I have never read a book of true crime before–it’s a genre that’s never held much interest for me. After reading The Fact of A Body, I’m hesitant to ever read one again, because it’s hard to imagine anything ever living up to it.
I’ve heard from others who do read a lot of true crime that it’s often done poorly–either an author overly sensationalizes the story, or tries to weave too much of their own story into it, detracting from the telling of both the crime and their lived experience.
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich has not done either. Rather, she has written an absorbing, terrifying, and deeply compelling memoir about the sexual abuse she suffered as child, her family history, and her journey to understand and speak about what happened to her. In the same breath, and in the same book, she tells the haunting and complicated story of Ricky Langley, a pedophile who murdered a six year old boy in Louisiana in 1992. Marzano-Lesnevich comes across Ricky’s story in her early twenties, while interning at a law firm that specializes in death penalty cases. His story sparks something in her. She sets out a quest that takes her across time and space–into her childhood and Ricky’s, her parents’ lives and his parents’ lives, from rural Louisiana to Harvard Law School, through three trials and 30,000 pages of court documents, and untimely, into the nature of truth and the meaning of story itself.
I cannot fully articulate the impact this book had on me. It’s deeply upsetting. Marzano-Lesnevich writes in clear and compelling prose, and she does not spare the reader any of the horror. It’s a graphic book, and it’s about the very worst things that people do to each other: sexual abuse, murder, child abuse, pedophilia, violence. At times it was painful, sickening to read-. Yet, if you can bear to stay inside these pages, there is so much to be gained from them–an astounding wealth of insight, complexity, compassion.
At its heart, this is a book about stories: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell each other, this stories we refuse to tell, the silences we keep. Who gets to tell a story? Who listens? Where does a story begin? Where does it end? This is a book about how stories shape our lives. “We carry what makes us,” Marzano-Lesnevich writes, and over and over again, she makes this truth sing in her prose. Ultimately, it is the stories we hold inside us that have to do with who we are and how we exist in the world.
There are no pronouncements in this book. It’s not a book about forgiveness and guilt. The book’s great strength is the way it straddles contradiction and complexity. Marzano-Lesnevich tells her own story and the story of Ricky Langley, but she also understands that her words–this book–is only one version of the telling. It offers no neat answers, no puzzles solved no explanation for why people commit horrible crimes or why people forgive them. It asks many more questions than it answers.
How much trauma can a person carry? What makes a monster? What happens to the stories that we hold inside us, that we cannot bear to speak? Where do they go? What makes us believe a story we are told about ourselves, someone we love, a stranger, the world?
After reading this book, I was left with only one certainty: that often, it is silence that is the opposite of stories. Truth comes in many forms. There are parts of her own story Marzano-Lesnevich cannot remember, and parts of the Langley story no one will ever know or understand. But as these shifting stories evolve, what becomes clear is that the absence of story is deeply damaging. The stories we refuse to tell cause more harm than the most painful stories we speak out loud.
“What I fell in love with about the law, so many years ago,” Marzano-Lesnevich writes, “was the way that in making a story, in making a neat narrative of events, it finds a beginning, and therefore cause. But I didn’t understand then that the law doesn’t find the beginning any more than it finds the truth. It creates a story. That story has a beginning. That story simplifies and we call it truth…Whatever happened in the past, the story wrote right over it. The story became the truth. What you see in Ricky killing Jeremy, I have come to believe, depends as much on who you are, and the life you’ve had, as on what he did. But the legal narrative erases that step. It erases where it came from.”
This book is a direct and gorgeous argument against the simplicity. Stories do not have endings or beginnings; they are born of each other. A minor detail in a death penalty trial might be the beating heart of someone else’s story. A piece of evidence in this trial becomes a haunting that becomes the story of someone else’s life. Marzano-Lesnevich proves that no stories are as simple as they seem, that no story has only two sides, that stories are infinitely shifting, imbued with the memories and hurts and experiences of the people who live them, tell them, hear them.
Perhaps the only way we will ever understand each other is to keep telling stories. The stories we tell will not be the same. They will not always even be true. The truth of them will change, depending on who is doing the telling and who is listening, depending on how we’ve been hurt, how we’ve been loved, who we’ve touched, what has made us laugh, sing, weep, rage.
When confronted with the hardest, darkest truths of our lives, it is easy to fall back on an either/or philosophy. In The Fact of A Body, Marzano-Lesnevich reminds us that we do not live in an either/or world. Our world is both/and. It is far too big for any of us to hold in our hands. A murder is not excusable, but neither is a life replaceable. Each story singular. Perhaps the only thing we can hold is a story, and then another, and then another, and then another.