Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s “The Fact of a Body’’ makes for an uncomfortable read. That’s not a disparagement. The book, a mashup of genres (the subtitle is “A Murder and a Memoir’’), flings readers into a pit of ominous subject matter and ethical uncertainty.
First, the murder: Marzano-Lesnevich approaches this part of the narrative with lawyerly scrutiny. That’s fitting, since she encounters the case of Ricky Langley while interning at a Louisiana law firm in 2003. The defendant, condemned to death for molesting and suffocating a six-year-old boy nine years earlier, has just been retried and sentenced instead to life in prison. Watching his taped confession, Marzano-Lesnevich has a shattering epiphany. She’s been against the death penalty ever since learning about it in childhood. Her opposition, she writes in her application to Harvard Law School, is what drove her to study law. When it comes time to find a summer job, she seeks one at a death-penalty defense firm. How disorienting, then, the realization she has as Ricky Langley describes onscreen how he molested children: “I want Ricky to die.”
Which brings us to the memoir: What sets this book apart from most true crime is that it plays out against the backdrop of the author’s memories of her own childhood trauma. In Marzano-Lesnevich’s case, this includes sexual abuse, illness, alcoholism, and the death of an infant sibling, but above all it consists of secrecy, a family culture of silence that compounds all the other sources of pain. She writes about her childhood in dream-stippled prose, at once sharp with beauty and lush with horror. Of the grandfather whose unwanted visits to her bedside always began with his spitting his false teeth into his palm, she writes, “The teeth glisten like a sea creature. He grins, his mouth suddenly a rim of wet pink with a black sopped hole in the middle. ‘See,’ he says, though he has shown me this so many times before, ‘I’m a witch. Don’t forget. If you tell I’ll always come find you. Always. Even after I’m dead.’ ”
We could as easily say it the other way around: What sets this book apart from most memoirs is that it’s interwoven with the tragedy of strangers. The thoroughness with which Marzano-Lesnevich pores over the story of Ricky Langley and the child he murdered is beyond exhaustive; it’s obsessive. She mentions the pubic hair found on the lip of the dead boy not once but eight times. She doesn’t just reconstruct what happened in the murderer’s life, she imagines what kind of car his parents might have driven before he was born. She doesn’t just tell us that the mother of the murdered child was pregnant at his funeral, she takes the liberty of asserting, “nausea must have woken her this morning.” She doesn’t just supply biographical notes about the judge at the retrial (his mother was a maid; his father served in the Army), she conjectures that “growing up black where he did, he has a deep respect for struggle.”
It’s this free-ranging speculation that’s most troubling. Not that Marzano-Lesnevich is reckless about distinguishing fact from fiction. She provides explicit notes on source material and implicitly signals which portions of the narrative derive from her own imagination, flagging her guesswork with such phrases as: “I let myself think,” “Maybe,” “Likely,” and “He must.”
But under any circumstances, the telling of another person’s story raises questions: What rights or blessings has the author sought and been granted? What degree of power does she possess relative to her subjects? How much is she putting herself in the service of the story, and how much is she molding the story to serve her own needs? The stakes may be even higher with true crime, which, as Kathryn Schulz has written in The New Yorker, turns “people’s private tragedies into public entertainment.”
Nor do these thorny questions stop with the author — they implicate readers as well: Whence comes our appetite for real-life stories of cruelty and harm? Does it stem from a desire to witness depravity from a safe distance? Do we crave a cathartic outlet for our own unacknowledged and unseemly impulses? Or could it be that we want to develop our empathy by trying to fathom the inner workings of others, even of those who seem monstrous, unfathomable? Marzano-Lesnevich writes, “I have been driven all along by the belief that there is a knot at the heart of the collision between me and Ricky that will help me make sense of what will never be resolved.”
No one who reads “The Fact of a Body’’ could doubt the author’s sincerity of purpose. But I’m not sure that knot helps us make sense of anything. In the end, her searching, searing account of her own story is far more moving, and far more credible, than her pastiche of the decades-old crime.
THE FACT OF A BODY:
A Murder and a Memoir
By Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Flatiron, 326 pp., $26.99
Novelist and journalist Leah Hager Cohen teaches in CreateLab at the College of the Holy Cross.