Sunday, November 25, 2007

Terri Jentz, "Strange Piece of Paradise" (2006)

Somehow, during a trip I took to Half Priced Books months ago, I ended up buying two books that I would categorize as belonging to a sub-genre of True Crime called 'victimology'. I had no intentions of seeking out works on this theme, but nevertheless this is what occurred. As I pointed out in a previous review of one of these books (Jack Olsen's Salt of the Earth), it is rare to find an account of a crime from the victim's perspective. That volume focused on the family of a girl who was abducted and killed. The second of the pair (Terri Jentz's Strange Piece of Paradise) was actually written by the survivor of an attempted murder. One would have to assume that this type of account is extremely scarce. What was strange about my selection of these particular books was that they both concerned crimes that occurred in the Pacific Northwest, a seeming hotbed of gruesome crime during the late 70's and early 80's.

Terri Jentz was a Yale co-ed who decided (in the summer of 1977) to join a female classmate in biking across the United States on what was then called the BikeCentennial Trail. The duo only made it seven days into the trek. Their journey ended in a little park called Cline Falls on the banks of the Deschutes River in Oregon. It was there that they decided to pitch their tent and spend the night. Sometime around 11:30 PM on June 22, 1977 their tent was deliberately run over by a pick-up truck. Jentz woke up from her slumber to find herself pinioned under a front wheel. As if this atrocity wasn't enough, the unidentified driver exited the cab and attacked the girls with repeated blows from a hatchet. Against all odds Jentz was able to flag down a passing vehicle, gather her friend and the gear, and survive until reaching a hospital. Although both of them lived, Jentz and her companion suffered massive life-threatening injuries.

Despite the fact that there were plenty of people at the park throughout the day of the assault, the assailant was never conclusively identified. Both victims slowly resumed their lives as time passed. Obviously they were affected by the physical and emotional traumas of that fateful night, but for a long time they pushed the memories to the back of their minds. Terri's friend had no recollection of the actual attack, but Jentz was clear in the limited impressions she formed of the perpetrator while he stood over her prone and mangled body. Symptoms of disassociation and post-traumatic stress disorder pushed her to eventually seek clarity about what she identified as the single greatest life-changing event of her life. In 1992 she decided to make a return journey to Cline Falls and the surrounding area to recover the pieces of her past, without which she would never feel entirely whole. Her intention was to document the process in an autobiographical work. She started with a request for the case files compiled in the wake of the investigation that followed the initial assault.

Jentz claims that she never expected that she would discover the true identity of the attacker she nicknamed "the Cowboy". Still she had the clues of what she remembered about his appearance. He was sinewy, handsome, and a meticulous dresser who preferred western wear. With the limited documents she was able to gather from the various law enforcement agencies who had been involved in the case, she put together a list of people that might be of some help to her cause. Jentz was astonished to learn that the tragic incident that had waylaid her was still very much alive in the minds of the community closest to Cline Falls. In fact many folks were convinced that they knew who had committed the awful deed itself. Each interviewee would suggest additional contacts that Jentz would track down to add another piece to the puzzle. For the next eight years she would continue her quest. As the picture of that tragic day came into focus, Jentz found herself forming relationships that would continue for years afterward. Her growing bonds within this once strange and hostile land transformed her understanding of both others and herself.

As an author Jentz can be both condescendingly pretentious and remarkably revealing. When I started reading the 500+ page Strange Piece of Paradise, I thought it was going to be tough to get through. The exposition leading up to June 22, 1977 smacked of self-indulgence and rather obvious elitism. However as Jentz made inroads into an environment clearly foreign to an Ivy League feminist, she seemed to expand both emotionally and intellectually. Her 'pop psychology' analysis of certain personalities and her simplistic conclusions about greater social trends can occasionally grate one one's nerves- but there's no denying the force of some of her insights, or her courage in undertaking such a perilous task. She put herself at great risk with her research and publication of this book. There are some tough customers running through her narrative, and she goes to great lengths to expose a lot of their most dangerous secrets. Although she employs pseudonyms throughout her tale, it's not too difficult with a bit of Google to figure out who the major players really are. The knowledge that such extreme characters actually exist and commit the acts described by Jentz is perhaps the most compelling reason to seek out this book.

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