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Originally published May 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 4, 2007 at 4:58 PM

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Victim returns to crime scene 30 years later, as an author

In the summer of 1977 two young women just out of their freshman year at Yale set out on a cross-country bike trip, west to east. Near Redmond, Oregon...

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance




Terri Jentz will read from "Strange Piece of Paradise" at 3 p.m. Sunday at Queen Anne Books, 1811 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle; free (206-283-5624).

Information


For more on Terri Jentz's book, go to www.strangepieceofparadise.com.

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In the summer of 1977 two young women just out of their freshman year at Yale set out on a cross-country bike trip, west to east. Near Redmond, Ore., hot, tired and already bickering, they gave things a rest by pitching their tent in a state park.

In the middle of the night, a man in a pressed cowboy shirt walked up to their tent. He began hacking away at them with an ax; he ran over their tent with his truck. One of the women, a bright young Midwesterner named Terri Jentz, stumbled from the attack scene and ran through the dark, smelling the blood from her wounds, she remembered, "like copper pennies held in a damp palm." Only the chance arrival of a frightened teenage couple, who raced the two to the local hospital in their truck, kept the two women from bleeding to death.

Women across the country heard about it, and canceled plans to bike or camp alone. Walter Cronkite read the headline on the news. Robert Pinsky, later the U.S. poet laureate, wrote a poem about it.

Jentz's ordeal then became one more chip in the mosaic of violence in America. Her biking partner, half blind from the attack, couldn't even remember what happened. Terri Jentz tried to forget.

But she couldn't.

In 1992 Jentz, now a California resident, decided to revisit Redmond. She discovered that the man she believed had attacked her had never been apprehended or charged with the crime. She learned that that he had physically abused women, intimidated men and terrorized the community. She spent years of her life returning again and again to Oregon, trying to make sense of the crime and bring her attacker to justice.

Then she wrote a book about it, "Strange Piece of Paradise" (Picador, $15). Part personal odyssey, part meditation on violence and part portrait of small-town America, it's been named a National Book Critics Circle finalist, an Edgar finalist, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. It is harrowing and suspenseful, sad and compelling, and a testament to its author's determined spirit.

Author appearance




Terri Jentz will read from "Strange Piece of Paradise" at 3 p.m. Sunday at Queen Anne Books, 1811 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle; free (206-283-5624).

Jentz discovered that the writing of her book didn't end the saga. Currently on tour for the paperback, Jentz will appear at Queen Anne Books on Sunday. She spoke recently by phone about the publishing of "Strange Piece of Paradise" and the new chapters in her story:

Information


For more on Terri Jentz's book, go to www.strangepieceofparadise.com.

Q: It seems pretty clear that many folks in Redmond thought they knew who your attacker was. Bottom line: Why wasn't he turned in?

A: I think it was a number of things. A lot of people said it was a culture of, 'don't stir the waters, don't stick your neck out,' a passivity. A lot of people said that they knew in their heart he had done it, but they didn't want to accuse. It's an American thing, but particularly a Western thing.

The community doesn't have the same insular quality now, but that core community still wants to understand what went awry. Perhaps the simplest equation is that the cops expected people to call in clues; people expected cops to solve the crime. It's all a bit bizarre. There were also elements in the community who were afraid of retaliation.

Q: Where is he now? You mention in the epilogue that he's still "wracking up charges for hurting people in the community." [Jentz changes his name in the book, saying that "I do not want to feed into the cult of celebrity granted by this culture to charismatic villains."]

A: He still lives in the area; he was charged one night last summer with criminal trespass, two counts of resisting arrest, and assaulting a peace officer. As I wrote about in the book, he served jail time for threatening a hunting partner with a gun. In 2005 he was indicted on robbery, assault and drug charges in two separate felony cases. He spent several months in jail awaiting trial. Then the alleged victim died of an illness. His death prompted the District Attorney's office to dismiss all charges, except one count alleging possession, and he was released from jail.

Q: You don't mention much about your "real" life during your quest, which mostly took place in and around Redmond, Ore. What was going on in the rest of your life?

A: I would do a little freelance writing, various things to make a living [Jentz is a screenwriter]. Then I would go off and launch another investigation. When I started really writing ... there was a time that I pretty much devoted myself to this book. I lived an ordinary life in L.A. but had another life as the Cline Falls ax victim. It was very peculiar.

Q: Did you keep a record or journal of your investigations as they went along? Was it strange to go back and revisit your much younger self/selves?

A: I wasn't a religious journal writer per se. I always kept copies of my personal letters, long before there were computers. I keep everything in my life; I don't get rid of anything. [Jentz kept the bloodstained sleeping bag she was attacked in for many years.] I actually have my first-grade papers. They're all in my office closet. I also have a superb memory.

When I was conducting my investigation, which started in 1992, I kept copious notes and also taped my conversations. And the videotaping [a friend of Jentz's went along during her first trip in 1992 and videotaped her interviews]; I watched that several times when I was writing the book. I derived a great deal of meaning from my early endeavors — my shock and also my innocence as I delved into these topics. A lot of the appeal of the story is its seasoning, in a span of time from 1992 to 2000.

Q: Victims' rights have changed quite a bit from 1977 to today. Describe the evolution in this field.

A: Victims' rights didn't exist in 1977. They came out of the civil-rights movement, which inspired the women's movement, which inspired the victims'-rights movement. In the 1980s, skyrocketing crime and a greater understanding of trauma, in Vietnam vets, in Holocaust survivors, that came together when the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] III defined into existence post-traumatic stress disorder.

The first battered-women's shelter in America was opened in 1976. Back in 1977, in a little town like that, it wouldn't have occurred to anyone that a boy who beat his girlfriend could have been an ax murderer. Battering women was sort of standard operating procedure.

Now there are dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of victims'-rights groups. More than half of states have victims'-rights laws. ... They're still slapping their girlfriends around, only now there are laws against it.

Q: In your public appearances, are you approached by other victims of violence? What do you tell them?

A: Yes. Some of them ... most of them are battered women. I think a lot of people have said, your book has given me courage to step up.

Plus I talk to people with trauma — car accidents, war injuries — who go back to the scene of their greatest trauma [as Jentz did], again and again. They go back to the source of it all and put the scene into a larger narrative. It can be healing to give your story a beginning, middle and end.

It's just fascinating; that's what makes being an author so wonderful, making sense of the chaos. People also ask me about closure. I say closure in this culture means 'get over it, move on.' I don't think people just get over it. If I could substitute closure with the word integration ... we integrate the trauma into our lives and make it part of the story, and hopefully use whatever wisdom we've developed as a result on behalf of others. Rather than put it behind you, bring it closer. People come up to me afterward and say, you know, that's exactly right.

Q: As I read your book, I kept thinking that most folks would have not persisted in your quest. Certainly not me, and not the other woman who was attacked, who preferred to move on. What was it about you that made you persist?

A: Everything in my life seemed to lead me forward into expanding this book. There was no letting it go until I had explored everything I could possibly explore. Detective stories are like that. Detectives are by their very nature obsessive — mysteries are by their very nature obsessive.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

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