“We tend to treat believability as if it were synonymous with truthfulness,” Emma Eisenberg writes in her nonfiction debut, The Third Rainbow Girl. Suppressing ambiguity in order to reach a familiar narrative, one that’s easy to shape out of the circumstances and thus believable, can look a lot like attempting to arrive at the truth, she tells us. The search for a definitive answer often involves paring down all the ways a story might be told, until a single version of events remains.
Eisenberg’s book, in large part about the murders of two young women on their way to a peace gathering in rural West Virginia in 1980, is engaged in a wholly other project. The book doesn’t whittle away at perspectives to determine who committed the crime, but instead expands increasingly outward to accommodate more and more points of view. Eisenberg makes enough space for a history and contemporary portrait of Appalachia steeped in dualities, and for stretches of memoir centered on the months she spent as a volunteer charged with empowering adolescent girls in Pocahontas County, where the killings happened three decades earlier. Rather than closing these pages off to doubt, she accommodates contradiction, the convoluted politics and machinations of memory, and also, in the words of James Baldwin, “what one does not remember.” At the heart of this enterprise is primary source material—a coroner’s report, trial transcripts—that doesn’t so much add up to an answer as demonstrate how the members of an Appalachian community experienced what happened. “I’m much more interested in how people talk about trauma than the trauma itself,” Eisenberg says in the interview that follows.
The Third Rainbow Girl inhabits the in-between. It’s billed as a true-crime investigation, but in its first pages reveals all of the facts of the story in quick succession: Nancy Santomero, Vicki Durian, and Liz Johndrow hitchhiked across the United States to a rainbow gathering, a celebration of peace, and only Liz survived; thirteen years after the tragedy, nine Pocahontas County men were accused of the crime; a local farmer thought to be the trigger man was sentenced to life in prison but ultimately freed after six years, because an already incarcerated serial killer claimed the murders. It is a book about West Virginia, a state whose people fought for the Union and the Confederates, a state of the South and yet not of the South, one that has skewed Democrat and Republican, one that has been pillaged for its resources and abandoned by telecommunication companies and that in numerous ways is resistant to laws, self-sufficient, and free. Eisenberg finds herself in this divided space caring deeply about the murdered women and, simultaneously, men whose lives are marred by these deaths and internalized stereotypes. “It is possible to be a victim and a perpetrator at the same time,” she writes. “Most of us are.”
This preference for multiplicity over narrowness, an incisive sense of pacing, and prose that’s vital and crisp come together to make this book breathe. It only takes Eisenberg a few descriptive flashes to give people form, and she so beautifully captures community living and her own grieved desire to belong. The community does embrace her, and it hurts her, and she hurts it. The Third Rainbow Girl is a study in how these things can coexist.
While she was there on book tour, Eisenberg and I met in the Hudson Valley. We talked about why unskilled young people from middle-class backgrounds are so often given the job of alleviating poverty, “mountain-man masculinity,” and the condemnation of women who travel alone “for no good reason.”
—Hillary Brenhouse for Guernica
Guernica: I’m wondering about the decision to write about your own experience in tandem with these murders. Could you have written this book without looking inwards?
Emma Eisenberg: It was such a process to figure out the form of this book and I changed my mind a lot of times. I felt that if I just wrote a third-person, omniscient, this-is-the-truth-of-these-events account, that would be problematic, and not quite true to what it was I was interested in, and if I told it completely through my own lens then that would kind of subsume the story. There’s something about the interplay of those two forms that hopefully becomes larger than the sum of its parts. At first, I wasn’t going to include any of myself in it, but then, once I made the decision to write it as nonfiction, I thought about how the nonfiction I admire the most makes really visible and clear the writer’s positionality and how they came to the story and their potential blind spots and biases and all of that. I was very thoughtful about making sure not to include anything about my own experience just for the hell of it; I tried to include stuff that either illustrated a point I was trying to make or showed some complicated dynamic I was trying to explore.
I recently read Cathy Park Hong’s book that’s coming out, Minor Feelings. And I didn’t have these words when I was writing my book, but she says it really well: “writing alongside.” Writing alongside rather than trying to represent feels in some way like the best compromise when you want to enter the conversation without taking up all the space, especially when you’re not from a place and the story’s not yours. It was also important to me to include contemporary experiences of Appalachia rather than just saying, “This is a thing that happened in a place long, long ago.” So this is the best hybrid form my editor and I came to from a lot of complicated impulses.
Guernica: I felt as though you wanted to show the reader how people were thinking about the events rather than presenting some authoritative truth about them.
Eisenberg: That’s a big compliment because I felt like I was trying to do that more than anything. There were moments when my editor asked me to be a more confident narrative voice, to subsume more archival documents or reporting into my voice, and I did do that to some extent, but I was trying when possible to use the primary source documents or to quote directly. I tried to use language directly from the coroner’s report to describe the women’s bodies rather than writing, “There were these two dead bodies.” What I’m actually more interested in is how a coroner or a person who found them would react, because I wasn’t there. And I used a ton of the trial transcript. I wanted more, I wanted forty pages of straight trial transcript. I’m much more interested in how people talk about trauma than the trauma itself.
Guernica: I wondered about this tension that you describe when writing about West Virginia. Pocahontas County has in many ways been abandoned by the country, it’s a white spot on AT&T’s map of cell-phone coverage, for ages it didn’t have its own ambulance and used a hearse instead, and at the same time it has an extraordinary amount of freedom. West Virginia’s motto is “mountaineers are always free.” Do you think that there are fewer laws there because it’s been forgotten, or was it in some part forgotten because it felt like a lawless place to begin with?
Eisenberg: That’s a really good question and I feel like there are so many people more qualified to answer it. But what I would personally say is that it’s both. What I learned in the process of writing this book is that a lot of the ways that we think and talk about West Virginia as a place now are the same and reflective of how we talked about and thought about the place three hundred years ago. West Virginia was predetermined to be a trash land, a place that people didn’t care about, because it wasn’t viable agricultural land as part of capitalism. What happens when you live in a place where the land and people don’t acquiesce to the demands of capitalism, I think, is that you become somewhat left out and somewhat extra free. Those two things always coexisted in its history, is my understanding.
Elizabeth Catte writes in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia that there is this continuous sort of rediscovering and re-caring about West Virginia and then a forgetting about it again, and that was a really helpful context for right now. There are certain moments when we, as a broader American culture, decide that we care about what’s going on in this region and then ten to fifteen years pass and we don’t care about it again. That dynamic is harmful and is more reflective of the lost or disregarded aspect. But in the case of the white space, the fact that West Virginia is in the quiet zone—I think it’s really important to remember that that’s federally legislated. That wasn’t something that this county or West Virginia requested or asked for, and there are many people who are like, “It would be really fucking awesome to have high-speed Internet here and we can’t get it because it’s not worth AT&T’s while to put this kind of broadband in; there are just not enough people.” So I think there are ways that it’s been lost and ways that that lostness allows a kind of joyful freedom. Some people feel mad about it, some people feel happy about it. Some people say, “Give me my high-speed Internet,” and some people say, “I don’t want that and never would because that would change my whole life.”
Guernica: There’s a strong connection in the book between the dualities that characterize West Virginia and the idea, presented later on, that most of us are perpetrators and victims at the same time. I felt like this project revolved around those ambiguities.
Eisenberg: Absolutely. That kept coming back around, the idea of neither/nor, or both/and, or whatever you want to call it. I think that this crime is inextricably linked to the contradictions of the place and that just kept feeling more true. This idea of a trial, which is essentially this war between two stories and which one is right, is similar in many ways to how we talk about West Virginia. “It’s all bad and it’s conservative.” Or there are people who want to say, “It’s beautiful and we have the right way of living and everyone else is wrong.” But actually, what kept being borne out was, “No, of course, neither of those extremes is true and we have to live in this murky middle.” It just felt like this particular community in West Virginia and in Appalachia more broadly had a lot to teach me about holding contradiction.
Guernica: Thousands of outsiders came to this county in West Virginia in 1980 for this peace gathering, and many people subsequently became attached to the idea that the murders happened because of a hippie-hick clash. Why do you think that is? Because one of the things I really appreciated is that early on in the book you point to so many similarities between the “hippies” and the “hicks”: often they reject the American model of what a successful life is supposed to look like and grow their own food and make their own music and sometimes give birth at home…
Eisenberg: You know, when we think of political opposites a circle is sometimes more of an accurate representation. And, yes, as much as we can position hippies and hicks as opposites, they’re right next to each other.
My sense in doing a bunch of research about that year, 1980, when these women died, and why I try to spend some time on the context of that year in the book, is because it was such a crucial turning point in the larger story of America. 1979 felt really different than 1981. Reagan gets elected, things really change in November of that year. Liz Johndrow and Vicki and Nancy—all of them had some connection to canvassing for Carter; they were people who were interested in trying to avoid this election that then happens later in the year. There was this sense of, “We need to bring the ’70s with us into this new time.” I remember talking to my dad and other people who lived through this phase, and he said that there was this extremely palpable animosity at times. He had long hair and he got on a plane and this guy in a business suit spilled hot tea on him on purpose. This sense of “we are different” did exist, though that might have been more true on a larger, national scale than in this precise place in West Virginia.
Guernica: Why do you think the murder of these two women held so much weight in this community for so long? A local farmer was convicted of the crime a whole thirteen years later, and the prosecutor and police sergeant who put him away came out of retirement when he was granted a second trial six years after that.
Eisenberg: You know that episode in the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America,” where they talk about Appalachian accents and the shame around them? I think it’s not possible to grow up and live in a culture that views this region with such disdain and repugnance without internalizing some of that shame. I think that this particular crime represents a moment where a lot of people from elsewhere, a lot of media, were casting their eyes on this place that doesn’t usually get that attention and it looked extra bad. People were coming from everywhere for a peace festival; these two women end up dead instead. I think there was this sense of, “We’ve been viewed as bad and we feel like we are bad right now and we must fix this.” And, “If we can root out what is bad or shameful in ourselves and in this place then we can make this right again.” I think that was an extremely compelling idea or story that got lodged with these investigators.
I don’t think [the prosecutor and police sergeant] were bad people, I don’t think they were willfully ignoring evidence. It’s a very compelling idea to redeem one’s community, to make one’s community safe and right again, and I think that’s the perspective that they were coming from. And in the process, they ended up, in my opinion, inflicting a lot of trauma and wrongful incarceration on a lot of local guys who may not be the most stand-up dudes of all time but probably didn’t deserve to go to jail.
Guernica: A lot of these local men who were accused of being involved in the crime were confused; they couldn’t remember if they had actually witnessed the murders or not. Do you think that internalized stereotypes or shame might have resulted in some of these guys remembering or misremembering what they had or hadn’t done?
Eisenberg: That stuff is such a mindfuck, right? If none of these men who were accused of these crimes or who confessed to them over a period of thirteen years “did it,” what does that mean? Why would people confess, sometimes under duress, sometimes not, sometimes just confessing to a friend or a romantic partner? And I did sit with that a lot and think about it. Though it’s a cliché, the Freudian idea that the feeling of guilt can precede a bad act was helpful to me. There is this idea around masculinity, and masculinity we’ve decided is extra bad, mountain-man masculinity; doing this one thing that you’re not proud of can feel on par with having committed a murder psychologically, even if in the real world of fact those two things aren’t the same. In the case of Pee Wee Walton, this local guy who ended up being the state’s key witness, he can’t really decide if he dreamed these events or if he was there. I think that has a lot to say about the sense of shame and psychological truth and weight he might have been carrying. But [his confession] ends up being a statement of fact, which becomes difficult to disentangle.
I do feel the internalized shame aspect really illuminated a lot for me. And also: Stories that get told about you, you can fight so hard against them, but if you keep just fighting against a story, you never get to tell a better one. That feels resonant for me as much as it does for what I was trying to say about the community.
Guernica: Why do you think this crime stayed with you for so long?
Eisenberg: I write about the house that I was renting. I was living with a guy who was the boyfriend of my friend and these calls would come in at night, a lot, from his friends, other guys he knew. There was this sense of, “I am bad, I’ve done bad things to women, I’ve made bad choices in my life, I’m suffering and I want to be with someone else or tell someone else.” And it felt like there was no place for that feeling to go, often. And those guys were a lot of people I ended up being close to, intimate with. I felt this contradiction of, “I’m here to ‘serve’ young woman but in addition there’s all this suffering around masculinity.” This idea of “I’ve come here to be a feminist with a capital F” started to not feel totally true in relation to what was actually happening around me. When I examined that feeling, it felt like this crime had a lot to say about it.
Guernica: This book is so sensitive to the forms that masculinity can take. There’s obviously a toxic masculinity at work in this place, like in every place, but you write that there’s also an emotional and physical closeness between the men in Pocahontas County that you hadn’t seen elsewhere.
Eisenberg: Gender stuff does in some ways work differently in different places. Most of the physical labor jobs, which are many of the jobs that were available in this place, are done by men. At the same time, I felt like there were ways that women were allowed to connect and talk and say truth out loud that men were not. But there was all this intense physical touch. In a place where your physical survival is not guaranteed because there’s so many ways that the earth loves you and also wants to kill you, closeness and tenderness and gender get scrambled in a way I appreciated. And queerness too. There were a lot of ways that queerness was at least neutrally tolerated if not celebrated because you can’t just cancel someone or throw someone out in this kind of a close community.
Guernica: That’s another similarity between this community in West Virginia and the rainbow community: you can’t just throw people out. It’s beautiful, but also it must be complicated when people hurt other people.
Eisenberg: There were moments where people were trying to create healing in Pocahontas County. And, yes, no person is only one thing in that community, which I really learned a lot from and appreciated. But it also makes it super hard to report abuse or create boundaries. That’s another true thing. I saw so much of that contradiction, of people being like, “I’m not saying you’re bad, but this thing did happen,” and that’s in many ways how I feel about Trey or Jesse or some of the other men I write about. People I care a lot about and have a complicated history with, but they’re not cancelled, I don’t hate them, I don’t think they’re bad. But what do you then do with that history? You have to figure out ways to create accountability or healing, which this place is trying to do and I’m sure will keep doing. It’s hard. America’s not doing it well so how can most communities be expected to do it well?
Guernica: I don’t know if this can be considered a true-crime book. Maybe? Probably?
Eisenberg: I don’t know. My publisher says yes. The ladies on Goodreads do not agree, but who’s to say?
Guernica: It seems to me that true crime is especially vital and relevant now in that you have these stories that are gripping page-turners and at the same time you can use the genre or some form of it to explore what’s wrong with the criminal-justice system. It’s amazing.
Eisenberg: I feel the same way. If the industry of capitalism has decided that these stories are consumable by the public, by all means let’s use these hard questions of class and race and gender and place as they intersect with criminal justice. I think what becomes tricky is when people want to police the boundary of what true crime means. And indeed most of my Goodreads and Amazon pages are people being like, “I came for murder and there’s a lot of feelings and history and stuff.” The idea of what we can put the label “true crime” on inspires a lot of interesting, strong feelings on both sides and I find that to be fascinating. But I think we’re seeing it more and more, books like my friend Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites, which is super smart, and even When They See Us, the Netflix miniseries that explores wrongful incarceration of black and brown young people. If that’s being considered true crime then I’m totally happy and excited to be under its umbrella. I’m less excited when it only means, “Who did it and what did the bodies look like?” because that I’m not wanting to participate in.
Guernica: You came to Pocahontas County to work at a wilderness camp teaching writing to girls. And you were clearly conflicted by the mission you had been given because of the ways in which that work might have reinforced the idea that these girls need saving or are impoverished. Can these programs work well, do you think? How might they be reshaped?
Eisenberg: I’m very interested in and conflicted about the idea of national service and altruism and the nonprofit industrial complex. And I don’t mean to say that this organization is not meaningful in a day-to-day way because it definitely is. I think my question is more about my own role in it. Whether the system we currently have of AmeriCorps—which has always been a poverty alleviation program and has always been essentially targeted toward Appalachia—is effective is a different question. That was one of the tiny baby arms that got cut out of the book, but it is going to come out as an essay somewhere else, hopefully soon.
I think that I would like to live in a world where experiences to go and do meaningful work for young people, especially in different parts of the country that we often forget, are available. My brain was rewired, my life was changed, all these things are true about my work in this place; it was extremely meaningful to me. And then I think I also want to live in a world where we allocate sufficient and real funding toward structural change aimed at places that have had their resources extracted for centuries. I wish that the Appalachian Regional Commission got more funding, I wish that it was more in touch with grassroots organizations doing work on the ground. I was graduating in the midst of the recession and that was the job that was available to me, and I also wish that those jobs could continue to be available to people who want them. But so often those things aren’t possible at the same time. So I wonder: Why do we give unskilled young people, often from middle-class backgrounds, the job of alleviating poverty? One of our most old and intractable problems in this country—why do we decide that unskilled people know how to do that, with no context of the place? I’m not sure I was the best person to be doing that work always, and while it was extremely beneficial to me, I wonder about the future of that kind of a role for other young people.
Guernica: I want to talk about the condemnation of women who travel alone. I hitchhike a lot and thought briefly last year about writing a piece about how it’s enriched my life, and then chickened out imagining the vitriol I might receive in response.
Eisenberg: I didn’t put it all in, but there were so many amazing a.k.a. terrible quotes in media pieces that were written about the trials in 1993, and even some in the 1980 coverage of the original event, that said, essentially: Women should know better than to hitchhike unescorted. This “what did you expect?” kind of attitude. I tried to spend some time on the hitchhiking road trip that these three women took together, from Arizona to West Virginia, and then also in the end of the book come around to asking Elizabeth Johndrow more about her own travels alone in that era, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It was really interesting. She said, about hitchhiking, that it’s like “sloppy Buddhism,” it’s a way to create meaning in your life, and then she said, “It’s pragmatic, I didn’t have any money,” and then she also was like, “It’s safe and it was great,” and then she also was like, “Well, I did get assaulted that one time a few years later.” I felt like she encompassed this multiplicity of experiences one might have, but really we only ever get this one idea of being raped and murdered.
I was always experiencing this tension of: I’ve done a lot of traveling alone, and what does it mean that I think that’s really important and that I’m going to write this book about two women who died because they hitchhiked, in some ways? So that’s a contradiction in and of itself. I’m going to be in conversation with Vanessa Veselka in Portland and her work was really important to me and is quoted in the book. It’s this idea that women don’t get to just hitchhike for no reason. You have to have a good reason for it to be justified. And I liked that Vicki and Nancy and Liz didn’t have a good reason. There was a concern [among their families] about making sure that they didn’t look responsible for their own deaths. And I didn’t want to redo all that shitty coverage. But I also didn’t want to be like, “Well, they had to hitchhike for this reason,” because that wasn’t the truth of what happened. They just did it because they were going on an adventure.