True Crime-Memoir Tells Tale of Double Murder



(Courtesy Lissa Warren PR)

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s short stories and essays have been published in most of the places you’d expect to find a literary rising star: McSweeney’s, Tin House, The Paris Review, etc.

But now comes the moment of truth, a debut book, 300 pages, a major publisher and a review in The New York Times.

Originally from New York, Eisenberg moved to the area in 2005, matriculating at Haverford College. In her newly released true crime-memoir hybrid, “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia,” she refers to her Main Line alma mater as “my liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia, (where) I destroyed every God — religion, literature, politics, feminism, art — with my self-important words, dismissing each as problematic and essentially worthless.”

Now, some 10 years after graduation, Eisenberg’s writing has obviously evolved. The Times called her debut “evocative and elegantly paced,” and that constitutes just a fraction of the praise heaped.

Maybe that’s why there was such a healthy crowd on hand for Eisenberg’s conversation with journalist and podcaster Sarah Marshall at the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia on Jan. 23. It could also be because Eisenberg is a prominent literary figure in town — she’s the founder of the Blue Stoop writers’ collective, a nonprofit that bills itself as “a home for Philly writers.”

The memoir part of the book chronicles Eisenberg’s move to, and years-long residency in, remote Pocahontas County, West Virginia, a part of Appalachia that’s become fashionable to write about again — see, most notably, J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and the response it spawned.

Emma Copley Eisenberg (Courtesy Lissa Warren PR)

Eisenberg was careful not to treat Pocahontas County in any way that would recall Vance’s treatment of Appalachia, which was, she said, “received really negatively by people. The feeling was that it was really untrue, both on a factual and an emotional level.”

Pocahontas County was the site of an unsolved double murder in 1980. Three young women had traveled from out of state for a music and nature festival called the Rainbow Gathering. They never made it. Two of the women were murdered; the third lived but somehow disappeared from the scene. In the intervening years, there was an overturned conviction and leads that came to dead ends. The case turned cold, languishing for years, casting a pall over the community, sowing distrust between neighbors and exposing the roots of that region’s historical sociocultural sensitivities.

The one thing Eisenberg didn’t want to do was exploit the fissures in that community for her own benefit or to aid in the salaciousness of the book. She acknowledged that writing about real people and a real community comes with a burden of responsibility that doesn’t complicate fiction writing.

“It is a really overwhelming and huge responsibility,” Eisenberg said. “And there are moments where that feels heavy, and others where that feels really beautiful and important.

“No journalist is a clear pane of glass,” she continued. “Everyone has their own biases and flaws and, if anything, I try to make those very clear throughout the book.”

Eisenberg spent years reinvestigating the crimes and unpacking the region’s social pathology. She took a regular job there, in a restaurant. She made friends her own age. And for being a writer who, given the nature of her work, had to keep some distance, especially emotionally, she said she almost felt like part of the community.

“I did feel very taken in and very connected and very passionate about that community and certainly very welcomed,” she said, but there was hesitation in front of that answer.

While Eisenberg said she isn’t an observant Jew, she noted that being Jewish is very much a part of her identity, one that becomes stronger when in a place where there aren’t a lot of other Jews around.

“I was definitely more aware of being a Jew than I was in other spaces, just because I grew up in New York, which was like Jew central, and then Haverford was heavily Jewish as well,” Eisenberg said. “You definitely become more aware of your identity when you’re in places where it’s less common.”

There were fish-out-of-water moments, she said.

“People would talk about Easter, and I’d be like, ‘Which one is that again? Is that when he rose or he died?’” Eisenberg recalled, laughing. “It was definitely very interesting being a Jew in Appalachia. Many folks I interacted with had never met a Jew before.”; 215-832-0737

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Matt Silver is a writer and broadcaster who has been performing, in one way or another, since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do. He loves sports, jazz, comedy, and musical theatre. Matt can usually be found in Philadelphia or Ventnor; wherever he may be, it's likely he'll be whistling Gershwin or Bernstein with gusto. He holds a B.A. from the University of Michigan, a J.D. from Rutgers Law School, and an M.F.A from Temple University. His writing may also be found at


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