In a cluster of beach bungalows in Ghana in December 2000, my wife and I encountered the Peace Corps dream. The dream appeared in the form of a 24-year-old volunteer from Wisconsin, wiry, tan, with dark, shaggy locks of hair that fell to his eyes, riding a black BMW motorcycle. He had just spent two years in a desert village in Niger, and he was traveling with his girlfriend, a delicious Norwegian blonde, who was doing a fellowship in anthropology at Legon University in Accra. They had extremely vocal sex all night, and spent the day sipping mango juice on the beach. Later that week we ran into them in an Irish theme pub in Accra, and when a Ghanaian drinking partner mentioned he spoke Hausa, the trading language of the Sahel, the kid from Wisconsin put him to shame with his superior fluency. The Norwegian girl gazed at her Peace Corps man with a look that could have melted stone.
Philip Weiss’s American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps is a book about the end of the Peace Corps dream, but the dream Weiss has in mind is a somewhat different one. Weiss is talking about the original Peace Corps dream, which John F. Kennedy first articulated in an impromptu late-night bull session with University of Michigan students in October 1960. “How many of you are willing to spend ten years in Africa or Latin America or Asia working for the United States and working for freedom?” Kennedy asked. “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? On your willingness to do that, I think, will depend the answer to whether we as a free society can compete.”
One has to call up the mindset of the Sputnik era to understand why Kennedy might have thought this, why he failed to realize that the Soviet inclinations of Nkrumah’s Ghana would be vanquished less by Hausa-speaking volunteers than by Irish theme pubs. In any case, Weiss’s book deals with the betrayal of one aspect of Kennedy’s vision: the pledge that Peace Corps volunteers would not only live in the same conditions as the people they served but be subject to their host country’s laws, without special treatment. American Taboo tells the story of Deborah Gardner, a volunteer in the Pacific island nation of Tonga who was murdered by a fellow volunteer in 1976. The Peace Corps intervened to hush up the crime and prevent the Tongan courts from convicting her murderer–allowing him, in the end, to escape scot-free.
As a tale of sexual violence, Gardner’s story is sadly routine, apart from its exotic setting. She was a 22-year-old beauty from small-town Washington State when she signed up for the Peace Corps in late 1975. Strong-willed and uninhibited, she adapted well to the poverty and isolation that make Peace Corps life such a psychological challenge. She had more trouble with the restrictive gender codes of Tongan society, whose conservative Christianity overlays extensive traditional social and sexual taboos. Gardner wanted to ride her bike around alone at night and go skinny-dipping in the harbor. Meanwhile, this being the mid-1970s, she was carrying on a series of sometimes overlapping love affairs with male volunteers.
One volunteer Gardner considered a friend, but had no romantic interest in, was Dennis Priven, a sarcastic and withdrawn chemistry teacher from Brooklyn. Priven gradually became obsessed with Gardner, and by the autumn of 1976 he was stalking her. He applied to stay an extra year in Tonga, although, by all accounts, he hated the country. In early October Gardner spent the night with Priven’s best friend, a funky San Francisco art student named Emile Hons, and this seems to have pushed Priven over the edge. On October 14, 1976, Priven burst into Gardner’s house and stabbed her more than twenty times with a large fishing knife. She died in the local hospital a few hours later. Priven turned himself in, but without making a confession.