Last night, Literally.PDX met to discuss our February book, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg. This was our first deep dive into the "true crime" genre, but we were quick to discover that The Third Rainbow Girl is so much more than a cut and dry investigative piece.
Emma spent an important part of her life living in Pocahontas, West Virginia, where she worked as a counselor at a camp for girls, and as an Americorps volunteer after graduating from college. For those of you not familiar with Americorps, it's a "voluntary civil society program supported by the U.S. federal government...with a goal of helping others and meeting critical needs in the community." Emma worked as a mentor and tutor for young girls, hoping to steer them toward bright futures, and it was during her time as a volunteer that she learned about the 1980 murders of Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero.
Vicki and Nancy were nearing the end of their hitchhiking journey to a festival called the Rainbow Gathering in Pocahontas, West Virginia, when they were found shot to death in a clearing, and were discovered by a local. The small town erupts into panic-mode, with neighbor accusing neighbor, police consulting hypnotists, and a shoddy investigation that has continued to wreak havoc on the small community of Pocahontas, and the families of the victims and those accused.
Laced into her presentation of the facts of the case is an explanation of the rich, complicated history of the region, as well as Emma's experience as an outsider living in such a unique part of the country. Learning more about an often overlooked US state shines a unique light on the murders of Vicki and Nancy, and Emma's exploration of her own experience lifts the book from the "true crime" genre into something much more rich.
Early in February, some of the Literally group was able to meet Emma in person while she was on her book tour. It was fascinating to learn about Emma's background, her journey from fiction into investigative journalism, and the case itself. I e-mailed Emma a few questions about her book, and I'd love to share her answers with you!
Your book is categorized as “true crime” but it kind of defies the genre, which might be a little unsatisfying for those looking for a cut and dry investigative book. Can you talk about the trend of the “true crime” genre and its relation to your work?
Yes! I have always gravitated towards stories about death and violence, but I’ve never been a big consumer of what media has called “True Crime” as a marketing category. I listened to Serial, often dubbed the launch point of the modern True Crime boom, but it didn’t leave a big impression on me. It’s a really complicated and worthy discussion to have—what is True Crime, is it a recent or an old term, and is it good or bad etc (spoiler, it’s both and neither)—and it’s being had on the internet and living rooms across America and being explored by recent books like Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites and Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls. But I think what it boils down to is that in the past, True Crime has been viewed as a genre with particular tropes that are often salacious, misogynistic and overwhelmingly white. At every turn in my book, I tried to fight against and question the expected choices that many True Crime books make like putting the dead body on page one and having the climax be “who did it.” My book is much more about why this crime happened and what it means than who did it, and my book doesn’t believe in spoiler, putting almost all the information up front so that we can unpack and unravel the truth as the book progresses. But I also think we’re currently in a moment of a lot of really complicated books and television being made about criminal (in)justice and violence that are also being categorized as True Crime for marketing purposes, projects like When They See Us by Ava Duvernay and Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. If those projects are True Crime, then I’m honored to have mine be too.
You spent a part of your life living in Pocahontas, West Virginia, both in college as a camp counselor and as a post-grad working for Americorps. How is life in Pocahontas different from other places you’ve lived?
It’s difficult to describe! You’ll have to read the book! In short, it was the most beautiful place on earth and a place that taught me a lot about holding contradictory truths at the same time. Strength is demanded from women and physical touch allowed between men in a way I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. You have to drive everywhere on very winding roads, a thing that is both really joyful and really dangerous.
You write about the historical trauma that has woven its way through both the residents of Pocahontas and the far-reaching communities affected by the murders of Vicki and Nancy - trauma that continues to affect generations. Why was it important to focus on the wider-reaching effect of these crimes, rather than on just the victims and suspects themselves?
Liz Johndrow is the titular Third Rainbow Girl, in the sense that she was “not harmed, but definitely traumatized” by the events the book documents, and that idea of not being directly in the way of violence but still having your life reshaped by it resonated with me and continued to resonate over and over again as I wrote the book and interviewed people for it. The young women I worked with in Pocahontas County are the philosophical and literal descendants of men who were accused of these crimes or affected by the accusations lobbed at many local men; so were the guys I ended up being friends with in Pocahontas County, and then dating. Inherited trauma from misogyny and class violence is everywhere, inherited by people of all genders.
One shining symbol in this book for me is the young woman at the cusp of adulthood in a world filled with misogyny, gendered expectations, uncertainty, and the thrill of danger. You illustrate the spider web of paths the women in this story are on, and there’s so much history and symbolism and familiarity wrapped up in all of it. While reading, I thought a lot about my 18-year-old self and her relation to these women. Can you tell us what that young woman means to you?
That makes me happy that you reflected on yourself as a teenager while reading this! I thought a lot about rage while writing this book, the ways that young women’s feelings often get coded or experienced as sadness, when actually I think a lot of it is rage, rage against the system in which women are bound by all these conflicting stories and rules. Don’t leave, don’t stay, don’t be a slut, don’t be a prude, don’t speak up, don’t be silent. Sometimes it can feel like there is no good direction in which to move. I appreciate the work of Portlander Vanessa Veselka very much, who says that the lack of stories of women traveling and changing their lives just for the joy of changing them can be dangerous to women, even fatal. I wanted to write a book in which women get to travel and be angry and go on adventures “just to see what’s out there,” as Veselka writes.
Thanks so much to Emma for answering my questions, and for engaging with our book club community! The Third Rainbow Girl is popping up on recommended reading lists everywhere, and if you haven't read it yet, it's well worth your time.
*The cover image is a photo of one of the victims, Vicki Durian. It is from Emma's book, and was pulled for this article from NYTimes.com