Emma Copley Eisenberg: Crossing True Crime with Memoir

photo: Sylvie Rosokoff

Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer whose fiction, essays and reportage have appeared in McSweeney's, the Paris Review online, Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Guernica and more. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette, January 2020), combines memoir and true crime reportage to tell the story of the so-called Rainbow Murders and the investigation that followed. In the process, she reflects on assumptions about Appalachia and her own love for Pocahontas County, W.Va., where the murders took place.

It seems like there has been a recent uptick in conversation about Appalachia in general if not West Virginia specifically. Did you feel a responsibility to engage in that conversation through your book?

Yes. When Trump was elected in 2016, there was this flurry of pieces in the liberal media that identified Appalachia and West Virginia in particular as "the heart of Trump country," and blamed his rise to power on Appalachians. Two things are important to know about this: 1) It isn't true; rich white people all over the country voted for Trump in much larger and more influential numbers than poor white people from the Eastern mountains. 2) This false narrative is part of the larger story of the relationship between Appalachia and the rest of America.

As I talk about in the book, and as historian Elizabeth Catte writes about in her stellar book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (which you should go buy immediately) this narrative comes from the myth that Appalachia is this sad, confused "other" that can be separated out from the rest of the country yet blamed for all our problems. This myth is also old--every 30 years or so something happens involving Appalachia and people remember that it exists and try and go and find out what’s "wrong" with it. If anything is "wrong" with Appalachia, it's that its people and resources have been consistently used, and then disposed of, by people who don't live there.

The book might be described as true crime crossed with memoir. Why did you decide to pair these seemingly disparate genres (if you accept the label)?

I do accept these labels to the degree that I accept any label, and the book is indeed a hybrid of genres, made up of reporting, memoir, essay, history and cultural criticism. I tried to make it clear at every turn that I am telling only my perspective on things, the story of how I came to Pocahontas County, what I saw and felt and thought while I lived and worked in the community and how my story intersected with larger stories. To me, nonfiction writing that acknowledges its own limited and specific scope will always be more honest and successful than nonfiction that pretends to be impartial. This is why I ended up introducing myself into the narrative and using "I" in several sections.

As I developed those sections, and continued to interrogate the questions that were propelling the book, I realized that it would be dishonest not to include some of my own vulnerable, difficult and shameful experiences. This decision was also a decision at times to expose and make vulnerable the experiences of others, so I tried to hold these to a high ethical and artistic standard--these moments had to reveal something essential to the story rather than just revealing for the sake of revelation. I had to write, write, write, and then cut, cut, cut. I was also trying to be careful and critical about balancing my story with the story of the nine men and Vicki and Nancy. I wanted the historical sections to be the focus, with my own story serving only to frame and ground the narrative in the contemporary world.

The case at the center of your book is an act of violence against women, and you reflect on the way masculine cultures and misogyny play out in your own life. Did you want to draw a connection between violence and misogynistic culture?

Misogyny is in the air we all breathe, and West Virginia is no more full of it than any other American state. But I believe there are some places where men are told, even more so than in other places, that they are bad and are doomed to hurt and degrade women, and I believe Pocahontas County is one such place. Men in Pocahontas County have been told this by outsiders--in movies, television, books, etc--and they have been told this by their own fathers, sisters and teachers.

What interested me was tracing the connections, contradictions and tragedies embedded in these messages. What happens to a man when he gets told that his whole life? Why can some men resist these messages where others can't? I felt there were echoes of the way masculinity was talked about throughout the Rainbow Murders case in the interactions I had with people in Pocahontas County in my own life. I wanted to excavate those moments and look at them as clearly as possible.

The book is interesting to read in light of what seems to be greater awareness about false confessions. How did current thinking affect your approach to the many conflicting, sometimes unlikely-seeming confessions provided to the police?

I started writing this book in 2013, before blockbusters like Making a Murderer and When They See Us spread the understanding to a new generation that false confessions do happen, so I was grappling with many misconceptions and blocks in my own logic and that of my sources. I began with the assumption that a "confession" is by nature a true utterance, but as I delved deeper into the case and into the scholarly research that's been emerging since the 1990s, it's clear that false confessions are extremely common.

What's been interesting to see is how current social movements like Black Lives Matter and the movement against mass incarceration have re-framed this fact as not just a legal issue but as a social justice issue that those outside the field should care about, which I believe is a big part of what's fueling the current "true crime boom." There's a hunger to tell crime stories in a new way and to re-examine old crime stories for what they truly are: stories of systemic failure, especially for people of color, poor people and queer people. I tried to approach what happened in the Rainbow Murders through that lens, and show the many reasons--systemic, personal and also unknowable--a person might say they'd committed a murder when they hadn't.

Tell us about your process of trying to communicate the inner lives of the men and women in the story when you didn't have access to direct quotations.

The families of both the women who died were extremely generous to me with their time, and the stories and artifacts they told and gave me about their loved ones were invaluable in constructing a sense of what it was like to be a young woman searching for your life in 1980, and what it was like specifically to be Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero. I drew on my own experiences in Pocahontas County--playing music, working, drinking, fishing, swimming--to construct some of the emotional realities of the nine men.

I also spent a lot of time doing things that to the outside eye might seem totally strange--reading page after page of articles and op-eds and lists of taxes in the Pocahontas Times, picking up two male hitchhikers in my car, collecting endless facts, watching endless movies about the late 1970s and early 1980s and just driving around looking at houses and hillsides. A lot of driving.

Does it bother you to think that we might never know for sure what happened in the case of the Rainbow Murders?

It did at first, but it doesn't anymore. When we try to get super certain about things, we create lies. Uncertainty and doubt is the truest place to end up. --Hank Stephenson

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