Picks and Pans Review: American Taboo

UPDATED 08/02/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/02/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

A Murder in the Peace Corps
By Philip Weiss

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In 1975, Peace Corps was like catnip for free spirits who wanted to change the world. Beautiful and strong-willed, Deborah Gardner, 23, was among the 33 volunteers who arrived on the South Pacific island of Tonga that autumn to teach high school. Friendships blossomed, and Deb inspired several crushes. Among her admirers: volunteer Dennis Priven, an introvert who would stalk her for weeks and then, on Oct. 14, 1976, go to her hut and stab her 22 times.

Journalist Weiss does a masterful job of uncovering the Peace Corps' attempts to contain the ensuing scandal (the better to preserve its beneficent image) and to convince a Tongan jury that Priven wasn't a cold-blooded murderer. The book follows Priven from his trial (verdict: not guilty by reason of insanity) back to the U.S., where he was promptly released. (When the author finds him in '02, he's managing a Social Security Administration office in Brooklyn.) Weiss makes a compelling case against those who denied justice to Deb Gardner; courageous and impassioned, his book is a major achievement.


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