Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Strange Piece of Paradise by Terry Jentz

This large nonfiction book details a woman’s exploration, many years after the event, of a night when a man wielding an axe attacked her and her friend. The two were seven days into a bicycle trip across the country, and camping in the Cline Falls Park in central Oregon.

The attack took place in June 1977. Jentz started to become obsessed with it in 1992, after many years of almost-flippant references to it, a kind of denial of her feelings that lasted 15 years.

She began her investigation by traveling to the scene of the crime and the surrounding area, gathering police reports and interviewing people. The trip left her unsatisfied and she returned two years later to continue the search, even though at the time she wasn’t at all sure what she was searching for. From then on she returned frequently, making dashes at various lines of inquiry, tracking down leads and involving the different law enforcement agencies in the area.

In the course of this long, involved investigation, Jentz discovers that nobody was ever charged with the crime and there were few suspects. The police seemed unable to pursue what leads they had. It appears that the collection, storage, and use of the evidence was far from thorough as well. Eventually her search narrows into a search for the attacker. The statute of limitations on the crime ran out three years after the attack, so she knows the perp will not have to face the justice system, but she desperately wants to find out who he is and, if possible, find a way to keep him from hurting others. She also has a vague idea that when she knows who he is she can start to heal herself.

The story is, as many reviewers have written, gripping and absorbing, and hard to put down. Other reviewers have complained that there is too much “navel-gazing”, too much time spent on introspection. Overall, I find it a book well worth reading. But not perfect.

Jentz is given to a writing style that seems unnecessarily “literary”, yet also incorporates a type of jargon popular in “victims rights” and “women’s rights” articles. It gives in to the passive voice frequently and awkwardly. There is a kind of unevenness to it, as it veers from one style to another, sometimes using words inappropriately. For example,

How could I access the rage?

The use of “access” as a verb seems to have its roots in the women’s rights and group therapy movements.

…I’d never wrapped my mind around what the experience might have been for her;…

I fight in vain for the removal of the term “wrapped my mind around” from the language.

Meticulous cowboy

This is the term Jentz uses for her attacker. He was carefully dressed, with his shirt fastidiously tucked in so there were no creases. He wore western clothing. I find the adjective “meticulous” not really right for this case. Most often it refers to a way of acting, of doing, not a way of appearing. This young man was fastidious, was dressed immaculately, but it’s hard to call his actions - driving over a curb, knocking over a tent, and slashing out at his victims with an axe – “meticulous”. Each time Jentz referred to him this way it jumped out at me. And she uses it constantly, like a drumbeat. Probably her intention.

Almost as often she refers to her attacker as a “headless torso” or “headless cowboy torso”, bringing to mind just the trunk of a man, with no arms. In fact, that’s what the definition of “torso” says. Given that he used his arms to wield an axe, I suspect – I know from her book – she saw the arms, too.

These are picky points and I can’t explain why they bothered me, except that they were repeated so often.

I fully believed that he was guilty of the attack against Shayna and me. But I couldn’t connect the dots between this man and the fingerprints he had left in my psyche. His presence had not triggered a seismic reaction in me.. . .

Some part of me at the edges of consciousness had lost trust in the order of things.

The facts of the world broke faith with me.

I was no longer deceived that life was following a script in which certain things would never happen.

Passive, passive, passive. “I was no longer deceived”? This type writing suggests that something other than Terri herself was taking control of her life. It’s an interesting perception, given that the book is also saturated with references, both direct and indirect, of fate somehow leading Terri here and there and forcing her to find the meaning in the attack or to make sense of random incidents and comments. She frequently runs into names of places that include “axe” in them and seems to think there is a personal reason for this. The reason is actually simpler than that they were put there for her alone. Oregon in the 1970s and before was a place where axes were far from uncommon.

Well into the book, Terri meets up with a couple who fight for victims’ rights and who do a great deal of investigating for other victims (their daughter was murdered in 1980), to help solve cases or otherwise right wrongs. This couple fills Terri in on their theory of crime and punishment in Oregon: they believe that a misguided “liberal” public favored the view that criminals are not responsible for their actions; “society” is.

I have met a few people who more or less subscribed to this theory, to some extent, in my life. Very few, even though I consort with so-called liberals (and am one). I believe that this couple, and Terri herself, misread the justice system, as do many victims’ rights advocates. They feel that the accused perps are given more attention and more help than are the victims, and that this comes from that perception that it isn’t really their fault.

It’s true that our justice system leans over backwards to protect the rights of the accused. The reason, however, is that it is “better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent man be convicted”. The laws that protect the accused protect all of us. Terri and her friends forget this. Terri makes it clear again and again that she would never want to see anyone wrongly convicted, yet she rails against a system that tries to prevent wrongful convictions.

Jentz also joins her investigating friends in the view that “permissive parents” are more likely to raise criminals than those who abuse their children. One chapter begins with a quotation from the book Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore, brother of Gary (murderer of two who was eventually executed). The quotation is from a legal system that incarcerated Gary at one point, and it says that Gary’s parents would do anything for him, were overly permissive. If Terri actually read that book (which I did) she would realize that his father repeatedly beat Gary while his mother just watched. Is this a type of permissiveness? The quotation clearly did not represent the truth in that particular case.

I do not lack compassion for the victims. I believe that both the accused and the victims deserve special treatment, and to accord such treatment to one doesn’t automatically exclude it from the other.

This is Terri’s book and these are her thoughts and she has every right to them. Nevertheless, I feel a need to offer my own counter-thoughts to some of her conclusions.

One theme that screams loudly in here, and that needs to be heard, is that the law enforcement agencies did not do a good job investigating this crime. There appear to be many reasons for this lack of attention, which Jentz offers and which make sense:

· The term “serial killer” had not even been coined; what were called “stranger murders” were perceived as near-impossible to solve. The investigators apparently felt helpless without a motive or witness. There was plenty of physical evidence (tire tracks, a footprint, probably more if the forensics team had been really diligent) but the investigators seemed to believe they could do nothing with it.

· The attack did not result in murder. Attempted murder takes a huge backseat to actual murder.· There were two women involved. Some people believe there was a sense in the community that women should not be bicycling alone, that they somehow brought this on themselves.

· The law enforcement agencies were overworked. They had to set priorities.

· The head of the state police department that investigated this crime was not expert in criminal investigation and tended to block real investigation, certainly did not aid it.

· Although a great many people in the community immediately “knew” who did it (and many had stories to tell that more than backed up this charge) only one or two actually made an attempt to tell the police what they knew. A part of the reason for this strange neglect seems to be the “individualism” so prevalent in Oregon – a preference for staying out of the way rather than accusing someone who may not be guilty. What struck me was that the law enforcement officials did not follow the leads and find these persons themselves.

Jentz also considers a theory that some of the investigation was simply covered up. Records disappeared. To protect the community from its own? There doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Whatever caused this “miscarriage of justice” certainly needs to be evaluated and if there haven’t been changes to address it (current members of law enforcement say major changes have been made – and ultimately these agencies were more than helpful) there should be. I was constantly reminded of how criminal investigations are most often presented in television fiction, and how that representation is more the ideal than the real. Books like this do us a service by letting us see how horrific crimes can be left unsolved, in spite of adequate forensic and witness evidence. More, it gives us insight into how many lives are affected by a single incident, and for how long.

4 out of 5 stars

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