Fact and Memory, Punishment and Forgiveness

Book review: The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

What is offered here is my interpretation of the facts, my rendering, my attempt to piece together this story.

As such, this is a book about what happened, yes, but it is also about what we do with what happened. It is about a murder, it is about my family, it is about other families whose lives were touched by the murder. But more than that, much more than that, it is about how we understand our lives, the past, and each other. To do this, we all make stories.

It’s hard to review this book without giving away too much of what makes it special. Because it’s really special, different from anything else in any of the genres it straddles.

Author Alexandria, formerly a law student deeply invested in fighting the death penalty, accepts an internship in Louisiana at a firm defending capital punishment cases. There she encounters the case of Ricky Langley, a man whose death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Testifying in his defense in this decision, hoping to sway the jury with an act of magnanimous sympathy, was the mother of his six-year-old victim.

Confronted with this emotional, morally wrenching trial, Alexandria is forced to reconcile with her own complicated, relevant past. Ricky’s crimes of child molestation hit home very personally with her.

Her involvement opens up wounds she’s never completely healed, and causes her to question some of the most basic foundations she’s established in her education, career, even personal beliefs: “I came because my ideals and who I am exist separately from what happened in the past. They must. If they don’t, what will my life hold?”

Chapters alternate: first Ricky’s story, including his childhood with family tragedy and struggles, attempts to seek help for pedophilia, and his desperate striving for a “normal” life of adult independence; then Alexandria’s story, her haunting childhood, both mysterious in what she doesn’t understand and horrifying in what she does, a troubled family gone silent on what matters most, eating disorders, and finally enrollment in law school and death penalty activism, leading her to Louisiana and confronting the fact that Ricky Langley murdered his six-year-old neighbor, Jeremy Guillory, and someone has to defend him in the name of justice.

A constant theme, woven throughout every story and interaction, is the faultiness of memory, how much we depend on it to build ourselves and our identities, and how we need it to move forward from the past, but how it simultaneously fails us. Sometimes when we most rely on it.

The story is incredibly, brilliantly layered. I already realize how difficult it is to write a memoir combining an author’s story with one unrelated to them that they happen to be very interested in (a less successful example: Is there Sense in the Senseless?) But all the right connections are made here, with a captivating, artistic literary style that makes it un-putdownable to boot.

Because of legal skirmishes, because of fights over motions and venues, because the swift wheels of justice are in fact creaky and slow and no one can identify whether they are justice at all, Ricky’s case will take years to resolve. Which gives me time to arrive in Louisiana.

With this distance, Alexandria can parallel the events of her own life with what transpired in Ricky’s crime and case at the same time. It’s remarkably well-crafted. It puts the Chekhov’s Gun principle to work in the best way: every element serves a purpose, every story and segue comes back around. Each narrative thread unfolds with tension and a sense of haunting. Her writing gives me chills.

The law – with each side’s relentless pursuit of one story – has never known what to do with this complicated middle ground. But life is full of it.

She comes back to this idea again and again: people and situations cannot be only one thing or another, good or evil, true or false, black or white. The gray area is massive, and it’s where so much of ourselves and our stories lie. Finding a reckoning with this is key to her story and her ability to do her work, and on a greater scale to so much of how we process our lives, our interactions with others, and their treatment of us.

There are people who molest and kill children, and sometimes the mothers of their victims forgive them. Is that right? Is that justice? Are they monsters who deserve to die, who can change our minds about punishments that we otherwise staunchly oppose? Can you forgive someone who hurt you like that, when you were a vulnerable child? She grapples with these questions on such a personal level and with so much grace that the end result is nothing short of masterful.

When a lifeline comes, you don’t evaluate whether it’s the right one. You just grab for it, and hold on.

She writes that in reference to a specific situation, an anecdote from her younger years. But it could apply to Ricky’s case, to this capital punishment case that she found herself working on, that threw open the curtains on the past she’d never fully dealt with. As soon as she heard the basic details of Ricky’s crime, she knew it’d be gut-wrenchingly hard to deal with, to even learn about, and it absolutely was (it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – it’s hard to read this stuff. If it wasn’t such a completely exquisite book, this might be too stomach-churning to process. It still is that, no mistaking, but she’s able to pull such lessons and meaning from tragedy. It softens the blow; this happens, disgusting as it is, but I’ve never seen it picked apart and worked through on a level like this.)

This terrible case, fished out of the past when Langley gets a second shot at life, really did become a lifeline for her, a way to come to terms with her childhood and make sense of some of the world’s ugliness, achieving a much-needed understanding. Sometimes even the worst of circumstances can come together and bring about something meaningful.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir
by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
published May 17, 2017 by Flatiron Books

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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