Philip Weiss is a writer of some repute who has had the opportunity to open the books on a closed file – a Peace Corps incident that happened back when the world was a more innocent place, when things like cover-ups were unknown, when the Americans were still the Good Guys and wouldn’t participate in a legal fiction to save their own butts.
In 1975, the Peace Corps was not the success that had been envisioned, nor was it a total failure. There were still idealistic young people – people who were flexible, who had reasons, good reasons, for wanting to put off a ride on the gravy train in favor of helping others. They were adventurous, they were straight-arrows, they were the brightest and best of US liberal culture. They’d been carefully vetted – if you acted gay, if you drank too much, if you complained too loud or skipped a meeting, you were weeded out, always leaving at night so that there could be no protest, no discomfort among those left behind.
So the little group that coalesced on the Edenic island of Tonga in the Pacific were presumably ready for their assignment, and well-bonded with one another. They were to teach English to the small population of Tonganese, to live at local level, to make no waves amongst the rigidly Christian populace. They had trained together, and it was a time when sharing was a seriously held ethic among the playful young.
But at all times, the presence of beauty, of a lovely vibrant young woman among a group of males, will cause strife. Deb Gardner was such a woman, naïvely sensuous, admirably independent, looking for new ways to experience life. She became the object of attentions that ultimately led to her tragic murder, a death by multiple stabbing.
Everyone was pretty sure who did it, and the presumptive perpetrator actually turned himself in to the Tonga authorities within hours of the bloody crime. That’s when the other crime was mid-wifed into existence – the crime of cover-up and cooperation, among nations, among Peace Corps officials. Who wanted a scandal? Who wanted to take the responsibility for murder most foul among the faltering Corps at a time when funding for the program was at issue and jobs could be lost, prestige dimmed, our country’s honor impugned?
So there was a show trial, and the alleged and confessed murderer went free, returned to the US, and disappeared. For a while it was rumored that he was dead. In truth, as Weiss puts it, he had died – died to the world, died inside, living on only to relive, reinvent and deny his terrible crime, in obscurity, never to live up to the bright promise of his youth.
The lives of everyone involved in this intrigue were scarred, their ideals bruised if not crushed, their perfect world flooded with doubts and dread and a newly acquired cynicism about the system – bigtime. Weiss carefully picked up every possible thread of this torn tapestry, including the current lives of the victim’s family and that of the probable killer. What emerges is a fascinating chronicle, well researched, full of the enthusiasm and the dashed hopes of a group of promising young people unable, unsurprisingly, to deal with violence in their midst.