The vanishing of Molly Norris

Before she disappeared, Molly Norris could be seen around Seattle walking her English Bulldog (Photo courtesy of Shannon Perry)
Before she disappeared, Molly Norris could be seen around Seattle walking her English Bulldog (Photo courtesy of Shannon Perry)

“She didn’t say goodbye, or anything,” Shannon Perry says, arms folded across her chest, her golden dress scattering prisms of warm light against a glass drawing table with every sigh and shrug. “She was just… gone.”

Perry is recalling the strange week back in September 2010 when the Seattle Weekly printed the following statement:

“You may have noticed that Molly Norris’ comic is not in the paper this week. That’s because there is no more Molly. The gifted artist is alive and well, thankfully. But on the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is, as they put it, ‘going ghost.’”

Molly’s story came back to light last month after twelve cartoonists and journalists were gunned down at the offices of the French satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo. They were slain by Islamic radicals who were offended by their depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.

Norris, a Seattle cartoonist who drew for local publications like the Seattle Weekly and City Arts, found herself on the same al-Qaeda hit list as some of the murdered Hebdo artists.

On the advice of the FBI, she abandoned her life and work when Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki called for her assassination in retaliation for posting a comic referencing Mohammed.

A page in the 2013 issue of Al Qaeda's "Inspire" magazine included Molly Norris on a list of artists targeted for assassination, alongside Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier and Salman Rushdie.
A page in the 2013 issue of Al Qaeda’s “Inspire” magazine included Molly Norris on a list of artists targeted for assassination, alongside Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier and Salman Rushdie.

Perry, 33, is the owner of Valentine’s Tattoo in Capitol Hill and lead singer of local avant-garde pop outfit, Gazebos. She can’t imagine giving up her life’s work and identity like Norris, her good friend.

“I can’t think of anything more terrifying,” Perry laments, eyes glinting behind tortoise-frame glasses. “I love my life, I love my business, and I love my friends. That would be worse than dying.”

Two years before the FBI insisted she go into hiding, their friendship developed when Norris approached Perry and her band mate and asked if she would make a documentary on their (now former) band, Katherine Hepburn’s Voice.

Things quickly got serious for Norris after she posted a comic online in May 2010 proposing a tongue-in-cheek event called “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day.” The comic was sponsored by a fictional organization, “Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor.”

The comic spurred threats of violent retaliation through its depiction of the Prophet Mohammed on dainty items such as a thimble, a domino, and a teacup.

(Cartoon courtesy David Horsey / The L.A. Times)
(Cartoon courtesy David Horsey / The L.A. Times)

Cartoonist David Horsey says his comics probably offend someone every time they are published, especially since his area of concentration is American politics. He was drawing cartoons for Seattle Post-Intelligencer when Norris disappeared. Horsey has never depicted Mohammed in his drawings, but says he feels that Norris’ satirical plea was meant to be edgy and thought-provoking, but not insulting.

Norris wanted her community to realize that Islamic radicals could not massacre the whole world if everybody drew a picture of Mohammad. This is a critical point Horsey raises concerning Norris’ cartoon.

The violent reactions she received were, as he puts it, “completely insane.”

“There were ten of these cute little cartoons, and yet, they elicited this threatening reaction,” Horsey says.  “It was so far away from what the French cartoonists were doing at Charlie Hebdo.”

On Twitter, #JesuisCharlie has been tweeted and re-tweeted over 5 million times. The French phrase, which translates to “I am Charlie,” has been used to display solidarity with the journalists and cartoonists slain in the Paris shootings.

I asked Perry and Horsey, “Êtes-vous Charlie?” – Are you Charlie?

They both said yes.

Shannon Perry, owner of Valentine's Tattoo, subject of a documentary project filmed by Molly Norris.(Photo courtesy of Dylan Johnson)
Shannon Perry, owner of Valentine’s Tattoo, was a friend and subject of a documentary project by Molly Norris. (Photo courtesy of Dylan Johnson)

Perry says she sees Norris in herself.

“I like to play with controversial things and raise a level of awareness. I’ve done a bunch of cartoons in my life, too, and that comic she drew, that is something that I could see myself drawing,” says Perry. “I don’t mean anything bad by the stuff that I do or draw, but I don’t see the harm in poking fun at everything.”

Back in 2010, Norris told City Arts, “Artists have to be not afraid when they create….You have to be responsible too with your freedom. It’s such a fine line.”

Depictions of Mohammed are a lightning rod for threats of violence — maybe that’s why they’re such a tempting target for artists looking to test the limits of free speech. And even if such depictions are legally allowed, the threat of violence can be a form of censorship.

Norris was an artist, a journalist, and a dear friend to many in Seattle. Her forced disappearance is not only a form of censorship, it’s a form of erasure, in part caused by no one else standing up and saying, “Je suis Molly.

As the Seattle Weekly put it, there is no more Molly. To honor the life she was forced to abandon, Perry and Horsey hope that artists and journalists will continue thinking critically and engaging in dialogue about the limitations of expression imposed by violent entities.

As Perry points out, “Free speech just isn’t very free when the price you pay for offending someone is your life.”

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4 Comments

    1. Because anyone who does is immediately labeled a racist (or similar nonsense) and/or targeted for death as she is. Freedom and islam have not, will not, and cannot co-exist. There is nothing wrong with that, it just has to be recognized. Molly’s plight is physical proof of this, but for some reason, a portion of the population is unwilling to acknowledge fact. Even when it comes to a religion that, depending on location: advocates the death of adulterers, gays, women who seek education, those who disavow religion of any kind, and many other barbaric practices, not to mention cartoonists, somehow that is all a “misunderstanding”, and “an extremist version”. Yet people like Molly, who exercise their freedom in whichever way they see fit, *inside the US*, without physically harming anyone, are forever looking over their shoulder.

      If it was a misunderstanding or simply extremism, she wouldn’t have needed to go into hiding inside the US.

  1. In reply to ghost. Of course not. But the religion calls for it,and ,therefore, there is no way to plainly and public ally speak against the call for her death by observant Muslims without their being ostracized and threatened. Reformists such as magid nawaz and Hirsi Ali can attest to that.

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