While at home for Thanksgiving, I looked through my parent's library and picked up American Taboo, by Philip Weiss. It was about a murder in the Peace Corps and I thought that would be interesting. My mother said it was a quick read, and she was right. I was so captivated by the book that I read it every moment that I could and finished it in three days. I later found out it was only published in August 2004 and that CBS had done a special about it on 48 Hours. For a synopsis of the book, take a look at the 48 Hours Summary here.
This book touched me in a place where I haven't had feelings in a good while...it touched the raw emotions that I had while I was in Peace Corps in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from 1997-1999. That's not exactly right, I have had feelings, but feelings of nostalgia, memories of yesterday. This book brought out live memories, it made my blood rush, I felt a visceral sense of injustice. One PCV murdered, another manipulated the system and got away with it. And the Peace Corps helped him. I am not exaclty sure why I reacted like this.
On one level, I felt a real connection with the victim. The book does an excellent job identifying the universal qualities of Peace Corps, there are some experiences that happen everywhere that our culture interacts with another...especially an indigenous culture, be it Mayan or Tongan. Although I did not know Deborah Gardner, I knew several, and in some ways, I myself was like her. Peace Corps is where I discovered the joy of life, and I did it by making mistakes, learning, growing. It was a new world, a free world. I took down the advice of my father, an RPCV from Paraguay '70-'71...you will only be happy if those around you are happy, it will be a success if those in the community feel you have added value to their lives. So I opened myself up to the community...Peace Corps, expatriot and Guatemalan. Each day was exciting because I knew I would learn something new, and learning oftern means making mistakes. We all make mistakes. Some people are more vulnerable than others. Most PCVs carry a little bit of the spirit of Deborah Gardner in them because we all have a special value for companionship, caring, initiative and openness. When I read the part about how she died, my heart was exposed.
Part of my reaction was also due to the fact that I also feel a bit of Dennis Priven in me. The isolation, the intensity, the experience, the process of learning from mistakes. It causes you to question everything, your beliefs are stripped down and a true system of integrity is constructed. Also the experience of being different, drawing attention. You are different and that is what makes you a Peace Corps Volunteer. This attention can manifest itself as a superstar or as a monster. Your refuge is within the PC community, where you are just like everyone else...well not really. Even within PC there are supervols and there are slackers, you are popular or you are a misfit. We are all of these. As an American, our culture is a culture of confidence. When we go to a place where they ask for our help, we can't help but think that we know everything, that our way is the right way. When I read about Dennis Priven, I see this, I feel this.
My utmost disappointment is in the institution of Peace Corps. My Peace Corps. The Peace Corps that I lived. The Peace Corps that I believed in so much, that I decided to sell it as a Strategic Peace Corps Recruiter while in graduate school, and did a pretty good job. My Peace Corps betrayed me as the universal volunteer. Politics ahead of mission. "Once out, all out," well I should hope so! If you do your job the right way, you should have nothing to be afraid of. My Peace Corps surpressed the press coverage. My Peace Corps witheld facts, misrepresented the truth and took sides when it had an imperative to remain impartial. The only moral responsibility was to justice. My Peace Corps facilitated an injustice. It hurts me deeply because they broke so many of the principals that we as PCVs were bound to uphold. I sense that my Peace Corps has grown and learned from its mistakes...and maybe that is why we were bound to uphold them...I hope so. But also, MY Peace Corps is a governmental corporate agency. An agency that facilitates so much personal transformation is still a governmental agency, a souless corporation.
The amount of research put into this book is remarkable. I cannot imagine one actor that the author did not interview or try to interview. The thorough nature and access to information and evidence is very compelling. The style of writing is addictive and only has credibility with the participation of the characters, which he has accomplished. The style of writing, the documentation, the research, effort, it all rings true...some things you read could be true. This books sings of authenticity.
I am proud that Philip Weiss wrote this book with sincereity, integrity, and patience. Where it would be easy to cut corners, it does not appear that he did. Not as difficult as it sounds when the big picture is always in sight...justice. What is incredible is that the Peace Corps succeeded in burying this story for so long. The beauty is that in the age of information, that barrier can be easily overcome...and the sense of outrage that comes from an obvious injustice is welcome. We should be outraged. If the guy can slip through the cracks of the institutions of justice in our country, it is the citizens who have the responsibility to expose the injustice. That is the only way that we grow. The author says that he was driven by the spirit of Deborah Gardner. I have no doubt that he is. It is that same spirit that entered the place where I keep my Peace Corps feelings...and shook me awake.
I recommend American Taboo. For those looking for a murder-mystery, for those who want a glimpse into the inner sanctum of Peace Corps service, for a return to the live memories for RPCVs, for an example of institutional corruption, for the gasp-inspiring detials of injustice, for the match-strike to light the bonfire to signal the demand for justice, may it be served.
For a photo essay collected by Emile Hons of the island of Tonga, then and now please visit The Friends of Tonga website.
For a website dedicated to the memory of fallen peace corps volunteers, including Deborah Gardner, please visit The Fallen Peace Corps Voluneers Memorial Project.
If you have any comments regarding the book, this post or Peace Corps, I welcome your post.