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Fw: Review-a-Day: American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

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  • Rand Wise
    From: reviews@powells.com Sent: Jul 23, 2004 6:00 AM To: wiserd@mindspring.com Subject: Review-a-Day: American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps Today s
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 23, 2004
      From: reviews@...
      Sent: Jul 23, 2004 6:00 AM
      To: wiserd@...
      Subject: Review-a-Day: American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps


      Today's Review From
      Salon.com

      American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps
      by Philip Weiss

      Read today's review in HTML at:
      http://www.powells.com/sal/review/2004_07_23


      A review by Bob Shacochis

      Whenever America -- its citizens, its representatives, its officials
      -- paves over an injustice with seemingly impenetrable silence,
      it matters and it matters a lot, because sooner or later what's
      beneath that silence, in its rise back toward the light, will
      shake the earth, and by that I mean our humanity itself will be
      shaken by the disgrace and indignation that good people will feel
      when the truth is finally known.

      On Oct. 14, 1976, a beautiful, vivacious, altruistic 23-year-old
      Peace Corps volunteer from the state of Washington, Deborah Gardner,
      died in the island nation of Tonga in the South Pacific, the 11th
      Peace Corps fatality of that year. What distinguished her death
      from the other 10, and from every other Peace Corps death before
      or since, is the fact that Deb Gardner was murdered, savagely
      hacked to death, by a fellow volunteer, Dennis Priven, then a
      24-year-old science teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

      With his Seahorse diving knife, Priven stabbed Deb Gardner 22
      times, and -- here's the point, here's why we're obliged to talk
      about this 28 years later -- this coldblooded killer walked away
      from the crime scot-free, aided and abetted by the Peace Corps
      and the U.S. government and their subsequent coverup of the atrocity.
      In the aftermath of her slaying, Gardner was treated like garbage,
      not by the traumatized Tongans but by her own heartless and chillingly
      naive countrymen, as though her life had no value and her death
      no meaning.

      Since 1977, Priven has lived in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., in the Brooklyn
      neighborhood where he grew up, without censure or scorn or any
      limitation placed on his liberty. When it was clear to Priven
      that Philip Weiss' American Taboo would be published this year,
      he changed his phone number and took early retirement from his
      job at the Social Security Administration. The only real punishment
      he has endured for his crime is abstract, existential: to live
      his days as a lonely sociopath, presumably haunted by his brutal
      act and pitied by his deluded friends. Gee, poor monster.

      If justice had been served, if the Peace Corps itself and even
      some of its volunteers, despicable champions of Priven, had not
      skewed that process with lies, evasions, threats, indefensible
      silence, ugly distortions of the victim's character, misrepresentations
      and outright cowardice, Priven would have been executed in Tonga
      long ago, and good riddance.

      The subject, I must admit, is highly personal. I never knew Deb
      Gardner, but I've known about her for almost three decades, and
      we have at least one thing in common: We both experienced the
      dark side of the Peace Corps. As Peace Corps volunteers in 1976,
      we were, at opposite ends of the world, both victims of knife
      attacks in our own homes. She died, I obviously survived. She
      was assaulted by a colleague, a brooding, introverted but, by
      all accounts, brilliant young man who obsessed about being her
      lover. I was assaulted by a stranger during a break-in, who was
      sentenced to seven years of hard labor.

      Every government agency is sensitive to public image but none
      so much as the vaunted yet often-controversial Peace Corps, where
      the balance between damage and damage control has frequently been
      a high-wire act determining its very existence. In October 1976,
      as I sat in Peace Corps headquarters in Washington making arrangements
      to return to my host country in the Eastern Caribbean to testify
      at the trial of my assailant, that administrative challenge was
      formidable. The building whispered with news of a homicide in
      the South Pacific, something about a ménage à trois gone bad.
      My region, the West Indies, was focused on more run-of-the-mill
      turmoil: the evacuation of volunteers from mayhem in Jamaica,
      the psychological counseling of one of my fellow volunteers from
      the islands who had been gang-raped and beaten by local thugs.
      That summer, one of my closest Peace Corps friends on St. Kitts
      had died in a freak accident, and my roommate, a scruffy biker
      from California, conned me out of the few hundred dollars in my
      bank account and vanished back to the States.

      I was never ambivalent about my service in the Peace Corps or
      my support for the goals of the organization. These misfortunes
      and hundreds more throughout its history do not indict the Peace
      Corps mission or cast in doubt its efficacy. The problem (which
      comes and goes), precisely characterized and illuminated by Philip
      Weiss, has been the tacit understanding within the organization
      that its myriad and mostly predictable troubles are taboo, not
      subject to public or even congressional scrutiny, and my own experience
      can do nothing but confirm Weiss' conclusion.

      As a writer and former volunteer, I wasn't inclined to overlook
      the skeletons in the Peace Corps closet, and in 1983 I pitched
      the story of Peace Corps casualties (victims of violence, psychological
      burnouts, suicides, political scapegoats) to Playboy magazine
      and was given the assignment. What happened next has everything
      to do with the dynamics Weiss so painstakingly investigates in
      American Taboo. I flew to Connecticut to meet with the family
      of Philip Cyr, a volunteer murdered in Nepal by bandits, but my
      interview with the grieving parents was interrupted, incredibly,
      by a phone call from the then-director of the Peace Corps, Loret
      Miller Ruppe, who advised the Cyrs not to talk. A short time later,
      Peace Corps headquarters issued a worldwide memo to its staff
      threatening disciplinary action against anyone who spoke with
      me. My sources (and friends) within the organization stopped taking
      my calls. My Freedom of Information Act request for documents
      was kicked back at me with a price tag of more than a million
      dollars.

      Despite Peace Corps stonewalling and crude obstruction, I completed
      the article but, beginning with Playboy, every major general-interest
      magazine in the country turned it down, a phenomenon later explained
      to me by C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly,
      who had read the piece...

      Read the entire review at:
      http://www.powells.com/sal/review/2004_07_23

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