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April 26th, 2006 Karla Starr | Featured Stories
 

Piecing Paradise Back Together

Author Terri Jentz's quest to solve her own attempted murder leads to Central Oregon and literary gold.

     
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"When the truck rolled over my body, my right upper arm broke and the flesh was shredded by tire treads; my right lung collapsed, my right collarbone fractured and overlapped; the right side of my rib cage was crushed and the lowest ribs cracked in half. The rain of blows from the hatchet left two-inch gashes all over my scalp, a broken nose, and a chip in the skull over my left eye. One of the bones in my left forearm was sliced through, the fleshy part of my left palm was slashed, and my little finger was broken."

Strange Piece of Paradise, page 85.

This is what you are left with after being visited by an ax-wielding sociopath. This is what Terri Jentz was left with on the night of June 22, 1977, in Cline Falls State Park in Central Oregon, a dusty, tree-speckled area about 20 miles outside of Bend. Nearly 30 years later, she has returned to show me around the scene of the crime.

"It's the same as it was back then, but everything was a lot drier. It just felt like a real desert park then," she says. "There were no houses around—except for that house on the hill." She's comparing the current lay of the land to her memory of it from 1977. That night, she and a college roommate (who, having requested anonymity, is referred to as "Shayna Weiss" in the book) camped here during a cross-country bike trip. "[Our] tent was over by that fire. The pickup came flying over this curb..." she says, trailing off.

No arrests were made for the attempted murders, and, since 1980, none can ever be: In 1977, Oregon's statute of limitations for the crime was only three years. The statute has since been eliminated, but is not retroactive.

Terri Jentz's brilliant and maddeningly courageous investigation of her own attempted murder led her to join forces with the Oregon State Police—as well as Portlanders Bob and Dee Dee Kouns, founders of Crime Victims United—as she hacked her way to the core of one of Oregon's most notorious unsolved crimes. The result, Strange Piece of Paradise: A Return to the American West to Investigate My Attempted Murder—And Solve the Riddle of Myself, is already being touted in magazines ranging from Outside and Esquire to Vanity Fair. A first run of 150,000 copies—an enormous showing of confidence by publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux—will coincide with a national book tour. Behind the ballyhoo? An intelligent, generously researched page-turner that thoughtfully examines the mythic lure of the American West, the history of violence against women, the evolution of the Oregon penal code and victims' rights—a search that ultimately brings her face to face with her attacker.

And behind that is a woman still attuned to the potential for danger.

Before we meet for our Cline Falls walkabout, Jentz calls and asks what route I'm planning to drive from Portland to Central Oregon. "Do you know the number to call for weather conditions?" she asks, explaining that if there's ice on the mountain overpass I'd have to take, she'd prefer to reschedule the onsite interview.

"I'm sure it'll be fine," I tell her.

But the woman must have telepathy. Three years ago, a truck I was driving on a rural Alaskan highway spun out of control on a patch of black ice. It flipped over five times and came to a rest on its side. Once still, I felt a warm rush of blood sliding down my throbbing face, my body surrounded by endless clumps of shattered glass. I saw a bone, fractured nine times, sticking out of my wrist for the entire half-hour it took the paramedics to show up. I cracked ribs, fractured my skull and later needed surgery to remove blood that had pooled between my skull and brain.

There's a laundry list of reasons I shouldn't be alive, either.

Soon, Jentz's story will be broadcast on PrimeTime Live and Good Morning America. After that, the Los Angeles-based screenwriter will be telling it in person, at Powell's on Monday, May 8. But on the day we walked through Cline Falls and ate lunch in nearby Sisters, her story seemed like it was meant for my ears, only.

Karla Starr: The book is unexpected in the best possible way—it's so hard to explain or describe.

Terri Jentz: People have said to me, "I think that you have written the first post-traumatic stress disorder narrative." What the PTSD mind wants to do is piece things together from every angle, from every point of view—you want to take it all in and make it into this coherent narrative.

I saw many parallels between it and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles the year after the sudden death of her husband. You both made sense of horrible things by touching upon the subject, investigating and then coming back to your own story.

Exactly. How do you survive? What is survival? There's this book I like a lot, Aftermath, by Susan Brison, the philosopher. She talks about how she was raped in France.... After it became public, all of these people would come to her with these tales of their survival and their issues—including men—suffering terribly from trauma. What do you have to incorporate into your life to make meaning out of it? You can get meaning out of it, or do something for others to get meaning out of it, but you've got to do something with it.

What has surprised you about yourself?

I think my tenaciousness surprised me—I stuck with this thing, all these years, to do it really thoroughly. It took me a long time to do that. I come from this culture where everyone desires instant results, instant fame, instant fortune—and I was one of those. The biggest thing in my past that I'm most proud of is having developed my empathy to a great degree, to the extent that I can go to that place and feel another's pain, woes, and I can put it in my writing.

How did your investigation change your perception of the Oregon State police?

I started by viewing them as adversaries... they never solved my attempted murder! But I soon found them to be my best allies throughout the entire ordeal. They were intently committed to closure, just as I was. And you can't blame everyone who was working on the case now when it had happened so long ago...and conditions were so different then.... I also had a tremendous amount of help and support from Bob and Dee Dee Kouns.

What about the role that forgiveness plays?

I went through that period—not with forgiveness, but I think that was my first form of denial, where I thought, "I'm so spiritual, I never even thought about my attacker." What I came to realize is that I was repressing this terrible rage ... I eventually did understand that that was just a form of denial. Susan Brison said in her book that it's common to not want to think about the perpetrator, because if you think about the perpetrator, you put the perpetrator in proximity to you. And that becomes scary on a very real, bodily level.

At the same time, you were able to put a name and face to your fear and focus it. Doesn't it help to alleviate the sense of ambiguous, constant fear?

And that is, I think, one of the reasons I went through this intense period of fear, because everything causes fear [when] the thing that tried to annihilate you has never been named or given a form. So you think that everything is going to annihilate you! It's interesting that earlier I was so concerned about you crossing the mountain pass and the black ice, and then to find out that you had that experience. When you find out who it is, put a name and face to this malevolent presence, it becomes less scary. You have to feel conditions of safety outside, and then take reasonable precautions outside, and I think that's what I do. I think that regulator in me is finally fixed, and I don't think it ever would have been fixed, had I not named the threat, seen the threat, studied the threat. There was a tangible lightening of my whole mode of being when I finally named the threat.

In a way, I wish I had that. I don't have that ability to put a name or face to what happened. It was just an accident.

I never thought of that. [That's] much more scary, because it's amorphous. It could just be anywhere—a big black hole, and your life would be over as you know it.

It doesn't have to be caused by another person—it could just come from anywhere. When you come so close to something like that happening, you realize how quickly that could happen, at any time.

I know it sounds corny, but I would go back up there and drive that stretch of road, over and over again. It's like me going back to Cline Falls and lying on the ground—it's simple stuff, but it works. Piece it together—go for it, that's very important. It's part of the PTSD narrative: Piecing every little thing together, somehow putting them together in the narrative of your life. Suddenly, it's not a damaged mosaic out there, floating around.

One thing that's much easier for me after coming so close to losing everything so suddenly is being grateful for what I do have. Do you feel this way at all?

Very. I took something that was very, very bad and turned it into something that was good for me, and hopefully good for the world.

I wish people didn't have to almost die to feel lucky to be alive.


Strange Piece of Paradise will be available at local bookshops Tuesday, May 2. Terri Jentz will read on Monday, May 8, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm. Free. Jentz's Primetime Live special airs Friday, May 5. 9 pm. She will also appear live on Good Morning America that morning at 7 am.
 
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