There were three things for boys to do in Barranquilla, Colombia, in the ‘90s: You could watch soccer, play soccer, and talk about soccer. We had soccer-themed birthday parties and soccer lessons after school; we exchanged soccer cards to complete our World Cup albums. The country’s “dream team” had qualified for the 1994 World Cup; “El Pibe” Valderrama, with his unruly mop of golden ringlets, was everyone’s hero. And it was at my friend Mauricio’s soccer party that I first realized how difficult it would be to opt out of this frenzy.
I decided to sit in the kiosk adjacent to the soccer field, and was about to start reading a book, when his flamboyant mom walked over, her heels clicking on the cement floor. “You can’t sit here,” she said, vaguely annoyed. “You have to go out there and play!”
Thankfully, she didn’t ask what I was reading as I got up to trudge, dejectedly, out to the field. Because, as a 10-year-old kid, I wasn’t interested in filling up my soccer album. Instead, I was becoming obsessed with American crime scandals: the Menendez Brothers, O.J. Simpson, JonBenét Ramsey. They were like confetti bombs of American fantasy — real-life soap operas exposing sordid truths about sex, secrets, and families gone awry. I wasn’t actually allowed to watch telenovelas (too racy and melodramatic for my mom’s taste) but my parents liked to encourage our literary interests. So I’d discovered these scandals through true crime paperbacks I bought during my family’s summer trips to the United States.
Our first destination on these excursions was always the local Barnes & Noble. Precious few American books or magazines arrived at the local bookstore in Barranquilla, and that big-box chain bookstore felt like a cultural mecca to me. The family would quickly disband into separate areas: My mom looked over nutrition books, my dad perused finance periodicals, my two older brothers pored over comic books and car magazines, and I always headed to the true crime section.
It was like a room of my own — a momentary space where I could explore situations and people that seemed completely removed from my surroundings. I stayed away from the creepy forensic cases and criminal mysteries. I wanted to read about the women, tabloid stars whose antics seemed to shine with a particular, adult kind of glamour. And out of all the scandals, it was America’s most infamous teenager, the uncontrollable “Long Island Lolita,” who spoke to me the most: Amy Fisher.
Here are the basics: On May 19, 1992, a 17-year old Long Island teenager walked up the front stoop of her married lover’s house and shot his wife in the face. After Mary Jo Buttafuoco woke up in the hospital, she described her assailant as a petite girl who claimed she was having an affair with Mary Jo’s husband, Joey. When questioned, Joey Buttafuoco said the girl’s name was Amy Fisher.
What followed was a tangled tabloid mess, a kind of proto-reality show about the absurdity of white suburbia. Years before Jersey Shore or Princesses: Long Island, the country became alternately obsessed with and repulsed by Joey Buttafuoco’s macho Italian-American swagger and Amy’s “spoiled” Jewish-American princess antics. It was the heyday of checkbook journalism; tabloid programs like Hard Copy and A Current Affair used their money to keep generating stories. They bought secret sex tapes, exposed Amy’s call-girl past, recorded and staged her betrayal by a boyfriend.
After a certain point, the story became about the story itself. In a still-unprecedented move, all three major networks made TV movies about it; the case also inspired musicals, comics, and books. And it was one of those flimsy paperbacks that first drew me into the story’s scandalous orbit.
I was 10, on a family trip to New Orleans, when one particular paperback with a luridly yellow and fuchsia design caught my eye at that Barnes & Noble: Lethal Lolita. The staged photograph on the cover depicted a young woman in a cropped white tank top and booty shorts; her face was half-covered by provocatively tousled hair. Her hand lingered daintily in her shorts pocket, with a gun nestled in the waistband above.
What a world, I thought to myself. Nothing is what it seems!
The image was striking: feminine, sexual, and criminal all at once. The back cover teased the story as an account of suburban secrets, a world in which “spoiled” Amy’s high school beeper was a conduit for call-girl dates, not slumber parties. What a world, I thought to myself. Nothing is what it seems! My parents must have been confused when I slid the book onto the checkout counter, but they allowed it, since it was technically reading material.
The paperback was a straightforward account of the scandal in People magazine prose — an insta-book published before Amy even pleaded guilty to assault. But I was immediately fascinated by her. On the one hand, she was just like one of my cousins: She wore short shorts, had to pluck her thick eyebrows and blow out her wavy hair. She loved Diet Coke and Snapple and kept up with Days of Our Lives. On the other hand, she would cut class to go on escort dates at motels and told classmates she had “fucked a tileman” at 13. She seemed completely unapologetic and dangerously precocious.
I was especially taken with the way the spectacle of Amy’s sexuality had turned her into an object of mass fascination — a star. Her lawyer sold her story rights to Hollywood to pay for her bail. This was very different from my reality in Colombia. Pablo Escobar had just been murdered (with help from Americans) after wreaking havoc on the country, including blowing up an airplane full of civilians. There was once a shoot-out involving one of the coast’s most powerful drug kingpins at the building next to mine, and my friend who lived there had to come get lunch at my place instead. Cities were swept by a wave of guerrilla kidnappings for ransom; we even had a kidnapping drill in my school. In my world, criminals were genuinely scary, not celebrities — and so I was transfixed by this girl who had turned her crime into a kind of fairy tale.
Barranquilla, on Colombia’s northern coast, is usually portrayed and imagined as a place of Caribbean exuberance and magical realism. We have a yearly carnival — as beloved as soccer — that creates a space for races and classes to mix, and for gender and sexual play, as everyone takes to the streets for one week of dancing and carousing. But this freedom is temporary; traditionalism reigns during the rest of the year. The city’s two most famous stars, Shakira and Sofia Vergara, both embody this contradictory quality. On the surface they are all tropical sensuality, but their unsophisticated conservatism bubbles up once they let their guard down, in the form of so-called “jokes” about rape and controlling boyfriends.
Barranquilla’s conservatism, just like the trashy scandals that gripped me, was in some ways the result of American fantasies.
I had no idea then that Barranquilla’s conservatism, just like the trashy scandals that gripped me, was in some ways the result of American fantasies. The city’s most famous and pioneering barrio was built in the 1920s by an Iowan businessman who moved to Colombia and wanted to import the modernity and “development” of American planned communities into the city. He created grand homes along organized avenues with prominent front lawns, and founded the local country club, where many of the infinite soccer parties took place. He called that first barrio “El Prado,” which translates to “the greenery,” but the word captures the suburban privacy of a manicured lawn.
Even though Barranquilla is a city of 2 million people, that area — which eventually gave way to buildings like the one I lived in — was a kind of private bubble. Almost all my friends also lived within that 10- or 15-block radius. We all attended the same bilingual “American” school, founded by that same Iowan businessman. Iguanas roamed the grounds, leaving their massive and occasionally colorful droppings on our teachers’ cars. And in many ways that’s the kind of American glamour that Barranquilleros aspired to: a comfortable suburban normalcy. We were all sincerely obsessed with US brands of cereal, candy, shoes, and backpacks. My brother’s friend once brought back McDonald’s burgers in his suitcase. It was considered hopelessly uncool not to have visited Disney World.
In other words, “America” in Barranquilla was shorthand for cheerful, innocent, big-brand uniformity. But to me, through Amy and the other true crime stories I devoured, America began to represent a different kind of glamour: It was a magical place where a scandalous, criminal teenager could not only dismantle her "normal" suburban existence, but do it and become a star.
This vision of the US was confirmed for me when I bumped into Amy Fisher again, some months after our vacation to the States, at Video Accion (a kind of bootleg Blockbuster our family visited on weekend excursions). As my parents waited in the car, and my older brothers took off to find one of their action movies, I drifted toward the section of “based on a true story” melodramas. And there she was, on the cover of a video that blared “Ammy Fisher: Drama Adolescente” — Amy’s fictional stand-in, Drew Barrymore, on what looked like a street corner, with a finger provocatively posed in her mouth. The back cover showed the movie’s re-creation of Amy’s arrest, the same moment I’d seen sensationally sexualized on the cover of Lethal Lolita.
In retrospect, my interest in the case might have evaporated if I had instead bumped into either of the other two TV movies made about the story, which I found years later. They were boring and bluntly sentimental attempts to humanize the main characters through their backstories. But the Drew Barrymore version (originally titled The Amy Fisher Story) was about the drama of the scandal itself. Barrymore had been cast because of her own “wild girl” past, and the movie was focused on the way everyone around Amy Fisher — prosecutors, her parents, her classmates, tabloid reporters, judges — had all in some way invented the girl who became a star.
I brought the video home and secretly watched it while my family went out for our Sunday lunch, which was lucky because the VHS version included a racy sex scene “too hot for TV.” I figured I should stay mum about that, but eventually, I did try to broach the topic of Amy with my family.
“But she shot someone!” my parents exclaimed, increasingly concerned about my growing interest.
“She’s definitely not hot,” my older brothers decided.
None of that was the point. My fascination was with the way she represented a completely different set of values that celebrated behaving improperly, and ones that I started to associate not with Long Island, or the suburbs, but with America.
“This is what happens in America,” I would say.
Finding a way to articulate my excitement, in a way that made sense to my parents, felt impossible.
Finding a way to articulate my excitement, in a way that made sense to my parents, felt impossible. In some ways my father, like me, had different interests from most of the people we knew. He was a former college Marxist who read Time magazine, wasn’t interested in Carnival carousing, and played basketball, not soccer. He was the reason we would even go to the Barnes & Noble in the first place. But when I tried to talk to him about Amy Fisher, he deemed the interest “antisocial.”
“That’s not culture,” he explained one day, as we drove to the airport. He pointed outside the car window, at one of the donkey-driven carts piled with plantains that often dotted the sides of the highway. “That is the real art.” He seemed to be telling me to focus on my surroundings, channeling our national literary hero Gabriel García Márquez. I found his answers hopelessly tone-deaf, and it made me feel distant from him and from my own home, where rejecting García Márquez's magical realism was almost as unthinkable as not enjoying soccer; it meant you weren’t properly Barranquillero. But I just couldn’t see what was so magical about Marquez’s stories, set in rural pueblos where the women were chatty grandmothers, not teenage call girls with movie deals.
The only time I remember my strange fascination with Amy intersecting with something my classmates actually cared about was, oddly enough, in the movie Addams Family Values — which my friends and I loved and spouted lines from constantly. In one scene, the Addams kids exchange “schizos and serial killer” trading cards, and an Amy Fisher card comes up for trade. There is a quick shot of Amy in all her wild-haired glory, and Pugsley Addams says her name with a suggestive, mischievous inflection. It evoked, for me, the sense of excitement and possibility I felt when I first encountered Lethal Lolita on a bookshelf. In retrospect, I can see that the tiny moment resonated as my own form of magical realism: kids in the upside-down Addams Family world, bonding over a shared interest in Amy Fisher’s stardom and all that it symbolized.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1996, the year I would finally turn into a teenager, that things with Amy reached a kind of impasse. We were on a family trip to Fort Lauderdale, and drove, as usual, from our beach resort to a nearby Borders bookstore. I was somewhat confused to find Amy on the cover of her own new tell-all, Amy Fisher: My Story. In all the other pictures of Amy she is somehow ashamed, enthralled, or scared; her hair often covers her face. This was a very different presentation of her: an unabashed glam shot, taken, as she mentions in the book, in her “scary” prison.
Back at the hotel, I dove right in. In the book, Amy responds to the media stories about her; she takes issue with The Amy Fisher Story’s depiction of her as a spoiled brat looking for love in the wrong places, and offers a different interpretation of her motives. It turns out that what looked like a normal childhood from the outside actually included a sexual assault, by a handyman at her house, when she was 12 years old. But even before that, she had been molested by someone the book calls a “family friend” from the time she was 3. (Years later, after Amy apologized to Mary Jo Buttafuoco, who advocated for her early release, Mary Jo claimed that Amy admitted she was referring to her father — who, in turn, denied it.)
I could identify with dreading the work of trying to fit in, and having to make that work invisible.
Though I knew nothing about sexual abuse, I could identify with dreading the work of trying to fit in, and having to make that work invisible for my parents. I knew the guilt that builds up from not enjoying the normal childhood they are trying to provide for you. But some of the ideas in the book — suggesting that Amy’s relationship to her sexuality was confused through no fault of her own — were new and startling to me, and I needed an interlocutor. So, as we were getting ice from a machine at the hotel in Fort Lauderdale, I decided to ask my mom about what I’d read.
“This book is saying that Amy Fisher was sexually abused from the age of 3,” I said. “Have you heard of incest?”
“Wait,” my mom said, as we walked back to the hotel room. Her tone was concerned and alarmed, but also possibly annoyed. “What exactly is it you’re reading?” she asked, staring at me. “I’m not sure you should be reading something like that.”
My parents — especially my mother — wanted to keep us safe, innocent of ugly things like crime or politics; they never wanted us to worry about the outside world. I could hear a number of things in my mom’s voice: her fears about this kid who was always confronting her with messy things, her need to assert authority, but also her sincere desire that I stay insulated from such ideas.
I panicked. I felt my one lifeline to adult sophistication and to that outside world being cut off. On a sudden impulse, I ripped up the book in front of her. I think I said, “I won’t fucking read anything ever again.” I might have thrown the book in the trash in my frustration.
Hours later, I returned to the scene of the crime and retrieved the book, taping it back together at the spine; I also somehow repaired my momentary break with my mom. And looking back, I think that ripping up and taping things back together became, in many ways, my relationship to the conventions I lived with. Some I rejected; I never played soccer again. (Though I did learn to love the World Cup after I left.) But I also started to realize that I didn’t need to share everything with my parents or family — that they would never understand some of my interests, and it would be up to me to find a space to explore them.
By the time I finally did get to New York, for college, I realized that Amy Fisher had been completely ignored, or long forgotten, by my classmates. At best, she was treated as an irrelevant and trashy bit of Long Island lore. I moved on as well, aided by the books of another Jewish American Princess who scandalized her culture: the critic Susan Sontag. She helped me link my sense of outsiderness as a boy in Barranquilla’s bubble to bigger concepts, like the nuclear family and suburban consumerism.
But it was Amy who first allowed me to question the values of my surroundings, who first gave me a sense that there would be a different world out there; one where “trash” culture and “bad” behavior might elicit serious thought, not just condemnation. The biggest scandal, she taught me, was the boredom of normality itself.