On a winter night in 2017, Joachim Wall was sitting in front of his daughter’s laptop at his home in Trelleborg, a town of around 45,000 and Sweden’s southernmost. He was going through thousands of pictures, trying to reorganize her archive – a task that would keep him busy for many more months.
Suddenly, he heard a familiar ding: Kim, are you there?
Joachim hadn’t realized that Facebook was open on one of the browser’s windows, a little green dot next to his daughter’s name, Kim Wall. As soon as he checked the message, he recognized the sender to be one of the women Kim had visited several times in Sri Lanka and then written a story about: the women fighters of the Tamil Tigers.
After some hesitation, Joachim decided to reply: This is not Kim, it’s Kim’s father. Do you not know what happened to her?
A no was quickly typed on the other end of the chat, and Joachim’s heart sunk: although he had never been in touch with this woman before, he had to be the one to let her know that Kim was gone.
Upon hearing the news, more dots appeared immediately as she started typing frantically: Oh no! No! Why Kim? She was my best friend!
When Joachim told me this story a couple of weeks ago in mid-June, as I accompanied him and the family dog, Iso, for a long-distance walk over FaceTime from my apartment in New York, I could feel the weight of his words and his silences – each of them still hurt. I imagined him and the former Tamil Tiger, two people who had been strangers until that moment, now crying together five thousand miles apart.
Kim Wall was a smart, curious, adventurous and empathetic person. She was an ambitious, talented and dedicated journalist, whose reporting had taken her to far-flung places such as the Marshall Islands and Haiti, North Korea and Uganda, to cover what she called “the undercurrents of rebellion”, chasing counter-narratives and making sure that the voices of those who would normally not be listened to were finally heard.
She was a generous friend – the kind whose jokes turned your day around – a loving daughter and sister to her brother Tom, and a girlfriend who was “ridiculously in love” with her partner, Ole, as she often put it. To me, she was a special friend – a “soul sister”, as I wrote before. We met at the entrance exam for Columbia University’s Journalism School in early 2011 and started our careers together, as each other’s first reporting partner.
Kim was always on the go, always running after the next thing – a show, an interview, some kind of food she had never tried before – and it would always be worth it, if not for the experience itself, at least because she would have had one more story to tell.
On 11 August 2017, Kim became the story: she was reported missing off the coast of Copenhagen, a mere 30 miles away from her home in Trelleborg, hours after boarding the UC3 Nautilus, the world’s largest homemade submarine. She was there to interview its eccentric inventor, Peter Madsen.
It was supposed to be a quick interview to top off the reporting Kim had already done on the story, days before she and Ole finally moved to Beijing, starting a new chapter that had been in the works for months. Instead, Kim never came back: the submarine was sunk and the truth with it – at least for the first few days, until a police investigation and the search for Kim’s body shed light on a much more grim reality than anyone could have imagined.
It was in those days – when Kim went from “missing” to “slain” – that her mother, Ingrid, started writing what at the time she still didn’t know would become the book she’d co-author with her husband, Joachim: A Silenced Voice: The Life of Journalist Kim Wall, which alternates joyful episodes from Kim’s life and her infinite list of travels and achievements, with a gut-wrenching chronicle of the year that the tragedy of her murder hit the Wall family.
“It’s the journalistic way to work,” Ingrid told me when I asked her about how the book came to be. “I think that was the first thing that came in my mind: I have to make notes because I want to be sure in the future of what really happened and when it happened.”
Having worked with words for over 40 years, Ingrid’s job conditioning led her to start keeping a diary, which she said at first contained only the hard facts: when did the police call, what did they say, who else reached out.
After a couple of days, once it became clear that the worst might have happened, Ingrid realized it actually helped her to put her “feelings into the computer”. She described it as “some kind of healing process”, forcing her to remember all the good times. To that aim, thousands of pictures and videos of Kim were also shared by friends all over the world, which let the Walls finally see some of the adventures Kim had told them about, and learn more about the life of their grown up daughter.
The other reason to write was to remain in control of the narrative. “There were hundreds of journalists calling us in different ways and all they all wanted to write Kim’s true story” – Ingrid spelled out the words to emphasise the irony – “in about 2,000 signs or whatever. And we said from the first day that if anyone will write Kim’s story, it will be us, and no one else.”
As they told me how the idea of a book started taking shape, Ingrid and Joachim were sitting in their home office, surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of notebooks, boxes of photographs and archives of newspaper clips that had long taken over every inch of the room. I couldn’t stop thinking that a few feet away, in Kim’s room, her whole life was also still piled up in suitcases, Ikea bags and boxes – some that the family had brought back from the home in Copenhagen, and others that had been shipped from her last base, New York, filled with the posters and books I had last seen in her living room.
“We must, we will tell who Kim was as a human being, as a friend, as a journalist, as a daughter, a fiancee and sister,” Ingrid continued.
As I learnt reading the book, by the end of 2017 more than 60,000 articles worldwide had been written about Kim, her murder and the investigation – which have now surpassed 100,000.
“They’re all about the case and about the murderer, but Kim is nowhere – she’s only mentioned as the victim, and we don’t want her to be remembered as the victim.”
At the end of November, Kim’s arms are found. First the left, then the right – her writing arm. By then, 111 long days have passed. As have 111 even longer nights.
Reading certain passages of the book, my brain still short circuits. In the months that followed Kim’s death, every one of us had a different way of coping with updates about the investigation. Some had set up Google alerts and compulsively read everything that was published about it. Others, like me, preferred not to know for a little longer, and were often alerted by a friend’s kind text message – I just saw the news about Kim – whenever the most recent gruesome details were released, which at least made us prepared to read them.
Sometimes though, that strategy failed, and the news would hit me while I was scrolling my phonedistractedly. I remember exactly where I was the morning I saw the news about Kim’s head being found on the bottom of Køge Bay: I was about to walk across the Williamsburg Bridge on my way to work in Manhattan, and all of a sudden I couldn’t breath and had the closest thing to a panic attack I have ever experienced – on that same bridge Kim and I had walked across together so many times, leaving our homes in South Williamsburg behind to look for dumplings in Chinatown.
I asked myself incessantly how Kim’s parents could handle it all. As she had said many times previously, Ingrid told me: “There is no manual for parents whose kids have been murdered, so we have to deal with the problems whenever they show up.” For them, not reading the news was never an option: they had already been deprived of knowing what Kim’s fate had been for weeks – the harshest sentence – so checking the news was actually a way of retaining a minimal control over the situation.
“From day one we made a deal with a company, a digital crawler. They go through everything that is written on the internet,” Joachim told me. “We could see that the name Kim Wall was mentioned in this and this article and we have the link to it.”
“We read a lot, and a lot we saved for later,” added Ingrid. “In due time we will read it.”
Once again, what they call their “journalistic training” dictated how they responded to most situations, including what Joachim described as a “siege” by mostly foreign journalists. For the first few weeks, many were camped outside their home in Trelleborg – and still somehow managed to take pictures of the wrong brick house, mistaking it for the Walls’, as Joachim remembered laughing to himself, having been a photographer working with newspapers for over 40 years.
Joachim and Ingrid knew the rules of the game, because they had played it for so long. “What saved us from disaster is that we didn’t give any interviews,” he continued, arguing that otherwise the insatiable hunger for comments would have consumed them. To Ingrid, another important point was that Kim was a journalist: the fact that she was killed while she was doing her job helped to at least contain some of the speculation that is the bread and butter of true crime reporting.
“We heard from so many: ‘It could have been me’, ‘So many times as a female journalist I’ve been out on assignments alone with a man, without even thinking that I could be in danger’,” Ingrid said, and after a short pause she added: “I have been in that position for 25 years. I didn’t even think about it.”
Almost three years later, no thoughts are wasted on Peter Madsen. “It’s very easy to feel hatred and thoughts of revenge, but in that case we will be the only losers, because the man who is sitting in jail won’t care at all,” continued Ingrid. “We must concentrate on the good things.”
In the nightmare that followed Kim’s death – hours, days, weeks of anguish – the most trivial things offered a little respite to the family. “Life goes on, despite everything,” as Ingrid often writes in the book, and behind ordinary tasks laid a glimpse of hope: that for just a few seconds in the day, she and the rest of the family could think about something else other than Kim.
“It’s very easy given the circumstances that you fall into this big black hole, and you stay there because you can’t cope with reality. But when you have a dog, like Iso,” Ingrid said turning away from the camera towards the family’s dog, who had been panting in the background for most of the Zoom interview, “you have to go out three times a day. You have to get up in the morning, take a shower and go out with him. And you meet people.”
The Walls never really had an opportunity to hide from reality – so they decided to just face it.
“I was afraid in the beginning that when we walked in the streets of Trelleborg, people will avoid us, that they will go to the other side of the street,” Ingrid told me, “and I thought that would be extremely terrible if they do, because we haven’t done anything wrong.”
Their overwhelming fame – something they would do anything to give back, as repeated over and over in the book – initially made their grief lonelier, as many didn’t want to interfere with the mourning. Sometimes though, the barriers were broken: Kim’s name written by a stranger in a heart made of stones on the beach, a hug from the cashier of the local grocery store on the day that the local newspaper printed the unspeakable as a headline. If there is another thing that this book can teach people, it’s how to treat someone who has lived through such a tragedy.
“I don’t know how many times we have heard ‘I don’t know what to say’ and we said ‘You don’t have to say anything, because a hug today will say more than words’,” Ingrid continued. “Then we know that we are not alone in the sorrow.”.
In its Swedish original version, the title of the book translates to: “When there are no more words.” Fortunately though, there are: the words that Kim’s parents wrote in the book, the ones written by Kim’s friends all over the world – “We must be the most rainbow family in the world!” Ingrid said proudly – to remember her life and her work, and the words written by past, present and future grantees of the reporting fund in her name, the Kim Wall Memorial Fund, which will allow generations of female reporters to continue writing the stories Kim would have wanted to write.
In Ingrid’s words: it gives us a meaning. We must concentrate on the good things.