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American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

3.53  ·  Rating details ·  414 Ratings  ·  68 Reviews
In 1975, a new group of Peace Corps volunteers landed on the island nation of Tonga. Among them was Deborah Gardner -- a beautiful twenty-three-year-old who, in the following year, would be stabbed twenty-two times and left for dead inside her hut.

Another volunteer turned himself in to the Tongan police, and many of the other Americans were sure he had committed the crime.
Paperback, 416 pages
Published June 28th 2005 by Harper Perennial (first published 2004)
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Rating details
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I have some ambivalent feelings about how to rate this book. In some ways three stars is a little bit generous. I thought the writing was surprisingly poor for someone who is apparently a contributing editor to high profile publications. Many of his sentences were poorly constructed, as were entire paragraphs, which really distracted and detracted from the story. Also, he unfortunately used that horrible technique of reconstruction which made the story have the cheap feel of a made-for-TV reenac ...more
Apr 09, 2009 rated it liked it
An upsetting book for any Tonga PCV. It took me back to a lot of places I passed every day and even to a lot of people who are still living in Tonga.

The book itself could do with an aggressive edit. It would be better with perhaps 150 pages culled.

Michael Thoeresz
This book is poorly written and I would only recommend it to someone who is somehow affiliate with the Peace Corps.

"America doesn't exist when you're here. Tonga doesn't exist when you're back, the older volunteers had told them. In no time they would pick up their lives. Their friends would lose interest in their stories, and the Kingdom would be as foreign as a hot shower was now. Then one day they'd open a drawer to discover something they had brought home, a tortoise shell bracelet, or a fol
Jan 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An excellent read about a dreadful crime within the Peace Corps and the way it resolved -- or didn't. The author explains how the case never really made the news, and how it was swept under the rug by the officials involved after they stood back and let a woman be murdered without intervening, then rewarded themselves for the way they handled it. The haunting nature of this crime will follow me. But thanks to this author, we know that murder will out...
Sep 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2009
Not a Who-Done-It as much as a How'd-He-Get-Away-With-It.
Eileen Granfors
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a haunting investigation into a young woman's murder. Deb Gardener, enthusiastic and outdoorsy, loved life. She sought to share her dynamic spirit through her work in the Peace Corps. She was assigned to the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga. It's a lot tougher than most people would think to be a Peace Corps volunteer to a small and culturally different village far from home. Deb was dedicated to her tasks. People loved her. But one man was obsessed with her. He murdered her. The wh ...more
May 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Excellent investigative journalism, attempting to bring light and closure to a decades old murder in the Peace Corps in Tonga. US government cover up and duplicity let a murderer go free. Gives another perspective from the official US government point of view.
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was a very interesting book that looked into a murder that almost no one knew about. The author did an amazing job of researching the why and how. The idea that this was glossed over by so many is just amazing.
This book made me so enraged that it took me forever to read because I just kept getting so indignant with the injustice of this whole affair that I would have to put the book down for a week or so before I could pick it up again. I am appalled by the Peace Corps' handling of this and it will forever tarnish my opinion on the organization. Total dillweeds that actively worked to release a sociopath that ruthlessly stabbed a woman 22 times just because she wasn't interested in his pathetic romant ...more
May 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
On October 4, 1976, a brutal murder shocked the tiny island nation of Tonga. A young Peace Corps volunteer had been stabbed 22 times; another volunteer was identified at the scene, but despite the damning evidence against him, Dennis Priven was never convicted of any crime. A beautiful, free-spirited young victim; a brooding villain who carried a dive knife sheathed by his side; an exotic, Gauginesque setting: with material this sensational, it's surprising that the most compelling passages in A ...more
Dec 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
I actually found this book in our shared library in the Peace Corps office (Philippines). I read it during Typhoon Ruby while we were consolidated in a hotel in Manila with nothing to do. It definitely caught me off guard. As I was reading it I kept thinking about Peace Corps, my service so far, and where the organization has gone from it's humble beginnings till now. The story that Weiss pulls up is one that I had not heard of before. Weiss tells the story in a way that seems almost fictional- ...more
Dec 10, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013
This has to be one of the most infuriating books I've ever read - not because of the book itself, but because of the story. It is impossible for me to comprehend the mindset of an American official who would prioritize the life of a man who murdered a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who rejected him sexually - stabbing her over and over - somehow after her death his life was the important one. Peace Corps higher ups protected the killer in ways too numerous to describe, her fellow volunteers slut s ...more
Chris Annear
Dec 31, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Yes
Recommended to Chris by: Jessica Maslowe
This book is divided into two parts. The first half describes the horrible stabbing death of a pretty Peace Corps volunteer serving in Tonga in the mid 1970s. She was murdered by a former volunteer still living, at that time, on the island. The second half documents the Peace Corps response--to wrest him from a Tongan justice system that pretty much got it right. The cynical combination of the two halves: a young woman is killed by an insecure friend because she is too sexually attractive, and t ...more
Nov 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a riveting tale about a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga who was murdered by another volunteer. It is a shocking tragedy, but Mr Weiss tells Deborah Gardner's story masterfully. It is well-researched and he was able to gather interviews from a lot of people involved in it, and unbelievable as it may sound, including the killer himself.

I appreciate that Mr Weiss mentioned The Ugly American. I have read that book, and there were sure a lot of "ugly Americans" in this one. I also appreciate h
Oct 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Lauren by: Thom
Shelves: true-story
Philip Weiss did a great justice to this story and to Deborah Gardner. He captures your mind and takes you back to a tragic time. This is a nonfiction cronicle of what happened in the days before and after the murder. However, it reads like fiction. I was so taken in to the story that I couldn't put it down. I read the entire book in one day (of course I didn't get anything else done :)) What amazes me is that something like this could happen and how many years had to pass before it could be bro ...more
victor harris
Mar 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
The Peace Corps is not the benign enterprise as advertised. When one volunteer murders another on the remote island of Tonga, the machinery for a cover-up to protect the agency's image goes in motion. Twenty years afer the incident, the author tries to uncover the truth, but is stonewalled by a web of bureaucrats who were complicit in exculpating the killer. En route, he discovers the Peace Corps to be another corrupt, self-serving government entity committed to its own preservation, often at th ...more
Jan 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
I can't remember the last time I was so angered by a book. The story unravels exactly as the summary on the back cover will tell you, but it's hard to believe that so many chances for redemption on the part of the Peace Corps, State Dept, or even the individuals involved were repeatedly diverted and opposed. Clearly, the Tongan people knew much better than any American institution or individual, but it was business as usual and the verdict was bought, plain and simple. My biggest regret is that ...more
Rachel Jaffe
This took such a long time to finish! It felt like it went on and on. I enjoyed the view into the Peace Corps in the '70s, and it was definitely a dramatic story. But the writing was stilted, with too many uses of commas where semi-colons would be better (e.g., "The club was dignified but not crusty, who could maintain a crust in Tonga.") or long, meandering sentences stringing together too many elements (e.g., "Then they had sixty pounds of fish in the little boat, jacks, groupers, and parrotfi ...more
Nov 28, 2012 rated it did not like it
I spent some time abroad working with various NGO groups and work side by side along with peace corps members so we were aware of all the risks. I wanted to know more of Deb Gardner's story and what happened in Tonga. I can't stand this style of writing and it was really hard for me to follow. I stuck with it due to subject matter, but left really unsatisfied by the writing and still don't understand the aftermath. I guess the cover-up and conspiracy lives on.
Sep 14, 2014 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Nobody
One of the most poorly written books I have ever tried to read. I gave up halfway through. It rambled on and hopped between different time periods and people from paragraph to paragraph. When I started skipping pages I realized that it was a waste of my time as I wasn't enjoying the book at all. Could have used a good editor because the extraneous stuff the author threw in ultimately diluted what seemed to be a very interesting subject matter.
Kat O
Jun 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2013
I love books like this--nonfiction but reads like a narrative, well researched, yet compelling to the human heart. What a tragedy that this woman's parents never had their own government's support in this. I can't believe they were able to find closure and move on with so little information. Haunting.
Apr 22, 2012 rated it it was ok

Sounds like a salacious, interesting read, right? Don't be fooled! It was so boring in style that I had to give it up. Makes me feel like a failure to surrender, but life is too short to waste it on a slow read. There are just so many other well-written, fascinating books to be discovered...
Nancy Graham
Oct 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A brilliantly written account of volunteer-on-volunteer murder in 1976 Tonga. Weiss carefully documents the human drama, the shocking bureaucratic cover-up and the bizarre intervention on behalf of the perpetrator. Grateful that Weiss has recorded this unknown story -- a blight on one of the government's most noble programs.
Jun 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
An insightful look into an old murder case, long buried. A nice, easy read. Well-paced with an easy flow between the past and present. Weiss conveys his dedication to uncovering the details as well as to bringing healing to all those who felt betrayed by the treatment of Deborah Gardner's murder. Not an objective portrayal but an intriguing and intelligent one.
Sarah Jane
Apr 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The author's comprehensive and exhaustive research into Debbie Gardner's murder forces the reader to contemplate all sides, and although we know the whole time that what happened was wrong I could not put this book down. I'm not sure if it would be as enthralling a read for someone with no PC connection but for me personally it was a really interesting read.
Jan 03, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this book originally because my father was stationed in the Peace Corps in Tonga where this book was about. But once I started reading this book I couldn't put it down. And the fact that it is a true story realy drew me and made me not want to put it down. I recommend it even if you have no ties to Tonga or the Peace Corps.
Dec 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
Really interesting, well-researched story of the murder of a female Peace Corps Volunteer by a male volunteer who was basically a stalker, and how he got away with it. The description of Peace Corps administrators and bureaucracy working more to protect the agency's image than to get to the bottom of the murder rang really true, as did the descriptions of the dynamics of the volunteers.
Alison Lerner
Jan 28, 2009 rated it did not like it
Shelves: didn-t-finish
I didn't finish this because it got boring. It's a great topic and a great story, but the prose just got so bad I couldn't finish it. It went on and on about how wonderful and beautiful the murder victim was, I guess to make us feel sympathy for her, and I just fell asleep. The rest of what I read was interesting though, the historical setting, intra-Peace Corps politics.
Ronnie Cramer
Sep 17, 2016 rated it liked it
Fascinating tale of a 1975 murder in remote Tonga. I wasn't crazy about the writing style ('...he'd done nothing. Nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing'), but there's no denying that the author did a great job piecing things together twenty-five years after the fact.
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