Thursday, July 13, 2006

Writer confronts her attempted murder

NPR's "All Things Considered" aired a piece today that reminded me of a book I had heard about a few months ago that fascinated me so much that I immediately added it to my Amazon Wish List. It concerns the story of writer Terri Jentz, who in 1977 was a student at Yale University. Terri and her roommate, who is given a pseudonym in the book, had decided to do a cross-country bike trip from Oregon to Virginia. The two young women were seven days into their trip, camping at Cline Falls State Park in Oregon, when they were brutally attacked by a man who first ran over their tent with his truck and then went after the women with an ax. Jentz had deep gashes over her head and arms, with one cut so vicious that it sliced through a bone in her arm. She also had a broken arm, collerbone and ribs and a crushed lung from the truck running over her body. Jentz's roommate suffered several blows to her skull that resulted in permanent damage to her vision.

The women had very different reactions to the attack. The roommate doesn't remember the incident and has chosen to move on with her life. She is now a doctor and Jentz says "I'm very impressed with how she has stayed on her own course ... she never felt that hearing the story was crucial to her survival." The women's friendship eroded after the attack and the attacker was never caught.

By contrast, Jentz felt its effects long after her body had healed. According to her description, she went through feelings of "trauma, rage, fear and denial." In 1992, Jentz returned to Oregon to confront the incident that had nearly ended her life. The result is her book "Strange Piece of Paradise."

When Jentz arrived in Oregon, she began talking to people in the area and was surprised to hear that not only did they remember the attack, they knew who did it. In answer to the question of why no one said anything at the time, Jentz reasons that the police assumed people would give them information about the crime and the people of the community assumed the police were handling things. It was a clear case of "disconnect."

Even though Jentz was unable to see her attacker punished for what he did to her (the statute of limitations had long passed), she was present at a court appearance where he was facing other charges. She describes him noticing her and thinks he realizes who she is. He has always denied any guilt in the attack and Jentz says she has no plans to confront him. She does admit however that being able to sit down in a bar with him and talk would be fascinating and adds that he is still a dangerous man who continues to harass people as he's done his whole life.

Jentz chose to make her attacker anonymous in the book, partly because she didn't want to "glamorize" him. She also wanted to protect the safety of the people who had spoken to her and the anonymity of his family members whose only crime is being related to him.

Jentz feels the attack created what she calls "a traumatized self that needed integration into my public persona." Ultimately, she feels the book was able to accomplish that task.


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