The only way to cope with loss

The Third Rainbow Girl’ by Emma Copley Eisenberg

3 minute read
Loss, survival, and witnessing in an absorbing story from Appalachia. (Image courtesy of Hachette Books.)
Loss, survival, and witnessing in an absorbing story from Appalachia. (Image courtesy of Hachette Books.)

After graduating from college in 2009, The Third Rainbow Girl author Emma Copley Eisenberg went to Pocahontas County, West Virginia, to volunteer at a camp for teenage girls. She became fascinated with the region, and the complicated aftermath of the murder of two young women there in 1980.

Nicki Durian and Nancy Santomero hitchhiked from Arizona to Pocahontas County to attend the Rainbow Gathering, a peace festival happening in the Monongahela National Forest for the first time. The women’s bodies were discovered in June of that year in a large clearing. Both were shot at close range and showed no evidence of sexual assault. The third rainbow girl, Elizabeth Johndrow, hitchhiked across the country with Durian and Santomero, but decided at the last minute not to attend the festival.

Many stories

Eisenberg unfolds investigations into this heinous crime, chronicling accusations against nine local men who were arrested in association with the murders. Local farmer Jacob Beard, rumored to have a history of violent behavior and alcohol abuse, was convicted in 1993, but was eventually exonerated after serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin confessed to the crime. Because Franklin was already incarcerated for another of his many racist murders, he was not prosecuted. The case of the rainbow girls was never officially solved.

Several narratives unwind simultaneously throughout the book, including the history of rural West Virginia, a state as invisible as it is mythologized; and the Pocahontas County community, especially the trauma of local men in connection to the murders.

American groundwater

There are many men involved in all aspects of the author’s temporary life in West Virginia and her ensuing research. Yet this book is not really about men, but about women existing in a male-dominated world­—angry, naïve, curious, or adventurous, but most of all, full of life.

“Misogyny is in the groundwater of every American city and every American town,” Eisenberg writes. To examine this double murder in Pocahontas County is to write about various forms of violence against women. Several times the author highlights commentary surrounding Durian and Santomero’s looks and body size, which she asserts disqualified them from receiving the national news coverage disproportionately given to conventionally attractive white women, and almost never to women of color or men.

Through sharing additional details about the women and girls who are somehow connected to this place—including the rainbow girls—the author creates a sort of shelter for these women, a way in which an outsider can look at their lives and circumstances with a subtle but undeniable compassion and recognition.

Not letting go

Eisenberg also weaves her own inner life into the book, sharing her experience coming into adulthood as a queer woman from New York, beckoned by a place that most of her friends and family, Eisenberg notes, could not mentally locate or even fathom.

By including stories about friends and bosses, her work with high-school girls, her mentors and roommates, and her general out-of-place feeling in Appalachia, Eisenberg reveals how her time in Pocahontas County broadened her understanding of the world by adding doubt and complexity to it. She captures the Sisyphean experience of growing up, of never again being able to reconcile the cruelty of the world with her own perceptions, of still not being able to let go.

Loss and witnessing

At one point, Eisenberg describes how a survivor of one of Franklin’s attacks, Terry Mitchell, was able to forgive him. Mitchell’s resilience is heartbreaking, and harkens back to one of the book’s major themes: how people respond to loss. Elizabeth Johndrow may be the third rainbow girl, but this is also a concept looming throughout the book—suggesting that the only way to cope with loss is through surviving.

This scrupulously researched, generous book features photos of those involved and maps of West Virginia, allowing us to continue to witness the rainbow girls’ story.

What, When, Where

The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia. Hachette Books, January 21, 2020. 304 pages; hardcover; $13.99. Get it here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation