American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

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9780060096861: American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

TABOO (n) [Tongan tabu]

1: a prohibition against touching, saying, or doing something for fear of immediate harm from a supernatural force.

In 1975, thirty-three Peace Corps volunteers landed in the island nation of Tonga. It was an exotic place -- men wearing grass skirts, coconut-thatched huts, pigs wandering the crushed-coral streets -- governed by strange and exacting rules of conduct. The idealistic young Americans called it never-never land, as if it existed in a world apart from the one they knew and the things that happened there would be undone when they went home.

Among them was a beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman who, like so many volunteers before her, was in search of adventure. Sensuous and free-spirited, Deborah Gardner would become an object of desire, even obsession, in the small expatriate community. On the night of October 14, 1976, she was found dying inside her hut, stabbed twenty-two times.

Hours later, another volunteer turned himself in to the Tongan police, and many of the other Americans were sure he had committed the crime. But with the aid of the State Department, he returned to New York a free man, flown home at the Peace Corps's expense. Deb Gardner's death and the outlandish aftermath took on legendary proportions in Tonga; in the United States, government officials made sure the story was suppressed.

Now Philip Weiss unravels the truth about what happened in Tonga more than a quarter century ago. With bravura reporting and vivid, novelistic prose, Weiss transforms a Polynesian legend into a singular artifact of American history and a profoundly moving human story.

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Review:

On October 4, 1976, a brutal murder shocked the tiny island nation of Tonga. A young Peace Corps volunteer had been stabbed 22 times; another volunteer was identified at the scene, but despite the damning evidence against him, Dennis Priven was never convicted of any crime. A beautiful, free-spirited young victim; a brooding villain who carried a dive knife sheathed by his side; an exotic, Gauginesque setting: with material this sensational, it's surprising that the most compelling passages in American Taboo concern the inner workings of a government bureaucracy. But the Peace Corps was an integral part of Deborah Gardner's tragedy. According to Philip Weiss, their officials did everything in their power to hush up her murder, then funded the aggressive defense that helped Priven go free. Weiss's account captures an intriguing historical moment, when the Corps' initial spirit of idealism found itself besieged by political and financial pressures. But the book ! is marred by his breathless, run-on style, and the figure at the center of this story remains a cipher. Was Dennis Priven an evil genius who planned the murder—and his defense—to ensure he would escape punishment? Or was he, as a psychiatrist hired by the Peace Corps contended, a budding schizophrenic? Weiss' answer is regrettably perfunctory: "He was a brilliant madman allowed to stay too long in the wrong spot who had lost control and then manipulated everyone around him with coldness and creativity." Oh. --Mary Park

About the Author:

Philip Weiss has been a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor to Esquire, Harper's Magazine, and the New York Observer. He lives in upstate New York.

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