“Strange Piece of Paradise” by Terri Jentz

In 1977, the summer after her sophomore year at Yale University, Terri Jentz and her friend (whom she refers to by the alias Shayna Weiss) set off on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, a 4,200-mile route established the year before in celebration of America’s Bicentennial. Just seven days into their trip, they stopped to rest at Cline Falls State Park outside Redmond, Oregon, and woke up when they both heard a vehicle pulling up to their campsite. The driver ran both women over before getting out and attacking them with an axe. Miraculously, they survived, despite severe injuries. Weiss suffered brain trauma and amnesia that made her unable to remember the assault and emotionally distanced herself from Jentz, making Jentz feel isolated, not only from her friend, but from others who couldn’t relate to the extreme violence that she had ensured. The crime was never officially solved, and Jentz was haunted by what happened. Fifteen years after the fact, Jentz returned to Redmond to investigate and find a way to move on. 

This sounds like the setup for a revenge thriller: a tough as nails protagonist is obsessed with an unresolved incident from their past. The obsession continues until they find the answers that will bring them peace and their attacker to justice. The journey that Jentz goes on in Strange Piece of Paradise: A Return to the American West to Investigate My Attempted Murder – And Solve the Mystery of Myself (Macmillan, 2006) ends up being both stranger and simpler than that.

At the time of the assault, Oregon had a three-year statute of limitations for attempted murder, making it impossible for her assailant to face any kind of legal consequences. Instead of having to launch an investigation into the identity of her attacker, Jentz is simply told who he is by name within twenty-four hours of her arrival in Redmond. But that isn’t the end of the story. She also finds out that the violence perpetrated against her is infamous in the area, as is her attacker. In the book, Jentz calls him by the pseudonym Dirk Duran, and learns that he too is notorious in Redmond because of a long history of violence that he perpetuated, mostly against women. 

Jentz couldn’t believe how almost everyone in his community agreed that Duran was her assailant, and he was known to have committed many other sadistic acts yet was still free. Jentz examines the psychology of violence against women, explores how brutal relationships are formed and examines the attitude of communities that continually give abusers a pass. The more Jentz investigates, the more the book becomes less about her own attack and more about the impact of crime on communities and survivors. She says:

“By investigating the story of my own near murder, I had wandered into the borderlands, into the margins of society’s denial–denial of the fact that with regard to this issue of men dominating and controlling women through fear and force, molesting, raping, murdering, humanity has absolutely taken leave of its senses. There is an inexhaustible inventory of evil against women in the world. And there is, too, another kind of evil: that of callous indifference and passive compliancy, and evil of innocence, an ignorant naïveté.” (396)

Getting answers to her “unsolved” case disturbs Jentz and makes her ask why.  She wonders what drove Duran to such brutality, and why people seem to care so little about his victims. She concludes that an American attitude of selfishness—which is particularly extreme in the libertarian-minded rural Oregon—combined with a tendency to dismiss violence against women and glorify violent men as outlaw anti-heroes results in a mythology that permeates American popular culture. As she puts it:

“No one can adequately explain the mystery of psychopathy’s origins. Scientific studies show that it is 50 percent nature. But nurture accounts for the other half. There is a cultural context, and America has a lot of the soil in which psychopathy grows. Bad parenting can encourage the demon seed to flourish, but even more influential: bad culture. A culture that makes a cult out of admiring the badass outlaw. A thrill-seeking culture that promotes the wrong thrills. A culture that does little to teach respect or empathy for others, or respect for their dignity. A culture that values self-gratification, impulsivity, and irresponsibility, and rewards preening narcissism. A culture that promotes the cult of the individual way above social concerns and responsibility for others. A culture that diminishes the idea that the individual must be responsible for the well-being of others. A culture that devalues the feminine.” (402-403)

This devaluation of women is present in many of the people that Jentz speaks to who find it easy to blame victims. One local comments that it was probably better than nobody was prosecuted for the attack because at the time as any jury would assume that two women travelling alone were prostitutes. Another said the consensus in the area in 1977 was that her and Weiss were “asking for it.” One even suggests that seeing two women travelling without a man is what angered Duran enough to attack them, and that many would’ve understood where he was coming from. 

Strange Piece of Paradise is a beautifully written, page-turner of a book, one that’s fast-paced even though it clocks in at 546 in the hardback edition and 752 pages in soft cover. Though the book is repetitive at times—much of the book takes the form of Jentz asking others to tell her what they know about the night that she was attacked—her gift as a storyteller makes her obsession the reader’s obsession. The different versions are compelling and create an epic feeling that gives the reader a sense how far-reaching the issues that Jentz discusses are. As disturbing as her attack is, even more harrowing are the many stories of abuse that countless women share with Jentz during her time in Redmond.

Add Strange Piece of Paradise  to your Goodreads shelf.

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About the Writer:

Anastasia Rose Hyden (she/her) is a Florida native with a BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Saint Xavier University, a MA in Liberal Studies from Hollins University, and a MA in English from the University of North Florida. She fell in love with true crime after reading Dominick Dunne’s articles in Vanity Fair when she was a kid. 

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