Terri Jentz on Her “Strange Piece of Paradise”

 
 

"Ecstasy and injury—who but the Russians would devise a word describing the feelings the mind thinks of as incompatible but the heart knows belong together: umilenie … a state of being in which you have been taken down, brought to your knees, humbled—when kaleidoscopic emotions of tenderness, humility, sadness and rapture all wash through you."

In this passage from Strange Piece of Paradise, author Terri Jentz references the emotional fallout of the attempted murder she and her college roommate narrowly survived in 1977. But the word might also describe the experience of reading the book itself–a harrowing account of an unfathomably vicious attack.

The summer after their sophomore year at Yale, Jentz and Shayna Weiss set out on a cross-country bike trip. Seven days in, the pair had retired for the night in a state park near Redmond, Ore., when someone intentionally ran over their tent in a pickup truck. As Jentz was pinned beneath a wheel she heard the driver attack Weiss repeatedly with an axe. After rolling the vehicle off of Jentz, the attacker proceeded to bludgeon her before suddenly fleeing the scene.

Weiss sustained numerous blows to the head, leaving her unconscious with an open skull fracture. Jentz remained fully conscious throughout the attack, and was left with a collapsed lung, flesh shredded by the truck tires, deep gashes from the axe–one that sliced clear into the bone of her forearm–and numerous shattered and chipped bones. Somehow she managed to stagger off and find help.

Weiss lost her vision as a result of her injuries. Though she later regained it partially, retrograde amnesia spared her any memory of the assault. Jentz was left alone with vivid memories of the attack and haunted by the axe-wielding “meticulous cowboy.” The girls’ friendship was shattered.

Strange Piece of Paradise documents the attack and charts the aftermath for one of its survivors, including her dogged quest for answers. The book chronicles one heinous act but is also a polemic on violence in general, particularly against women. Jentz transcends the book’s stated genre–true crime/memoir–and philosophizes on the larger meaning and implications.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the book is the severed bond between these girls who shared such trauma. Weiss wanted no details about the attack, and their devastated relationship goes beyond insult and is an added grave injury Jentz has had to endure.

In one exchange of letters documented in the book, Jentz writes that Weiss indicated “that she believed her disability was her ‘penance’ for the pain she had caused me. I think what she meant was: she would rather have died than feel an obligation to me that she couldn’t fulfill. Because she truly did not want to give back.”

Anyone wondering whether Weiss was more than Jentz’s “roommate” finds an answer early on in the book, as Jentz describes a crush she barely comprehended, let alone voiced.

During the many months she spends recuperating from her injuries Jentz’s feelings intensify. She writes: “But now my infatuation with Shayna had turned into something else, something I didn’t understand that locked into my psyche the night of the attack and rearranged me. During those potent hours when I was so close to her life and to her death, some part of me had merged boundaries and couldn’t let go.”

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