There are gaps, in this road map of Katherine Russell’s life. Points F through L, maybe, or D through K. What went through Katherine’s mind when she made such a choice? Did Tamerlan force her into it? Was she yearning for a life very different than the suburban comfort in which she had been raised?
The narrative of her life is compelling in part because of the way it hews so neatly to our narratives of fear, our cautionary tales: Here is a woman who went astray. Here is a woman who did not listen to her family.
It is also compelling for the way it upends American conceptions of selfhood, womanhood, progress. For the way it draws boundaries around “typical” American behavior. The hijab and other items of traditional Muslim apparel are freighted garments in this country, often stigmatized as items of repression and regression.
“Yes, the hijab, the scarlet letter of doom,” writes Muslim journalist Deanna Othman in an essay for the Huffington Post about the public’s fascination with Russell’s clothing. Russell, Othman laments, “provides a spectacle for the public to shake their heads at because she is a tragic character, and her tragic flaw is her conversion to the Muslim faith.” Would people have the same level of fascination with a Muslim woman who had converted to Christianity in order to marry a man who committed a terrorist act?
Katherine the victim? The dupe? The accomplice?
Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been arrested in 2009 on an assault-and-battery charge after he allegedly hit his girlfriend at the time, Nadine Ascencao — a woman who recently told the British newspaper The Sun that their breakup was a “lucky escape.”
It is impossible to know where Katherine Russell’s life would have taken her if she had never met Tamerlan Tsarnaev. She is not talking; neither are her parents.
Here is a woman who, for now, we can only observe from the outside in.
Here is a woman who may have started out on an earnest journey of belief and whose route may have bound her to a very bad man.
Point E: In July 2007, Russell was arrested in Warwick, R.I., on a misdemeanor shoplifting charge for allegedly stealing $67 worth of Old Navy merchandise, but the charges were later dismissed.
Point Post-Z: A row of television cameras, white TV news vans and rental Hondas containing reporters maintain a vigil outside the Russell family’s North Kingstown home, waiting in vain for a quote from Katherine, who has been staying with her family. A red sedan drives up and down the block, the driver rubbernecking for a view of the house. The neighborhood is an archaeological site. The artifacts are answers.