Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz

J. Peder Zane
Terri Jentz, author of Strange Piece of Paradise
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Two books -- both finalists for the National Book Critics Award -- remind me that our actions are often beyond our control. We may no longer be hostage to the whims of capricious gods or brutal totalitarian states, but what about the power of our own inscrutable minds?

Strange Piece of Paradise

Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 0312426690
Author: Terri Jentz
Price: $15.00
Length: 752
Formats: Trade Paperback
US publication date: 2007-03

The Girls Who Went Away

Publisher: Penguin
Subtitle: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade
Author: Ann Fessler
Price: $24.95
Length: 368
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 1594200947
US publication date: 2006-05

Nowadays, when the soundtrack of our lives thunders "do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be," the concept of free will sounds so 16th century. It does not prompt reflection but conjures images of grumpy old Puritans preaching about predestination.

But as I read Nicholas Fearn's new book, The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions (Grove Press), its summation of the issue gave me pause.

"As so often with philosophy, there is no answer," critic Mitchell Goodman reports, "just a current state of thinking, in this case, that we are free when our actions are subject to our control and not to someone else's."

In another time I might have read right past that. But two books -- both finalists for the National Book Critics Award -- remind me that our actions are often beyond our control. We may no longer be hostage to the whims of capricious gods or brutal totalitarian states, but what about the power of our own inscrutable minds?

In The Girls Who Went Away (Penguin Press), Anne Fessler tells the wrenching stories of unwed young women who were forced by family, custom and shame to surrender their children for adoption in the years after World War II and before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. Strange Piece of Paradise (FSG) recounts Terri Jentz's courageous efforts to track down the psychopath who tried to murder her and a friend in a random act of violence.

Both books are full of haunted women, unable to get past the past. "I am shocked at how much it has impacted my life," one of Fessler's subjects explains about giving up her baby for adoption. "I really tried to move on and forget, I tried to do what they said, but it didn't work. I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. There must be something wrong with me. It was supposed to work; everybody said so. But it didn't. No matter how many degrees I got, how many credits I had, how many years I worked, I was empty."

Early in her memoir, Jentz confides, "I entered young adulthood with a story that cast a spell on me. ... It took fifteen years before I realized that a long-ago incident had transformed me, divided my life into a before and after."

Six days into a bike trip across the United States in 1977, Jentz and a college friend were sleeping in a tent when a pickup truck ran over them. As they awoke screaming, an axe-wielding man delivered blows that should have killed them before disappearing into the night. In the years that followed, Jentz says she split into two distinctly separate selves.

"There was the official self: the bright and independent woman right out of Yale, an aspiring artist in New York City ... trying to develop social poise, personal charm and style," she writes. There was also "a scarecrow self -- an unacknowledged, angry, aggrieved shadow" who feared crossing streets and followed murder cases, which prompted her to scrawl discomfiting facts in her calendar and journal: "The entire body is covered with a thin film of black dirt." "The smell of my blood-encrusted body."

For Jentz and for Fessler's subjects, extreme trauma spawned a subversive fifth column within themselves. Their conscious minds worked tirelessly to heal the emotional scars, to seize control of their lives. But their subconscious minds denied their will. They confined them, thwarting their best intentions.

Their plight, of course, is no news flash. The notion that we are "haunted" by the past has been a staple of literature since the Garden of Eden. Freud theorized that an inhibiting Superego prevents us from fulfilling our wishes. And, given half the chance, half the population will gladly tell you how their parents messed them up.

Indeed, how many people do you know -- without looking in the mirror -- who can pinpoint the causes and effects of their "problems" but cannot alter their behavior? Understanding is easy; change is hard.

All of which makes the "current state of thinking" about free will so puzzling. Being told what to do surely signifies an absence of freedom -- just ask my daughters. Being unable to do what we'd like, to master ourselves, can be even worse. If we believe that only outside sources can limit our freedom, then we have few mechanisms -- except for shame and self-loathing -- for explaining the inner forces that shape us.

Experience and common sense tell us that "free will" is not simply a question of you and me against the world. Today, more than ever, it revolves around the battles we wage against ourselves. It's empowering and comforting to believe we can be what we want to be. But as Fessler and Jentz remind us, the great philosopher on this question may not be some tweedy don of the dialectic but the comic strip sage Pogo, who observed: "We have met the enemy and he is us."


Editor's note: The paperback edition of The Girls Who Went Away is being published in the U.S. in June 2007, while the paperback of Strange Piece of Paradise is coming out March 15th.



J. Peder Zane is the book review editor for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him e-mail at pzane at

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.