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Fighting Back is Important

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Terri Jentz
Author of Review
Carol White

Strange Piece of Paradise; A Return to the American West to Investigate My Attempted Murder - and Solve the Riddle of it. by Terri Jentz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (2006)

Recently, I had the good fortune to hear Terri Jentz on C-SPAN2 book TV. I imagine I passed it up last year, when it was reviewed in the New York Times, because I am generally put off by the demands of victims for revenge. Luckily I got another prompt to read it.

The book not only tells a gripping story about an attempted murder and the successful attempt by the victim to solve it; but it is a meditation on justice and the nature of evil. The book is 542 pages long, and I was thoroughly involved with her story from beginning to end.

Jentz is a liberal. She describes herself as a compassionate person. She accepted values that I too share - to seek to redeem criminals rather than punish. But, in the face of pure evil that is not enough. It is necessary to fight to stop evil. I am going to quote here a statement that she makes of how her views evolved as she investigated the crime committed against her. I will leave out the name of her attacker so as not to take away from the suspense of her story.

She writes of her attacker:

What did he really mean to me, this man, this criminal, this. . .? What he meant to me had evolved. At first he was a random attacker whose identity never interested me; then he was a character in my drama of self-recovery. He was something else now: I would let this showdown with him stand as a symbol for bringing all tyrants to heel. [He] did what he did, all of it, because he could get away with it. We need to eliminate from the earth the all-too-common impunity with which perpetrators are able to act. [485]

In the summer of 1977, Jentz and her Yale room mate began a cross-country bicycle trip. They chose a route from west to east, and on the seventh day they camped for the night in at Cline Falls, an Oregon park, located near the town of Bend. She was awakened when a pickup truck which ran back and forth over her tent, where she was sleeping. She struggled out of her sleeping bag only to be hacked by a demented would-be axe murderer.

Inexplicably, when she demanded that he take whatever belongings he wanted and leave them alone, he stopped and left. Her friend, who was lying nearby with her head split open, was obviously near death. Jentz despite her serious wounds managed to run to a road and flagged down help. The two young women were taken to a local hospital and miraculously survived against all odds.

Jentz' physical recovery was successful and she was able to return to Yale, and then embark on a successful career as a writer. The crime was put aside as unsolvable by the Oregon police and she, living as she did 3,000 miles away, tried to put it aside as well and just get on with her life.

But, she suffered psychic wounds - she explains that the effect of distancing the crime and the violence she had suffered, caused her to flatten all of her emotions. Psychologically it was a different story. In 1977, little was yet known about post traumatic stress disorder, yet she suffered all of the symptoms. She writes:

"Long before 1980, when Diagnostic Manual of Psychiatric Disorders IIIdefined posttraumatic stress disorder into existence, that displacement of the soul had gone by other, more poetic names. In World War I they called it shell shock. Before that, during the American Civil War, it was soldier's heart.

"I guess Poe [a WWII veteran with whom she spoke] and I both suffered from a case of it - that soldier's heart."

As she now understands, continued to suffer from PTSD until 15 years later when she decided to go back to Oregon and revisit the crime scene. By investigating what occurred and seeking to bring the perpetrator to justice she began to reconnect with her own deepest emotions.

For the eight years and many trips back and forth from her California home to Oregon, she became part of the community where the crime occurred. He learned that the criminal could no longer be brought to justice because Oregon had a three year statute of limitations on violent crimes that didn't result in death.

She developed ties with members of the community who had never forgotten what happened to her and the trauma of knowing that the crime was most likely committed by a member of their small community. Indeed, many believed they knew the identity of the killer and couldn't understand why the police refused to follow up leads.

She met other of her attacker's victims, women whom he brutally abused and systematically tortured. In each case he had evaded justice until Jentz arrived in town. With police and other cooperation, she and friends were able to see that he received a five year jail for a current case of abuse.

By putting a face to her nameless attacker, and that she had the power to partially at least make him face the consequences of his acts, was empowering. It was redemptive. Not only did she heal herself but she came to a deeper understanding of the need to fight evil; never to condone by failing to act.

She came to realize that evil that she suffered was not an isolated instance of violence by neither a deranged individual, nor even just an unfortunate occurrence in a fundamentally healthy society. She refers to a "Psychopathy Checklist" used by experts in the field, but finds it insufficient for her own understanding. She writes:

In other words, those with this disorder believe that things or people in the outer world have no dignity of integrity. They experience others as objects, being useful or dangerous to themselves, no more. They are incapable of loving identification with others. They have no reverence for everything.

I've read lots of books on psychopaths. I've read that, for your own good, you should learn to recognize them and keep them at bay. . .

No one can adequately explain the mystery of psychopathy' s origins. . . Bad parenting can encourage the demon seed to flourish, but even more influential: bad culture. A culture that makes a cult out of admiring the badass outlaw. A thrill-seeking culture that promotes the wrong thrills. A culture that does little to teach respect of empathy for others, or respect for their dignity. A culture that doesn' t teach accountability. A culture that values self-gratification, impulsivity, and irresponsibility, and rewards preening narcissism. A culture that promotes the cult of the individual way above social concern and responsibility for others. A culture that diminishes the idea that the individual must be responsible for the well-being of others. A culture that devalues the feminine. [402, 403]

As social critic Lance Morrow writes in Evil:

"A lively awareness of evil, once a part of any healthy mind, must be re-installed in the consciousness of the West. Without an awareness of evil, people become confused, fail to anticipate its ruthless possibilities." [403]

From the isolated psychopath who takes sadistic pleasure in attacking two defenseless young women to a psychopathology of the present U.S. administration, is a spectrum of evil that cannot be allowed to persist unchecked. It might do some good to give the book to those Democrats in Congress to read, those who refuse to do what it takes to stop George W. Bush.

About the Author: Carol White is Reviews Editor for ePluribus Media. She has edited a small science journal and is presently a free-lance writer, who covers the arts and related matters for her local newspaper.
ePluribus Contributors: avahome, jenn718, and cho