In The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich escavates more than one crime. The first is an adjudicated crime–the murder of six-year-old Jeremy Guillory by Ricky Langley, a neighbor in Iowa, Louisiana who was a convicted child molester. He confesses and is quickly tried, convicted and sentenced to die. The other crime will never be adjudicated. You see, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich and her sister were repeatedly molested by their grandfather, a hidden crime until their four-year-old sister becomes his next victim and innocently explains how she got a $5 bill from her grandfather.
Marzano-Lesnevich’s parents protected their daughters from further molestation, but they still continued to have the grandparents to Sunday dinners, on family holidays, and never spoke of what happened, never told his wife. As Alexandria grew older, her brother asked why she would not talk to her grandfather, utterly unaware of the violence done to her and the continuing violence of erasing the crime.
Imagine then what it was like for the idealist young lawyer, eager to fight injustice and free people from death row, to start her first law internship at the law office representing Ricky Langley. From that moment when ideology met lived experience, she connected her experiences to the murder of Jeremy Guillory and his killer Ricky Langley. She remembers what she was doing on certain days in the Guillory story.
She takes the skeleton of the crime and dresses it with human flesh, raw and painful flesh. She dresses it with compassion and extraordinary empathy, with detail and emotion, research and imagination, it all comes together in a breathtaking story. It is propulsive on one hand, forcing the reader to keep rushing onward, but then it stops on a dime, shocking, repulsing and sending this reader running.
The Fact of a Body is a tough book to read. I had to put it down more than once to read something lighter like a book about the periodicity of atomic radii, something that would not tear holes is my heart. Perhaps the most painful moment was when the author wrote about an earlier victim, a fourteen year old girl whom she imagines may have been a teen romance, a crime of technicality, a mutual love between a teenagers only divided by ages of consent. Except she misunderstood something about that story. Something that had me putting the book down for a full day while I tried very hard not to think about it.
The Langley case was one of those cases that led to new laws. After his murder, Louisiana enacted the first sex offender registry law. Two years later, the Jacob Wetterling Act was passed to mandate sex offender registries across the country. It’s an odd thing as his fate was unknown until last year, so in 1994 there was no knowing at the time if his abductor and killer would have been on a registry. (He would not have been.) Since them, additional reactive legislation has been passed, with good intentions and poor outcomes. Marzano-Lesnevich is honest enough to admit that sex registries do not work, a brave position for people to take publicly, but a position rooted in evidence.
I liked this book far more than someone probably should like a book about child molestation and murder. Marzano-Lesnevich is a beautiful writer who seems able to inhabit people. She describes that land, the people, the scenes vividly. She has seemingly infinite capacity for empathy, finding the humanity in the murderer, finding somewhere deep in her heart, love for her grandfather whose evil acts haunt her life.
This is not the sort of book I usually read. In fact, I never look at the True Crime offerings and new releases. I like memoirs, but most true crime feels exploitive. I do not know why they are written, to obsess over salacious details, to advocate for poorly conceived “reforms”, or to stoke fears. None of those seem a good enough reason to write someone else’s pain into the page, whether the pain of the victim or their family. Somehow, though Marzano-Lesnevich is uncomfortably direct and explicit, particularly about her own experiences, I never once felt there was a prurient interest in the crime–just the opposite, her interest was out of a desire to dig out her pain, excavation not fascination.
It’s a genre I avoid. I never would have requested reading this book if not for the email newsletter that told me just enough about the book to make me curious. I subscribe to a few from Macmillan, so I can’t remember which one specifically directed me to the book, but I have to say, I subscribe to email news from several publishers and it is my favorite way to find new books to read, along with the must-read lists from LitHub and newspapers.
The Fact of a Body will be published on May 16th. I was provided an advance copy from the publisher through NetGalley.