American Taboo, by Philip Weiss
I think all humans carry around a strong innate sense of right and wrong. The things that set us off vary, of course, and the lengths to which we’ll go to right certain wrongs vary. I, for instance, am pissed off by small things, sometimes involving retail clerks or multi-national coroporations. If I don’t take care of them right away, they go uncorrected. Luckily, my world isn’t large enough to come across wrongs that have the capability to rock my world and permanently change it.
Not so with Philip Weiss. This investigative journalist stumbled across a bar in Samoa well over twenty years ago. In that bar, he heard a story so stunning, so unbelievable, that he had to follow it to its very end. It was a murder, and the murderer had gotten away scot-free.
Worse, it was the 1976 murder of one Peace Corps volunteer by another. The murderer is now living in Brooklyn, and had a nice cushy job with the Social Security Administration there for years after being sent home with a completion of service certificate from the Peace Corps.
At best, this is a chilling book on many levels. Weiss puts us directly on the island nation of Tonga, where 33 newly minted Peace Corps volunteers were feeling out the land for their two-year stint. Deborah Gardner was one of those, and she’d only serve out less than a year of her two-year stint before being stabbed 22 times by Dennis Priven, another volunteer from a previous set of volunteers who were coming to the end of their terms.
Weiss’ dedication to telling this story is admirable. It’s a massive accomplishment, considering the reams of blacked-out records and the many officials who refused to accommodate or help him. But if Weiss was haunted by Deb Gardner’s story, imagine what the Peace Corps volunteers who’d known both Deb and Dennis must have felt. They’d been told not to speak of it, and the event had aroused such bad blood among the volunteers who’d been on Tonga the same time as Deb and Dennis that the culture of silence prevailed. Add to that the fact that many of them knew that Dennis was out and about, a free man, and you get a culture that can only allow for fomentation of guilt, fear, and isolation.
Fortunately, Weiss created his own culture. As he went around asking for information, his web of influence spread wider, and his determination was such that some felt bolstered by his work, and so the story of Deb Gardner and her death was finally told in big fashion.
Weiss does finally meet Priven at the end. His method of story telling is masterful, and I found myself on the edge my seat as Weiss’ narrative tracked back and forth between Tonga, Washington D.C., Brooklyn, and Manhattan, piecing together the story before he tells us about meeting Priven at the Dean and DeLuca on Broadway and Prince.
I know this Dean and DeLuca well. It is always packed with tourists and students and folks going about their business, and I was relieved for Weiss that he wouldn’t be meeting Priven at Priven’s place in Brooklyn.
I don’t feel resolution upon turning the final page of this book. I feel absolute admiration, and gratitude, that Weiss told this story. Go. Read it.