To the casual observer, the author’s own childhood seems idyllic. Marzano-Lesnevich and her twin brother, along with their two younger sisters, grow up in a ramshackle Victorian house in Tenafly, New Jersey. Her parents, both small-town attorneys, are ambitious and devoted to their children. On a typical summer afternoon, the author shows her younger self perched at the top of an old swing set, reading a Nancy Drew book. Her father mows the yard on his tractor, and music blares from a boombox in the grass.
But there are secrets: the inexplicable scar across her brother’s stomach, a sister who died in infancy, and nighttime visits — by Marzano-Lesnevich’s own grandfather — to the girls’ bedrooms.
Down in Louisiana, another story unfolds. Young Ricky Langley is at once pitiable and repellent — jug-eared, slow-witted, and haunted by visions. Before he’s even a teenager, Ricky has begun to molest young children. Some days — fully aware of his hideous impulses — he begs to be locked up. Other days he wishes for nothing but to be left alone, to hunt and fish and live quietly down by the river. In 1992, a six-year-old boy named Jeremy Guillory knocks on Ricky’s front door, looking for his friend Joey. Three days later, Jeremy is found dead, stuffed in Ricky’s bedroom closet.
The author first learns about Ricky Langley when she’s a 25-year-old law student, interning with a firm that’s working on his defense. More than a decade later, she’s still troubled by his story.
Is Ricky Langley a calculating killer, Marzano-Lesnevich wonders, or was the murder of Jeremy Guillory a warped reaction to some long-buried trauma? She begins a thorough unearthing of Ricky and his family — poring over some 30,000 pages of legal documents, wandering through overgrown graveyards, and visiting the site of his last crime. And as she absorbs the story of Ricky Langley, she begins to examine the uncomfortable truths of her own family.
Marzano-Lesnevich writes about her own life in a way that’s both sensuous and heartrending. One can feel the anxiety of children watching their parents leave for the evening, and smell the stale breath of an old man as he spits out his false teeth, grins, and unzips his pants. “I’m a witch,” he whispers. “Don’t forget. If you tell I’ll always come find you.”
“I have layered my imagination onto the bare-bones record of the past,” she writes, in order to better be able to evoke the grim and eerie world of Ricky Langley. And her writing is evocative as well; the house where young Jeremy is murdered, for example, has “an ominous shape, as if [it] were just a skin worn by a creature who lurked underneath.”
Marzano-Lesnevich has contributed essays and short fiction to publications including The New York Times, Oxford American, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She teaches public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and works with memoir-writers at Grub Street, a writing center in Boston.
She spoke to me from The Writers’ Room, in Boston, where much of this book was written.
TUCKER COOMBE: One of the central characters of your memoir is your father. In your early years, he’s characterized by a tremendous love of family, optimism, and unbridled enthusiasm. Tell me about him.
ALEXANDRIA MARZANO-LESNEVICH: My father is a bit larger than life. He’s a bon vivant. He loves a good time, he loves a good party, he loves a big family. He’s very large hearted, and likes to be in front of a crowd. When my brother and I were in our 20s and realized we actually liked going to sleep at a reasonable hour, we would laugh because our parents would have dinner at 11 o’clock at night and always keep a later bedtime than us.
Your childhood seems to have been fun and chaotic, but also full of silences and closely guarded secrets. Can you talk about how these two very different attitudes co-existed in your family?
There was always a lot of love. It was always very loud, and always very exuberant. We would have 30 or 40 people over for Christmas dinner. Everything was a big party, and I loved it. As a child, it was very confusing for me that we would have that outward joy, but then there would be all the impossible-to-miss silence. There were many things that we were just not supposed to talk about. I had no way to put the pieces together, to understand why both sides existed. And as an adult, I was very drawn to this question.
Shifting to the story of Ricky Langley, I’d like to ask you to recount one of the most unforgettable scenes in this book: the night six-year-old Jeremy Guillory disappeared. In particular, you tell of one police officer who stayed out at the edge of the woods, looking for Jeremy, long after the other searchers had gone home.
The night Jeremy disappeared, word got around the small town where he lived in southwestern Louisiana, then spread around the whole area, which was a knot of several small towns that I’ve now been to many times. It’s rural, but very close knit. One of the people who testified about that night was a young police officer, Calton Pitre.
Ten years after the murder, Calton Pitre remembered that Jeremy had been wearing a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt. And he said, “I remember it because my own son used to wear those T-shirts.” That night, no one had any idea where Jeremy was, but they thought maybe he was in the woods. Calton Pitre just stayed there: he flashed his lights, and flashed his lights, and flashed his lights, and watched the woods and hoped that a child would come out. It was really striking how much that night had stayed with people, how much they remembered the feeling of Jeremy being missing, and how much they remembered searching for him.
Your depiction of Ricky, on that night, was particularly chilling.
Earlier that evening, Jeremy had gone over to the house where Ricky Langley was a lodger. He went over to play with his friend Joey, and Joey’s sister. But they were away. Ricky answered the door, invited Jeremy in, and strangled him. And then he hid Jeremy’s body in the closet. Jeremy’s mother came to the door shortly afterward, looking for her son. Ricky invited her in to use the phone. She made some calls, then left to go to some other houses. She came back to Ricky’s house, and called 911. It really struck me that Ricky called 911 right after she did to give them a better description of where to find the house. Meanwhile, the child’s body was upstairs in Ricky’s closet.
That night, while the searchers were looking for Jeremy, Ricky took care of their children. He played with them in his bedroom. Later, the searchers collected their children and went home. Ricky stayed up that night. He did laundry, he washed the floor repeatedly, and he put aluminum foil over his windows. I have no way of knowing why he did this, but from statements he made at his confession, I think he felt like he was being watched.
You’re a graduate of Harvard Law School. Was there a specific reason you decided to turn away from the law and become a writer?
I have always written. I wrote a great deal of fiction, actually, all the way until my grandfather died. When he died, I stopped writing — cold turkey — because somehow I was afraid that I’d write something that was close to my own life.
When I was in law school and starting to learn about death penalty cases, the need to write came back to me. I had always seen the world through the lens of writing, and I had no other way to process what I was seeing. During my second year of law school, I started taking fiction-writing classes at night at the Harvard Extension School.
After I finished law school, I knew I wasn’t going to practice law. The only law I’d ever wanted to practice was death-penalty defense. That got emotionally quite complicated for me, for reasons that I think become clear in the book. So I decided I’d get a PhD and do academic research related to the death penalty.
But before doing that, I also decided to give myself a fiction MFA as a present — for fun. I enrolled in an MFA program, thinking I would work on a novel and also write an academic book on the death penalty. But that’s not what happened. Super not what happened.
Slowly, through my MFA program, I started writing about things that had happened in my own family. And thinking a lot about Ricky and Jeremy.
You first became aware of Ricky Langley when you interned with a firm that worked on his defense. It was years later that you decided to return to Ricky and his story. What drew you back?
Through the MFA program, I had slowly started writing about things that had happened in my own family. And yet, the way I understood things became so tangled up with Ricky that when I tried to explain my own life, I needed also to talk about Ricky’s life, which had had a tremendous impact on me.
When I got the initial set of court records — 8,000 pages — I had no intention of writing about Ricky. I just wanted to try to lay his story to rest inside of me. Had I known I would spend as many years as I did thinking about Ricky’s case, I’m not sure I would have gotten those records. I think that’s often true with memoir: that we stumble toward things we don’t quite understand, things that have a hold on us. And often we land someplace quite deeper than we ever intended to go.
Ricky had a hold on me that I didn’t understand. But I thought that if I just had the facts of what had happened in Ricky’s case, it would not be so mysterious to me. Being able to pin it down would collapse it, would make it safe in some way, and mean that I didn’t have to keep thinking about it. And of course that’s not what happened.
I thought, at the time, that the law was a realm where we left our personal experiences behind. I wanted the reason and rationality of the law. I wanted to get out of my own emotions — to wipe the past away — and I really thought it was my own failing that I couldn’t do that.
And then I started reading the records. And I was shocked to learn that all the people who had come in contact with Ricky’s case had interpreted it through the lens of their own past — that I hadn’t been the only one. Ricky’s lead defense attorney saw the case through the lens of his own childhood. The jury foreman saw the case through the lens of his own family. And I saw the case through the lens of my grandfather.
As I say in the book: What you see in Ricky depends as much on who you are, and what’s happened to you, as what he’s done.
Reading this memoir, I thought you were immersing yourself in Ricky’s story to help make sense of your own life. What you’re telling me is that your own experiences influenced how you saw Ricky’s story.
I think both are true. I’d read something in Ricky’s file and it would make me think of my own life. I’d work on a piece about my own life and suddenly I would think of Ricky. The book begins in a very strict, braided narrative. Ricky’s story stays in his chapter, and my story stays in my chapter. And then, the two narratives start to co-mingle.
Looking at his life taught me about my own. Looking at my life helped me try to understand his.
The first moment I saw Ricky, and heard him describe what he’d done, I immediately thought of my grandfather. I had a really strong, emotional response, and — despite what I believed about the death penalty — I thought that Ricky should die.
Initially, you may have wanted Ricky Langley to die. But throughout this book, you depict him with remarkable compassion.
When I first started reading the files, it’s fair to say I did not feel much compassion for him. I had a great deal of trouble reading the files. They were really disturbing. But the more I read, the more I saw that this young man was in some way trapped by who he was. I was struck by his repeated attempts to try to get away from the past, to start all over again. As if, maybe this time he could have a different life.
I too was someone who had felt trapped, for a very long time, in a totally different way, and under totally different circumstances. So I have empathy for that.
At the same time, I wanted to write into the book, and acknowledge to the reader, how dangerous and slippery it was to have empathy for this man. Ricky was a child murderer and a pedophile. He had done terrible, terrible things.
When I first saw Ricky, I viewed him purely as evil because he was a child molester and a murderer. And in the course of getting to know him, I began to see him as a complicated person. I began to see both sides of him. In some ways, the entire book is a reckoning of that duality.
You did a tremendous amount of research on Ricky Langley. It was much harder, as you point out, to get the backstory on your own grandfather. Did your understanding of Ricky in any way help you to understand your grandfather?
I think in some ways I was looking at Ricky Langley as a substitute for my grandfather. I don’t have any records of my grandfather. I have no way of understanding who he was in a deeper way.
And what my grandfather did blotted out the rest of who he was in my memory. I couldn’t remember, for example, that he had taught me to draw when I was young. But he was both things, really: a grandfather, and a child molester.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education. She lives in Cincinnati.