The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg

In Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl (Hachette Books, 2020), Eisenberg vividly describes the mountains of West Virginia. She explains that, on some mornings, the mountains would be partially obstructed by a dense kind of fog that is particular to the area. Little by little, as the day wears on, more and more of the mountains are exposed. Reading Eisenberg’s book was like this. Part memoir, part true crime, part historical account, the various and complex pieces of this text became known to me little by little, at first mimicking the disorienting emotional experiences contained within, and then, fog parting, the whole mountain range was revealed.

The Third Rainbow Girl is a dense and meditative account of a double murder and its consequences, not only for the victims and their families, but for the residents of Pocahontas County in West Virginia where the crime took place. On June 25th, 1980, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were killed and left in a clearing in Pocahontas County. They had been on their way to the Rainbow Gathering, an outdoor travelling peace festival. Neither were sexually assaulted, and both were shot. Eisenberg explains in her opening chapter “True Things” that because of the remoteness of the location where the bodies were found, “citizens and law enforcement mostly believed that the killer was local” (1). The suspects were a handful of men local to the area. Eventually, one of the men, Jacob Beard, was convicted of the crime. But when serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin confessed to the murders while incarcerated for one of his many additional crimes, Beard was granted a new trial where he was found not guilty. Eisenberg eventually offers her opinion as to who killed Nancy and Vicki; however, the question of who murdered these two young women is only one of the many issues this text is concerned with.

This book is also concerned with questions about West Virginia as a place, and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the larger United States. It also wonders about the perception of West Virginians, about its environmental degradation, about the rates of suicide and drug abuse and joblessness. The author spent time living in West Virginia working at a program called Mountain View.  This organization catered to young female West Virginians with the hopes of educating them. Eisenberg constantly chafes against her own privileged New York upbringing as she lives and works in West Virginia, saying: “There is a particular cognitive dissonance that sets in when you have many of the advantages this life can bestow but have seen, up close and in slow motion, what they mean for those to whom they are denied” (58). She also says, in a manner that reminded me so vividly of Joan Didion: “I felt that no one I knew had a clue about America, its true texture and shape and flavor, and that the ways I had been taught to live in it were no longer working” (58). The Third Rainbow Girl, then, is just as much a story about place and context as it is about a murder, about a young woman trying to understand an unfamiliar place and then shaping it into something familiar, and about the ways the justice system can fail people who are considered ‘less-than’ in the United States—in action and inaction as well as in perception. The section of the book that relays both the murder investigation, as well as a social and economic history of West Virginia, are two parts of one whole story. Both pieces are needed to understand why this case went the way it did. The author relays these pieces with the careful clarity of someone who has been on the outside looking in, as well as on the inside looking out. It is a powerful and harrowing section that is expertly told.

The police investigation of the murders that Eisenberg describes was a messy, corrupt, and in many ways ineffective one. She describes how, despite how an investigation actually went, when a case is presented to a jury it is presented as a story, and the story that was chosen in this case was one of redemption, “the redemption of Pocahontas County maleness: convict this one bad apple, and our community can be made whole again” (138). The section of the book that deals with these ideals of redemption most concentratedly is entitled “Jesse in the Quiet Zone,” and it is my favorite section in the book. Previous to this section, Eisenberg took a deep dive into the case, its trials, and the historical and socioeconomic details of Pocahontas County. In “Jesse in the Quiet Zone” these previous threads come together in the form of Eisenberg’s own experiences living in Pocahontas County. She details her relationship with a local (Jesse), her experiences with the girls at Mountain View, her problems with drinking, and her complicated love of a place she grasped tightly as it continually morphed. The images in this section are so vivid that I was there, struggling along with her as she asked questions about herself, about masculinity, femininity, poverty, and crime. Near the end of this section, when the director of Mountain Views pitches the idea to Eisenberg that they should together create a program for young West Virginian men, she writes:

“I wanted to tell her that I was failing with men like I was failing with girls and I was failing to bridge the space that seemed to separate them like a river that was running very fast. I wanted to tell her that masculinity, as we have traditionally conceived of it, was a disease that was killing people. Mountain Views was an important part of treating it, but it was not enough. You cannot treat women only for a disease of which men are the main carriers. Nor, I knew, could you punish every man who fell ill” (242).

These contradictions, this chasm between the disease of misogyny and its cure, between the crime and the perpetrator, between the cause and effect, between West Virginia and the rest, are contractions Eisenberg falls headlong into in the book’s last and final section, “The Third Rainbow Girl”.  Before the conclusion of this section, Eisenberg rounds off “Jesse in the Quiet Zone” with some concluding thoughts on what lead her to write about the murder of Nancy and Vicki:

“Why did it make sense to put the story of Vicki and Nancy and the nine local men who had been implicated in this crime over the years up against the story of me and Jesse and the Mountain View girls…Didn’t know. But it made sense. The idea was to write about the Rainbow Murders and my own time in Pocahontas County, together, came most perhaps when I found out about Liz—a woman who was both a part of this story and not a part of it. I cared about the women who died, I knew, and I cared about the men who suffered because two women happened to die where they lived, in a place America prefers to forget exists. Writing this story became real to me when I realized a story could—must—encompass both” (251).

Liz—the “third rainbow girl”, was with Nancy and Vicki before they died. She had actually planned to go with them to the Rainbow Gathering but changed her mind at the last minute. She was presumed dead in the beginning of the investigation because of information given to the police by a witness about a third victim. Liz was shocked to see in the media that they were looking for her body. In this final section, Eisenberg returns to Pocahontas County to interview Liz, as well as investigators who worked on the case. Eisenberg explains how this is a story that must include “women who died” as well as “men who suffered because two women happened to die where they live” by showing her readers Pocahontas County years after the murders and the trials. She talks to familiar places and familiar people, both changed and unchanged with the years. It is in this section where the fog truly lifted for me and I was able to see the core of this book, the thread that was alluded to but never fully revealed. And for me, the core of this book said:

“I thought there was only ever a thing and its opposite…[u]nravelling and unlearning this split logic is crucial to justice, I think, and it is crucial to love—loving a person, community, or most of all perhaps, a place, which may turn out to be the same thing. It is possible to be a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. Most of us are. We are more than the worst story that has ever been told about us. But if we refuse to listen, that story can become a prophecy” (303).

The messiness of this case mirrored the messiness of Eisenberg’s self-discovery, but more than this, each seemed to inform the other in ways that this book attempts to untangle. Eisenberg wonders about the ways Pocahontas County is “more than the worst story that has ever been told about [it],” but also acknowledges the reality that the country has “refus[ed] to listen” to the worst parts about itself, thus fulfilling a prophecy, as reflected in the handling and aftermath of this case. As with any great story of self-discovery, there is no grand conclusion at the end of this book. The Third Rainbow Girl’s ending only concludes that one can go on despite the realization that the world is not, and cannot, be simply black and white. This is more than a true crime book, or a memoir, or a sociopolitical commentary. It is an artifact of human character and human struggle, and it is well worth your time.

Find Emma Copley Eisenberg on Twitter and put The Third Rainbow Girl on your TBR on Good Reads.

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, suicide, drug & alcohol abuse, violence.

Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature.

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