Review

American Taboo
A Murder in the Peace Corps
by Philip Weiss
HarperCollins
384 pages
May 2004
$25.95

    Reviewed by P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 1967–69)

    UNTIL LATELY, until, that is, I read Philip Weiss’ American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps, I was sure I had the recipe, or at least the ingredients, of Peace Corps narratives down cold. There were two currents of thought and feeling that inevitably converged. First, there was a stream of nostalgia, the recollection of heart-felt engagements, struggles and small victories in obscure places; embarrassments and epiphanies that lingered in the mind forever. But there was a darker second current, intimations of being on a children’s crusade that combined naivete and arrogance, of being shrugged off and exploited by host country nationals, of being manipulated and patronized by Peace Corps staff. The proportions might vary from book to book, 80-20 or 20-80, but it was hard to picture an account of the Peace Corps in which these two streams did not meet. The idealistic and the skeptical, call them. And the result, often enough, has been work that was mixed and wise, forbearing and forgiving. Now, along comes American Taboo, a dense, daunting, and imperative book which, at first glance, stands outside the usual patterns. On the Peace Corps shelf, Weiss’ work assumes a dark and painful eminence. You may wince, you may applaud. But you have to read it.
         It is not a novel, I hasten to note. If only it were. The fact is that in 1976, in the Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, a likeable, free-spirited, beautiful Peace Corps Volunteer was murdered. Stabbed twenty-two times, she died in a local hospital, but not before naming her assailant, who’d been seen departing her premises. The killer — despite some early wishfulness that he was a Tongan — turned out to be a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, an intense, shrewd fellow named Dennis Priven, who’d been obsessing about his victim for months.
         This murder — and its aftermath — is Philip Weiss’ subject. And the aftermath is as important as the crime itself. What’s remarkable — also compelling, eventually appalling — is how the murder resonates through Volunteers, through staff, through killer’s and victim’s families, all the way from Tonga to Washington, all the way from then — nearly 30 years ago — to now.
         In early pages, we follow the Tonga Volunteers through stateside briefings and training, through their early days in-country. Though there’s no false suspense about what is coming, there’s tension nonetheless, a sense of something awful headed our way. Meanwhile, Weiss demonstrates he is more than a tenacious investigator, though he surely is that. He displays a writer’s eye for the details and rhythms of PCV life, characters contending with work, with boredom, with staff, with each other, alliances, feuds, hookups, friendships. All are well registered, along with the heat, the improvised meals, the impromptu parties and — most of all — the ongoing debate about how to live and how much to attach oneself to island life. In a throwaway passage that has little to do with the main story, Weiss nicely catches island moods. “There is,” he writes, “nothing so soothing as Tongan twilight. The streets are still, the roosters have quieted. The pink and orange shout of the bougainvillea have died down, the breeze brings the scent of cooking fire.”
         The murder changes everything. It feels like a fall from innocence, like Cain murdering Abel in a place that, on its good days, could pass for paradise. The murder, by itself, could make a novel, a hellish novel. But, in American Taboo, the worst is yet to come. A death in Tonga ripples outward, in concentric circles of shock and doubt, action and denial. Local Peace Corps Volunteers divide. Some of them are at the beginning of life-long hurt and rage, while others worry about the fate of Dennis Priven. Peace Corps Volunteers don’t enjoy diplomatic immunity; it’s inconsistent with the celebrated idea of living-at-the-level-of-the-locals. Found guilty, Dennis Priven could be hanged. And Tonga, a peaceable Christian monarchy, is appalled by the murder. It takes the crime seriously, has English-model laws, and insists on the integrity of its courts: it insists that the accused murderer be tried. At the same time — in intercutting chapters — Weiss recounts reactions in Washington state and Alaska, where Deborah Gardner’s parents live, in Brooklyn, which is Dennis Priven’s home, and — here’s the part of the story that is most painful to read — it goes up the ladder of Peace Corps hierarchy from Tonga, where the country director clings to a vision of a local culprit, to Washington, DC, where spin-doctors and damage control meisters set to work. Here, when the chips are down, the live-like-the-locals goes out the window, — the respect for local police, — the deference to island courts. Volunteers are advised to keep their mouths shut, grieving parents are starved for information, journalists are blown off. It’s all about (self) protection that segues into obstruction. It’s about the Peace Corps management revealing what a lot of us in other countries and at different times suspected: that they — our shirt-sleeves-up, straight-forward swashbucklers — weren’t as different from other, any other, bureaucrats as they would have liked us to believe. In these pages, the image of “a new kind of American,” the idea of Peace Corps exceptionalism is sorely tested. For whatever reason — for their own sake — or that of the accused Volunteer, for the sake of the Tonga program or the Peace Corps as a whole, the Peace Corps and some State Department allies brought Priven home, unpunished. The evidence of his guilt was strong but when protesting his innocence failed, plan B, an insanity plea eventually prevailed. The understanding, the unkept promise, was that Priven would be institutionalized and treated in the United States. In fact, he was promptly released.
         “What a few self-important officials did in the Priven case,” writes Weiss, “was indefensible. They manipulated the Tongan justice system to get the verdict they wanted. They lied to the King and Privy Council to free a vicious murderer, and they deceived the head of their parent agency about the case, they deceived the vice president . . . they did so to preserve their own careers, to preserve the American presence in the South Pacific, to preserve the churchly image of the Peace Corps . . ..”
         American Taboo, it should now be clear, is a grueling — albeit nicely written — read, all the way from its brutal beginnings to an odd and inevitably anticlimactic conversation between Weiss and Priven on an off-the-record walk through lower Manhattan a few years ago. It’s a complicated book which requires and rewards alert reading. The cast of characters is large; the narrative moves from place to place. It also moves back and forward through time, mixing accounts of Weiss’ latter-day investigation into the nearly thirty year old tale he tells. But the story and the accompanying story-behind-the-story are equally compelling. Like most readers, I resent footnotes, which often interrupt and distract more than they inform. And when, as in this case, I come to back-of-the-book sections entitled “Notes on Sources” and “Acknowledgments,” I’m inclined to skim or skip. Not here! Weiss’ closing credits are irresistible. I consulted them while I was reading, jumping ahead, and after I had finished. No one who is interested in reporting — make that the discovery (and concealment) — of truth could do otherwise. Here it is: the tips, the trips, the calls, faxes, archives, cables, the Freedom of Information Act. And — most of all — the people he asked for help. There were the people who forget, or said they forget, and the ones who could never forget. And all the usual defenses: that was then, this is now; let it be; rest in peace; it doesn’t matter any more or — conversely — it matters too much. It’s good Weiss persevered. There’s something morally imperative about the writing of this book. And the reading of it.
         I began by differentiating American Taboo from other Peace Corps books. Certainly it is angrier and sadder than most. And yet, at the end, Weiss’ account is richly mixed, idealistic and skeptical. He respects the underlying idea and ideals, Americans going out into the world with little money and no weapons, hoping ( as we used to say in the Boy Scouts) to leave the camp site cleaner than they found it. It’s the violation of that concept, its betrayal from within, that provokes and saddens. The Peace Corps that matters has nothing to fear from this book and much to learn. Other people may have their own versions of events; they may take exception, they may demur. One hopes to hear from them. Meanwhile this is a bit of justice for a long-gone Volunteer named Deborah Gardner. For the Peace Corps, it’s an invitation to explain and — I might be asking for the moon here — apologize.

    P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 1967-69), Writer in Residence at Kenyon College and contributing editor at National Geographic Travels, is the author of five novels -- including Eddie and the Cruisers and Biggest Elvis. His non-fiction books are The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia, which touches on his Peace Corps experience, and Alma Mater, the story of one year teaching at Kenyon College.
    As a reporter for the
    Wall Street Journal, Kluge wrote the article that was turned into the movie "Dog Day Afternoon."