Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
On writing into the other meanings of a hometown murder mystery.
In 1980, Nancy Santomero and Vicki Durian were murdered in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, where they were hitchhiking on their way to a festival called the Rainbow Gathering. Emma Copley Eisenberg’s debut true crime memoir The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books) tells of her quest to uncover the story of those murders, and the long path of justice for Santomero and Durian. With gorgeously embroidered descriptions of Pocahontas County and its people, meticulous research into the history of the murders and their lasting impact, and unsparing candor, it’s a startling first work from a talented journalist with a background in fiction.
It’s also a feminist history of Appalachia. Eisenberg, who taught in the West Virginia community for years, imbues her reporting with the insight and sensitivity of a local and the passion of a scholar, never losing sight of the broader cultural significance of the murders or the philosophical and ethical questions that arise from them.
Eisenberg’s work has appeared in Granta, McSweeney’s, VQR, Tin House, and the New Republic, among others. She’s been recognized by the Millay Colony, the Elizabeth George Foundation, Lambda Literary, and Long Race Best Crime Reporting. She lives in Philadelphia, where she co-directs Blue Stoop, a community hub for literary arts. This interview is an adaptation of a conversation we had for the Brooklyn launch of her book at Books Are Magic on January 22, 2020.
Sarah Gerard Emma, it’s such a treat to be here with you to talk about The Third Rainbow Girl. This book is dense with information, and you’re so skilled at painting West Virginia and the people in it with texture and dimension. Can you talk about where you find this information, the process of gathering the details you have peppered throughout—like “the yellow fringe on a woman’s dress?”
Emma Copley EisenbergI have an addiction to research. That was maybe somewhat always true, that I used to research and read for my fiction, and then the addiction was fueled once I switched to nonfiction. I was told once, “Read in the period, not about the period,” which I think is really good advice. The Newspapers.com database which has all the small town newspapers in America. You can read local newspapers from basically any place in America for the low low fee of $7.99 a month. I read a lot of the Kalona Daily News, which is where Vicki’s from, the Huntington Daily News, which is where Nancy’s from, and then basically every issue of the Pocahontas Times, the Pocahontas County local paper, between 1979 and 1993. I care about local journalism because I think that it’s not so much what happened but how it’s written about that’s really fascinating. For example, what does it say about our culture that women’s wedding dresses are recorded in such detail in local newspapers?
I don’t consider myself a natural reporter or journalist—those words feel very loaded for me. I’m trained as a fiction writer. But to survive and out of curiosity, while getting my MFA, I did start working at local papers in Philadelphia and then in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was amazed because you’re literally creating knowledge that didn’t exist, if you just call the right person and ask them the right question you can put something new into the world that wasn’t there before.
SG It’s really good for the thrill-seeking type. You get a real adrenaline high calling someone on the phone who doesn’t want to talk to you.
ECE Or someone who does. I was surprised to find that people want to talk about themselves. If you call them up and ask them a question, they want to tell you. I worked on a piece for Guernica about the Charlottesville murder of Heather Heyer, and one specialist I reached out to was the guy on vehicular homicide studies. He lived in British Columbia. When I called him he said, “I’ve been waiting for this call all my life. I’ve been waiting for someone to care about the textbook I wrote about vehicular homicide.” I was like, “Cool. Hello.”
SG You can form such an immediate intimacy with someone, too, when you talk to them in person, face-to-face, especially if you’re so close to a story like The Third Rainbow Girl: one that directly impacted an entire region. Maybe you can talk about the emotional dimension of doing this reporting.
ECE It was complicated because I was a citizen of this place first and then a reporter second. I had a lot of ambivalence about sliding into the role of asking the questions as opposed to just living the thing.
SG Were there people who didn’t want you to tell this story?
ECE There were people who felt that the story has been told in so many ways, in many different forms. The original narrative available online (four big outsider journalism pieces) was clearly so bad and so flawed when I started to think about writing about this case that I felt there was a strong impetus to do some corrective work or, hopefully, get it more right. But I think people thought, This has been played out so many times. There have been so many narratives about this. We just don’t know what is up.
There is certainly that fatigue and the sense of, What new meaning could be made of this? For whatever reason, I felt strongly like there could be some. I was surprised by how much people wanted to talk about it. One person who didn’t was Pee Wee Walton, who was this sort of star witness against the man that the state of West Virginia prosecuted, and he at times thought that maybe he dreamed about the fact that he was there, then at time thinks that he was actually there, which I think is really fascinating as well. He is still alive and works in the hardware store with my ex-boyfriend, and he didn’t want to talk to me. But he was really the first, biggest one who was like, No, I’m done. That ruined my life. I don’t want to talk about it. Everyone else was quite open. I was shocked.
SG How long did you work on this book?
ECE About seven years. I started writing it as fiction in my MFA program, and I felt that ultimately that was not right. Besides the fact that the stories weren’t very good, which Anne Beattie made sure to tell me in swift order, I felt that trying to inhabit the story as fiction was ethically more difficult and maybe more wrong—to stand in the story and say, “This is a character I’ve created, and this is my experience, and I’m going to tell it as a story.” Whereas with nonfiction there’s a lot more room to make your position really transparent and clear like, This is what’s interesting to me about this, and this is how I don’t belong or how I do belong. I started that, and then for a while I was kind of in denial about writing the book, I thought maybe I was writing a magazine piece. I was at a talk recently, with Maggie Nelson, and she was asked why she wrote these two books about her aunt’s murder, one in poetry and one in prose. She said, “It was just the biggest boulder that had to be rolled out of the way before I could write anything else.” And I feel that way about this story, too.
SG I have said that about my first book Binary Star, too.
SG Yeah, I think that’s a lot of people’s experience—that their first book is one they needed to write for themselves.
ECE Right, something you don’t really want to write, but you can’t do anything else.
SG What was it about this story that just kept nagging at you—the question you had to answer?
ECE I felt really haunted and confused by my own personal time in Pocahontas County, in a way that felt really unresolved. I wanted to know what I had done and who I had been in this place, and the ways that that was suspect, or helpful. There were just so many questions about the time I spent there, and I think when I read about the murder, that felt like a way to investigate that in a way that wasn’t me. It was a way to look more deeply into a place and have an excuse to ask the questions about someone else that you can never really ask about your own life.
SG To trick yourself into asking the questions about yourself.
ECE Yes. Also, I don’t know if it’s totally ethical to be like, I want to look into your story as a means of understanding mine and the world. But that is what I did.
SG How did Pocahontas County, as a setting for this story, shape the events and the way people tell stories about the Rainbow Murders?
ECE It’s a place that is extremely complicated and contains many contradictions. It’s not coal country. Basically about half the county is Monongahela National Forest, so it’s protected state land. It’s beautiful; it’s mountainous; it’s difficult to get there. There is essentially a feeling of, no one goes by accident. I think that is true. And that particular moment in the 1980’s is really fascinating to me, because it was this moment where all these outsiders were coming in to this place where people don’t normally come. I think the story that people were telling was, Oh, this is the moment of culture clash. Sweaty hippie ladies meet backwoods misogynist dudes with access to too many guns. That was the story that was being told about the murders when I first read about it. I was like, That just isn’t a story. That’s not a true thing. I think that because of the ways that West Virginia has been talked about, and Appalachia’s been talked about. People got away with it, over and over again, quoting these people in these really offensive ways. I just felt like that portrayal of folks couldn’t happen in any other place. It was really connected to all the ways that we have put these flat and calcified identities onto people’s regions.
SG How did that influence the way you retold the story?
ECE I was always trying to let my mind be changed—to have an opinion, then let my mind get changed and changed again. Maybe that’s why it took seven years. I don’t know that I would write another book like this ever again. I don’t think there’s a story like this in nonfiction that would make me do this, but you never know. I’m very much looking forward to writing sexy fiction after this.
I was trying to check myself and be open at every moment. Reporting is magical in the sense that, if I could just ask the right question then, suddenly the whole thing would become truer than it was before. I’ve heard sociologists talk about this. I took this sociology course while I was in the MFA program, because they let us do that, and they said that you know you’ve reached the ending of your project, your inquiry, when you’re at saturation point, which is when people start telling you the same thing over and over again, the same reason for something, the same observation, whatever.
I felt like I was never at a saturation point until the last six months. People just kept telling me new things, and my mind kept changing. Eventually I started hearing the same sort of meanings coming up over and over again, sort of writhing with each other, and I knew I was done. I couldn’t stop the process until that happened. I was trying specifically to not stop the process, even when I wanted to. Perhaps specifically because this region has had so many people come in already knowing what they’re going to write, already knowing what they think about the place. So I was like, I’m really going to try not to do that, though I’m sure there’s no truly avoiding that.
SG I’m writing a nonfiction book right now, and I’m at the stage in the process where I’m trying to externalize the research and make it three dimensional so it’s not just in my head, or in my notes, but is actually a space that I can live in and make sense of and navigate in a three dimensional way. What did that look like for you in your life?
ECE There were a lot of murder maps. If you watch Homeland, it’s kind of like that. It’s the map and the string, and then the person over here and more string. I was very grateful to various residencies who let me take over a giant wall. I have a small office at home, which I’m thankful for. I also just saw the Little Women scene where she’s printing out all the pages and moving them, and then printing again and moving. There was a lot of that. Scrivener is a delightful tool, as many of us know. I couldn’t have functioned without Scrivener. I think maybe my editor Paul is here somewhere. I feel like I sent a lot of different versions and different orders, and Paul was really wonderful in helping me figure that out ultimately. I think you have to go through all those difficult and frustrating and externalizing attempts before you figure out the one that’s right. But it’s a lot of index cards, a lot of photos, too.
SG I was reminded of the “thesis and theme” section that you and I talked about earlier in the back room before the event. I wondered if we could just read a little bit of that.
ECE My dad is a lawyer, so I was raised very much with this idea that trials were always a war between two stories. There’s never really a truth that comes out in a courtroom trial. I was also really interested in getting to read legal texts and how they talk about trial lawyering. We also watched way too much Law and Order as children, and it’s always about finding the story that will contain the facts in the best way. I got really excited and interested in learning about what trial lawyers are told on how to take their facts and turn them into something that will persuade a jury. This section of the book is in reference to that persuasive story:
A persuasive story in a court of law turns out to mean pretty much the same thing as it does in literature. Echoing Aristotle’s rules for compelling drama, expert trial lawyers say that a good trial story is one in which people have reasons for the way they act, accounts for all the known facts, is supported by details, makes common sense, and is organized in a logical way, so that each piece of information naturally follows the one before it based on cause and effect. Quote, “Your case must have both a theory and a theme,” advises Stephen Lubet, author of Trial Advocacy: Analysis and Practice. A winning theory has “logical internal force,” and it should be simple and easy to believe. Even “true theories may be difficult to believe because they contradict everyday experiences,” writes Lubet. “You must strive to eliminate all implausible elements from your theory.” The theme is the emotional center of the story that ensures that your theory will stick and persuade a jury, “just as your theory must appeal to logic, your theme must appeal to moral force. The most compelling themes appeal to shared values, civic virtues, or common motivations.”
I tried to use that to talk a little bit about the theory that was chosen and the theme that was shown in the case.
SG It’s interesting to know that you were raised by a lawyer and that you, instead of going into law, decided to write books. Why?
ECE Definitely. I would make a very bad lawyer.
SG Could you talk a bit about how this idea might have informed your writing of the book, but also how writing a book might be a bit different than presenting this story in a courtroom.
ECE If I had been trying to write a very successful true crime book, it probably would have played up the theme and the theory and done nothing else. That is a lot of what storytelling is: choosing the theme that you’re going to inject into the piece, and then making the facts conform to this larger tale that you’re trying to tell. I think I was very fascinated by that, because that’s not how facts work. Looking at the facts in play in the prosecution of a local farmer named Jacob Beard for these crimes, their facts made no sense within the story that was chosen. It’s a lot of trying to shoehorn real life into this larger narrative structure. So, I was trying to be as suspect and as resistant to that in this book as possible, but you can only go so far. In any book that has to proceed from page one to page 320, there are limits to how much you can challenge those notions. After all, this is a story. But I think I was extremely fascinated by the ways that life doesn’t work that way. In this case, every time I felt like, Here’s a story; here’s a theme; here’s what we’re supposed to take away from this, I would talk to somebody new, and they would be like, “Oh, no. Definitely not. That is not the story of this case.” The ways that it just kept going back and forth and changing became the subject of the book.
SG I’m still thinking about the fact-finding process, too, and how your motivations when you walk into space to investigate it as a writer are completely different from when you’re in there as a representative of the law. You’re looking for motivations and facts that are completely different than if you were presenting this story as a court case. I was in a courtroom recently, and the transcript is taken care of, because I can order that. I’m not in there recording what they’re saying; what I’m recording is what people are wearing, and how they’re acting around each other, and the temperature of the air in the courtroom. It’s a completely different fact-finding experience.
ECE Absolutely. I tried to be less interested in what happened and who did it, and more so in what was written about what happened, and what was said, and what was felt. All the ways that we take in information having to do with criminal justice and then spit it back out really excited me too. Again, I’m not a natural legal reporter or criminal justice reporter. I came to this topic through, I think, with an interest in: How do we talk about violence? How do we talk about gender? How do we talk about a situation in which a rural white man is accused of a middle-class woman’s murder? That is fascinating.
SG The way you paint the people of Pocahontas County, too, is so beautiful. There’s just so much depth and shadow, and that’s something that doesn’t really happen in a courtroom, where everything has to be black and white.
ECE Totally. That’s why I would make such a poor lawyer. Literally, I had enamel pins made that say “both and,” because that is how I approach stories, and that is what this book is about. There’s no “both and” in a legal trial. It’s two sides at war. Very little justice comes from that. Art allows for “both and” in a way that the legal system does not, and that’s why it’s so frustrating to make art about criminal justice. More and more exciting projects are happening now in the broad space that we’re calling true crime, like the When They See Us miniseries based on the Central Park Five case. It was fascinating and life changing. I’m really obsessed with Joan Didion’s original piece about that case, and Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites. What we’re broadly calling true crime is getting more of the “both and” treatment. It’s giving more acknowledgement to the ways that things can be in contradiction and still be true. Things can be not at war, but a collaboration. We still have a long way to go.
SG I want to ask about your constellation of influences.
ECE I was always a big fairy tale person for sure, and a folk tale person. Also, Grace Paley has become my main sort of touchstone. I got a portrait of her tattooed on me last month. I feel very close to her now, her commitment to writing playful language in both her fiction and nonfiction, but also her testament to social justice and just being a person in community with other people. At a young age, Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter changed my life. I think that sense of looking at a town or a place kaleidoscopically from the outside was something that really stuck with me.
SG Community is such as big theme in The Third Rainbow Girl, and you’re directly involved in building a community space now, at Blue Stoop.
ECE That’s what was fascinating about getting to be a part of this community in southern West Virginia. It’s in moments like this, where there’s an act of violence or sexual assault, which are common in all of our worlds, that you need each other so badly. You cannot afford to cut any person out of your life in this way that’s really terrible and also really amazing. No one is just one thing in a community like this. I saw that happening all the time. No one is just my ex-boyfriend. You’re my ex-boyfriend, and you’re my teacher’s son, and you’re my cousin’s friend from book club. You’re connected to everyone in four hundred different ways. I think that means that there’s no “canceling” of each other. I also saw a lot of people being like, This is a book about toxic masculinity! Yes—but also, men care for each other and depend on each other in interdependent ways there, in ways that do not exist in communities I’ve been in, like Philadelphia or Virginia.
I also believe that writers need colleagues, like we all need colleagues. What we do is such a strange and solo endeavor. Everyone else gets to go to the water fountain and talk about what they’re reading or what they’re watching on TV, but we don’t get that, except for maybe on Twitter. I’ve always been interested in models and mentors and people that I feel have walked the path that I want to walk before me, so finding a community was really important to me. I’m also down to send a lot of emails, start things.
SG Upstairs we kind of joked, but in a serious way, about The Third Rainbow Girl being a feminist history of West Virginia. Is that something that you thought about as you were writing it?
ECE I participated in the coolest feminist space in southern West Virginia, which is this nonprofit that I refer to as Mountain Views. I got an insane education in Appalachian feminist history working there, directly from those folks who taught it to me. Irene McKinney is in this book a lot. She wrote this amazing poem where she’s like, I don’t know what I am, but you can’t have me. No to all these systems. No to everything. It became a touchstone for the project as well. Also, Nikki Finney, bell hooks, Nikki Giovanni, and Denise Giardina who wrote “Storming Heaven,” this amazing series about the Western Union mine wars, bled into this book as well. They’re in there, and I honor them.
The Third Rainbow Girl is available for purchase here.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State, the novel Binary Star, and the forthcoming novel True Love. Her short stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, T Magazine, Granta, The Baffler, The Believer, Vice, Electric Literature, and the anthologies We Can’t Help It If We’re From Florida, One Small Blow Against Encroaching Totalitarianism, and Tampa Bay Noir. Find her at Sarah-Gerard.com.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.