The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, June 26, 2004  

On Saturday

Worthy Book I
In this week’s New York Times Book Review, Peter Godwin writes an outstanding review of American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps by Philip Weiss. Excerpts:

Tonga has long since turned away from its blood-drenched past to become the Friendly Isles. There hadn’t been a murder there for seven years when, on Oct. 14, 1976, screams pierced the warm, inky Tongan night. Deborah Gardner, a strikingly pretty 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Washington State, was being stabbed to death by a fellow volunteer, Dennis Priven. American Taboo is the story of how he got away with murder and walks free in New York to this day. To tell it, Philip Weiss has conducted a remarkably tenacious investigation, and has tracked down most of Deb Gardner’s colleagues, mining their letters home, their diaries, their unpublished novels and poems. […]

Originally intended to be “missionaries for democracy,” Peace Corps volunteers are still expected to live with the people they have come to help. This search for empathy extends to a denial of the legal wand of diplomatic immunity. So Priven found himself before the local law. When presented with a conflict of interest between their duty to a dead volunteer (and her parents) and their obligation to help a living perpetrator, the Peace Corps -- from the country director for Tonga, Mary George, on up -- favored the killer. It is this betrayal of trust that provides the main motor for Weiss’s crusade. Mary George, a born-again Christian who not long after the killing said she had a vision of someone else, a Tongan, conveniently, stabbing Gardner, asked the police to drop murder charges against Priven. In her cables back home about the incident she carefully avoided the “M” word.

Worthy Book II
In the same issue of the Book Review, Anthony Walton offers a compelling case for The State Boys Rebellion by Michael D’Antonio. Excerpt:

Conditions at schools like Fernald [Walter E. Fernald School for the Feebleminded, Waltham, Mass.] were appalling for those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other true physical or mental conditions. Given little treatment or training, they were often straitjacketed or tied to chairs and left soaked in urine and feces. Their circumstances gradually improved as advocacy groups for the disabled and mentally ill were formed; but there was no one to advocate for Freddie [Boyce] and his friends, whose borderline intelligence scores were often simply a reflection of emotional problems stemming from years of neglect.

At Fernald, the attendants reigned supreme, and physical abuse was commonplace: one lawyer described school records discovered years later as a “ledger of broken arms.” Sexual abuse of boys by attendants and older youths was also frequent. In an incident emblematic of the regime of terror, the boys were lined up one morning before taking their turns in the bathrooms. A boy called Howie refused to stand quietly; the female attendant ordered all the boys to pull down their trousers for “red cherries” (beatings with a coat hanger). Terrified, Howie wet his pants. The attendant then ordered a group including Freddie to urinate into a bowl, and hurled the contents into Howie’s face.

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