“What Do I Know To Be True?”: Emma Copley Eisenberg on Truth in Nonfiction, Writing Trauma, and The Dead Girl Newsroom

“We were interested in dead girls, but so interested in them that we were trying to do the opposite of what had been done before.” 

Jacqueline Alnes | Longreads | February 2020 | 21 minutes (5,966 words)

 
Am I a journalist?” I found myself asking Emma Copley Eisenberg. On a sunny day in mid-October, Eisenberg sat adjacent to me at the dining room table in her West Philadelphia home, a spread of sliced tomatoes, chicken, and perfectly steamed asparagus she prepared on a plate between us. I am certainly not a journalist in any meaningful sense of the word — outside of an MFA in creative nonfiction, during which I learned to conduct research, I have no formal schooling or training — but Emma and I are both infatuated with the boundaries between subject and writer, research and lived experience, and how we classify it all. How does who we are and our own lived experiences affect the types of research we reach for? Is there such a thing as objectivity, or do we land closer to the truth if we expose our own flaws and biases and complicated histories on the page? And what is truth, after all? 

Eisenberg, in her debut book, The Third Rainbow Girl, wrestles meaningfully with these questions and many others. Though her book is marketed as true crime, and though a major thread within the narrative is the murder of Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, two women on their way to a festival known as the Rainbow Gathering, Eisenberg undermines many features of the subgenre by centering place as a major subject. Her descriptions of Pocahontas County, both in memoir sections, in which Eisenberg relays her time living in Appalachia, and reported sections, in which Eisenberg offers insight into the ways in which the murders of Durian and Santomero brought to the surface harmful stereotypes perpetuated against the region, complicate perceptions rather than flatten them into any packageable or easy narrative. In prose that brims with empathy, and through research that illuminates narratives that have long been hidden by problematic representation, Eisenberg exposes the kinds of fictions we tell ourselves often enough that we believe them to be true.  

During the course of our sprawling conversation, one punctuated only by friendly interruptions from a gray house cat named Gabriel, Eisenberg and I talked about what it means to seek truth in nonfiction, and how writing the personal can allow for more complicated realities to emerge; how undermining conventions of genre can impact the way a book is both marketed and read; and what it means to find clarity — or at least community — while writing into murky, and often traumatizing subject matter. 

Jacqueline Alnes: I love your book because it incorporates both memoir and literary journalism. By the end of the book, you kind of render yourself almost complicit. You write that you are “bound to them,” the people you have written about — both in their innocence and guilt, love, and harm — and you write “it is possible to be a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. Most of us are.” 

I think it was less clear in the beginning why you were in the book — I understood that it was in part because you were related to the region — but I was intrigued to learn more about how it would evolve throughout. By the end, it was extraordinarily powerful, the ways in which you saw yourself in other people and used that as a site of empathy and understanding. I wondered: How did you make the decision to say, yes, I’m going to be in this?

Emma Copley Eisenberg: I don’t like the idea of journalists hiding behind this cloak of invisibility and just being like, “Here’s a story I found and I’m not connected to it.” I tend to feel the most respect for nonfiction books where the writer is to some extent in it in the sense where they are acknowledging who they are, their connection to the story, and how who they are is framing their perspective on events. So I eventually came to the conclusion that maybe I could be in it to an extent where I could provide who I am and what the framing is and why the story matters to me, but then it was always a question of balance. 

I don’t want to say what happened in my life is as important as these two women who died and all these men who suffered because of this investigation. There are seven parts; I’m in two of them. Essentially, that was the balance we chose. I think part of my presence stemmed from a desire to add in a contemporary sense of Appalachia in which I am present as a guide and also a desire to make my own struggles and joys in this place visible so people can take it or leave it, and know it is written by this kind of person, who has these kinds of identities, rather than hiding behind this idea of being a neutral journalist. 

I don’t know that it 100% works, but I think that it was the best solution I could find. Having the guiding force of this crime as a sort of spine helped me to figure out what was relevant to my own experiences, if that makes sense. 

As you mention, there’s a balance between writing the self and writing others. How did you approach writing other people’s experiences, especially because much of the content here seems to require so much tenderness?  

I just feel like it’s such sensitive content that there were a bunch of people in this book who I sent pieces of it to. Especially the families — Vicki and Nancy’s family, and the personal people, like my exes and stuff. I think with memoir it’s really important to show people how you saw something and they may see something differently, especially with this community and the way that Appalachia is written about all the time. I told them I couldn’t guarantee I would take every suggestion or change every single thing that they wanted changed, but their response mattered to me. 

Were there responses from people that you got that reframed how you viewed your own words in the end? Or was it more of a “thank you for showing us” kind of thing?

It really ran the gamut, to be honest. Things surprised me. Vicki’s family, who I think this is clear in the book — they’re a little bit more Midwest and kept her death fairly quiet, didn’t talk about it much — they were actually very much like, “Yeah, we are excited about this.” I got two different responses: one email and then the college essay I quote from in the book, from her nieces, and they told me, “I never knew what happened to my aunt, and I’m excited that your book is going to shed some light on that.”

It wasn’t always easy. There have been some significant bumps, particularly in the memoir section. I think any time you write about someone else, there are ways that people are going to feel about that that are complicated, and then I think it’s the double layer of me not being from West Virginia and people there carrying a sort of history of feeling fucked over by people who write stories in media about the place. That extra feeling of prickliness is justified. There was a lot of back and forth. I didn’t always do everything that was requested, but I did make a significant amount of changes between the manuscript I delivered and the manuscript I copy edited. 

I feel like when I write about other people, I’m always torn between first writing the story I know and blocking everything out, including potential audience, and then having a sort of persistent underlying awareness that the story I write is not necessarily the story that’s everyone else’s story. I feel like for you, it’s especially difficult because you entered writing this book knowing you were writing about a population and a region that you a) didn’t necessarily belong to and b) had already, like you said, been fucked over. Was that hard to balance while writing?

Yes, I feel like it was a constant balance between being genuinely sensitive and questioning and empathetic and open to all the things that are so terrible about the journalism of the past and even when you were turning on the recording and asking, “Am I a journalist?” I ask the same question: Am I a journalist? I feel like that word is so charged and has a troubled history. Even just “reporter” is so passive; it says, I saw and I transcribed. That’s not what we ever do really. I think taking all those ideological and ethical questions and keeping them in my brain, but at the same time knowing that I had to also get it down on the page. 

It was definitely a constant process of being on the internet and reading and absorbing and engaging with people and then closing the door and running away. I asked myself, “Okay, at its base, what do I know to be true? What’s the most important to get down?”

I thought it was interesting; after I read the full book, I went back and read the list of “True Things,” which acts as a sort of prologue. 

I think that’s fascinating. 

When I read the list of “True Things” to begin with, it was like — 

A lot.

Yeah. It was a lot to process, so I read it really slowly, but it was also a nice touchstone. Some of the “True Things” felt like “hard truths,” where you couldn’t really disagree with them, and then others seemed like emotional guiding truths, maybe for you to write the book, so I wanted to hear more — especially since the word ‘truth’ is loaded in nonfiction, in so many different ways — about what prompted you to write this opening list. 

I think it’s fascinating that you would go back afterward, but it makes a lot of sense. In some ways, it mirrors what I did because I wrote so many drafts of this book and I wrote “True Things” almost last.

I do this retreat every summer called the Grace Paley Palooza (GPP), which just started as a way for me and writers I know who are women and non-binary and trans people — basically everyone who’s not a cis man — to go and be together. We have always had it on this property in Pocahontas County because it’s so beautiful and because it’s affordable and writers are broke and all of the things. I think I wrote “True Things” at the third annual GPP, in May 2017, and we sold the book in October 2017.

It felt like a little bit of a magical thing, because I wrote it in Pocahontas County, in this experience with other people who weren’t from there, but were writers and were interested in the place. We had a cool potluck at the event that summer. It was just a sweet, magical moment. I had felt like I had been wrestling for the past two plus years with like, what was true? Was I interested in incontrovertible facts? Was I interested in emotional guiding truths? I didn’t know. I think being able to sit down and produce that list, it was my own touchstone.

If the book could be just that list, it would probably be more true. But, it is what it is.

I feel like part of what’s so interesting about your book is how much it engages with ideas of truth. Usually when you read a true crime book, or when there’s murder in the title, or when you watch a documentary, the purpose, somehow, is the grand reveal at the end. 

Totally.

But I feel like yours resists that narrative. It resists saying that there is one definitive truth. And even if there is, you still complicate it in fascinating ways. You say, even if this is the truth, and even if these are two truths, these many, many people’s lives are still affected in these dramatic ways, yours included. There are two different truths that emerge in this story, and there are two parties who are very much affiliated with one truth or another about who committed the murder, and they are very contentious. How did you grapple in the writing of that? And how, now looking back, do you feel about all those truths?

I think there are a few parts to how I feel about that. You picked up on how I felt in an interesting way. I did choose to present the whole Jacob Beard trial first and then go back and say, but, there was this other person, and go into that. I really struggled with that. My editor was helpful in figuring out how to structure those sections. I do feel like it was important to present it in that way because that’s how the time worked in real time. That was also my process. I started believing that Beard had done it and then, over time, sort of unbelieved that. Over time, I sort of started to believe in Franklin’s guilt, but at the end I still had a lot of questions. I was trying to make the book mirror that process. I’ve learned that a lot of people in Pocahontas County experienced it too, because they were like, “All we were given in terms of a satisfying story is that a local had done it,” and when that started to unravel, there was a void and all these questions of “What does it mean if a local didn’t do it?” and “What does it mean if this other random person did it?” 

I think it brings up a lot about what kinds of stories feel satisfying. Isn’t it Aristotle who said something about how the stories that feel most satisfying are the ones that are resolved from within? We don’t want a deus ex machina. We feel like it’s satisfying when it’s about us, when we can be the center figure in a story. I feel like what I learned researching this case over time is that even though I think probably factually the evidence better supports the idea that Franklin did it, it’s just never going to feel right for people on a narrative level because it’s not about them; it’s from outside. It’s totally random. This person who was very ill, who had a very skewed vision of reality, drove through this place at the exact same time that this other thing, the Rainbow Gathering, that was very much connected to the big story of Appalachia and inside-outside was happening. That’s just never going to feel right for people. 

I think I wanted to present the idea of here’s the satisfying story, the one that we know, even if it feels bad. The satisfying story says, “We are bad, men are bad, basically men are just going to abuse and kill women if left to their own devices,” which is a bad but familiar story. But what if that weren’t true? 

What was your process of researching for this book? The whole time I was reading, I was so fascinated by how much research is in it — court records, interviews, scene. Just approaching it from a creative nonfiction craft perspective, it reads really smooth, but my brain was just like, “Oh my god.” 

I took at least three significant reporting trips — I think it was like two weeks, two weeks, and a month, or something like that. It’s pretty true to my experience that I learned about the murders while I was there, at that writing group, and I was just like, “Oh, that’s sad,” and then I didn’t think too much about them. For whatever reason, when I moved away, these murders became a site of like: What happened to me? And what did I do in that space? And how did that reflect on who I was and who people that I care about in West Virginia were? 

Then, the murder stuff started coming back — I was really drawn to it. I think I just started out with what was available on Google, which is very little. The dominant stuff available on Google are like Newsday articles from the first round of the trial coverage from 1991 to 1993. There was a big Newsday feature, a big St. Petersburg Times feature, and a big Charleston Gazette feature, I think, and those were the only three online. After I read all three of those articles that told the accepted narrative of it being these drunken guys and they like sort of asked for sex but it didn’t really happen but there was no rape — I was kind of like, what? It just made no sense. 

After reading those first articles, I felt that spidey sense that something was happening that hadn’t ever been fully unraveled. The articles told the story of the Rainbow People coming to the area: They were hippies, and these men, who were hicks, didn’t like it, and they were bad. And that was never my experience. I never felt that people felt that intense xenophobia. Again, it was 25 years later, but I just felt like it was wrong. Something bothered me about it that I wanted to correct. I think the first thing that happened was I found Liz. She was really early on. The whole idea of the third girl had a very intense charge for me. I was like, I don’t know what that means, but that phrase, “the third girl,” and the fact that she had traveled with them so far and then said at the last minute, “I’m not going,” was like what?

That was a really interesting turn. I liked where you put it in the book, too. It felt unnerving even after I knew it was the way it was going to end up. 

Exactly. It feels in that zone of we’ll never really know. It’s sort of a universe thing. She can’t really describe it, but she just kept saying something didn’t feel right.

Even her story — I read it multiple times, because I kept thinking, “Am I missing something?” 

I remember really early on, I interviewed her on Skype. I was in my tiny room in a shitty rental house during my MFA. She was in Nicaragua building solar houses with women. There was a guy who came into the interview at one point and was like, “Do you know where I could get a machete?” and Liz was like, “Uh yeah, just go to this place.” There’s something about her that just felt right. 

When I started writing, I thought that the most important part of the book would be just the trial. I figured out how to get the trial transcript, which I had never done before — you just call the county courthouse. I talked to this lady who was annoyed by me, but very nice. In West Virginia, all of their files are still paper. Nothing was digitized before 2000, though I could be wrong about that date. There were like 10 boxes of Jacob Beard. I told her the case ID on the phone and she was like “… yeah, I’ll get back to you,” and she went down and she was like, “Yeah, there are 12 or 14 boxes down here, what do you want?” I just asked for Liz’s testimony. They mailed it to me, which was very nice. And that was the opening part: The testimony was weird, and there was a lot of dispute about what day she left them. She says one thing and then she says another thing. There’s clearly a battle going on between Beard’s lawyer and Stephen Farmer, and Walt Weiford, the prosecutor, because there’s already an accusation there of Walt Weiford finessing that day to suit his own theory, and I was like, “That’s weird.” So it all really did start with her.

I have reporting experience, and I’ve worked at small places like Philly Weekly as a fact checker and at the time, too, I was working in Charlottesville at a weekly paper doing fact checking and some reporting, but it took me a while after that to — and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this as someone coming more from the literary world — teach myself a lot about reporting.

I feel out of my depth when I do something like that.

Yeah, I was like, I don’t know. It took me a while to figure out that I would have to go to the courthouse. I finally went there like a year later when I realized I needed to see the records in full. I wrote about this for The Marshall Project because it’s so crazy, but essentially they said, “You can sit here in the courthouse like 9 to 4:30 or 8:30 to 4:30, or however long we’re open, but you can’t take the files out and you can’t copy them unless you’re willing to pay the court.” This is really weird, but technically trial transcripts are the property of the court reporter who transcribes them. For me to get access to the full transcript would have been like $9,000. I sat there every day and took photos of every page for about two weeks. I went to the Pocahontas Times office, because I knew some of the people there, and they let me take photographs of all of the Rainbow article stuff. I had this feeling that I wanted to go to the primary source. I was getting this recycled narrative from after, from the trial, but I was like, let’s go back to 1980 and be like, did people actually care that the Rainbow people were coming in? Did people feel like this was a horrible tragedy? 

I did have this feeling that so many of these books start with a dead woman’s body and don’t really care about them, and will sort of do anything for a dead woman, but don’t really care about alive women, so I wanted to try as best I could to know who these women were. What were they doing hitchhiking? I wanted to get a sense of who they were in terms of class and money, and what did they like, and what did they dress like and eat? I was interested in their aesthetic tastes. I feel like all of that stuff got lost. Both of them kept pretty good diaries and records and sent a lot of letters, which was a little bit emotional.

You mentioned to me that you used to watch a lot of SVU and consume a lot of crime-related media. Was that something you had always done? For me, the book, in a lot of interesting ways, undermines expectations or what you have grown to be comfortable — comfortable probably isn’t the right word — maybe accept or expect in a narrative about murder. It sounds like you thought a lot while writing about how you were going to frame the women before I identified them as bodies. How much of your consumption of those types of crime narratives informed your ability to push against them in your work?

Starting with the dead women’s bodies is so inescapable to the format of Law & Order or Law & Order: SVU and I really didn’t want to do that. I feel like I struggled with my editor a little bit. I originally wanted to start with the hitchhiking sections and get to know them first and then have them die, but I also wanted to center Pocahontas County. The book is about Vicki and Nancy to some extent, but it’s also not about them. If anything, if I had to pick, I was more interested in centering Pocahontas County. I wanted to start the book in Pocahontas County. I felt like if I started it with Vicki and Nancy and Liz traveling, it would feel to the reader like it was a book about women from elsewhere — which it is to some extent, because I am that — but I think it always came down to allegiances and what’s more important. Ultimately, I did choose the place as more important. I made that choice, and I hoped that by starting with “True Things,” as opposed to a dead body on page one, that that would kind of teach the reader that they weren’t going to get a traditional true crime book. I’m still not sure we made all the right choices there. 

I definitely had the benefit of getting to read amazing articles and books that have been coming out in the past five years about the dead girls trope and how to work against it. Definitely Alice Bolin’s book Dead Girls, who’s a pal, was really helpful in articulating why that’s a problem, Megan Abbott has done some cool stuff, Rachel Monroe’s book Savage Appetites, which just came out, that I loved, and she’s also a pal. Definitely Sarah Marshall, who is sweet and also a pal. I feel like for a while — and it was sort of a joke — but we have this joke that this group of writers that I’ve become connected to via the internet, including all those people I just named, are part of The Dead Girl Newsroom. But in that name was an acknowledgment of all the ways that we were really not The Dead Girl Newsroom. We were interested in dead girls, but so interested in them that we were trying to do the opposite of what had been done before. 

I tried to articulate it in the Paris Review, where they were like, “Can you use this sort of ‘dead girl’ trope for good?” and I kind of do think the answer is yes, but it can’t be the dead white girl thing. It has to be dead femme bodies of all kinds. I know you touched on that too, in your questions. I do think Rachel Monroe says it really well when she’s like, the problem with a podcast like My Favorite Murder or the “Murderino” phenomenon is that it teaches white women that we are like being hunted or imperiled and it’s only a matter of time before we get raped and murdered. And statistically, it’s black men who are murdered at rates far exceeding other people. 

While in my regular life and general life I’m very interested in anti-racism work, because this story is centered in such a 99.9% white place, what seemed to come up more was class and the ways that poor men and poor men’s rights are kind of shunted aside in the name of justice or women — and in this case, middle-class, outsider women. I was always trying to hold those two things at the same time and know white middle-class women are not the most important victims. And even though all the nine men who were impacted directly by this crime got to live, look at how many of them were incarcerated. Look how many drank themselves to death. Gerald Brown choked on a ham sandwich and died, a very working-class accidental, but traumatic death. I do think all those deaths are just as important and related to the questions that I’m trying to tease out in regard to someone who was murdered in a dramatic fashion. They all matter, even though I do start with Vicki and Nancy.

How do you put that in without it subsuming the whole book? I think that’s something I struggled with a lot. I’m really not sure there’s a good structural solution to put the news or the truth of dead people ever. Although I think there are some ways you can minimize it. I tried to focus on the meta — like the way they were described, rather than describing them myself. I didn’t reenact or depict the scene of the murder, which felt very important. It’s gross when people do that. And I’m very interested, as is clear, I think, in the fact that they were not ideal dead women. They’re kind of weird and fat and hairy and dirty, which I personally appreciate. Nancy’s family was very distressed that I first put in she had hairy legs — they were like, we don’t like that. 

Ah, still?

Yeah. There are still all these ways that we want dead women — just like alive women — to be a certain thing and I just tried not to make them that thing as much as humanly possible. I don’t know if I was totally successful.

I think the way you write about every character was just with so much empathy and also self-implication, which was really interesting. I found myself never feeling like I was consumed by the murders. Obviously when I received the publicity packet I was like, “Oh, interesting: true crime,” but then as soon as I started reading — and I don’t want to use the word anticlimactic — but when you read the “True Things” at the beginning, you know you’re not going to get a sensationalized version of any murder, because it’s been given to you, the whole story almost. So you’re then reading for something else.

It’s very intense subject matter, though. You mentioned in a conversation we had that you experienced nightmares or dreams while writing this. How did you deal with that while you were writing? And if you had advice for other writers who are also writing into traumatic events, how do you do it?

I wish I had a better answer. I really do think it’s true that I probably dreamed about either murder or being murdered for like two years. I mean, there was stuff that felt specifically like sexual boundary crossings with two men who I care about who live in Pocahontas County, lost power over time by the sheer number of times I had to write that, revise that, fact check it, legally vet it, all of the things. But still, I think the insight that it could have happened anywhere, and I sort of counted myself among the lucky among people who weren’t out and out raped in college — which is extremely sad that that’s our benchmark. 

I think some of the most sad and unexpected stuff was just reading — I have empathy for all those dudes: Cutlip and Brown, I really do. Eerily, it really does resonate for me of people I knew when I was living at that farm house and all of these drunk dudes would come by and be like, I’m in pain, I’m suffering. I saw grown men in that area’s health outcomes being so poor and working so hard physically all the time, and the ways that masculinity is policed everywhere in our world but sometimes even more so in close communities. The only time they could really talk about feelings was when they were wasted. But, almost all of the statements that those nine guys made about Vicki and Nancy are really ugly. You can tell, but there’s a lot I left out, too. And that was tough. For the audiobook, reading those statements, and basically reading what I think is an imagined truth, but basically, “Oh, I would just kill a woman if she didn’t want to have sex with me.” Which again, I don’t think happened in real life, but it didn’t come from nowhere. That stuff was ugly, and the ways I was kind of surprised by how much misogyny was in the groundwater everywhere was really difficult. I think it sent me into a certain space. 

I just saw Sarah Perry recently, who wrote After the Eclipse –– I just think that book is amazing –– and she and I both said that we experienced a lot of anger and rage as we were writing our books and reading all these interviews with dudes who may or may not have done it but seemed like they hated women. I just felt really angry. When Sarah said, “I felt angry when I wrote my book,” it was like this shock of recognition, where I was enraged, for like a year. And I wish someone would have told me that was going to happen. So maybe just acknowledging that writing about this stuff — rage and anger is a normal reaction. I wish I had known that more. 

The fact that the rage was so persistent is really interesting — like it’s not just a passing emotion that you experience while you were reading transcripts, but that it stayed with you.

It became really baked in. I remember — maybe 2017 or 2018 when I was going home — I was on a crowded Metro-North train and this guy was crowding me kind of, in a seat. It almost reminds me of what they described with Franklin, where when you have like a traumatic brain injury and mental illness to the extent that he did, that sometimes it can become difficult to discern between what’s an everyday threat versus something that requires fatal force. When that couple cuts him off in the parking lot and Franklin decides to shoot them, it’s the first people he murders. And I had this feeling that allowed me to understand some fraction of that, which was just that a man crowding me on the train felt like an attack in this way that I wanted to react in a very oversized way. And it was interesting that I started to notice, the more I read about people in these extreme states of mind, I began to take that in. So maybe just knowing that that can happen might be helpful. 

What are you doing next, if you don’t mind sharing?

I feel like it’s interesting because more and more, it seems like nonfiction and fiction is beginning to blend, and sometimes it’s like, who really cares. Sometimes it feels like it’s just a category for the sake of capitalism. But I feel excited about writing fiction again. I’ve been steadily writing short fiction that is mostly about queerness and fatness and sort of about uncategorizable relationships in women and queer people of we’re not quite friends, not quite girlfriends, what is that space. I have a story collection that my agent and I are working on right now, and I’m also working on a queer road-trip novel.

Oh, that’s so exciting. I cannot wait.

I just really feel like the stuff about travel, and the stuff about cross-U.S. travel is still really in me. After I left Pocahontas County I drove around America for three months and lived out of my pickup truck. I did feel so heartbroken. I was like I love this place, but I know I can’t stay, and I don’t know where I want to go. I didn’t want to go anywhere. There was something about movement at that moment when I was young and leaving this environment that felt really important. I think I’m interested still in movement and specifically a road trip in America with queer people in the car. That’s what the current book is. I want it to be like The Price of Salt but funnier and more about identity and more about going to different parts of the U.S. that we don’t really talk about.

It’s interesting and hard because road trip stories are often so episodic — you go to a place and something happens and you go somewhere else. I’m trying to figure out how to make the book feel cohesive. It’s a fun problem.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands