Saturday, July 07, 2007

Strange Piece of Paradise

Back in May I wrote a posting here about the book "Strange Piece of Paradise" by Terri Jentz.

I left it up for three or four days and then took it down, marking it as "draft" so the words were still captured for ME, but no longer available for those who read this blog. I felt way too exposed by having made references in my comments to some of my early trauma history. It creeped me out that people whose esteem I crave would know the bad nasty secrets of my past. So I made the words go away.

I've thought a lot about why I wrote it in the first place, why I took it down, and why after all these years I still have so much struggle with owning the fact that the old horrors should NOT infer any shame on me. Whether or not I ever adequately answer those questions is anybody's guess. It's something that remains deeply unresolved for me.

I've been corresponding some with the author Terri Jentz over the past months. We've been batting around a conversation about the key issue of people standing mute when evil occurs. If I can't even speak out about my own history, how can I expect anyone else to stand up when they see someone being harmed?

I see no need to go on and on about the gorey details or to make those events the centerpiece of my life's story. But by maintaining the iron clad secrecy about it that is my usual pattern I think I do both myself and all victimized children a disservice.

So, all squeemishness aside, I'm reposting my comments about Strange Piece of Paradise, and not editing out the parts that initially made my skin crawl. There are no graphic tales or anything all that self revealing. Still, for me even saying this much felt like swollowing a coarse stone. Truth be told, I really don't care so much about the "strangers" who might read this. But those folks I know in the real world who are likely to see it...that's the part that gives me pause. I have no doubt that in the days and weeks to come I'll have plenty of opportunities to process that discomfort further and maybe learn from it some.

Terri will be coming back to central Oregon the end of this month to give a "town hall" sort of meeting to talk about the issue of why people look away or keep silent in the face of evil. She will be speaking at Paulina Springs bookstore in Sisters, Oregon, on July 28th at 6:30. Should be an interesting group there, including many who know players in the story. I'm not sure my schedule will permit me to go, but I aim to try if I can arrange it.

Whether I make it there in body or not, I'm definitely with Terri in spirit and wish her every success. Her ability to reclaim her life after an unspeakable crime that nearly killed her speaks volumes to the strength of her core self. I don't know her personally, so I can't really say how much she has actually moved on or how much her life remains intertwined with those events of over 20 years ago. But either way, it seems to me she has taken some very positive steps by fully owning what happened to her and being willing to explore the impact of those events.

While I certainly have no intention of writing a book or going on tour to talk about my own harms there is still much I can learn from her candor.

So here's the post. Hopefully, this time I'll have the guts to let it stand.


I just finished listening to a very powerful audio book, Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz.

I am both haunted and affirmed by this book.

Ms Jentz and her Yale roommate survived a horrific attack while camping near Redmond, OR in 1977. A man deliberately drove over the top of the tent they were sleeping in, then went after the both of them with an ax. It is an absolute miracle that either girl lived through it at all, let alone that they were both able to go on to have powerful, productive lives.

The book chronicles her investigation into that crime which was never solved.

The "true crime" genre generally does not appeal to me at all. However, this book is so much more than that. The word pictures Jentz paints are as breathtaking as the peaked mountains of the area where she was nearly killed. Her book is just the right mix of personal account and social commentary. Her skill with language keeps the reader engaged, maintaining a taunt story with sometimes harrowing details, yet is not overwhelming. Her training in English Literature at Yale definitely shows.

While I've never had to endure the sort of crime Jentz experienced, her depiction of disassociation in the beginning of the book is all too familiar to me. I know that sort of splitting. I also know what it's like to wake up from nightmares years after an assault and feel the creepiness of dream dancing with memory shudder through my skin.

Her tenacious determination to track down the truth of what really happened to her that night leads her to discoveries about evil that go beyond most people's imagination...yet perhaps even more disconcerting is her realization that despite the fact that dozens of people either knew or suspected who did this terrible crime the perpetrator was never arrested, never prosecuted, never punished.

This is why Jentz's story is so riveting for me. While our traumas were very, very different, I know something of the incredulity and impotent rage one feels when others stand by seeing the bad thing happen, having the power to intervene, but instead do NOTHING. Coming to terms with that is something I expect I will do battle with in one fashion or another until I am in my grave.

I get it that there is badness. But I am more harmed, and I believe our culture as a whole is more damaged, by the failure of decent people to stand up and speak out against evil than we are by the consequences of the evil itself.

While the legal outcomes are very different, there are some parallels to what went on in Bend and Redmond, Oregon in the '70s and the case of Kitty Genovese who was murdered outside her apartment in 1964 while dozens of neighbors did nothing to intervene.

At the time of the Genovese murder the press went crazy with statements about how urban living led to such a shameful and wanton lack of regard for a fellow human being. A considerable amount of research and discussion into the social phenomena of "diffusion of responsibility" and "bystander effect" was done for years afterwards. I still teach those very principles in my own sociology courses. They are key principles we social scientists cut our academic teeth on.

But Jenz's story gives clear evidence that even in small town America people can refuse to see or acknowledge danger/evil in their midst. The reasons for this are complex, and unravelling THAT has been the heart of my own journey.

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