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Fiche de lecture : «The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir» d'Alex Marzano-Lesnevich (2017)

Par Jillian Bruns : Lectrice - ENS de Lyon / University of Maryland
Publié par Marion Coste le 25/03/2021
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, ((The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir)) (Deckle Edge, 2017). French translation: ((L’empreinte)) (2020).

The Author: Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich (who uses the pronoun they) published their first novel in 2017 which received a Lambda Literary Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the Grand Prix des Lectrices ELLE, the Prix des libraires du Québec, and the Prix France Inter-JDD. Marzano-Lesnevich completed their Juris Doctor at Harvard Law School followed by an MFA of Creative Writing at Emerson College. Marzano-Lesnevich was a featured author at the 2020 virtual session of Villa Gillet’s Semaine des Assises in Lyon, France.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich © Greta Rybus. Source: Villa Gillet

The Novel

As the title indicates, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir blends true crime nonfiction with autobiography. It is a non-fiction novel whose two narratives follow the tales of two people: Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich as a young law student and child murderer Ricky Langley whose two paths cross while Marzano-Lesnevich is interning for the New Orleans defense firm who represented Langley. The structure of the book is framed by a study of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad and the legal principle of proximate cause; interwoven legal analysis of proximate cause is the narrative thread that binds the two stories together. Archives, both legal and personal, are heavily referenced and relied upon in The Fact of a Body. Marzano-Lesnevich combines their first-hand recollection of the sexual abuse they suffered as a child along with historical documents from Langley’s case.

The book recounts traumatic events and abuse and its content may be triggering or upsetting for some audiences. Nonetheless, its example is powerful and illustrates the power that victims can reclaim after being silenced. Released in 2017 at the same time that the #metoo was burgeoning, The Fact of a Body takes part in the outing of sexual aggressors and the power that their victims can reclaim through confrontation. In France, a group of writers are participating in what Edouard Louis calls a “literature of confrontation”; some writers for instance, such as Vanessa Springora and Christine Angot, specifically write about the sexual abuse they experienced as young girls. Although Marzano-Lesnevich is American, they participate in a “literature of confrontation”; it is a confrontation with their family who silenced them and with society by bringing attention to the issues from which it collectively turns away.

Questions to consider

The Fact of a Body calls into question our conception of justice and impartiality: is it possible to rectify the subjective and the objective when it comes to the issue of the death penalty? Does the American system of laws and judicial precedent protect or harm its citizens once put into practice?

Concerning the issue of justice, Mariano-Lesnevich also asks questions about society's culture of silence surrounding incest. Why do these crimes often go unpunished? What is the cost paid by its victims?

Main themes

1. The True Crime Genre

1.1 In Cold Blood

At the opening of the prologue, Marzon-Lesnevich cites Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966). The reference both mirrors the structure of Capote’s groundbreaking work of the true crime genre while inviting comparisons. In Cold Blood is often cited as one of the original non-fiction novels, and Marzano-Lesnevich follows Capote in form and in his research methods. While in In Cold Blood, the third-person omniscient narrator places himself and his work within the action of the novel, Marzano-Lesnevich takes this a step further by blending their personal story of abuse with the narrator’s unraveling of Rick Langley, child abuser and child killer. The true crime genre of literature necessitates an enormous undertaking of research on behalf of the author. Capote reportedly compiled over 8000 pages of research notes for his novel and Marzano-Lesnevich’s novel required a similarly herculean effort : over seven years of research and writing went into the project. The archival work completed by Marzano-Lesnevich plays a primary role in the construction of the narration as well as in the structure of the text. Before the prologue, there is a section entitled “A Note on Source Material” which documents how the author conducted their research including sources consulted and methods used. This is further indexed in a catalog at the end which is organized by chapter and cites every piece of archival evidence. Unlike Capote who was accused of falsifying events or inventing dialogue in In Cold Blood, Marzano-Lesnevich makes a concerted effort to be transparent about their methods and sources used.     

1.2 The Death Penalty

In The Fact of a Body, Marzano-Lesnevich picks up the issue of the death penalty as it was presented by Capote who claimed a position of opposition after the writing of In Cold Blood. Marzano-Lesnevich writes at the beginning: “I have come to the South [New Orleans] to fight the death penalty by interning with a law firm that represents people accused of murder. I am proud of this work I want to do and also frightened” (3). As the child of two lawyers, Alexandria grew up knowing that she did not believe in capital punishment. Marzano-Lesnevich recounts: “in my law school application I wrote about standing on the tarmac as a child and knowing instantly that I did not believe in the death penalty. Why wasn’t taking a human life considered cruel and unusual?” (169). This position is tested by Langley’s case, a child molester. The author writes: “if I really oppose the death penalty, I must oppose it for men like him” (172). The novel wrestles with Marzano-Lesnevich’s desire for Langley (and by proxy other child molesters and killers) to die and their own political conviction that the death penalty is wrong. Ultimately, this conflict is unresolved and Alexandria leaves the legal profession to become a writer and tell these two stories.

2. Trauma and Abuse

2.1 Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The dominant theme of the novel is the question of trauma and abuse. As a child, Alexandria and her sister were repeatedly sexually abused by their grandfather. When the abuse was finally discovered by their parents, their grandfather was not confronted. Instead, the abuse was kept quiet in the interest of maintaining family stability. Their parents made arrangements so that the abuse would not continue but, as Marzano-Lesnevich attests in their memoir, the harm and resultant trauma had already taken hold of Alexandria. The subsequent chapters of Alexandria’s life tell a story of struggle with her sexuality, her mental health and her lifelong fight to rewrite the narrative of what happened to her as a child. Marzano-Lesnevich writes that “above all we are prisoners of stories we tell about ourselves” (154).  Conversely, the act of writing becomes a form of liberation from these stories for Marzano-Lesnevich.

2.2 Ricky Langley

The second, or other, primary narrative of the novel unearths the past of convicted child abuser and child killer Ricky Langley. Through archival research, Marzano-Lesnevich reveals that Langley was both an abuser and abused. Langley’s story starts with his murder of Jeremy Guillory and the immediate aftermath of his crime. As the story unfolds, it comes to light that Langley has a history of abusing young boys that stretches back to his own childhood. Marzano-Lesnevich reveals that his mother “Bessie once told a caseworker she felt she couldn’t leave him alone for five minutes without his going and molesting somebody” (38). At Langley’s trial, a social worker presents a report documenting the physical abuse of Ricky at the hands of his father Alcide. After multiple suicide attempts as a young adult, Ricky finds that molesting and killing children is a way out of his trauma. Langley tells Marzano-Lesnevich that “he only chose kids who were hurting already. That he recognized something in their eyes that let him know they’d already been abused” (180). Marzano-Lesnevich makes no excuses or apologies for Langley; for them, telling Ricky’s story is their way out of a traumatic past. They close the novel reflecting that “not turning my back to the past, not fleeing it, but extending a hand. I say to the past: Come with me, then, as I live” (310).

Pour citer cette ressource :

Jillian Bruns, "Fiche de lecture : «The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir» d'Alex Marzano-Lesnevich (2017)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2021. Consulté le 13/04/2021. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/litterature-contemporaine/alex-marzano-lesnevich-the-fact-of-a-body-a-murder-and-a-memoir-2017