Thursday, September 18, 2008

Strange Piece of Paradise

A coworker recommended Strange Piece of Paradise to me. In 1977, young college student Terri Jentz and her friend decided to bike across the country. They started in Oregon, and five days into their journey, when they were sleeping peacefully in their tent after a long day's ride, they were run over by a truck and brutally attacked by a mad axeman who stops short of killing them. Amazingly, they survived. Their parents whisked them back home on the east coast. Jentz's friend has no memory of the attack and does not want to remember it, but Jentz is haunted by the memory and the mystery, for the attacker was never found.

Several things drew me into this story. I, too, was the victim of a violent crime in 1977, and similar to the young man and woman who rescued her, still do not do well in the dark. I could relate to Jentz's figurative and literal scars from her attack.

Jentz began journeying back to Oregon in the 1990s to try to solve the crime herself. A piece of her was left raw and gaping, because she could not discuss the crime with her fellow survivor. In a way, she was lured back into Oregon, which had become a sort of evil place for her in her memory. Her healing journey was no doubt much more difficult because she left behind the scene of the crime without being able to process her pain and anger.

She was shocked to discover that nearly everyone in the central Oregon community agreed on the identity of the attacker, yet he was still free to continue to terrorize those around him, especially women and animals. The community also was scarred by the unsolved nature of the case, but for some reason, did not seem motivated enough to band together to do anything about it.

In her investigations, Jentz develops deep connections with many in the community, including her attacker's ex-wife and girlfriends, the young woman who rescued her, Bob and Dee Dee Kouns (crime victim advocates), law enforcement officials, and the nurses who cared for her in the hospital. She created her own caring community around Redmond, Oregon, the place where her attacker and his family continued to live.

This book seemed very long (546 pages hardback), and at times I felt desperate to finish it. It gave me a few nightmares, and I was glad to be done with it. Jentz's thorough descriptions and details give the reader the feeling of being right there with her, but it was exhausting at times.

The book also spoke volumes about violence against women in our culture. People in the central Oregon community theorized that Jentz and her friend were targeted because they were strong, independent women in the cowboy culture of the '70s. This axeman has been allowed to terrorize and abuse woman after woman without serving much jail time or having to pay for his crimes. The criminal justice system is not just. Even though the whole community agreed on the identity of Jentz's attacker, he was never thoroughly investigated as a serious suspect and never had to pay for his horrific crime.

Disturbing as it was, this is a book that will stick with me for a long time. And horrifying as it was to read many parts, I found the relationships and connections Jentz developed to be heartwarming and healing.

This is my favorite quote from the book:

"I believe that you meet people who are vital to your transformation only when the conditions are right, when the tenacious concerns of the unconscious break into awareness. Then such kindred spirits are drawn to each other like iron shavings to a magnet." — Terri Jentz (Strange Piece of Paradise)

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