The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson

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Fear is the inheritance of women. Fear is bequeathed to us with every warning that our mothers whisper. Hold your keys in your knuckles when you cross the dark parking garage, ready to stab. Hit your attacker in the nose, eyes, or balls. For many of our mothers this fear is born of traumas that they will never name. But Maggie Nelson has named the fear that she inherited. It came from the murder of her aunt Jane Mixer.

Nelson’s book The Red Parts, which will be rereleased from Graywolf Press this spring, is both a memoir of the trial of Gary Leiterman, who was accused of killing Mixer, and a contemplation of what it means to get justice and live with grief. This isn’t Nelson’s first book about her aunt. The same year Leiterman was put on trial, Nelson published Jane: A Murder. Part elegy, part investigation, part commemoration, Jane combines poetry, prose, newspaper clippings, and selections from Jane’s diary and true crime books, to tell the story of her life, death, and memory.

In The Red Parts, Nelson writes, “I had started writing Jane with the presumption that my family’s repression of her awful death was an example of faulty grieving, which my book could delicately expose.” But she concludes, “The hubris of this idea is now abundantly clear to me. When I think now about ‘faulty’ or ‘successful’ grieving I feel only bewilderment. Beyond the bewilderment, the edge of a shapeless potent rage—a rollicking protest, some loose hot wild event starting to take place under my own skin.”

The Red Parts continues the conversation that began with Jane. It’s a conversation that we often have as a nation when we gawk at lurid trials and the raw grief of victims. It’s a conversation that begins by surveying the wreckage and asking, “What now?”

But first, the wreckage: On March 21, 1969 Jane Mixer, a 23-year-old law student at the University of Michigan, was found murdered in a cemetery 14 miles outside of Ann Arbor. Her death at the time fit the pattern of a string of serial murders in the Ann Arbor area. Four days after Mixer’s body was discovered, the police found yet another victim.

When James Norman Collins was tried and convicted of one of the murders, the police believed they had the perpetrator. And so did Mixer’s family, who did their best to move on—especially her sister Barbara Nelson, Maggie Nelson’s mother. But the fear lingered. Nelson recalls locked doors and a constant worry that lurked under her mother’s carefully controlled exterior. “I realized this fear had trickled down to me. An inheritance.”

Because Collins was never tried for Mixer’s murder, the case was never officially closed. In 2001, Detective Eric Schroeder reopened Mixer’s case. DNA found on Mixer’s body was matched to Gary Leiterman. In 2004, Leiterman was arrested for Mixer’s murder. Months before the publication of Jane, Nelson got a call from Schroeder telling her that her aunt’s case was finally going to have closure.

Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson

Together, Nelson and her mother attend the trial, every day listening to the sometimes tedious, sometimes agonizing testimony. Together they see the crime scene photos of Mixer’s murder. But each woman is alone in her experience, lost in her pain. Nelson recalls an incident in which her mother, while on the phone, tripped and smashed her face on the ground. But she never mentioned the incident to her daughter until later, when she had to have a root canal as a result of the fall. “She says the fall was too embarrassing to mention. I say that it might have been worth mentioning simply because it happened.”

Bearing witness to pain is a central theme of the book. And Nelson’s witness doesn’t shout for justice or chant for reform. She simply witnesses a story of grief and pain as it’s passed down through generations. In a world obsessed with the grisly details of CSI, Serial, and Making a Murderer, Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts feels like a caesura. Even when Leiterman is convicted, there is no final closure, there is no grand justice.

[Justice] always swoops down from on high—from God, from the state—like a bolt of lightning, a flaming sword come to separate the righteous from the wicked in Earth’s final hour. It is not, apparently, something we can give to one other, something we can make happen, something we can create together down here in the muck. The problem may also lie in the word itself, as for millennia ‘justice’ has meant both ‘retribution’ and ‘equality,’ as if a gaping chasm did not separate the two.”

Nelson taps into the anxiety that lies beneath the machinations of the justice system. Can we ever really know what happened? For Nelson, the DNA evidence doesn’t offer assurance—only more troubling questions. A drop of blood found on Mixer was linked to convicted murderer John David Reulas, who was four at the time of Mixers murder. The prosecution is unable to explain the presence of the blood. Was it a mix-up in the lab? Evidence of the faulty nature of DNA? Or is there, as Nelson, imagines another story?

Nelson pictures Reulas as a child, escaping the pain and abuse of his own home for the sanctuary of the cemetery, where he finds the dead girl and stares at her, a single drop of blood dripping from his nose. It’s a haunting image: one event toppling into the next, each one compounding the pain of the past. Throughout the book, Nelson weaves in her own grief over the boyfriend who broke up with her, and her father who died of a heart attack. Each pain is wholly different and yet wholly connected.

When the guilty verdict is handed down, Nelson tries not to look at the Leiterman family. “I know they are devastated. ‘Justice’ may have been done, but at this moment the courtroom is simply a room full of broken people, each racked with his or her particular grief, and the air heavy with them all.”

This is the beauty of this sparse book. Although it can be classified as true crime, The Red Parts has none of the trappings of a whodunit. It doesn’t look for answers, it just looks unflinchingly at the wreckage, the loss, the love and the fear. It bears witness.

Lyz's writing has been published in the New York Times Motherlode, Jezebel, Aeon, Pacific Standard, and others. Her book on midwestern churches is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. She has her MFA from Lesley and skulks about on Twitter @lyzl. Lyz is a member of The Rumpus Advisory Board and a full-time staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review. More from this author →