Saturday, March 7, 2020

Q&A with Deanne Stillman

Deanne Stillman, photo by Martin Sugarman
Deanne Stillman is the author of the book Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. Her other books include Blood Brothers, Mustang, and Desert Reckoning, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Q: Why did you decide to write Twentynine Palms?

A: I am a long-time desert pilgrim, and have done a lot of hiking in Joshua Tree National Park.

One day, after a hike, I headed into a local bar, the Josh Inn, and overheard two locals talking about two girls who had recently been "sliced up" by a Marine. I asked who the girls were and instantly the response was "just some trash in town."

I knew something about the kids who lived there, because I had spent time in Twentynine Palms, which is a portal into the park and home of the world's largest Marine base.

I would run into these kids - sons and daughters of the various tribes in town, including bikers, Marines, Crips, other gangs, or just plain cast-aways like their parents, often single mothers who were latter-day camp followers, settling in military towns because that's where you could earn a living at the various establishments which serviced the Corps.

It was very upsetting to hear the girls described this way.

I myself have a riches-to-rags origin story, having grown up in comfort (a Tudor mansion, French lessons, tailor-made clothing) until that all came to a halt, literally overnight, when I found out that my parents were getting divorced and immediately thereafter, my mother, sister, and I moved to the working class side of town, into a very small house in a neighborhood where everyone had a different view of things. (For more on this, see here).

For instance, any girl who wanted to go to college was said to be pursuing an "MRS degree." But it was much worse than that.

For the people where I came from, it was as if we no longer existed. Suddenly, even some of our own relatives stopped talking to us. Quite simply, we no longer had a voice and were persona non grata. Living on this side of town was my first encounter with America's dirty little secret, class.

Plus my mother, known as a "divorcee," was regarded as a "loose woman" by parents of kids I went to school with. After all, you just can't trust single women.

As it happened, she was an equestrian par excellence, and got a job right away on the racetrack - one of the first women in the country to ride professionally as an "exercise boy" - and became a local novelty.

And it was there that we found solace among a parade of track characters, including various folk from Appalachia who made a living on the racetrack circuit, taking care of thoroughbreds as they moved from meet to meet.

I had learned to write as a child; my father taught me and this was a way out - and into my own private Idaho.

I spent a lot of time reading and composing stories and years later, after I had been making my living as a writer, and spending a lot of time in the desert as a way to escape from Los Angeles and its social codes such as whether or not you're on certain guest lists, I went on that hike in the park and overheard that gossip about the two girls.

It rang me like a church bell on D-Day, and I knew that I had to tell the story of those two girls, following the trail wherever it took me. Whoever they were, I knew quite well what it was like to be stripped of a voice - to be cast aside as if you never existed.

I promised myself that I would speak for them - and that's how it all started.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I spent 10 years working on this book. To reiterate, I love the desert, so spending time in a desert town, especially one that was right next to a preserve of Joshua trees, was not a problem.

Plus I love hard rock and desert bars are one of the few places where you can count on hearing Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, George Thorogood on jukeboxes on a regular basis.

The desert is a main character in my book (and life), and I don't think I would have pursued this story if it hadn't taken place in the Mojave. So all of my other work on this book flowed from there.

The first task at hand was tracking down people who knew the girls who had been killed. Their names - Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega - had been in a local paper. I had read that Mandi's mother, Debie McMaster, was a bartender somewhere in the area. So I visited various local bars and inquired.

Finally, I found out that she was working at a bar called the Oasis and went in one day and introduced myself. That was a weird conversation to have.

As I always tell my students, you can't say, "Hi. You've just suffered a tragedy. May I interview you?" Although as we all know, plenty of media types do this all of the time. That's not my style and anyway, I wanted to try to begin a conversation.

I explained that I had heard about her daughter and was hoping to write about her some day, if that was acceptable. I talked about my writing credits (Rolling Stone, the NY Times, LA Times, and so on), to show that I was actually a bona fide writer.

I didn't expect that to make a dent, really, and it didn't. At least not at first. About six months later, I received a call from Debie, and she said that she would like to hear more about what I wanted to do, and was open to talking further.

So I headed back out to Twentynine Palms, and thus began many years of conversations. She introduced me to Mandi's friends and they in turn introduced me to others and mainly via hanging out at the Oasis and elsewhere, I got to know various Marines and other locals who could fill me in on this story and its context.

Plus I spent plenty of time wandering the nooks and crannies of the region, into biker pads and shacks where drifters were living.

And then there was visiting the base - this was before 9/11, so it was much easier than it would be now; various libraries, and lots of reading about the town's history, going all the way back to indigenous settlements and including the natural and geological history of the area and then following the parade of colonial settlers into the frontier and modern era.

This was the path of the American promise: come west, young whoever you are, and start over in the West.

Among other things that I was able to do in my book was trace the family histories of Mandi and Rosie back for generations, in Mandi's case to the Donner Party and Rosie's, to a shack in the Philippines. Each family's legacy was one of poverty and violence, and they came to California to try to shuck that past.

I'm generally of the "nothing surprises me" school, but that was a pretty amazing thing - that this story revealed a convergence, of two families in pursuit of happiness, you might say, and then they had a fatal collision with the US Marine Corps.

Both families, by the way, have military histories themselves. Debie's brothers served in Vietnam; an ex-husband of Debie's was in the Navy, and Rosie's father was in the Army. The Army provided a way out of the jungle in the Philippines for Rosie's mother.

Q: The book has been out for almost two decades. How have people responded to it, and have those responses changed over the years?

A: Yes, next year is its 20th anniversary and in honor of that, the singer-songwriter Tony Gilkyson (formerly of X) are adapting it as a musical. Plus the band Granville Automatic recently wrote and recorded a song inspired by my book, which you can listen to here.

In terms of response to this book, when it was first published in 2001, it received a wonderful critical reaction, for the most part.

Some locals, on the other hand, orchestrated a campaign to take it down on Amazon, fearful that coverage of a double homicide in a town that depends on tourism for much of its income would have a deleterious effect.

However, that did not happen; in fact people have told me over the years that my writing about the desert in this book drew them to visit the area - not to check out a crime scene, but to get to know the Mojave.

But for a few years after my book came out, I was concerned about visiting Twentynine Palms, even to the extent that I was hesitant to do a talk about my book, Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango, a celebration of the park. at the Twentynine Palms Inn, sponsored by a local publication, The Sun Runner.

The late Scott Timberg, a culture critic for the LA Times at the time, covered that event, and wrote about what was going on in the town regarding my book in this article.

I should also mention that the Marine who killed the girls I wrote about was sentenced to mandatory life without parole following a lengthy trial, which I covered in my book.

To this day, I hear from women he assaulted before joining the Corps and while in it. I met one of them years ago, while working on my book, and her story is in it.

It is truly horrifying; he raped her six weeks before killing Mandi and Rosie. Her father was a sergeant major in the Corps and she reported the incident to him. But little was done, due to the fact that the killer was a star on the Marine basketball team.

It was all shades of OJ - and this trial played out at the same time in a desert courthouse. I also recount these scenes in my book, including the fact that the OJ verdict factored into this one, in a negative way.

Some of the women I hear from in recent years are finding out for the first time about the crimes this Marine committed so long ago, like Tammy, the sergeant major's daughter, regretful that they didn't come forward sooner. A few years ago, my book helped cops make a 20-year-old cold rape case against him. 

So my book has hit a nerve, across the board, for better and for worse, and it's now included in college literary nonfiction classes, along with Didion, Capote, and Krakauer.

Back to the original publication date for a moment. Shortly after my book came out, 9/11 happened. It understandably became unfashionable to criticize the military at that time - though that's not what my book does.

In fact, I include a history of the USMC, and could not have written my book without Marines, one of whom cracked this case.

But 9/11 did impact my book's path at that time and then when it started to regain momentum, the war in Iraq began, which had a negative effect on the next edition.

Again: any discussion of the military involving a difficult subject such as a Marine who lost it on the home front, with two girls as collateral damage (as I point out in my book), was problematic.

But a couple of years later, Twentynine Palms was back on track, and then reissued in a new, updated edition, and I can happily report that it has now attained cult status (see here). 

Q: What do you hope people take away from the book?

A: First of all, Mandi and Rosie were part of a circle of fiercely devoted friends. I have never in my life seen such strong displays of loyalty and service - and all of it in spite of extreme hardship.

Plus their circle was diverse - white, black, Samoan, Latina, Filipina. You often see this in rural military towns, and in the military, not in liberal quarters where such ways are advocated. What goes on in these towns can serve as a model for how America works, and for now, it should be honored for what it is.

Second, Mandi and Rosie took care of each other, their friends, their friends' children. Mandi was the town babysitter. Rosie worked at a gas station. They sent Marines off to war, welcomed them home, danced with them, cooked for them, slept with them - and were killed by one.

They gave their lives for their country - and their bodies were left on the field because they were girls. In my view, they were American heroes, and that's what I hope more than anything that people take away from my book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I also write plays; one of them, Reflections in a D'Back's Eye, was just produced in LA. It's about the mass shooting in Tucson in which Rep. Gabby Giffords was wounded and a 9-year-old girl who just wanted to play baseball was killed.

My play centers around her story, often overlooked in coverage of this sad event. I'm working on some revisions, with an eye towards a fuller production this summer. Here's more info about it. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. Next time you're in Twentynine Palms (or any remote town), staying at local inns or motels, make sure to tip the housekeepers, and always be kind to the workers you encounter at local bars, pizza joints, gas stations, coffee houses, casinos and elsewhere.

They are down in the hold, trying to put out the fire - and most importantly, try to know their names.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Deanne Stillman.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! Love the ending, the simple act of knowing people's names who serve you is such a simple act of kindness. acknowledging someone is key.