Emma Copley Eisenberg’s Appalachian True-Crime Chronicle Upends the Genre

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s Appalachian True-Crime Chronicle Upends the Genre

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s Appalachian True-Crime Chronicle Upends the Genre

In a conversation with fellow true-crime writer Rachel Monroe, Eisenberg discusses the pitfalls and potential of the evolving genre.


In June 1980, two free-spirited young women—Vicki Durian, 26, and Nancy Santomero, 19—were on their way to the Rainbow Gathering, a roving hippie festival convening that year at the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, when they were shot and killed while hitchhiking in nearby Pocahontas County. If Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl were a traditional true-crime narrative, the story of their deaths and the search for their killer or killers would be the engine that drives the book. But Eisenberg is up to something more complex and harder to pin down.

The Third Rainbow Girl is part of a new wave of books upending true-crime tropes and pushing at the boundaries of the genre. If this is a book about a murder, it is also a book about the history of economic exploitation in Appalachia, the systemic biases of the criminal justice system, and the unreliability of memory. I spoke with Eisenberg about the pitfalls and potential of the true-crime genre, how calcified ideas of Appalachianness informed how the case was covered, and why she chose to weave in memoir detailing her time spent in Pocahontas County.

—Rachel Monroe

Rachel Monroe: The book opens with you stating who was killed, who was convicted of the crime, how that conviction was overturned, and how a serial killer claimed responsibility for the murders. This is an unusual choice for a true-crime book. It makes The Third Rainbow Girl the opposite of a whodunit.

Emma Copley Eisenberg: With books that have a crime or violence at their center, the question can easily become, “How badly was someone hurt and in what ways?” and then “Who did it?” I didn’t want to do that.

I wanted to make sure up front that the reader knows the point of reading is not to solve the case, because this crime is unsolvable. So you learn everything that happens in the case in the first five pages. There’s no surprise about what happens but, I hope, a great deal of surprise about why it happened and what it means.

RM: In a lot of true crime, the murder is positioned as the narrative high point. Even if the book is obviously condemning a crime, the structure negates that, because the violence is also positioned as a sort of payoff.

ECE: There’s a way that, if you put this act of violence on Page 1, it doesn’t become a black hole that sucks in all meaning. This can be a way of almost deflating the natural, prurient interest we have in violence.

RM: Were there other perils or pitfalls of the true-crime genre that you were keeping in mind as you were writing?

ECE: I was trying to be very sensitive to dealing with the literal bodies of women—the ways that dead white women are often used as symbols. I tried to make Vicki and Nancy be real people—flawed and strange and not standing in for some concept but just humans. I found it really interesting and important that they didn’t have the bodies of the stereotypical dead girl. Vicki was short and described as bucktoothed, and the fact that neither of them was thin was commented on a lot. I really appreciated that about their bodies, and I tried to make those truths apparent, to not idealize them and make them these dead beauty pageant queens.

But also, they did die, and their bodies were found, and that’s a physical fact. I just tried to report it as neutrally as possible. I didn’t want to describe their wounds or their bodies more than was necessary. I tried to use as much primary source documentation as possible when dealing with their deaths and bodies, so I was able to use the words of the coroner’s report and the witnesses rather than narrativizing it, which is more interesting to me anyway, because, again, it shows how people were thinking about their deaths rather than just reiterating the fact of their killings.

RM: And then there’s Jacob Beard, who was convicted of the murders and then later saw his conviction overturned, who doesn’t fit the trope of what a wrongfully convicted person is supposed to look like—you know, someone saintly and noble with this kind of Christlike forbearance.

ECE: With Jacob Beard, I wanted to complicate this idea of who’s a villain and who’s an innocent. He’s not really an ideal persecuted, wrongfully incarcerated guy. He’s complicated, and he probably, I think, did commit some violent misogynist acts, but that may or may not be the same thing as being a murderer.

Who deserves our empathy and our care if they’re treated badly by the justice system? Only people who fit certain criteria? Or if we’re actually going by the law, people who are not guilty? That’s the only criteria that should matter, but it doesn’t, a lot of times, in our narrative machine.

RM: Can you talk a little bit about how ideas of Appalachia influenced how people understood these murders?

ECE: There was a really wonderful episode on the podcast Dolly Parton’s America recently that involved talking to young people about their Appalachian accents. Being Appalachian is still considered deeply shameful in our culture and is still seen by many as a mark of ignorance and/or poverty and/or just sort of less-than-ness. And people have really, really internalized that, in ways similar to internalized sexism or internalized racism.

A number of local guys who I believe were truly not there and not part of the crime became convinced that they were, particularly this one guy, “Pee Wee” Walton, who could not be sure, ultimately, if he had been there and seen someone local kill these women or if he had dreamed it. I believe that these stereotypes of Appalachian men—that they’re scary and violent and rapists—really filtered into his own personal story, his dreams.

RM: In many ways, this is a book about a place as much as it is about a crime. Can you talk a little bit about Pocahontas County and how you came to be there?

ECE: Pocahontas County, West Virginia, is in southeast West Virginia, right on the border with Virginia. It’s a place that has a long history of in-migration of people from elsewhere, including people from the back-to-the-land movement and people that are often looking for more natural ways of being, because land has always been fairly cheap there.

I came there in 2009 as a Volunteer in Service to America, which is a part of AmeriCorps that has a historical focus on poverty alleviation. It’s a holdover program from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. It was complicated to be a part of that program, from the beginning. I was being paid by the United States government to work with a local nonprofit that serves young women, with the long-term hope of alleviating poverty by offering them educational and extracurricular opportunities that their parents or schools may not have access to.

As I came to the end of my year of service, I decided to stay in the county just as a person, no longer as a VISTA worker. And I waited tables and hung out for a season or two. After I left, I began to feel like, “Why can’t I let go of this time that I lived in this place? What is it that feels so charged and feels so confusing?”

I was also thinking about how the work I did and the systems that I participated in do have a violent or harming effect just by continuing to reiterate to people that they’re poor, that they need saving, that the resources that they have are not sufficient. And there were a few specific moments that I write about in the book where I really messed up or I didn’t know how to behave and I did something that was damaging that someone else will remember for a long time.

RM: How did you balance the memoir sections of the narrative with the reported sections about the murders and their aftermath?

ECE: It was tough to figure out how much to integrate my own story into the story of other people, real people for whom the stakes are so much higher. I think it’s important as a writer and storyteller to make visible to the reader who you are, what your investment in the story is, and what your identities are so that readers understand the filters through which you are seeing events and the truth, according to your experience.

RM: It would have been easy and maybe natural, in a way, to align yourself with the women who were murdered—these outsider figures who came into this place and were killed. But those are not the only figures that you come to understand or feel an affinity with.

ECE: That was an evolution, too. As I researched and reported more deeply, I felt like a lot of the men who were accused of the crimes were, in many ways, also the third Rainbow girl or person—people who did not die but whose lives were profoundly altered by this crime. My identification with and empathy for a lot of the guys in this story just grew and grew and grew, until it felt as strong as the original identification.

And I also, in a weird, creepy way, found a lot of empathy for Joseph Paul Franklin, this deeply disturbed and probably mentally ill guy who committed a lot of racist killings in the ’80s, and for his daughter and his other victims because of the ways that suffering begets suffering. The more I read about everybody, the more empathy I had for everybody.

RM: Can you talk a little bit about the history of Appalachia and why it was important to include the economic and material history of the region in a book about a murder that happened in 1980?

ECE: These ideas of what Appalachia is, who lives there, what they want—a lot of those are still extremely calcified ideas that stem not from truths about how Appalachian people have behaved but really from the workings of capitalism: It is in our best interests to make people whose land we are stealing and mining—for the resources that America needs to keep the lights on—to make those people seem less than.

It’s certainly very well documented that Appalachia was rich in resources, and it was a place where a lot of immigrants and people living outside capitalism were living, and it was viewed as a disposable area from which what was needed for American industrialization could be taken without regard for the people who lived there.

I encourage everyone to seek out the many thorough and comprehensive books about the history of Appalachia in America—Ramp Hollow, by Steven Stoll, which came out [in 2017]; White Trash: A History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg; What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, by Elizabeth Catte, among many others.

There’s also a tendency to see Appalachia as a monolith, as only white, when in fact, that’s extremely not true. There’s a long history of people of color making their homes in Appalachia, moving from Virginia or North Carolina into West Virginia and Tennessee in search of greater opportunities. And there is also a long history of openness around gender fluidity and queer life that is almost never talked about.

RM: There’s that great detail in the book about how West Virginia has the highest trans population per capita.

ECE: Exactly, yeah, the highest population of trans young people of any American state.

RM: That’s such a wonderful fact. Before we wrap up, can we circle back around to the questions of true crime? Can you talk a little bit about the opportunities of the genre—what it can open up or what about it can be fruitful?

ECE: The true-crime genre is blossoming into this space for stories about injustice and social issues as they play out in the criminal justice system. There’s a lot of room for that, all of a sudden. We’re seeing narratives like When They See Us, the Netflix series about the Central Park Five case, and books like Yellow Bird [Sierra Crane Murdoch’s forthcoming account of a murder on reservation land during an oil boom]. True crime is being harnessed as both something that publishing industry people can recognize as something that sells and also that social justice–minded people are aware of as a potential space for important stories. That those are coming together now, more and more, is really exciting. I hope to see lots more stories in this vein being published that highlight people of color, trans women, and rural people.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were murdered in July 1980. The murders occurred in June, not July.

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