PW: You first heard about the murder of Peace Corps volunteer Deborah Gardner more than 25 years ago. Why did it take so long to write American Taboo?
After filing my first Freedom of Information request concerning this case, I was aware that Dennis Priven had basically gotten away with her murder, but I still lacked the ability to put together a story. I had to grow up a lot to write this book, I think.
What do you mean?
When I brought this up with an editor when I was a crime reporter in Philadelphia, he said, find someone who cares about this—meaning Debby's family. I couldn't find them 15 years ago, and I didn't realize then that that editor was wrong. I cared about it, and that was enough, and in the end that's why I did this book. I had to understand that all that mattered was that this case was seriously mishandled. Everyone has a right to care when your government does something like this and when you care about someone, even if you never knew them, then that gives you a certain place to stand. Ultimately, I did find Debby's family, and they were devastated. The family wasn't sure how they felt about me at first. They had to come to grips with the reality that even if the writing of this book hurt them, I was going to do it.
What new information were you able to supply to Debby's family?
They thought Priven had gone into a hospital. That's what the U.S. government had told them, and they accepted it. I was told by a former Peace Corps lawyer that the Peace Corps may have been obligated to let them know he left the hospital almost immediately and was wandering around free. I've even heard that there was an order in effect barring anyone from telling the family the truth.
Did you have any reservations about identifying Priven as Debby's killer, given that he was formally acquitted of the crime in a Tonga court by reason of insanity?
I name her, I talk about intimate details about her life, so I think it's important to name him. If you don't name him, the story becomes completely about the government's misconduct. Priven largely escaped the consequences of committing a brutal murder. I give my publisher great credit for understanding the importance of naming him.
Given Debby's popularity, how do you account for the outpouring of support toward her killer?
He had a lot of close friends, and she didn't. There was a feeling that there wasn't anything that could be done for her. His friends were mostly acting on noble instincts, although some did cross a line by deliberately withholding relevant information about the crime. A lot of them were just pushing as hard as they could. They were isolated, they thought he might be hanged and they pushed and, lo and behold, he just walked away.
How anomalous was the Peace Corps' callous response to tragedy in this case?
Well, in the last year the Dayton Ohio Daily News has done a long investigation on assaults on Peace Corps volunteers, and concluded that the Peace Corps sometimes behaves in a callous fashion toward victims of assault, dismissing or sometimes trivializing cases overseas, and not following up appropriately, because of an attitude that such crimes are essentially the price of the program. So I think the Corps' decision with respect to Debby's murder to place the program over the individual is not anomalous. The Corps always tries to diminish publicity about risk toward volunteers and part of their response here grew out of that. It's not that surprising in the end. I was surprised and gratified by the Tongan response to Debby's memory; meeting people who knew her and were still angry about what happened made me feel that I was doing the right thing by investigating this case.