Twentynine Palms: A Photoessay and Conversation Between Deanne Stillman and Cat Gwynn

Every August 4th, I take a moment to note the passing of Amanda Lee Scott and Rosalie Ortega. They were killed early that morning in 1991 by a Marine who had returned from the Gulf War several months earlier. I tell their stories in my book, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, first published in 2001 and then in subsequent editions, including an updated one which came out in 2008. A long-time desert pilgrim, I first learned of the murders after heading into a bar in Twentynine Palms following a hike in Joshua Tree National Park. There was gossip about two girls who had been “sliced up by a Marine.” I asked who the girls were and someone said that they were “just some trash in town.” I already knew a few things about the kids who lived there when I heard that, and one of those things was that there was much more to this story, starting with the fact that the way they were described was brutal and incorrect. Like the desert itself, people who live there are often viewed as worthless. Many are America’s castaways, exiled to a remote region or choosing to live there to start over and avail themselves of the national birthright. Moreover, the phrase I heard in the bar that day reverberated every which way for me, partly because of my own childhood which involved a journey from the “right” side of town to the “wrong” side, at which point I was suddenly voiceless — dropped by certain friends and even some relatives due to address, coming face to face with America’s dirty little secret — class. Compelled to bear witness to the lives of Mandi and Rosie, to give them names, I began what became a 10-year journey: into the world of the lost children of the Mojave Desert. This year, as the conversation about class, sexual violence, and poverty in America reaches a fever pitch, I decided to ask my friend, author and photographer par excellence Cat Gwynn: to head out to Twentynine Palms and document some scenes in the town, as a way of commemorating the 27-year anniversary of the deaths of Mandi and Rosie. In addition, she and I embarked on a conversation about the story I told and here it is…

-Deanne Stillman

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CAT GWYNN: Let’s start with your initial writing inspiration, the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “El Dorado” that your father read to you. You’ve said in various interviews and essays that you began living inside of that poem as a way out of a place from which you wanted to escape. The poem provided solace, conjuring a wide-open space of sand and mesas and “sunshine and shadow.” Plus, there was that wandering knight, searching for El Dorado. I can see in your work how the desert has drawn you, and you seem to have followed your characters into the shadows. As the storyteller is it your intention to shed light on their lives or see the story more clearly in the dark?

DEANNE STILLMAN: It’s always my intention to bear witness, wherever that takes me. The sunshine and shadow of the desert has always been very much with me starting from the time I was introduced to it in the Poe poem. As I also say in the beginning of Twentynine Palms, I see events unfolding there in bas-relief, even long after they have happened. Scenes in the lives of my characters unfold on a giant screen, almost as soon as I begin learning about their lives, and then I can follow their paths into the sands. I realize that this all sounds simple, but it’s a long and painstaking process, always leading back to this giant blank slate — which is filled with unexpected wonders and grace.

I too am taken with big skies and unencumbered landscapes, holding vast possibilities which I find visually seductive. But a few years back when I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer I had to succumb to a protracted rigorous treatment schedule and my life literally was condensed to a 10-mile radius. In order to sit with the reality of my dire circumstances I turned to making photos daily as a way to be with the daunting uncertainties I was facing. The manner in which I used to photograph didn’t work anymore. I was accustomed to looking out and now I was forced to look closely at what was right in front of me. This new way of seeing taught me the value of looking at the ordinary and often overlooked aspects of life. So when I got to Twentynine Palms my instincts narrowed my focus and it didn’t take long for signs of Mandi and Rosie’s life to emerge from the detritus. Ghosts haunt for a reason. Their purpose is to remind us of what wasn’t settled and can be learned from. For me the symbolic hints of Rosie and Mandi’s existence added a layer of beauty to this place that was palpable. It was really their love that lingered. Not only Mandi and Rosie’s but Debie’s [Mandi’s mother] too. They are the three main women in Twentynine Palms, and it’s clear in your story that their currency was the fierce love that they offered so generously, sunshine in the shadows. Yet in their relationships and lives, they were constantly battling the vicious cycle of other people’s darkness and unfortunate circumstances that ultimately overwhelmed their own struggles. Did Mandi and Rosie’s deaths break the shadow cycle for those left behind or did the cycle keep spinning?

Well, they were battling their own family legacies of poverty and violence that went back for generations, as well as the same for other people in their world. But theirs were particularly tenacious. Some of Mandi’s ancestors came west with the Donner Party, and made the correct turn at Hastings Cut, only to encounter hardships in California as they tried to eke out a living in Sonora and then later San Francisco and Oakland. There was domestic violence, a rough existence with bikers. Debie’s brothers joined the military. They were proud to serve; it was their way of contributing to America, a country whose wealthier citizens may not have appreciated them at the time. Rosie’s family grew up in a shack in the Philippines and used to run a TV off a neighbor’s generator. Their favorite show was Happy Days. So one day, they came to California, for the same promise that Debie and her family did, along with countless others. It was a place to start over. Rosie’s mother had married into the military as a way out, and then they all ended up in Twentynine Palms and elsewhere in So Cal. Here, they did not find “happy days.” Yes, there were happy moments, but nothing that fulfilled the fantasy of that show.

After Mandi and Rosie were killed, Debie organized a fundraiser for a scholarship in Mandi’s name. The idea was to raise $1000 to help “an average girl get out of town.” Can you imagine? That’s all it took to head down a new trail. But for some kids in town, it was everything! On the one-year anniversary of the murders, Debie threw a bar party at which the scholarship was awarded to a girl who wrote the best essay on what she’d do with the funds. She said she wanted to get out of town, become a probation officer and come back to help kids who are at risk. The Mandi Scott Scholarship party was one of the most amazing parties I’ve ever been to. It was wrenching and beautiful at the same time. People had donated food stamps, matchbook collections, whatever they had. All the tribes in town were in attendance — bikers, Crips, Bloods, Marines, Samoans, Latinos, Filipinos — Mandi’s wide-ranging friends and fans. It was a snapshot of an America that only exists on the edges — a moment of heightened diversity that occurred because people were thrown together by circumstances, and everyone loved Mandi, a girl with a lot of fire, just like her mother. At the party, there was a classic desert rock band, the Velvet Hammer playing hard rock covers, the kind of stuff best heard in bars in the Mojave as the sun goes down. Debie’s pit bull Corky was there, on the bar counter, all decked out in party regalia, presiding over the festivities. I don’t know if the scholarship winner ever came back to Twentynine Palms, but a serious good time was had by all — and you can always say that about the desert.

The imbalance of masculine and feminine loomed largely in this book, both literally and figuratively. The women were often pitted against rough men who took them for granted, took advantage of them, and who demoralized and brutalized them. Some of the men felt purely masculine with no sense of self-reflection, generosity or compassion. Yet others stepped up to try to help the girls in whatever ways that they could, including one who had Gulf War Syndrome and various Vietnam vets who were barely hanging on themselves. In any case, everybody was surviving one thing or another. I know from personal experience weathering a legacy of family toxicity and cancer, what it means to be a survivor and can say with utter certainty the place that surviving resides in is the masculine. To survive is to fight back, hang on and endure. It takes tenacity and courage to keep on. But surviving isn’t enough. In order to heal we have to surrender, not acquiesce but soften into our circumstances and loosen our grip to transform. I wondered if things might have been different for everybody if there’d been the balance of having a genuine willingness to see the other more clearly and consider their position.

I think that Mandi and Rosie were very much overcome by what you might call the female aspect of their personalities. They were caretakers in every way. They cooked for Marines, danced with them, took care of their kids (Mandi was the town babysitter in fact), sent them off to war, welcomed them home — and then were killed by one. This doesn’t mean that they themselves weren’t fierce in their own ways. By all accounts they were, fighting for their friends when they had to, even if that involved physical confrontations, but in the end, they were no match for a heightened, out of control masculinity that could best be characterized by the dirty Gulf War marching cadences which I quote in my book. Sample: “I wish all the girls were bells in the tower. If I was the hunchback I’d bang em on the hour. Singin’ hey boppa-ree-ba, hey bobba row…Wish all the ladies were holes in the road. If I was a dump truck, I’d fill ‘em with my load. Left, left, left, right, left…” I think these cadences have been banned (not that they were official), but the meaning is clear.

In your most recent book, Blood Brothers, you wrote about how the image of Sitting Bull’s horse dancing at the doorway of the cabin while he’s being assassinated haunted you. You painted a disturbing picture of a devoted animal metaphorically taking the bullets for his master that’s hard to shake. What image from Twentynine Palms spooked you throughout the 10 years you spent making that book?

First, I want to thank Chief Arvol Looking-Horse — the noted Lakota spiritual elder — for his description of what the horse was doing at the time of Sitting Bull’s murder. I knew that it had been trained to “dance” at the sound of gunfire in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1885, Sitting Bull joined the show for four months, touring the country in an unexpected pairing with Buffalo Bill. When Sitting Bull went home to Standing Rock because he was homesick, Cody gave him this particular horse. Five years later, when tribal policemen came to arrest Sitting Bull for instigating the Ghost Dance (a charge which was not true), the horse was outside his cabin when the bullets started to fly. As I was writing Blood Brothers, I called Chief Looking-Horse to discuss this moment. I wanted to know what he thought about the long-held interpretation of the dancing horse, at least by white people, that it was responding to the sound of the gunfire. That’s when he said that what happened was the horse was taking the bullets.

As for what image underlies Twentynine Palms, I’d have to say that it’s the desert itself, El Dorado, which plays a main role in my story. It shapes and drives it, and steps in here and there in ways that are subtle and not, as I describe in the prologue, “Prelude to a Kill.” It’s a beautiful and dangerous thing, this desert on which we all walk, and it provides the key to this tale. As I’ve often said, it has whispered to everyone from Jesus and Moses to Pegleg Smith and Timothy McVeigh. Plus, there’s the Joshua tree, as I’ve written, a freaky and beautiful radar station, frozen in time. All you gotta do is listen. Or talk to it, as I have been known to do.

The image that spooked me the most from my few days photographing Twentynine Palms was the two bells tied onto a wire, which was a part of a handmade roadside memorial. Everywhere I went I found faded evidence of sentimentality: bric-a-brac, holy crosses, figurines, and trinkets that felt as ubiquitous as the palm trees and Marines that give form to this place. When I found the two bells I immediately thought of them as a marker that sings for the spirits of Mandi and Rosie, always faithful to the land they gave their lives to.

I love that image…incredibly apt and beautiful! There’s also the haunting Robert Plant song called “Twentynine Palms” that was popular during the years that I worked on my book and I always think of it whenever I’m heading there. It’s really kind of a siren call.

The kids that lived in the Mojave had an unspoken agreement to not share the truth about their home lives filled with the shame of poverty and the subsequent abuses they endured. Almost a vow to their high desert life like “Omerta,” the mafia’s code of silence. Do you think if these kids could have been more candid with one another about their circumstances this could have helped them overcome their legacy of poverty and violence?

Possibly. Hard to answer hypotheticals, but certainly exchanging secrets is one way to exorcise demons. If, for instance, instead of saying “I fell down the stairs” to explain a bruise or broken arm, one of them would have said “my uncle beat me up,” that of course would change the picture. To what end, we do not know, but it would alter the cycle. And we are starting to see this in recent years, with more and more people, especially girls and women, coming forward with long-buried stories involving family members and others, and these stories are having a big impact.

Staying with the idea of truthfulness and speaking out, 27-years have passed since Rosie and Mandi were savagely raped and murdered. Do you think with the advent of the #MeToo movement and how it’s rapidly changing the landscape of acceptable behaviors, if the girls were living in this time frame, would this delineation of what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse have helped them set stronger boundaries that could have protected them from their eventual demise?

It’s certainly conceivable. Consider the story of Tammy Watson, a character in my book. She was the daughter of a sergeant major in the Corps. Six weeks before Mandi and Rosie were killed, she was raped by the Marine who went on to murder the girls. With great difficulty, she told her father, who told her that the Marines would see to it that something was done. But it’s not clear what exactly was done. Apparently the Marine who raped Tammy was “restricted to base,” to use USMC terminology, after the incident, but for how long we do not know. And he was not restricted on the night of the murders — then “dollar-drink night” at certain bars, which happened on Marine payday — and went on to commit this terrible act. Moreover, he was a star on the Marine basketball team and was apparently accorded certain privileges for this status; in fact, there was an important game just after the murders which he was a part of, and he was arrested shortly after that. It must also be noted that he had a history of sexual assault before joining the Corps as well. These incidents happened at a time when it was very difficult for women to come forward, and if they did, they were not taken seriously. When Tammy learned that Mandi and Rosie had been killed by the same man who had raped her six weeks earlier, she could barely go on, blaming herself for the murders. Perhaps if she had been taken more seriously, as women coming forward nowadays are, there would have been a different outcome here.

The few people I connected with while I was in town were really lovely people, open to a fault; they had stories they needed to get off their chest and I was fresh ears to tell it to. The common thread was their past glories and what they could have been had things just worked out. Did you have a similar observation about the folks you met and got to know in Twentynine Palms?

Yes, this goes right to the heart of my book, which is longing…as I describe it:

On beery afternoons in taverns, it’s not unusual for a patron or two to claim lineage to Wild Bill Hickok or the Clanton brothers or Jesse James. The stories have the ring of truth, for the tellers are generally not boasting but full of shame, tweaked by a blood legacy of hard-core killers, as if they are related to ghosts, as if they — the flesh and muscle and bone of American mythology — know the real meaning of things. Yes, here live and here have died and here will continue to come the progeny of gunslingers and outlaws and boozers and brawlers who built this country, who once raged across the land, whose blood has quenched and quenched again the desert sands. Their history haunts them, stalks them, makes them edgy even as it makes America get up in the morning and whistle a happy, hollow tune. They are drawn to this elevation, this town of Twentynine Palms, where their eyes can fix on nothing but space, space and believe-it-or-not plants, and they can calm themselves, and try to start all over again…

For Debie McMaster, a lifelong, self-proclaimed worker bee bartender carrying the resume of the rootless, Twentynine Palms was the land of opportunity. She was a good barkeep and knew she could get a job in this oasis of pubs. It also seemed like a nice, quiet place to raise kids. And in the desert, there was plenty of solitude; maybe her migraine headaches would finally go away, along with the memory of how two generations of women in her family had died in the streets. Soon, she found plenty of company; she was not the first minimum wage-slave single mother to start over in the Mojave — the female tumbleweeds of the land were here in great abundance. They had always been here, and in a way, they had always been camp followers. South of Highway 62 in the park, there is a little grave bordered by a flourish of ocotillo. The headstone says, MARIA ELEANOR WHALLON, 1885-1903. A marker nearby explains that the eighteen-year-old girl had come to the Mojave with her mother, who had landed a job as a cook at a mining camp. Maria was ailing and her mother had heard that life in the desert could work miracles…

Sometimes just making it through the challenges of an especially tiring day feels like a damn miracle. Other times, like this time I spent photographing Twentynine Palms, felt miraculous by virtue of being in the flow of life and seeing all the marvelous commonalities of how we ultimately belong to one another. When I drove out of town the sky was endless blue with a smattering of clouds. I felt satiated; my observations were safely stored on memory cards and in my heart. The late afternoon light cast long shadows on bright sand and the gentle breeze was beginning to pick up its pace and nudge against my car. I rolled down my window to draw in the golden light and I swear I could hear those two bells tinkling in the warm wind telling me to come back again.

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