NBCC Finalist: Terri Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise

By Jane Ciabattari

Today's post looks at a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the autobiography category, Terri Jentz's memoir Strange Piece of Paradise, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

In June 1977 two Yale classmates set out for road trip across America. That mythic coming-of-age journey ended in an Oregon campground in a desert area known as Cline Falls.

In vivid, poetic, finely textured language, Terri Jentz describes that summer solstice night: “As the earth turned slowly in the dark, Americans in one time zone after the next settled in front of their TVs, safe in their living rooms. They watched the CBS Wednesday-night movie, the world television premiere of a dark and unsettling Western, one of those edgy films made in the seventies that reflected the mood of national cynicism. It was a film complete with psychopaths and moral degenerates, a new American mythology tha turned the romantic version of the Old West on its heads. The sound of screeching tires woke me. It was near midnight, and we had just gone to sleep. A stranger deliverately drove over our tent, then attacked us both with an axe. I saw his torso. He was a meticulous cowboy who looked like he had stepped off a movie set. My great voyage across American ended abruptly there. And that was how I reached young adulthood, with a certain knowledge of life at its farthest edges.”

New York Times reviewer Mary Roach noted that she had to read the opening scene, in which the two campers are attacked, three times because she kept getting caught in it. “Imagine that it had been Truman Capote himself who'd been savaged in Holcomb, Kan., and that he had survived to describe his ordeal. That is the level of command and sinew at work in the writing,” she wrote.

Fifteen years after the attack, after years of repression, Jentz returned to the scene to investigate the crime and reclaim the adventuresome self that had been psychically hollowed out by the nightmare of that night. Her brilliant memoir is an excavation of her personal history. It also is a meditation on the violence in our culture, a snapshot of the US at the end of a dark time, and a report on the shocking gaps in our criminal justice system. Through meticulous research and an eloquent combination of personal memories and experiences, reportage, speculation and commentary, Jentz creates a context for our culture's habit of violence against women–a habit that continues to this day, with victims becoming younger and younger.

To fill out the memories that eluded her after the attack, Jentz interviewed Oregonians who investigated the crime, nurses who helped to save her life, couples who had been parking nearby, and other possible witnesses. She found the teenagers, now grown, who had stopped for her as she ran bleeding into the highway, and discovered that they, too, were haunted by that night. She also found other women who had been tortured and abused by the man she believes was her assailant (one of them asks bluntly, “Are you scarred up?”). She talked with a forensic psychologist about the pathology at work. “This was a sneaking, sadistic, calculating kind of attack….There's only one kind of creature who does that kind of thing, and that's a sadist,” he said. “He's delighting in his power and control and making other people suffer.”

Jentz's memoir is illuminated by her courage in confronting her darkest hour and searching for the identity of the sadist who attacked her, as well as her compassion for his other victims. What is particularly chilling is her articulation of the sense of vulnerability that scarred her from the moment of the attack, and the ease with which the assailant continued with his own life, protected by his family, his girlfriends, his classmates, and his community. Her evocation of one bully's uncanny power over a community brings to mind Doctorow's 1960 novel Welcome to Hard Times, an anti-Western that defined the territory Terri Jentz entered when she pitched her tent in Cline Falls.