JULY 9, 2017
ALEXANDRIA MARZANO-LESNEVICH’S new book The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir bills itself as a hybrid of two popular nonfiction forms: true crime and memoir. The story of a pedophile named Ricky Langley who murdered a young boy in Louisiana in 1992 and the equally harrowing narrative of the author’s own molestation by her grandfather when she was a child, the book has two blockbuster premises where it would only take one to get most reader-voyeurs interested. Marzano-Lesnevich has a wealth of the horrifying, fascinating subject matter that makes for an addictive nonfiction read, and she is smart enough to know it. She gives the people what they want, describing in novelistic detail the semen stains on the murder victim’s shirt and her grandfather taking out his false teeth before he abused her.
That’s the thing my mind keeps snagging on when I think about this book: how fully and deliberately it reveals the novelistic conventions of both of its forms, and the problems those conventions present for both the writer and reader. Like most works of creative nonfiction, The Fact of a Body is obsessed with the dual constraints of truthfulness and artfulness: it becomes, essentially, a compulsive meta-account about resisting the delectable temptation to make things up. “No one story is simple. No one story complete,” Marzano-Lesnevich writes, brooding in that ambiguous space where fact becomes narrative. The book begins with a long explanatory note detailing her sources and methods of storytelling and concludes with 11 pages of notes, but she frequently allows herself some of the license of fiction: “While I have not invented or altered any facts,” she writes, “at times I have layered my imagination onto the bare-bones record of the past to bring it to life.” In her mental version, the cop who videotapes the crime scene at Langley’s house is a nervous rookie. Langley’s mother wears the house dress Marzano-Lesnevich remembers her own grandmother wearing.
The book’s most amazing narrative elements, however, are not elaborations but bare facts. The family of the murderer was in a horrific car accident before he was born, in which his older sister and brother were killed; Marzano-Lesnevich lingers on the image of Langley’s father cradling the decapitated head of his five-year-old son. Somehow in the long months after the crash, when Langley’s mother was hospitalized in a full body cast, she became pregnant with him, and he spent his earliest months crushed by his mother’s bandages and subject to the array of medications she was taking. (Langley’s defense attorneys would later use this early trauma to try to excuse his crime.) The details of this story are utterly sensational: not only would it not be believable in fiction, but it also might not be forgivable.
Marzano-Lesnevich’s strength is in how she balances the outsized horror of her subject matter with the small intimacies of the memoir genre to open up a space for herself. Early chapters are full of the bland, placid family details one expects of a chronicle of childhood, but they are often quickly supplanted by a more disturbing view on the same detail. Marzano-Lesnevich describes how her lawyer father “tells stories to juries for a living, and he tells them to us around a thick white Formica table […]” Two pages later, she returns to this image and elaborates on it:
Nights he sat alone at the white Formica table, drinking off the remainder of the dinner wine he and my mother had opened together, and then opening his own. Those nights he swore we’d be better off without him. Those nights he swore we’d be better off if he were dead.
These perfectly complementary, light and dark versions of the same scene help us to understand how her otherwise loving parents could do cold and incomprehensible things. When they learn that she and her two sisters had been sexually abused by their grandfather for five years, they do not tell the police, or confront him, or cut off contact, or get their children any medical or psychological care. They do not discuss it or tell her brother. The only step they take is to end the custom of having her grandparents sleep over on weekends, thus ending the abuse. This pathological secrecy and emotional muteness is typical of the family dynamic. When she is young, Marzano-Lesnevich learns that she and her brother had a triplet who died when she was a few months old, whom her parents never discussed. As an adult, her mother tells her that they did not hold a funeral for the baby, instead allowing her to be buried by Catholic charities in a mass grave near the hospital.
It’s no surprise that a family so driven to destroy the past would produce a memoirist, those most haunted of writers. In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes that most memoirs’ “plots” are driven by “a split self or inner conflict” that “must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line.” This is, as it turns out, a tall order: the act of interrogating one’s memories in writing, like psychotherapy or the catechism, is often as fascinating and profound for the subject as it is boring and pointless to an outsider. The public performance of private introspection is a paradoxical project, which accounts for the awkward self-consciousness of even many of the best memoirs, as a writer tries to arrange the facts of their life as if (if only!) it were a story. Memoirists always run the risk of overwriting, manufacturing connections, grasping at cause and effect, and this weakness permeates both halves of Marzano-Lesnevich’s project. In a scene between Langley and his victim’s mother, before she knows he is the murderer, Marzano-Lesnevich imagines that the “warm glow” of Langley’s beer reminds the boy’s mother of the resin fossils she saw on a trip with her son to the science museum. Considering that the woman in question is looking for her missing six-year-old, I’m going to say: probably not.
Karr stresses the importance of sensory detail in letting the memoir reader in on the author’s most personal memories, insisting that writing should “brim over with […] physical experiences.” She advises that a telling or symbolic detail is one of the narrative tools the memoirist relies on, the “totemic objects” that can grant the memoir’s often episodic, haphazard events the harmonic wholeness of fiction. But this imperative to dress up one’s life story with impossibly vivid “true” images is precisely what can make a memoir feel most fake. Marzano-Lesnevich writes often in florid, show-don’t-tell images laden with active verbs. “The rain sops the wide lawn into a marsh,” she tells us, but the rain isn’t done yet: “[I]t slicks the white railing and the white columns and darkens the red brick of the building; it jewels the leaves of the tall trees.” This is what’s known as “gilding the lily.”
Marzano-Lesnevich’s story intersects with Ricky Langley’s when, as a law student at Harvard, she gets a job at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, the organization representing Langley, and finds that his case evokes her own most painful childhood memories. However, contrary to expectation (or what we would expect if The Fact of a Body were a novel), she does not work on Langley’s case. She does not get to know him, and her one visit to him in prison is only incidental. She does not even become a practicing lawyer: when she graduates Harvard, she abandons the law to become a writer. Her engagement with him is mostly through the thousands of pages of case files she sifts through years later.
In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm describes the ideal subject for a work of nonfiction: a person who belongs to that “small group of people of a certain rare, exhibitionistic, self-fabulizing nature, who have already done the work on themselves that the novelist does on his imaginary characters — who, in short, present themselves as ready-made literary figures.” But those usually eccentric and often deranged people — Malcolm points to the delusional megalomaniac Joe Gould, as portrayed by Joseph Mitchell, and the tortured, melancholic murderer Perry Smith from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood — who are readymade literary characters do not write great memoirs. They are self-obsessed, but wholly lacking in self-knowledge: their character can only be truly appreciated by an outside observer. Marzano-Lesnevich’s creative problem is that Langley is not one of those subjects. He is a pitiful and repulsive cipher, a man who bragged about his crimes but also, years earlier, begged not to be released from prison for fear he would molest another child. He has no coherent story of himself: he can’t explain why he did what he did, giving a bizarre series of reasons over the course of his three trials, including that he thought that he was killing the ghost of his dead brother and that his victim was “the love of his life.” She is not recording the self-written mythos of a voluble sociopath (the “ideal subject”); she is shadowboxing with a man she can see, and comprehend, only in traces.
That is where The Fact of a Body diverges from In Cold Blood, its chief influence, from which it borrows its epigraph: “[I]t is always possible that the solution to one mystery will solve another.” Capote’s 1965 nonfiction account of the murder of an affluent Kansas family is one of the most pristine works of American literature, unfurling in both perfect descriptions and long, sublime scenes of dialogue. Capote manages to render both an archetypal portrait of the wholesome American nuclear family, in his chapters about the victims, and two indelible grotesques, the murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, both of whom are physically marred by traumatic car accidents and haunted by sexual confusion.
In Cold Blood is rightly celebrated as a character study and a work of reportage, but in the myth of the book since it was published, it has become a kind of shadow memoir, concealing, among other things, Capote himself. There is no narrative “I” in In Cold Blood; its voice is a disembodied and stark third person. Capote’s extensive research over the course of several years is never mentioned, and neither are his dealings with most of the book’s principal characters. Particularly conspicuous by its absence is Capote’s complex relationship with Perry Smith, a character who is alternately presented as sympathetic and simply pathetic. Smith had a traumatic childhood: he was abandoned by his alcoholic mother and sent to live at an orphanage where he was physically and sexually abused. He is dreamy, artistic, and insecure, filled with anger and resentment at people who underestimate his intelligence, reading the dictionary to pepper his speech with impressive vocabulary words he doesn’t fully understand. As Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke writes, Smith and Capote, who also had a troubled childhood with an alcoholic mother, “each looked at the other and saw, or thought he saw, the man he might have been.” The two men’s relationship, shot through with a frisson of erotic tension, has become one of the book’s most intriguing subtexts, as it lingers on the ambiguous and doomed figure of the murderer.
Capote famously declared that In Cold Blood was the first example of a new genre: the nonfiction novel. Clarke takes issue with this, pointing out that the book was hardly the first of its kind and protesting, with a stubborn literalness, that Capote’s construction makes no sense: “A novel, according to the dictionary definition, is a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length: if a narrative is nonfiction, it is not a novel; if it is a novel, it is not nonfiction.” Capote’s claim now seems like a way of covertly admitting that, though he insisted at the time that his book was “immaculately factual,” many parts were fictionalized or made up out of whole cloth. The other shadow narrative of In Cold Blood has become the enduring debate since its publication about whether it is more nonfiction or novel. The volatile commingling of these two supposedly incompatible genres is its most important duality, the conflict at the core of its identity.
The Fact of a Body crossbreeds two genres, too, though they are ones that are both ostensibly based in fact, and Marzano-Lesnevich, like Capote before her, plays with the theme of parallels and doubles. Both she and Langley are haunted by the memories of the siblings who died before they were born, she doubled by her dead sister and he by his dead brother, and then mirrored in their loss. When she finds out Langley has been doing genealogical research in prison, she comments: “I know that need. If he goes back far enough, maybe he’ll understand.” Unlike Capote, who suppressed his similarities to Perry Smith, Marzano-Lesnevich allows this point of recognition, and even dwells on it.
In Cold Blood has a fraternal twin in another book, which makes it, maybe, a distant relation of The Fact of a Body as well: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote and Lee were childhood friends, and Lee was crucial to the creation of In Cold Blood, helping Capote with his research in Kansas. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote is fictionalized as Dill, Scout Finch’s next-door neighbor, a delightful trickster who has an enormous imagination for both games of pretend and audacious lies. Both In Cold Blood and To Kill a Mockingbird — a novelistic work of journalism and an autobiographical novel — are also books about the law. Atticus Finch is one of literature’s most famous lawyers, and his personal failings are related to the contradictions of his profession. As Malcolm writes in The Crime of Sheila McGough, “The law is the guardian of the ideal of unmediated truth,” but a good lawyer, whose task is to advocate persuasively for his client, can hardly avoid taking advantage of the tricks of rhetoric and fiction. The witness’s promise to tell “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is impossible, as “it runs counter to the law of language, which […] requires that our utterances tell coherent, and thus never merely true, stories.” Story, and not unmediated truth, is the basis of our system of law, and of the clash between plaintiff and defendant, as each side insists on the shape of their story, and the other insists that that story conform to the truth. A lawyer’s case is always both nonfiction and novel, appealing at one moment to the facts at hand, and at the next to the jury’s notion of the kind of story that makes sense, that they are longing to hear.
The sinister possibilities in this legal reliance on storytelling are illustrated in Mockingbird’s famous courtroom scenes. Atticus clearly has evidence on his side: Mayella Ewell, who has accused Tom Robinson of raping her, has a black right eye, which would more logically have been given to her by her left-handed father than by Tom, whose left hand is shriveled and defective from an accident years before. But to the white jury, the story of a black man raping and beating a white woman makes more sense. This reliance on the imperfect mechanism of story is necessary because courts, whatever their formal commitment to objectivity, are made up of people, who are ruled by their emotions and instincts as well as by reason.
Early in the book, Scout recounts a case where Atticus represented two men who were convicted of first-degree murder and executed, “an occasion that was probably the beginning of my father’s profound distaste for the practice of criminal law.” In The Fact of a Body, Marzano-Lesnevich writes about the judge in Langley’s second trial making comments about how he doesn’t believe in the death penalty and getting up to leave twice during closing arguments, about “the humanity that leaks out of [him] and spills into words all over the transcripts.” The judge’s humanity is not professionally appropriate, but it is an understandable response to a case so brutal and a responsibility as grave as handing someone their death. Atticus, brimming over with humanity, is not the best lawyer: he is neither adept at fabricating convincing stories nor a true believer in the law’s highest ideals. He instructs the jury in his closing argument that he does not actually believe that all men are created equal, arguing that the only way in which people in the United States were created equal was in the eyes of the law. “Our courts have their faults,” he says, “as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers.” But in this half-throated hope that this small court in south Alabama would differ from every other human institution, he knows he has already lost his case. His fundamental belief is in empathy, instructing Scout to walk around in the skin of all of their neighbors: noble poor whites, elderly antebellum maniacs, haunted shut-ins, their black housekeeper. This obsession with the individual conveniently ignores the mechanisms of power that bind them in their places. Empathy is our finest human impulse, but empathy is not ethics.
That kind of creative empathy is not the domain of the lawyer, who has little use for ambiguity, but of the writer. The limitations of the law as a means of accounting for the full range of human experience is a major theme of The Fact of a Body. Both of Marzano-Lesnevich’s parents are lawyers, and she recounts visiting her mother’s law school classes as a child, where she is fascinated by the complicated imaginary circumstances her professors invent to allow their students to practice applying the law. “I don’t know yet to call what comes out of her mouth a hypothetical,” she writes. “I recognize it for what it is: a story.” The Fact of a Body begins with one of these hypotheticals: the case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., in which a young man, running late, leaps onto a train with the help of a shove from a porter, whereupon the package of fireworks he is carrying falls and explodes, causing a large scale on the train to fall on a woman who was standing near it. This elaborate scenario is meant to teach the idea of proximate cause. “Scales don’t just fall,” she writes:
The explosion caused the fall.
And explosions don’t just happen. The young man’s fireworks caused this one.
But fireworks don’t just go off. The porter made the young man drop his fireworks by pushing him. Mrs. Palsgraf’s injury must be the porter’s fault — and thus that of the railroad that employs him.
Marzano-Lesnevich is less interested in the “correct” legal solution than in the endlessly ramifying circumstances that conspire to cause an event to happen. Did the young man cause the woman’s injuries by possessing fireworks? By being late? Did she cause them by standing near the scales? By being on the train at all?
Such vexing questions about cause and effect occupy Marzano-Lesnevich throughout The Fact of a Body, as she tries to understand how what happened to her as a child has determined her adulthood, and whether the tragedy that befell Langley’s family before he was even born made him into a pedophile and a murderer. A similar exploration of cause opens To Kill a Mockingbird, too, as Scout wonders when the events that constitute the novel’s climax really began:
I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson.
The meditations on destiny in The Fact of a Body are more intimate, but it is still essentially about the ways we are ruled by the failings of our parents, who are usually as good as they could be and worse than we would have wished. When Atticus offers up Jem for the murder of Bob Ewell, a reader can feel a similar discomfort as when Marzano-Lesnevich’s parents stay silent about her abuse: Jem’s body was not Atticus’s sacrifice to make.
In his biography, Clarke quotes Capote describing how he borrowed the dynamics of the novel for In Cold Blood, as “journalism always moves along on a horizontal plane, telling a story, while fiction — good fiction — moves vertically, taking you deeper and deeper into character and events.” Memoir is neither horizontal nor vertical but elliptical, spinning out but returning always to its fundamental questions. This is part of its refusal of the illusion of certainty, that tempting coherence that is any story’s first falsehood.
In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm remarks on the duplicity of the nonfiction writer’s relationship to his characters: “[The subject] has to face the fact that the journalist — who seemed so friendly and sympathetic […] — never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.” She describes this relationship with a familial analogy:
The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.
Unlike the journalist, who compartmentalizes these emotions at different stages of the process, it is the memoirist’s imperative to give voice to both impulses: the forgiving mother and the strict father. (Seems only fitting, since a dueling father and mother is the subject of so many memoirs.) This is what Karr calls the “split self or inner conflict,” and it’s why I have come to appreciate the memoir as a humble, tentative form, less comfortable with claiming the experiences of others than the novel (be it fiction or non-). Marzano-Lesnevich, in her performance of hybridity — “A Murder and a Memoir” — is only doing what the best memoirists do: creating a book of fact and body, and speaking, in all their discord, as mother, father, and child.