Emma Copley Eisenberg looks back on her time in Appalachia, in West Virginia’s rural Pocahontas County, and the connection to a notorious unsolved double murder of two young women that took place in the region in 1980.
The women, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, were hitchhiking en route to the Rainbow Gathering, a sort of hippie festival taking place in the mountains, but were found shot in a clearing. A local man, Jacob Beard, eventually went to prison for the murders for years but was released after a serial killer confessed. The crime story is a complex one, involving rumor, police misconduct, and a mess of interconnected threads, and I’m not sure I can make much more sense of it than that.
An interesting aspect of this is the culture that Durian and Santomero embodied, and the idea that’s coming more to the fore in recent true crime narratives — that of interrogating why some victims are more sympathetic than others. Eisenberg examines that here in connection to why this case isn’t better known, and it’s a fascinating analysis.
Vicki and Nancy were not ideal damsels then – a narrative problem, likely why the story of their deaths never became a consuming national media sensation.
But there’s a second major narrative here, and that’s the memoir. Eisenberg was young but seemingly burnt out on life, and left New York to work at a camp for young women in Pocahontas County. Through her time there interacting with the local community, she learned the story of the infamous Rainbow murders and became curious about the strange developments in suspects and the investigation’s knotty course over the years. So that’s the connection between the personal and the crime, but the book does feel very much like two separate entities, both in writing and subject.
Where it works is as sociological study. Eisenberg does great justice to location, revealing something about the mysterious, misunderstood workings of Appalachia by examining stereotypes, perceptions, and misconceptions.
The hick monster story has deep roots in the history of West Virginia and is wound around the story of American industrialization and capitalism. Before you can dispossess a people from their own land, you must first make them not people.
I was on board through approximately the first half, but then this goes off the rails as the memoir portion comes more strongly into focus and the crime story becomes harder to follow and not as well structured. There are moments of brilliant, achingly lovely writing. There’s also some worthwhile reporting. But there’s an overplay in form and style and the navel-gazing memoir is patience-testing.
There are also some, if not unethical, then at least uncomfortable, moments that emphasize the lack of journalistic background. At one point, she uses the bathroom at an interview subject (and former suspect’s) home and comments on a tube of Preparation H. So much for any kind of journalistic respect for one’s subject. It’s mentioned to make a point about the juxtaposition of the very young and the very old in the man’s house, but it’s not a point that needs making so ends up feeling like a tasteless invasion of privacy.
She also includes so much peripheral information in the memoir portions that isn’t relevant to any part of the story, and sometimes is downright upsetting. Like how she abused her cat by locking it in a cold room away from its food and listened to it crying. Even if this is meant to demonstrate the extent to which her life was falling apart and how she was unanchored and hurting for unspecified reasons that sound like a case of the common being-in-your-twenties, that behavior is gross and describing it wholly unnecessary.
The idea to write about both the Rainbow Murders and my own time in Pocahontas County, together, came most perhaps when I found out about Liz — a woman who was both a part of this story and not a part of it. I cared about the women who died, I knew, and I cared about the men who suffered because two women happened to die where they lived, in a place America prefers to forget exists. Writing this story became real to me when I realized a story could–must–encompass both.
That makes sense, but it feels like justification for the navel-gazing. The author’s only real connection to the story is that she visited the location where Durian and Santomero were found, and of course heard about it through her work in the region. It’s not deeper or more meaningful than that, which means that having half — or more — of the book as memoir just feels weird.
There’s way too much going on: diary-like confessional ramblings covering the author’s queerness and sex with a local man, her quarter-life crisis, social history of Pocahontas County, the camp program and culture, the complex history of the murders, the titular third rainbow girl who ostensibly would’ve also been a victim but parted from her traveling companions. Her role in this entire narrative — and why the book is named for her — was underdeveloped and felt irrelevant.
The foundation for a good true crime book was in here somewhere, but it was easily lost to an overpowering memoir.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.