A good read


I just finished the above book, Strange Piece of Paradise, by Terri Jentz. I pretty much inhaled it and I still can’t get it out of my mind. It came out last year, got lots of press, and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. I bought it back then but didn’t start reading it till last week. The delay seemed ironic, since one of the things that interested me to begin with was that it was about the aftereffects of trauma and during the last few years I have been thinking a lot about that topic, due to what felt like a preponderance of trauma in my own life. Then came a traumatic divorce, and reading the book, along with many other plans, was put aside.

Well, let me just say that reading a story by the survivor of a brutal attack by an axe-wielding psychopath gives one quite a perspective on the relative degrees of trauma. In 1977, at the age of 19, Jentz and her roommate at Yale decided to take a cross-country bicycle trek and six days into the journey, as they lay asleep in a tent pitched at a desolate Oregon campground, an unidentified man ran over them with a truck, then tried to finish them off with his hatchet. Unexpectedly, he stopped and left the scene, never to be arrested for the crime. Both girls were horribly injured. As Shayna, the roommate, lay dying from a head wound, a super-adrenalized Jentz, despite her own serious injuries, managed to flag down a teenage couple who rescued them.

Arguably, that doesn’t sound like much of an appealing book to settle down with, but this isn’t just another true crime story. It’s a book about a lot of different things. For starters, after the crime, Jentz, her companion, and their families do their best to simply leave it all behind. Jentz developes a shield of bravura and even makes jokes about her adventure at first. But very slowly, over the years, she comes to realize that she’s a badly broken human being, and that some part of her was left behind that night. In her thirties, she decides to return to the scene of the crime to try and repair herself and gain closure. What ensues is part detective story, part feminist consciousness raising, part the story of a small town haunted by an unsolved crime, and part the individual stories of pretty much everyone else impacted by the crime, which is a lot more people than Jentz has ever realized. The two teen rescuers, for example, are both reunited with Jentz, the boy now a grown man who is still afraid of the dark. The girl, now a rancher named Boo, takes to heart the old saying about once you save a life, you are responsible for that person forever and she becomes one of the main allies in Jentz’s quest.

It becomes clear fairly soon that most of the town has always suspected one of their own, a preening, meticulous and spoiled bully who, over the years has left a trail of battered wives and girlfriends in his wake. These women too become involved with Jentz as she grows more and more determined to get her attacker behind bars, even though due to Oregon’s laxity with regard to criminal justice, the statute of limitations has run out on the original crime. She is also joined by victims rights activists Dee Dee and Bob Kouns, who come armed with both political savvy and a sense of adventure that animate the second half of the book.

Jentz is a lesbian, the partner of television and film director Donna Deitch. There has been some question in the gay press about whether she plays down her sexuality too much, both in relation to the intense relationship with her roommate, which is a major part of the book, and in relation to a possible motivation for the attack itself. I haven’t read any responses by Jentz to the latter issue, but as to the former:

To readers still wondering whether any of the story was “straightened” up, Jentz replies, “It’s not a gay coming-of-age story and it would be queering it up to make it so.” She had extensive talks on the matter with her editor, and honesty emerged as their top priority. “Otherwise you start to cast a certain doubt on the entire truthfulness of your story,” she says.

“I think it’s very common for young girls to have crushes on each other. Lots of girls who end up being heterosexual can relate to my infatuation with this girl,” Jentz says. “I didn’t want to rob the book of its universality.”
(via Afterellen)

Most of the reviews I’ve read were favorable but made criticisms about the length and the occasional excesses by the author. As mentioned, it’s a complex story with a number of themes and an entire town full of characters, and while I agree that the book was over-written and under-edited, I was completely engrossed by the breadth of the story and by the honesty of the author. Highly recommended.


3 Responses

  1. Having experienced profound life events and psychological trauma as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, I am also very interested in how other people who experience traumatic events deal with them. I will read this book.

    Though I did not function so well earlier in my life as a result of what I went through, now I proudly recognize my resiliency, though I still don’t know why I have it.

    Time passes, I’m middle-aged, and my historical tragedies are no longer a daily companion. I still have questions unanswered and connections not fully resolved. At times I revisit and reexamine my past, but with a big difference. Now I do it with a much gentler hand. I don’t probe my old wounds in a rough manner, or with false bravura. It is a relief to be kind to myself.

    I also believe that my experiences, though awful, have given me interpretive tools of great personal value. Truth can be brutal and ugly and difficult to access, but for me there is an odd, dark beauty in the act of uncovering it.

  2. jk, what you wrote reminds me of this: just last night I listened to an old NPR interview with Jentz (URL below). She reiterates something in it that is also in the book and that is that she no longer believes in “closure” as traditionally defined, but that, at least for her, recovery meant moving closer to the events, understanding them to the extent possible, and incorporating them into her life, as part of her expanded stronger Self.


  3. Thank you for the audio link. I will listen to it.

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