July 20, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tonga: Speaking Out: Criticism: Crime: Murder: Salon: RPCV Bob Shacochis says Peace Corps is "sacred cow"

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tonga: Special Report: 'American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps': July 20, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tonga: Speaking Out: Criticism: Crime: Murder: Salon: RPCV Bob Shacochis says Peace Corps is "sacred cow"
American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

Charges possible in 1976 PCV slaying Charges possible in 1976 PCV slaying
Congressman Norm Dicks has asked the U.S. attorney in Seattle to consider pursuing charges against Dennis Priven, the man accused of killing Peace Corps Volunteer Deborah Gardner on the South Pacific island of Tonga 28 years ago. Background on this story here and here.
American Taboo American Taboo
Read the story of Volunteer Deborah Gardner's murder in Tonga in 1976 and how her killer has been free for the past 28 years with the help of the Peace Corps. Read an excerpt from Philip Weiss' book documenting the murder and coverup. Then read an essay by RPCV Bob Shaconis who says that Peace Corps' treatment as a "sacred cow" has exempted it from public scrutiny and that the agency has labored to preserve its shining reputation, sometimes at the expense of the very principles it is supposed to embody.

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-141-157-22-73.balt.east.verizon.net - on Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - 7:20 pm: Edit Post

RPCV Bob Shacochis says Peace Corps is "sacred cow"

RPCV Bob Shacochis says Peace Corps is sacred cow

RPCV Bob Shacochis says Peace Corps is "sacred cow"

"American Taboo" by Philip Weiss

23-year-old Deb Gardner was brutally murdered in Tonga in 1976 by a fellow American volunteer who to this day walks free -- thanks to a disgraceful coverup by the Corps and the U.S.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Bob Shacochis

July 20, 2004 | Whenever America -- its citizens, its representatives, its officials -- paves over an injustice with seemingly impenetrable silence, it matters and it matters a lot, because sooner or later what's beneath that silence, in its rise back toward the light, will shake the earth, and by that I mean our humanity itself will be shaken by the disgrace and indignation that good people will feel when the truth is finally known.

On Oct. 14, 1976, a beautiful, vivacious, altruistic 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from the state of Washington, Deborah Gardner, died in the island nation of Tonga in the South Pacific, the 11th Peace Corps fatality of that year. What distinguished her death from the other 10, and from every other Peace Corps death before or since, is the fact that Deb Gardner was murdered, savagely hacked to death, by a fellow volunteer, Dennis Priven, then a 24-year-old science teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

With his Seahorse diving knife, Priven stabbed Deb Gardner 22 times, and -- here's the point, here's why we're obliged to talk about this 28 years later -- this coldblooded killer walked away from the crime scot-free, aided and abetted by the Peace Corps and the U.S. government and their subsequent coverup of the atrocity. In the aftermath of her slaying, Gardner was treated like garbage, not by the traumatized Tongans but by her own heartless and chillingly naive countrymen, as though her life had no value and her death no meaning.

Since 1977, Priven has lived in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up, without censure or scorn or any limitation placed on his liberty. When it was clear to Priven that Philip Weiss' "American Taboo" would be published this year, he changed his phone number and took early retirement from his job at the Social Security Administration. The only real punishment he has endured for his crime is abstract, existential: to live his days as a lonely sociopath, presumably haunted by his brutal act and pitied by his deluded friends. Gee, poor monster.

If justice had been served, if the Peace Corps itself and even some of its volunteers, despicable champions of Priven, had not skewed that process with lies, evasions, threats, indefensible silence, ugly distortions of the victim's character, misrepresentations and outright cowardice, Priven would have been executed in Tonga long ago, and good riddance.

The subject, I must admit, is highly personal. I never knew Deb Gardner, but I've known about her for almost three decades, and we have at least one thing in common: We both experienced the dark side of the Peace Corps. As Peace Corps volunteers in 1976, we were, at opposite ends of the world, both victims of knife attacks in our own homes. She died, I obviously survived. She was assaulted by a colleague, a brooding, introverted but, by all accounts, brilliant young man who obsessed about being her lover. I was assaulted by a stranger during a break-in, who was sentenced to seven years of hard labor.

 American Taboo

Every government agency is sensitive to public image but none so much as the vaunted yet often-controversial Peace Corps, where the balance between damage and damage control has frequently been a high-wire act determining its very existence.

In October 1976, as I sat in Peace Corps headquarters in Washington making arrangements to return to my host country in the Eastern Caribbean to testify at the trial of my assailant, that administrative challenge was formidable. The building whispered with news of a homicide in the South Pacific, something about a ménage à trois gone bad. My region, the West Indies, was focused on more run-of-the-mill turmoil: the evacuation of volunteers from mayhem in Jamaica, the psychological counseling of one of my fellow volunteers from the islands who had been gang-raped and beaten by local thugs. That summer, one of my closest Peace Corps friends on St. Kitts had died in a freak accident, and my roommate, a scruffy biker from California, conned me out of the few hundred dollars in my bank account and vanished back to the States.

I was never ambivalent about my service in the Peace Corps or my support for the goals of the organization. These misfortunes and hundreds more throughout its history do not indict the Peace Corps mission or cast in doubt its efficacy. The problem (which comes and goes), precisely characterized and illuminated by Philip Weiss, has been the tacit understanding within the organization that its myriad and mostly predictable troubles are taboo, not subject to public or even congressional scrutiny, and my own experience can do nothing but confirm Weiss' conclusion.

As a writer and former volunteer, I wasn't inclined to overlook the skeletons in the Peace Corps closet, and in 1983 I pitched the story of Peace Corps casualties (victims of violence, psychological burnouts, suicides, political scapegoats) to Playboy magazine and was given the assignment. What happened next has everything to do with the dynamics Weiss so painstakingly investigates in "American Taboo." I flew to Connecticut to meet with the family of Philip Cyr, a volunteer murdered in Nepal by bandits, but my interview with the grieving parents was interrupted, incredibly, by a phone call from the then-director of the Peace Corps, Loret Miller Ruppe, who advised the Cyrs not to talk.

A short time later, Peace Corps headquarters issued a worldwide memo to its staff threatening disciplinary action against anyone who spoke with me. My sources (and friends) within the organization stopped taking my calls. My Freedom of Information Act request for documents was kicked back at me with a price tag of more than a million dollars.

Despite Peace Corps stonewalling and crude obstruction, I completed the article but, beginning with Playboy, every major general-interest magazine in the country turned it down, a phenomenon later explained to me by C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, who had read the piece. The Peace Corps, Curtis said, was a sacred cow, and no editor wanted to be responsible for undermining its exalted image.

 American Taboo

But my intention, and Weiss certainly seems to share it, was never to take down or disparage the Peace Corps, but to air out structural flaws, with the hope that future volunteers would be better prepared to overcome the challenges that would confront them, physically, psychologically and emotionally, in the far-flung corners of the world. Idealism's survival is under constant numbing pressure in any government institution, especially at the federal level, where it slowly decays on the vines of politics and bureaucracy, and over the years the Peace Corps, America's most idealistic institution, has labored to preserve its shining reputation, though sometimes at the expense of the very principles it embodies.

Some readers of "American Taboo" will argue that the events surrounding the murder of Deborah Gardner that Weiss so compellingly reconstructs happened under the auspices of a Peace Corps long past, perpetrated by a relatively small group of people who never genuinely embraced or practiced the values of the Corps, or did in fact embrace but selfishly corrupted.

The bigger concern, in my opinion, is who controls the story of the Peace Corps, who controls the story of Deb Gardner, and to what purpose. The Peace Corps, always, was really about us, what sort of people we Americans would be, who we were not just at home but in the world. "American Taboo" makes the answer much less clear and reopens the conversation at a critical point in our history. Not since Vietnam is the country more in need of self-reflection and self-assessment than it is now. For that reason alone, I hope "American Taboo" finds a wide audience.

But there's even a better reason. "American Taboo" is a spectacular debut by a writer who must be applauded for his clarity and fairness, the lean elegance of his narrative untainted by cynicism or the indiscretion of agendas. Unlike the individuals in the South Pacific and Washington who brought shame and dishonor to the noble service of almost a quarter of a million Peace Corps volunteers and staff for more than 40 years, Philip Weiss is a great American, a true patriot who lives and breathes and writes in the sunlight of a moral universe. That no one could protect Deborah Gardner when she was alive is perhaps understandable; that no one, for the sake of human dignity and decency, protected her when she was dead is forever inexcusable.

Now Weiss, the only real guardian angel in the life that was Deb Gardner's, rides in this storm, and his words have summoned a justice long denied.

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: Salon

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Tonga; Speaking Out; Criticism; Crime; Murder



By Orianne Reich (rdbck-3626.palmer.mtaonline.net - on Monday, August 02, 2004 - 11:58 pm: Edit Post

I seem to have a lot to add this evening. When I was a volunteer in GUatemala...a long time ago, Newsweek or Time ran an article and photograph about PC Volunteers. I believe the article referenced a South American country and the photo showed a PC Jeep parked in front of a whore house.
Have come to know folks who returned home early from their 2 year stint as they didn't like the Corps at all.

By Darcy Meijer ( on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 3:45 pm: Edit Post

I got the point Weiss made loud and clear, delivered as it was with full drama. What happened to that poor PCV is very very sad.

BUT the form of the question posed by PCOnline is unfair:
"Should RPCVs JUST KEEP THEIR MOUTHS SHUT AND HELP PRESERVE PC's reputation or do they have a RESPONSIBILITY to SPEAK OUT on issues that CAN HELP IMPROVE the Peace Corps?"

I have seen this kind of leading question several times on PCOnline and, although I generally appreciate the issues you raise and the news you cover, feel that you will get only a limited kind and number of responses.

By Anon Ymous (dialup- - on Sunday, November 14, 2004 - 3:20 pm: Edit Post

As a PCV mom, who visited her daughter in her Pacific placement, I have come to the conclusion that Peace Corps operates as a "cult". They isolate the volunteers from their families, they tell them that their families won't really understand what's going on there, that they only have each other, that they need to work amongst the native people - but keep themselves apart, that they need to protect each other and depend on each other, and that anything bad that happens to any PC is almost always the victim's fault for not scruptiously following the rules. They put these kids in an alien and potentially hostile environment and brainwash them, just like Patti Hearst was brainwashed.

On top of that, the bureaucracy of PC is non-professional and scattered. The cardinal PC rules that "safety is our number one concern" and that no PCV be placed in less than a PC approved secure housing is a joke. PC routinely allows PCVs to be placed in temporary housing, and allows that temporary housing situation to stretch on for months, even after break-in and assaults. They leave the decision to leave if they feel unsafe to the inexperienced PCV, who not wanting to appear less than capable, continues to stay in a vulnerable situation. The message to the native population becomes, PC is a toothless organization and the volunteers are fair game. Which, of course, manipulates the PCV's emotional dependency on the PC as their only friend. Just what a cult does to achieve blind obedience.

By mike osborn (majoroz) (cache-mtc-aa04.proxy.aol.com - on Tuesday, November 30, 2004 - 2:48 am: Edit Post

You got it right, mom.
As a Micronesia / Palau volunteer, I saw exactly what you indicated.
Luckily, I was 55 when I went there -- experienced enough to recognize the hacks in charge for what they were. I was able to do my job, make friends, and present what I hoped was a good face for the USA very much IN SPITE OF THE PC ADMINISTRATION, not because of it.
One thing you didn't mention, perhaps because you didn't see it, is the graft that exists between the HCN's employed by PC and the selection of where the PCV is housed. There is obvious collusion and kickbacks involved, but PC admin doesn't care, as long as the precious local kull-churrr is not offended.
Lest that last be missinterpreted, let it be known that, in ANY dissagreement with a HCN, about any subject -- from what clothes to wear to teaching technique -- we are denigrating their kull-churrr by even questioning.
I hope your daughter survived the experience. It can be great. In spite of the problems, I had a great time, ignored PC policy, made fast friends, and, I think, helped people improve themselves.

oz, Micro 61

By Dee Hart ( on Thursday, January 13, 2005 - 5:17 pm: Edit Post

Wow this is great stuff, and couldn't agree more with the mindless collusion PC admin is all about within host countries. My sister, who was murdered days after she COS'd in Nepal, was one of the most talented teachers Nepal ever saw and yet she got NO support from the home office and when she went missing they covered their asses basically and turned her case over the state department as soon as they could. And of course the state dept is equally USELESS. It just pains me that the Peace Corps value's are all about giving of yourself, extending your boundaries, bla blah blah but when push comes to shove they won't put it on the line for their own volunteers, it's all about keeping the publicity good and the host country happy. clueless beaurocrats all around. Safety is our #1 concern my ass, their #1 concern is fundraising and keeping a smiling face on the whole thing.

By kymalia (cache-dtc-aa04.proxy.aol.com - on Sunday, June 19, 2005 - 10:01 am: Edit Post

Re:post by Dee Hart:

Please tell the story of your sister here. I was shocked by Deb Gardner's murder, and now I read your post about your sister being murdered while in the PC as well. I was about to fill out my paperwork to join up, but now I feel I definately need more honest info than I have been receiving from the PC. The picture they painted for me, a potential volunteer with many languages & much experience under her belt, has been a rosy, happy, trouble-free one. Please, Dee, tell your sister's story...

By former Volunteer (dialup- - on Sunday, April 09, 2006 - 10:56 pm: Edit Post

Bob Shaconis,

Thanks for writing this article. I just came across it. What you write is true. When Peace Corps makes a mistake, they certainly go all out to cover it up, like they have with all the safety and security and health cases over the years. Your voice needs to be heard more loud and clear to the people of the United States.

former volunteer

By daniel (ca03-ch01-bl04.ca-sanfranc0.sa.earthlink.net - on Wednesday, April 26, 2006 - 10:57 am: Edit Post

Darcy, you should keep your mouth shut.


By Kevin Bartoy (adsl-64-168-249-106.dsl.sntc01.pacbell.net - on Wednesday, May 31, 2006 - 6:18 pm: Edit Post

This is a very moving story. My wife and I were just nominated for service. We were so excited in the application phase, but as we did more research, we became increasingly disillusioned with the Peace Corps. We were especially concerned with free speech issues, but safety issues seem much more problematic.

What makes me even more sad is that all of the Peace Corps listservs that I have been corresponding with seem to promote a cult-like group think. It is never the fault of the Peace Corps. It is always the PCV. The PCV needs to be more open and flexible. Or, the PCV didn't follow such and such rule to the tee even if there isn't a rule in place.

It is very frightening to me.

I wonder if there might not be a way to create an NGO that does similar work to the PC, but draws on folks from throughout the world and is fully funded so that folks don't have to pay to serve. It would be nice to take the values of PC and get rid of the bureaucracy and politics. I really think that the values and goals of PC are completely inconsistent with its existence as a government agency.

By Anonymous (ca208-ch03-bl01.il-chicago0.sa.earthlink.net - on Thursday, June 01, 2006 - 9:22 pm: Edit Post


you are right on. Former Volunteer.

By RPCV (ppp-69-148-18-88.dsl.austtx.swbell.net - on Friday, June 02, 2006 - 4:18 pm: Edit Post

Go to www.vsocan.org

The web site I provided above is incorrect ...

By RPCV (ppp-69-148-18-88.dsl.austtx.swbell.net - on Friday, June 02, 2006 - 4:13 pm: Edit Post

While this RPCV doesn't agree with many of the negative comments above (the vast majority of PCVs find their experiences quite fulfilling - although nobody is ever enamored with bureaucracy - which increases with the amount of support provided ...), I would suggest that if you definitely decided against PC that you look into:


VSO takes volunteers of all nationalities, and I believe their office in Canada handles North America.

You can find volunteers in this organization with similar complaints, but, again the vast majority seem very satisfied with their experiences.

By John Weeks (proxy1.online.com.kh - on Tuesday, December 12, 2006 - 4:44 am: Edit Post

Not all VSO Volunteers had a good time

VSO Hard Core

The Perils of life as a volunteer in Cambodia:

The Perils of life as a volunteer in Cambodia 2

By Chester Copperpot (c-71-63-239-139.hsd1.mn.comcast.net - on Sunday, June 17, 2007 - 7:33 pm: Edit Post

I was a PCV in Tonga 2003 - 2005. Since I have been home, I have always highly recommended the PC to anybody with a couple of free years to spend. On my island, 75% of the volunteers contracted dengue fever, 1 got punched in the face and lost a tooth, everybody had things stolen. Both before and after my time there, some more serious situations came up...

People in this thread have compared the PC to a cult. I don't see the parallels. My Peace Corps office didn't try to brainwash us, but they were honest with us. Among other things, they told us - we had to look after ourselves, the easiest way to stay safe was to get on friendly terms with the community, the easiest way to get on friendly terms with the community was to learn from them and try not to piss them off by doing things they disapprove of, or rile them up with temptations they don't normally deal with. I forget the exact percentage, but they tried to drive home the point that nearly all incidents occured late at night and involved alcohol.

Aside from the dengue and petty theft, nearly every incident that occured on my island while I was there, are things that could have easily been avoided.

When did I get in fights? while drinking homebrew in villages where I didn't know many people. where did my buddy get his face rearranged? At the bar Peace Corps told us not to go to. When did the host school stop supporting their PCV? When she had sex with her second teacher from that school.

I was on an outer island that only had 1 staff memeber (a HCN who always took our side in disputes with both our hosts and the office).

I do believe that safety was our post's #1 priority. This was the reason for all of the rules and warnings. Although safety was the number 1 priority, the office was definately more reactive than proactive in this regard. all in all our staff was rather inept.

Although I understood that the rules and warnings were in our best interest, there wasn't a rule that i didn't break, nor a warning that i gave paid much credence. Had I adhered as they had wanted me to, I would have been extremely safe, and extremely bored.

By John Weeks (bexley-six-eighty-seven.mit.edu - on Saturday, October 06, 2007 - 4:09 am: Edit Post

As of this writing, there's only one John Weeks in Cambodia, and his opinions differ from the commenter above and writer of "VSO Hard Core".

I can be notified of further attempts at identity theft via john [at] jweeks [dot] net. Thanks.

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