Called one of the foremost chroniclers of the desert Southwest, Deanne Stillman writes of the inestimable beauty of the desert and of the madness that often shatters the stillness.
For Eduardo Santiago’s Idyllwild Authors Series, Stillman will discuss the true story of two young girls, residents of Twentynine Palms, who were brutally raped and murdered in 1991 by a deeply troubled Marine who had recently returned from the Gulf War. Twentynine Palms is home to one of the largest Marine bases in the country. It is peopled by a hard scrabble assortment of individuals and families, most of whom have ties to the Marine base — the people who cook, clean and look after servicemen and women and their families. It is a place of broken dreams and limited futures, where violence is often a steady stalker.
Stillman took 10 years to research and write “Twentynine Palms, A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave” (Angel City Press, 2008). She lived in Twentynine Palms, established a trust-built bridge to the families of the murdered girls and the Marines who helped break the case against the murderer. She inhabited the scruffy desert that plays such a principal role in her book. Said Stillman, “The desert is a main character in all of my work, and my books — narrative nonfiction — are stories of war and peace in the modern West” — a war against landscape, class conflicts and dead-end lives, fueled by mental and physical trauma and addiction. Stillman not only writes of the pain and trauma, she lives it. “I hear their voices — the families of the dead girls, one of the girls in her diary, the Marine who killed them at the trial I attended — it exacts a heavy, emotional toll,” she said.
Watching over these sun-burnt sagas that play out in stultifying ordinariness day after day is the Joshua Tree, to Stillman a mystical shamanic presence — ancient, austere and wise. “The Joshua Tree is the iconic desert elder, representative of a very old desert. It is frozen in ecstasy, in its beauty and grotesquery. I talk to it. It speaks to me. It taught me how to listen. It is like an ancient radar station that sends out messages.”
Of her kinship with the American West, Stillman, originally from Ohio, writes, “In the desert, I get quiet and I hear things. The beating of wings. The scratching of lizards. The whisper of stories that want to be told. The desert has informed my emotional, spiritual and personal journey.”
“Twentynine Palms,” named a best book by the Los Angeles Times, was called by author and journalist Hunter Thompson, “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” It is included in college non-fiction writing courses around the country. Stillman is a member of the core faculty at the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA Creative Writing Program. She has written for film, stage and television, as well as publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Slate and Orion.
When asked what more Idyllwild audiences should know about her and her writing, Stillman modestly said, “My writing speaks for itself.” She has won praise, and garnered prizes and stellar reviews. Yet in conversation, she is earnest and unassuming, interested in conveying to a listener the importance of place in her writing and of the need to understand, to withhold hasty judgment so that one can understand. Here is an excerpt from the book: “Senseless violence, the world calls it, but the Mojave knows otherwise. The Mojave knows, has always known, that the violence is not senseless, the disturbing acts that unfold on its sandy stage in fact make perfect sense. For that is the very nature of the place, to convey meaning, to show events in living color on a giant screen in bas-relief, to make it seem as if everything is happening for the first time, even if for some, it is the last, or simply the latest in an endless spiral of repetitive, nowhere acts.”
Stillman and Santiago dialogue on the deck of Cafe Aroma at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 21. The event is free to the public. To read more about Stillman’s prolific and distinguished career, visit www.deannestillman.com.