The West Virginia Murders That Tore a Town Apart

In the first pages of Emma Copley Eisenberg’s nonfiction debut, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, we learn about a bizarre West Virginia crime that took place on June 25, 1980, and that the case is satisfactorily closed.

Or is it?

What remains to be discovered is the injustice of nine local men who were wrongfully tried — some convicted, one serving hard time for something he didn’t do. Their stories, and the stories of the “rainbow girls,” reveal the life-long burden borne by people living in a place “where misogyny is in the groundwater.”

Eisenberg’s investigation reads like a page-turning novel, and The Third Rainbow is a must-read for anyone interested in Appalachia or true crime. I had a chance to chat with Emma Copley Eisenberg and gain her perspective on the crime, its aftermath, and her journey through it. 

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that The Third Rainbow Girl became about so much more than Liz, the woman who started out with Vicki and Nancy but survived by changing direction and heading north. What does the title mean to you now, and is it also about your own journey?

During my first interview with Liz, she told me that she was not physically harmed by the deaths of her friends and everything that had come after, but she was traumatized, and that she carried a great deal of survivor’s guilt. This struck a chord immediately with me, not just in terms of my own story but also in terms of what I’d witnessed while living in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

Then, as I kept writing and researching and reporting, I learned that the same could be said of the nine men who had been accused or incarcerated for these crimes and their kids and neighbors as well as for the investigators in this case and their families and many other people besides, including the families of the victims of Joseph Paul Franklin and even his own daughter. There are so many third Rainbow girls in this story, if you will, people who survived, but lived with trauma for the rest of their lives.

As a self-described fiction writer, how did you prepare to write a nonfiction true crime book with as much depth and historical perspective as The Third Rainbow Girl? What advice would you give others interested in doing the same thing? 

For better or worse, I consider myself a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. While fiction will always be my first love and what I got my MFA in, I have also been cultivating nonfiction and reporting skills for some time. I worked at alt weekly papers as a reporter and fact checker both in Philadelphia and in Charlottesville, VA, and received some important mentoring in those settings.

While I dropped out after a semester, my time in the NYU Literary Reportage program also gave me some key insights into how to turn facts into a compelling narrative and how to put together a nonfiction book. My agent, Jin Auh, is also highly experienced with both fiction and nonfiction authors, and was an invaluable resource when writing the proposal and beyond.

Once I started writing nonfiction, my fiction got much better—it was suddenly free to be only what it was. Being a fiction writer also brings huge assets to writing nonfiction—how to have fun with language, create scenes and movement, and much more. In some ways I think fiction writers make the best reporters—we know what is factually true and what isn’t and we also know how to pay attention to emotional truth that can’t be “verified.” The biggest barrier may be picking up the phone. I say, just do it.

Why do you think it is important for Appalachia to be well understood? What are your key learnings from the area?

I am going to push back on this question. Would we ask the same of the Midwest or the West Coast or New England? I don’t think key learnings can be extracted from any area, Appalachia or otherwise. Appalachia does have a particular history and a particular relationship with broader America—essentially one of having its resources systematically extracted and its people dehumanized to make the process of resource extraction easier (go read What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte and Ramp Hollow by Steven Stoll).

Also, as I talk about in the book, I think especially right now it’s important to remember that Appalachia is not “the heart of Trump Country” as so many 2016 think pieces would have us believe; rich white people voted for Trump in far greater numbers than poor white people did. West Virginia voted Democratic in every twentieth century election except four, and the turn towards voting red is a relatively recent development. West Virginia has the highest percentage per capita of trans young people of every American state. A lot of queer people live in Appalachia, and a lot of people of color. 

How is the plight of the wrongly accused men in The Third Rainbow Girl a reflection of your own journey and the young girls you helped at Mountain Views?

Yes! It’s all connected. One of the biggest things the process of writing this book taught me is that one person or group’s suffering does not cancel out the suffering of another person or group, even if it seems like in all that suffering someone should be right and someone should be wrong. The word you used here—“reflection”—feels so right, almost like a shadow, or an image seen in reverse. 

When I started writing the book, I thought I was entering into it from the position of empathizing with Vicki and Nancy, the women who were killed, and by extension with the young women of Mountain Views who have to live in our world that is bathed in misogyny and in this particular community where resources for abortion and sexual assault prevention and reporting are especially difficult to access. But as I researched and reported and wrote more, I felt my empathy rising also for the men I had known and been friends with and been intimate with in Pocahontas County. They too were suffering under misogyny and toxic masculinity and an old story that has been told about Appalachian masculinity in particular—that it is scary and harmful. I watched the men I knew be in pain and try to navigate this bind and connect with me and each other. 

And then I also learned that nine guys were accused or confessed to these crimes, some under extreme police duress. Most of them were locked up on the basis of a single statement and stayed in jail for periods of two months to two years because they couldn’t make bail, very similar to the ways mostly young people of color are incarcerated in Philadelphia and Baltimore and New York and other cities due to the cash bail system. Many of these guys’ lives were tanked in major ways by being accused of and/or incarcerated for these crimes—they lost jobs, lost relationships, lost self-respect and the respect for others, lost their mental or physical health. And their descendants and nephews and friends were the young men that would become my friends and the friends and brothers and lovers of the girls I worked with at Mountain Views. It was all connected. 

Which of the many characters you interviewed or researched, stays in your thoughts or even haunts you the most and why? 

I think I’ll be forever haunted by Pee Wee Walton, one of the nine guys on whom suspicion was eventually cast. Ultimately, Walton became the major state’s witness in the trial of West Virginia vs. Jacob Beard, but his statements and testimony had always been suspect. At times he said had been at the scene of the crime when these two women were murdered, at other times he said he thought he’d only dreamed that he’d been there. He was assaulted by West Virginia State Police for several hours in the process of extracting an initial statement (twelve years after the fact of the murders). The way he was pursued by investigators over a period of years and compelled to testify not at one trial but at two and the ways his own life was impacted by this confusing stew of guilt, violence, memory, and imagination is something I don’t know if I’ll ever truly understand. 

Toward the end of the book, we see the impact this murder investigation has had on you, such as when you contemplated suicide. Truman Capote was said to have suffered emotionally after writing In Cold Blood. What advice or insights would you give others of how to cope with truths and lies that shake our world so much so that we want to end it? 

I wish I had any good advice. I dreamed about murder every night—either murdering or being murdered–for about three years, the years I was most substantively engaged in writing this book. I wish, I suppose, I had been more prepared for this, and also more prepared for the element of rage that comes from being a woman looking into these kinds of crimes. Preparing and being informed and seeking out others engaged in such projects are probably very good ideas. Also having a great therapist—which I had, thank goodness. 

One of the most chilling messages in the book is that stories told about us can become our prophecy. Can you say more about this? 

Yes, I believe this is true. In the context of the book, I think what I ultimately felt to be most true about why these crimes expanded to become so gigantic and wound so many is that they were driven by an old story and the reaction to that story. For hundreds of years, mainstream American news and cultural media has been telling a story about Appalachia—bad, disgraceful, poor—and about Appalachian masculinity in particular—violent, senseless, rapey, deranged. It is not possible, I think, to grow up in a place so discounted and disdained without internalizing some of that story, similar to the way we now talk about internalized racism or internalized homophobia.

The epic investigation into these crimes was, in my opinion, driven largely by this story—we are bad, the badness came from us, particularly our men, and we must root it out in order to be whole again. But it was this attitude, I have come to believe, that inflicted the most trauma on the community, a community that is many things, but bad is not I believe, one of them. 

What is your next project? 

I’m at work on a novel and a story collection! Queerness, fatness, fun with language, Philadelphia and American travel will all make major appearances. Stay tuned