had been opposed to the death penalty. She was a philosophy major, believed in forgiveness, planned to become an Episcopal priest. She’d tattooed a dove on her back as a sign of her faith, a dove that helped police identify her body a few years later. Her parents, angry and hurt as they must have been, bowed to her wishes. “We know that Emily was opposed—we believe passionately opposed—to killing people for any reason,” they wrote in a statement to the judge. “We are convinced that Emily would regard it as a tragedy and an abomination if another human being were put to death in her name.”5

This made more headlines. The front page of the Cleveland paper, The Plain Dealer, blared, Don’t Execute Daughter’s Killer, Parents Plead. But the sentence stood; McKnight went to Death Row.

Pro-death-penalty groups rolled their eyes. Here was another case of soft-hearted handwringing for one of society’s write-offs. Conservative message-boards jeered at the case the way a soap opera’s fans might critique the latest episode. “Addled liberals,” reads a post on “As far as I’m concerned this particular family, through its misplaced compassion for a murderer deserves exactly what’s it going to get and no, I’m not feeling sorry or shedding any tears over their stupidity.” Another snarks, “One solution, like donor cards have people check off a box on their ID stating whether or not they would want someone who kills them to get the death penalty.” A third simply states, “What idiot parents!”6

There’s no talk here about the waste of Emily’s life, about who she was or the circumstances of the case. They know her only through the AP article, and for them it’s an easy equation: murder plus conviction equals death. She’s just a reason for the execution to occur.

But anti-death-penalty groups canonized Emily and her family. Wasn’t it terrible, they said, that the state was killing a man despite the wishes of his victim? They pointed to statistics showing that blacks who killed whites were far more likely to be sentenced to death than vice versa. Parents that wanted to spare the life of the man who murdered their daughter, a man that showed no remorse—if they could forgive, why couldn’t society? Some of them had known Emily and praised her parents for their courage, their testament to Emily’s beliefs. Most anti-death-penalty groups—based in Italy, in Canada—knew nothing about her but plastered her picture and her parents’ plea on their websites. No alla Pena di Morte.

A beautiful piece of metonymy: Emily becomes the principle she believed. That transfiguration makes it easier, perhaps, to move on. Her death might be incomprehensible, but it isn’t meaningless. “Emily’s story proved that evil cannot succeed,” writes the father of one of Emily’s college friends. “The anger and the hurt will paralyze us emotionally and prevent us from leading a normal life. It is important that we let this go, so that we can live again.”7 A person’s life can be boiled down to a single encapsulating principle, a rule that sums up the meaning of all those days lived. The thought is comfortingly prescriptive. It makes a life lesson out of a loss, like producing a wriggling rabbit from an empty hat, or making wine from water.

“As Complex A Portrait As Her Memory Deserved”

The danger of transforming a life into a principle, of course, is that the human being fades into the background. To the pro- and anti-death-penalty groups, Emily’s own life means nothing. It’s only the loss of her life that’s relevant. The name of her dog, her favorite song, what she ate for breakfast—these are garnish, adding color to the example they make of her. She’s a motto under a photo.

A year after the trial, Daniel Torday, who knew Emily at Kenyon College, wrote an article for Esquire about the murder.8 “I sought to look plainly at the murder of Emily Murray, in part to take away some of its awful mystery,” he writes. Like me, Torday didn’t know Emily well. He admits at the end of the article, “She wasn’t my girlfriend, she wasn’t my best friend, she wasn’t my daughter.” But he knew her, personally, and he cared about her. And he’s a thorough reporter. When I email to talk to him about the piece, he lists the sources he’s consulted: all the newspaper articles, all the depositions, the thousand-page trial transcript, videos of McKnight’s interrogations. He knows more of the details, probably, than anyone else.

Torday writes admirably in the article about the hard facts of the murder, presenting them unflinchingly in all their coldness and grit. He describes the murder scene in precise sentences whose scientific detachment makes them painful to read: “The blood trail indicates that Greg rolls her over once before dragging her down the hallway, where he lifts her and wraps her in an afghan rug. Then he leaves her there to the mercy of nature, piled under half a dozen brown garbage bags.” And “By the time Vinton County police find her body five weeks from now, it will be too late to determine conclusively if Emily was raped, although she was fully clothed, suggesting she was not. And The angle of the shot will suggest that she was on her knees.”

But when Torday describes Emily herself, the description takes on the gauzy glow of a soft-focus photo: “She was small and sweet and came just up to my chin, and at some point in our conversation, I leaned in and kissed her. I felt her avian heart beat in her chest, felt her freckled skin against my own. [. . .] A week later, when I was in my apartment with another woman, Emily knocked on my door. I shushed the other woman, we were very quiet, and Emily assumed I wasn’t home and moved on.”

Their relationship ends there, before it begins. And that’s the portrait of Emily that I see most often: a woman attractive in her very naïveté, a pretty thing who alighted for a moment by your side but flew away before you really knew her. Later in the article, Torday imagines McKnight’s impressions of Emily: “It’s tough to flirt with the girl who smiles at you before you get a line out, the girl who in an instant draws you in and pushes you away. He doesn’t know her very well yet, this little red thing with her doe eyes and her smile and her what-are-you-really-thinking stare.” These are speculations about McKnight, but you can almost picture Torday himself thinking the same thoughts.

In Esquire, Emily’s death is about the destruction of this virginal “little red thing.” She sounds like a sweet sixteener, a Molly Ringwald type. The kind of girl you’d call a girl, not a woman, and the kind you’d desribe with words like “innocent” and “endearing” and “sweet,” as Torday does. But I can’t really blame Torday for writing about Emily in this way. In writing his article, he has the most admirable of goals. “I tried not to rely on my own observations of Emily,” he tells me via email, “but talked with her (and my) close friends in trying to create as complex a portrait as her memory deserved.” And yet, as I know myself, that’s an impossible task. The dead become demonized or deified; we forget the small virtues of those we hate, and we blot out the flaws of those we love. The broad strokes of overall impressions overshadow the small, penciled details. We can never create as complex a portrait as our subjects deserve; we can write stories, events, and people only through our limited experiences of them. I’m guilty of it too. When I think about who Emily was, all I can remember are tiny moments: when she’d once thrust a copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead into my hands, when she’d sought me out to sympathize after we discovered the same boy had broken both our hearts. I think of how she always wrote “Call me over the summer (752-6534), OK?” in my yearbook, and that I never did. And still etched into my mind are the last lines of one of her poems, which surface whenever I prick my finger:

when they stick a pin through all those layers of skin it

doesn’t hurt you—rather a bulb of crimson appears

on the lily flesh of your fingertip in complete


None of these things would be a complete portrait of Emily.

Many people probably saw her the way Torday describes her: a little thing, which is maybe the same way people see me. We were always about the same height, always the shortest in our classes, always occupying the front corner of the class photographs. I wonder how people will remember me, how accurate a portrait we could draw of anyone, even those we knew well. How many of us might oversimplify to little things.

“Peace and Love to All People We’re All Leaves of the Same Tree”

There’s one person who hasn’t tried to make meaning of Emily’s death, at least publicly. He hasn’t said anything about the case at all, except for “It is what it is”—to his lawyers as they began to prepare. Throughout the trial, he didn’t look Emily’s parents in the eye, but he didn’t look down at the floor either. He looked nowhere.

When I sit down to write about Emily at last, I Google everything one more time. “Emily Murray” “Gregory McKnight”. I hate seeing their names in such close proximity, separated only by the quote marks I’ve jammed between them. But without both names I get irrelevant results. The web pages that come up play tricks with my mind, telling me the exploits of other, luckier Emilys. My heart jumps at seeing her name over and over in bold on site after site, as if she’s still out there somewhere, writing dissertations, teaching archaeology, setting track records and running faster than anyone can match. So I resign myself to typing Emily’s name next to her killer’s, searching for information that I’ve missed before, for new developments that might explain why this happened and what it all means.

And this time I find something I’m not at all prepared for. A pen pal site for death-row inmates. He’s inmate #412247 in the Ohio State Penitentiary. His page9 opens with a greeting: “Peace and love to all people we’re all leaves of the same tree . . .” Beneath is a photograph of McKnight. He’s standing in front of an airbrushed mural of a heart and ribbon that reads “Happy Valentine’s Day.” He’s a stocky man with a mustache; his shaved head blocks out “Valen,” and behind him the two severed sides of the heart look like huge red wings drooping from his shoulders. He stares directly at the camera, at me, and his two fists are stacked on top of each other, as if he’s holding an invisible baseball bat. I can’t look at him long. Instead I scroll down fast, so that only his white tennis shoes show at the top of my screen, and I wonder what he will say in the text below, if he will provide some new fact, some motive, some long-lost key.

Some of the other death row inmates on this site admit their crimes but insist there were mitigating circumstances. Others vehemently protest their innocence: four exclamation points after each sentence, boldface and underscores and capitals at once. One has a bulleted list of the reasons he should be released. Still others write bad poems implying that evidence was twisted, or that the lawyers and judges conspired against them.

But on the page in front of me there’s nothing like that. There’s a list of interests that’s oddly specific but so broad as to be almost generic; it begins with “god” and moves from “comedy” to “film production” to “lions, tigers, collecting postcards.” I study the picture he’s placed at the top of his page, one of those fantasy paintings done mostly in shades of purple and blue. In the center a lion stands on an iceberg looking out over the surrounding water. I can see why McKnight likes lions; this one reminds me a bit of him, compact and powerful and stranded in slippery, floating isolation.

I scan the list of books he requests: “Real facts about Ethiopia – J.A Rogers,” “Thus spake Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche,” “The yoga sutras of patanjali – translated by James Haugton Woods.” At the very bottom there’s a note. “I would like to connect with a pen-friend or two,” he writes. “I have been trying to write some spoken word poetry as of late, but it’s nothing serious yet. I’m learning still how to articulate my thoughts into words, it’s a work in progress practice makes perfect right? Would like to meet like minded or similar individuals to exchange dialogue with. I hope to hear from you soon. Take care, Greg.”

When I read this page, all I can conclude from Emily’s complete absence is that she meant nothing to him, that her death meant nothing to him, that killing her meant nothing to him. Perhaps that’s not fair. I don’t know for sure; no one but McKnight does. His refusal to acknowledge her is a sign of himself, perhaps the truest sign of his self we will ever get: apathy, a void. I look back at the painting of the lion and notice that in the upper-right corner, blurry in a pink beam of light, a bird hovers in flight. It’s probably a seagull. But it looks like a dove. The lion’s gaze is fixed on it; with what intent, I can’t tell.

The pages lists the address of his prison, and an email address “for first contact, if you like.” I have a sudden desire to write to him, to ask him to tell me why. But part of me feels sick at the thought of writing to him, and part of me knows he will never say anything, and all of me knows that even if he did try to explain it wouldn’t make any difference.

Reply Hazy. Try Again.

I keep Googling, thinking I will glimpse the shape and size of the hole Emily leaves behind, thinking someone will tell me what it all means. But all I see are the meanings other people give her, and my face faintly reflected in the computer screen.


1 Accessed 12/01/05.

2The New York Times, August 18, 2002, p. 18.

3 Accessed 12/01/05.

4 Accessed 12/01/05.

5The Plain Dealer, October 16, 2002, p. A1.

6 Accessed 12/01/05.

7 Accessed 12/01/05.

8“The Awful Truth,” Esquire, Sep 2003. Vol. 140, Iss. 3; pg. 134.

9 Accessed 12/01/05.

Celeste Ng is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere. Her writing has been awarded the Pushcart Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other honors. She earned an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To learn more about her and her work, visit or follow her on Twitter (@pronounced_ing).