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American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps Paperback – June 28, 2005

3.7 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

On October 4, 1976, a brutal murder shocked the tiny island nation of Tonga. A young Peace Corps volunteer had been stabbed 22 times; another volunteer was identified at the scene, but despite the damning evidence against him, Dennis Priven was never convicted of any crime. A beautiful, free-spirited young victim; a brooding villain who carried a dive knife sheathed by his side; an exotic, Gauginesque setting: with material this sensational, it's surprising that the most compelling passages in American Taboo concern the inner workings of a government bureaucracy. But the Peace Corps was an integral part of Deborah Gardner's tragedy. According to Philip Weiss, their officials did everything in their power to hush up her murder, then funded the aggressive defense that helped Priven go free. Weiss's account captures an intriguing historical moment, when the Corps' initial spirit of idealism found itself besieged by political and financial pressures. But the book ! is marred by his breathless, run-on style, and the figure at the center of this story remains a cipher. Was Dennis Priven an evil genius who planned the murder—and his defense—to ensure he would escape punishment? Or was he, as a psychiatrist hired by the Peace Corps contended, a budding schizophrenic? Weiss' answer is regrettably perfunctory: "He was a brilliant madman allowed to stay too long in the wrong spot who had lost control and then manipulated everyone around him with coldness and creativity." Oh. --Mary Park --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In this compelling and disturbing exposé, veteran journalist Weiss details a decades-old travesty of justice stemming from the brutal murder of a young Peace Corps volunteer. Moving seamlessly between the events of the 1970s and his recent inquiries, Weiss brings back to life Deborah Gardner, an idealistic Northwesterner who traveled to the obscure South Pacific kingdom of Tonga to serve as a science teacher. Gardner rapidly acquired a slew of suitors, both welcome and unwelcome; one of the latter in particular, Dennis Priven, couldn't get the message that his attentions were unwanted. Despite numerous warning signs that Priven was a ticking time bomb, the local Peace Corps director ignored the problem, and one night Priven surprised Gardner in her home and brutally stabbed her more than 20 times. Though the murderer was identified by eyewitnesses and made numerous incriminating remarks, the Peace Corps chose to intervene with the local authorities and vigorously support his defense at trial (in which Priven was found not guilty be reasoning of insanity). Its outcome and aftermath, by this account, only compounded the Peace Corps' monumental failures of judgment. Readers of works on the Bonnie Garland case will find the relegation of the victim to the background and the protective shield thrown up by a supposedly moral community around an unrepentant killer familiar, but even novice true crime readers will find this a gripping and deeply sad story that will do little to bolster faith in the U.S. government's ethical priorities.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (June 28, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006009687X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060096878
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #331,316 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book, though it was quite painful to read about how the Peace Corps as an institution failed the Gardner family. I served in the Peace Corps in the late 1970's in the South Pacific (though not in Tonga), and, like many former volunteers, I consider my time in the Peace Corps to be one of the seminal experiences in my life. I still have great respect for the Peace Corps and its mission, but in 1976 and 1977 the agency sadly put preservation of its image above achieving justice for Deborah Gardner. Gardner's killer-who can have any doubt that it was fellow volunteer Dennis Priven-was, to my mind, a very disturbed individual who brilliantly manipulated the Tongan legal system. The author makes almost incontrovertibly clear, however, that Priven would likely not have succeeded without the complicity (and, sometimes, active effort) of Peace Corps' officials. If you have no other reaction upon reading this book, you will be left with the feeling that a serious miscarriage of justice took place, and that our government facilitated Priven's release back into American society.
The book brought back many memories of Peace Corps training and day-to-day volunteer life. (I also did "staging" at the Hotel Californian, and it was uncanny how the author captured the essence of the place and the overseas pre-departure activities.) The author does a good job of conveying those details, and he is quick to acknowledge the wealth of PCV/Tonga diaries, letters, and journals that were available to him. He also conducted numerous interviews with returned volunteers and others for what appears to be a very well-researched book.
I didn't mind that the author injected himself into the story at times.
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Format: Hardcover
If I had to pick one word to describe American Taboo, it would be "compelling." Weiss shows us how far a professional reporter can go in creating scenes from a place that was long ago and far away. The book would be worth reading just to gain a sense of day-to-day Peace Corps life, when exotic gets overwhelmed by mundane.

But what fascinates Weiss is the old story of justice denied. A smart but geeky volunteer murders a beautiful girl. Everyone knows he's the killer.

But ironically, as Weiss points out, Deb the victim was always a private person who hadn't made close friends. Dennis, her killer, had a circle of close friends who supported him through pre-trial confinement and trial, even bringing him food and gifts.

And ironically the Peace Corps wanted to save its reputation. In defiance of the Agency's own rules, bureaucrats descended from Washington and a top-flight lawyer was hired to defend Dennis. Dennis was ultimately released to the US with a promise of long-term confinement in a mental institution. However, through legal loopholes, Dennis was allowed to go free. He ended up working for another US government agency, the Social Security Administration, in computers.

As in many true crime stories, there's some ambivalence about assigning blame. True, Dennis is a murderer. But he was doing everything but wearing a sign saying, "Danger! Get this man out of here!" He didn't like Tonga and didn't fit. His colleague had tried to report concerns to the Peace Corps country director, only to be turned away.

And this Director was hardly blameless. A political appointee, Mary had been an executive secretary and modeling agency director. She lacked management skills and cultural awareness.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Like other readers, I found the book in need of an editor--sadly, the same can be said of a great deal of recent US non-fiction.

The story is compelling and and as a former expat, I can speak to the oddness of living abroad. OTOH, it's never really clear that Dennis, the accused, is psychotic (one theatrical psychiatrist does not make a diagnosis). Few people who seek an overseas experience are driven to really problematic behavior, let alone murder--the problems in their lives usually precede such a move. Someone should have told him that "no" means "no", but that was only beginning to be recognized as a necessity in the 70s. The book is an object lesson of how bureaucracies, public or private, civilian or otherwise cover their backsides and how the process gets more dysfunctional when the regime is changing. The country director comes off as a ludicrous figure---totally out of her depth, and culturally incompetent. Her prim Republican manner makes her seem an unlikely candidate to support the accused murderer. But support him she does, going overboard and beyond rationality or even a close reading of the country director's handbook.

The asides didn't bother me as much as other reviewers. I wished we'd heard more about the dead girl's relationship with her mother and brother. The complexity of the relationship with the father, though, is interesting and would have benefited from better organization of the text. Instead, it comes at us in a helter skelter way. Oddly, the murderer is the character left the most to our imaginations. In an era when so much information is attainable, I would have expected to know more about his life after Tonga and, until the end, it's unclear whether he ever made it to Sibley Hospital.
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