Isn't that a gorgeous photo? I'm not sure whom to credit for it -- I found it on Google, and I imagine the photographer is somebody I know. So if you're out there, let me know. This beautiful young woman, Debbie Gardner, was murdered by another American in the Kingdom of Tonga on October 14, 1976 -- Oct. 14, by a cruel irony, is the birthdate of the Peace Corps.
And her tragic story is deeply significant in my life, although I barely knew her, not to mention the dozens of others affected by her brutal death and its aftermath. Again tonight "48 Hours" ran the 2005 show about the murder. She was killed by Dennis Priven, a spurned suitor and, obviously, murderously mentally ill young man.
This is the story my novel Night Blind is based on. It was wrenching this cold and snowy January night to see old friend Emile Hons emotionally recall the events of that terrible night and the weeks that followed. It was good once again to see New York journalist Phil Weiss on the scene in Tonga retelling the story in his quest to get a measure of justice for Debbie. It was good to see Rick Nathanson, my fellow volunteer whose job was to be a reporter at the Tonga Chronicle, retell his story, and to see the old photos of him -- a curly-haired and feisty kid who kept stubbornly reporting the story even though Peace Corps wanted him to shut up. The story of how PC Country Director Mary George twisted the facts and unaccountably repeatedly tried to protect Priven doesn't get any more palatable with the years -- how she and Peace Corps Washington responded is still a craven miscarriage of justice, a dark embarrassment. My heart went out to Mike Basile, our assistant country director, as he remembered that awful autumn -- he was put in a terrible position and one feels as if he's never quite come to terms with it.
All through these decades I've contended the Peace Corps is one of the best American programs ever, but delving once again into this story, the doubts come back. The Peace Corps bureaucrats should have been ashamed. As volunteers, we were all so young, so clueless -- we wanted to believe, after Vietnam, after Kent State, after the Detroit riots, after the assassinations, that just one thing from our U.S. of A. could be full of grace. Instead, we got a tragedy and its grievously mishandled aftermath that has stayed with us, demolishing our trust and exacerbating our cynicism. Those of us who lived to tell about it have gone on with our lives. I finally wrote my book, which took me thirty years. And I feel better for it. But it's not how it should have been. Debbie Gardner shouldn't have died. It's a dirty shame.
But, thinking about the show over night, I come back to this blog entry to add further reflections. It would be grossly unfair to let one homicidal volunteer and one bad country director define the whole Peace Corps, which over its 47 years has placed thousands of volunteers into dozens of countries. The Peace Corps' history isn't perfect, but as I noted in my NYC podcast (www.janworth.com), it is an international program with a brain AND a heart, and has had an immensely transformative effect on several generations of young Americans.