No One Is Disposable: Talking with Emma Copley Eisenberg

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Emma Copley Eisenberg’s stunning debut, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, in which she chronicles her time living in Pocahontas County, West Virginia and delves deeply into the murder of two women there decades earlier, was an unlikely read for me. My mother was murdered in 1994, and although I’ve written a book about it, I tend to shy away from true crime accounts. Too often, they are sensational, prurient—the humanity of the victim lost in the story of their killing. Over the six years of writing my own true crime memoir, I struggled with the question of whether the story I was telling was inevitably ethically flawed, whether I, too, was turning pain and trauma into entertainment. Knowing that Eisenberg had tackled that question and more, I was curious to see how someone else approached the task of creating a work that necessarily contained elements of true crime while critiquing its own genre.

In June 1980, Vicki Durian, Nancy Santomero, and Liz Johndrow were traveling together toward the Rainbow Gathering, a peace festival held in a forest, when Liz’s intuition told her to part ways with her friends. Vicki and Nancy would meet their ends before reaching the gathering, and Liz would survive to become “the third Rainbow girl.” In writing about the three women, Eisenberg creates a moving memorial to Vicki and Nancy as well as a testament to a sort of freedom that is still hard for women to access. Eisenberg herself came to Pocahontas County as a wanderer in search of a truer, more ethical way to live. A native New Yorker who moved south to work with an anti-poverty project focused on empowering local teenage girls, Eisenberg was sharply aware of the problems and opportunities inherent in her position. Her allegiance to the community she became a part of is clear in the precision and empathy with which she tells the story of the murders—she shows how the crimes, the resulting investigation, and the stories that have been told about both have affected the people of the county. Ultimately, nine men were charged with the murders, resulting in one conviction, which was later overturned. Eisenberg examines the roles that gender, class, and power had in how the murders were investigated and reported, and how they affect her own story.

I spoke with Eisenberg about the ethics of true crime, the line between fiction and nonfiction, and how toxic masculinity destroys people of all genders.

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The Rumpus: I picked up your book partly because we have mutual friends, and so it felt somehow safer than other true crime accounts. I had a chance to experience that voyeuristic excitement, while knowing that I could trust you to have preempted my objections. I also knew that it would be incredibly well-written, and for me, that would make it more “okay” than other true crime stories. But I kept asking myself: is this problematic, elitist? Is making something more “literary” necessarily a case of making it better or more ethical? Are high-quality true crime accounts like Serial and Making a Murderer allowing people to sidestep that “guilty pleasure” feeling that might come from an SVU marathon and avoid interrogating their interest in seeing (mostly women) get brutalized?

Emma Copley Eisenberg: There’s a difference between making something “literary”—nice sentences, a fancy font—and making something rigorous, morally serious, preempting reader questions about facts and ethics and narrative choices. My book is literary because I really care about writing and the way it feels in the mouth, but I think I care most about the book being rigorous. I have RIGOR written on a piece of paper that hung above my writing space for awhile. I have read and re-read and parsed and gone over the book with the fact checker and the lawyer and I stand behind everything that’s in it. It took me so long to write and I got to change my mind so many times, and the book reflects that twisty, turning process in which the book got smarter and more rigorous over time.

I know that rigor still doesn’t let me off the hook for taking up the brutalizing of women as the central subject. But I will say with all truthfulness that what grabbed hold of me wasn’t exactly the murders of two women—that was a fact, an element of what grabbed hold of me, but what really consumed me and ate me alive was 1) Liz, “the third Rainbow girl,” 2) the nine men and the ways their lives were impacted, especially Pee Wee Walton and Johnnie Washington Lewis, the two men who testified that a man they didn’t know very well at all had shot two women outsiders they had never seen before for a reason they could not ever name or articulate beyond some vague idea of sexual entitlement, and 3) what all this had to do with me and the young men and girls I knew in Pocahontas County. So I guess maybe “literary” has something to do with your way in, with honoring the weirdness of your particular impulse when it comes to subject matter, rather than approaching it front-on, as SVU might.

Rumpus: In describing a prosecutor’s approach in the first trial about these crimes, you write, “[t]he theme would be how female naïveté inevitably gets smashed by male lechery and violence, and the consequences of dangerous masculinity—specifically, local masculinity.”

But the story is so much more complex and strange than that. And you take us inside that local masculinity. I read about these nine men, whose lives were ruined by, in a way, the very convictions about misogyny and toxic masculinity that I as a feminist feel so invested in, and I wonder what we can ever possibly do to address how the patriarchy screws men over, too?

Eisenberg: Because of their class backgrounds and the place they were born, these nine men were not given the benefits of nuance or empathy or really the full scrutiny of the law well applied—they were simply incarcerated. Because that is the story that has been told about them—poor white guys from West Virginia who say words like “pussy”—they deserve to be locked up.

Their crime wasn’t murder; it was being the wrong kind of man, the wrong kind of American, in a cultural system that doesn’t give a shit about their emotional or material well being. A lot of the men I knew there were inches away from death all the time—from work accidents or unsafe roads or alcohol abuse. But yes, there was misogyny there, too, and the health outcomes for a lot of the women and girls I knew there were often no better. But I think it’s a both/and—just because women suffer doesn’t mean men don’t. Just because men suffer doesn’t mean women don’t. The deaths of Vicki and Nancy matter, but the tanked futures of these men matter just as much. No one is disposable.

Rumpus: In your above discussion of “rigor,” you follow that idea up with actions you took to verify the truth of what you were writing, but some of the most powerful parts of the book are about stories that only really lived in the imagination. One suspect, Gerald Brown, had been confessing (bragging?) all over the county about being a “hippie killer.” He said he “remembered telling someone he’d killed the girls but couldn’t remember who he’d told.”

This requires conjecture, but I wonder what you think a person like Brown is trying to convey when they’re telling a story about a horrible thing they did not, in fact, even do?

Eisenberg: I think that was a huge part of what I was trying to do in the book and grapple with—the difference between speech that communicates a true thing that happened in the world and speech that communicates a true thing that happened somewhere else. Tim O’Brien calls this “happening-truth” versus “story-truth.” He says “I want you to know how I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” I take this to have to do with trauma, that sometimes the happening-truth of trauma—what you did or what was done to you—is not the same thing as the story-truth of trauma—what it felt like and what it meant. Sometimes I think people tell story-truths and they know they are story-truths but we take them to be happening-truths and they end up having happening-truth consequences.

I think Gerald Brown felt that he had done terrible things to women in his life, that he had hurt women in ways he felt deep shame about and I think on some level he wanted to be punished for them. I do think it’s important to remember that even though not every utterance that ended up being relevant to this crime was made with a policeman’s boot to the face—though some of them were—the mood in the county was that of a boot to the face. People wanted this crime solved, people felt guilt and shame just for existing, just for being West Virginians and Appalachians (the podcast Dolly Parton’s America just did an amazing episode on this point) and the confluence of that shame with this very brutal and perhaps random crime created a space where story-truth just started coming out all over the place. All of a sudden everyone’s story-truth as it related to gender and violence and insider/outsider dynamics was in play, was dragged into the realm of happening-truth, and many people, I think, were not prepared for that.

Rumpus: Brené Brown says that there is often a high percentage of “shame-prone” people among violent offenders. Almost as though people have an inward sense of shame, and then they complete an action that would explain why they feel that way.

I wonder if in our discussions of the line between fiction and nonfiction and our increased policing of said line, we are losing some of that power of story-truth. It is true that in your book, you’re adhering to journalistically verifiable happening-truth while also delivering story-truth, and prompting us to think about what that story-truth means. Can form reflect content here, or is it too dangerous not to clue the reader in?

Eisenberg: Ugh, yes, “shame-prone.” So true. Yes, I guess I believe that people ultimately find ways to communicate who they are, whether through words or actions or dreams. The “happening-truth/story-truth” thing also really reminds me of that amazing essay by Elizabeth Schambelan for n+1 that you directed me to a while back about the reasons why a woman might—though it happens very, very rarely—change or fabricate an accusation of rape—specifically, in this case the woman who came to be known as “Jackie” in the UVA Rolling Stone article, an article that absolutely blew up that campus when I was teaching there in 2014 after completing my MFA. Schambelan writes,

This is the story I’ve come up with, about the story Jackie told… Something had happened, and she wanted to tell other people, so that they would know what happened and know how she felt. But when she tried to tell it — maybe to somebody else, maybe to herself — the story had no power. It didn’t sound, in the telling, anything like what it felt like in the living. It sounded ordinary, mundane, eminently forgettable, like a million things that had happened to a million other women — but that wasn’t what it felt like to her.

That’s a great question about genre and what we label as fiction and what we label as nonfiction. I had tried to write this book as fiction first, and indeed I wrote a short story with the same title in which I tried to imagine what it felt like for Liz and Vicki and Nancy to hitchhike cross country and then for Liz to leave them at a truck stop in Virginia, just an hour from where they died and the survivor’s guilt that must have come from that, but I realized it wasn’t true. It was about me, it was about my own survivor’s guilt that I was projecting and grappling with. What I wanted, I realized, was a truer truth than my own brain could provide, a truth with more voices and more stories than just my own story-truth.

These days I love writing fiction again. As soon as I started writing nonfiction it freed up my fiction to be so much weirder and gayer and more playful—one hundred percent story-truth. That is what is beautiful about fiction. But I think what is beautiful about nonfiction is that it is so vast—it can include both story-truth and happening-truth and probe the ways the two intersect and diverge and bounce off each other. So I guess I would say that I needed to go hard towards happening-truth to return back around to story-truth.

Rumpus: It sounds like your writing process, for this story, reflected your evolving attitude about how to live this story. I’m thinking of your line, “I had made a mistake thinking that hiding my truths from other people could keep me from doing harm.”

Eisenberg: Yes, I think that is right! It is all connected!

Rumpus: Because when you’re living in Pocahontas County, taken in by this community that you come to cherish, you often are in situations where you might otherwise speak up—about someone’s misogynistic comment, or even just an everyday bit of gender essentialism. You remain silent for a few reasons, as you make clear: it’s not your culture, and you maybe don’t feel you can speak up, and also, silence is what allows you to remain part of the community. It’s a sort of self-erasure that ultimately is too high a price to pay.

Perhaps similarly, I was so struck by your description of the first time you hung out with the Droop Mountain Holler Boys, the self-named group of guys who became your primary friends. You attend weekly pool night for the first time, as the only woman, and after some awkwardness, the borders of gender give way. You become, “Not a woman necessarily, but a friend who could stay as long as I wished.” This resonated deeply with me: that moment where you can escape that identity of “a woman”—potential romantic interest, interloper in a male space—and you become just a person in communion with other people. It’s a moment of reprieve.

Eisenberg: Yes, there was something about who I was then and the men I was friends with that did feel like communion, fellowship, something about the place we were all in our lives and the place we were all in geographically, a place that my friends and family seemed to have no human capacity to understand. And yet, also, there was a way that I was never quite—especially when I became slotted into the role of “girlfriend”—free of the label “woman.” It was always both, and I tried to convey that.

Rumpus: You did play the role of The Girlfriend to Jesse, but you also came out to him as queer, a moment that’s refreshingly low-key in the book. He says, essentially, cool, but then it is entirely on you to object to the friend who uses gay slurs all the time. And to do so constitutes a moment of othering yourself, of perhaps reminding those around you that you approach the world differently. Can you say more about that?

Eisenberg: Yes. I think my queerness was one of the big things that made playing the role of The Girlfriend untenable in the long term and also made staying in Pocahontas County untenable in the long term. This isn’t always true—I know lots of queer people who stayed in their mountain communities and many that are returning after stints away because being in the place they love has become the most important thing. The project Country Queers, created by a Pocahontas County native, is documenting this and making it more and more true that “queers can survive and thrive in the mountains.” And it’s also further complicated by the fact that my life in Pocahontas County was in many ways very queer—I worked in this office with lots of cool feminist women who created a queer affirming space for youth in the area and I knew several queer people in the town, both out and not. In a community that small, everyone is intimate with each other, so queerness is not the only fact you know about someone. There was an attitude in my opinion of like, “you might be… but you’re still ours.” People didn’t always have the language but they had the love. At the same time, there was significant homophobia there, which I also write about. That both/and again.

Rumpus: Even as I was asking that question, I was feeling a bit protective of Pocahontas County, myself. Your book addresses so many of the myths about West Virginia and Appalachia that have plagued the region. These myths were present in the national coverage of Vicki and Nancy’s deaths, framing the story as “hillbillies versus hippies,” and continues to today, in the wider culture’s simplistic views of “Trump country.” If we are ever to heal this country’s polarization and see each other as humans, we have to go beyond the simplest, most easily believable stories about each other. You’ve done so much work here, to help us do that!

Eisenberg: Thank you. I feel like I’m really trying. I know there are people who feel that by including talk of alcoholism and homophobia at all in the book, I am reinforcing negative stereotypes about the region, and I’ve convicted myself of that crime on more sleepless nights than I care to count. But what I ultimately decided was that to romanticize my experiences there as one hundred percent positive and shelter it from what I think is true about it if also hard is actually not kind or respectful—it’s condescending. I became who I am there; I was hurt there; I hurt people there; it’s the most beautiful place on earth; it contains kind and complicated and difficult people just like any other place.

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Photograph of Emma Copley Eisenberg by Sylvie Rosokoff.


Sarah Perry is the author of the memoir After the Eclipse, which was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, a Poets & Writers Notable Nonfiction Debut, and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Perry is the recipient of the 2018 Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award and fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation, VCCA, Playa, and The Studios of Key West. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University, where she currently teaches, and was the 2019 McGee Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Davidson College. Find her on Twitter @TrickyLaRouge. More from this author →