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Strange Piece of Paradiseby Terri Jentz
A Personal Statement from Terri Jentz
In 1976, in honor of America's 200th birthday, a bicycle trail was blazed all the way across the country, coast to coast. In 1977 my college roommate and I, both students at Yale University, set out to take this trip. For us it was a rite of passage. And it was a way to get to know our big country intimately. Seven days into our journey, we were camping in the Oregon desert. Picture a small pup tent in an empty park in the desert and two girls asleep inside. In the middle of the night, an unknown assailant ran over our tent and attacked us with an axe.
For several days the event captivated media attention across the country. Front-page banner headlines in Chicago newspapers. Features in the Boston Globe. Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.
Until the story was swept away by the next news cycle.
The crime remained unsolved. My friend Shayna and I tried to resume our lives. I was haunted by memories. Shayna had no memory, as she had been knocked unconscious. And she had lost some of her eyesight.
Strange Piece of Paradise completes that story, exploring what happened to me, to my friendship with my roommate, to the small community in Oregon in which it happened. It reveals what happened to the suspected perpetrator. It raises other issues as well — dealing honestly with the cultural roots of violence in our society and the pervasive problem of violence against women, to name just a few.
That event was one defining moment that changed my life forever. Only I didn't figure that out until fifteen years had passed, after a period where — I didn't ignore it exactly — although I refused to acknowledge its importance in my life. For one thing, I noticed a deadening of my earlier vitality. I was learning that I was paying for what I had suppressed. I didn't know it then, but these were the classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
So, in 1992, I decided to return to Oregon — where I had not been since the attack — and look into what happened the night of June 22, 1977. As a writer, I wanted to document that journey. I started the story as a screenplay. Soon it became clear the material would quickly spill beyond the confines of a screenplay. It became a book and the book became the vehicle, both to stretch myself as an artist and to work out my issues as a victim.
What started as one unnerving trip back to Oregon propelled by an unconscious imperative I barely understood turned into a full-blown investigation that took place over several years — an investigation into the crime and my own psyche. Suddenly I wanted to know: Who did it? How does this violent event make sense in my life?
It was the fall of 1992 when I first drove up to Oregon to get the crime report from the Oregon State Police. The first thing I learned is that the statute of limitations for attempted murder was only three years in Oregon. Since 1980, my attacker could not be prosecuted for my crime, even if he admitted doing it. But even though there could be no prosecution, I pressed on to find out who did it.
My initial investigation turned up a suspect: Bud Godwin. His name was mentioned in the crime report in connection with my attack. I found out that he had kidnapped, murdered, and decapitated a five-year-old girl. He had almost served his minimum sentence in prison and was awaiting parole. I was appalled that there was any possibility — and believe me, there was a real possibility — that this man could be released into society.
So, regardless of whether Godwin was my attacker or not, I went on a crusade to keep him in jail. That sent me to penetrate the community where the attack happened more deeply — to see if I could find evidence that Godwin was my assailant. What I found surprised me. Another suspect emerged, who fit precisely the haunting memory from which I've never diverged — the torso of a well-dressed, meticulous young cowboy standing over me with an axe, a man whose face I didn't see. Local residents described to me a teenage boy who fit my memory, whom they had suspected committed the crime — a handsome seventeen-year-old cowboy, a snappy dresser with an unblinking hypnotic stare that intimidated and spooked nearly everyone who crossed his path. I turned my attention to this new suspect, whom in the book I've named Dirk Duran.
My investigation continued on in a bizarre and idiosyncratic fashion, through a hodgepodge alliance between myself and a sprinkling of members of the community.
By telling my own story, I uncovered the story of the community. For its members, as for me, this attack seemed as though it had happened only yesterday. They were collectively devastated by what had happened in their midst, and had never forgotten it. On some level I believe they were waiting for me to return, so that some hole could be filled. This was the most amazing revelation of all — that when I returned to Oregon, the community embraced me so generously.
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