The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir is the culmination of ten years work by an NEA and Rona Jaffe award-winning writer and Harvard-trained legal expert on the death penalty. As the subtitle suggests, the book is a braided narrative, a combination of memory and true-crime reporting. In alternating chapters, it follows the story of the murder of a six-year-old boy and the story of Alexandria’s own past, which the murderer’s testimony forces her to revisit and try to understand.
I met Alexandria several years ago at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts when we were fellows at the same time. I was working on my memoir, and her memoir proposal had recently sold to Flatiron Books, and was on submission to international publishers. I was writing about events I had witnessed and those I hadn’t seen but had to figure out how to put in scene. At the heart of my story were acts of violence, but I wanted to present them in a way that was not emotionally manipulative. When I heard Alexandria read excerpts from her book, I was stunned. She had figured out how to handle all the technical and ethical issues I was struggling with, and she did so with the elegance and grace of a master stylist. Her work has been compared to the podcast Serial, and the TV show True Detective. It’s also been likened to books by Wally Lamb and Truman Capote. I would agree but go further. Her finely chiseled prose has the resonance and intellectual heft of a writer like Joan Didion.
While we were at VCCA, the book sold in the UK. It was an exciting moment that I enjoyed experiencing vicariously through her. I wasn’t surprised there was so much interest in her story. It has everything a reader could want: a plot as compelling as a legal thriller; fully rounded characters; a perceptive and insightful narrator who guides us through the story, as we discover the facts at the same time she does; and a myriad of dilemmas that couldn’t be more relevant and topical.
I wish that I had read this memoir before I wrote my own. There’s so much technique to learn from it as a writer. There’s also a lot we can learn, as citizens advocating for justice in a world that seems less fair and predictable every day. In my interview, I asked Alexandria about both big social issues and questions of craft.
The Rumpus: Let’s start with the big social issues. How did you get interested in the death penalty?
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: As a child, I was on vacation with my family when my twin brother told a joke with a punch line that included “the electric chair.” I had never heard of the electric chair. So I asked him what it was, and he explained. From that moment on I knew I was an opponent of the death penalty. I had a visceral response to the idea that as a society we would decide to kill somebody in a methodical, intentional way and that we had built a system to execute people. I am the daughter of two lawyers. I grew up idealizing the law as a philosophical record of our commitment to society, and I thought of it as something that pursued justice. The idea that the law would take someone’s life seemed immediately to violate that. So even as a child I had a strong response. Then I went to law school to try to understand why the courts found the death penalty constitutional. I thought there must be an explanation, something I was missing. Because to me, it had always seemed like it would be considered cruel and unusual, certainly. I didn’t understand yet that I might just disagree with the courts. So I went to law school to try to study that. Before I went I really thought of the law as this truth-seeking mechanism, where we have a trial and that trial is designed to elicit truth. I think until very recently in society we still pretty much thought of it that way. We still thought that when somebody was adjudicated of a crime, for example, that the truth was that they were guilty of that crime. Now I think we question that assumption. We understand more that a trial is a competition between two stories.
Rumpus: That’s an interesting way to put it.
Marzano-Lesnevich: The prosecution and the defense each tell a different story, often out of the same facts. There may be a dispute about what the facts are. But even when you have the facts there’s disagreement about how to think of them. And how you think of them comes down to a story.
Rumpus: That makes sense. And your narrator’s voice often sounds like the voice of a lawyer addressing a jury, but the narrator is addressing us, the reader.
Marzano-Lesnevich: Yes. Starting to recognize that different approach in law school simultaneously made me more interested in the law but also less interested in being a lawyer. I became fascinated with the way we construct these stories, with what gets left in and what gets left out. I suppose, in the book, I’m trying to bring the reader along in that discovery.
Rumpus: Is crafting a memoir like crafting a legal narrative? We have to leave out much, much more than we put in, when we write a memoir.
Marzano-Lesnevich: I’ve been teaching memoir for a number of years and it always strikes me that you can take the same event in a person’s life and, depending on where you put it in the narrative, it acquires a different meaning. For example, the same events, even when they are put in chronological order, can take on different meanings depending on how quickly or slowly time unfolds in the chapter. And an event positioned as the inciting incident leads to a different meaning than the same event positioned, say, as the crisis. I think these choices—where you begin and end the story and how long you linger on particular events—affect how we understand a story and how we understand cause.
Rumpus: The longer you linger on an event, the more emphasis you’re giving it. If something comes first, it’s seen as the foundation for what comes after.
Marzano-Lesnevich: As a writer, one of the things that revelation meant for me was that I had to think about the meaning I was creating when I was structuring my book. For example, the book starts with Ricky Langley killing Jeremy Guillory. I thought quite intentionally about how I don’t want that murder to be in the climax of the book. I really don’t want the structure to indicate that that’s the meaning, that’s the point, the surprise of his death. That would seem cheap to me, somehow. And the same thing with the abuse in my family. I could have started with the abuse in my family and made it the inciting incident but in truth the inciting incident has to be larger than that. It has to be more about the silence and secrets in the family, or the way in which it’s a loving family but there’s still this undertow. Because I wanted my family narrative to be about more than just one thing, I thought a great deal about where to put each event in the memoir thread of my book.
Rumpus: And for the “murder” thread?
Marzano-Lesnevich: I had to carefully consider which events to start and end with. I knew, from reading 30,000 pages of records—
Rumpus: 30,000 pages?
Marzano-Lesnevich: That’s part of why this book took so long to write! So, I knew from the records of Ricky Langley’s trials that there was so much material that hadn’t made it into the trial. So much that had happened and, I think, was relevant to any understanding of the past, but hadn’t been admitted in court. I looked at the way Langley’s story was told in the files and the way it was told in each of the three trials—because it was told differently in each one—and the way it was told in different news accounts, the way the lawyers in the case have continued to tell the story to newspapers, the way that the story was told in a UK play that was based on the case—there were all these different tellings, and even in the records there are different tellings.
Rumpus: Like what?
Marzano-Lesnevich: For example, there was a 1964 car crash that was profoundly devastating to the Langley family and had far-reaching consequences in their lives. The newspaper accounts from 1964 report that it occurred in the middle of the day. But then when people told the story at the 2003 trial they said it occurred in the middle of the night. I think that was simultaneously more dramatic and more believable—the cover of night, darkness, all that. It made for a better story, and I don’t think people consciously chose to get the facts wrong; their subconscious just made a story. So the story is shaped and shaped and shaped and shaped and sometimes the facts are altered. But even more common was that the facts were stable but the way people interpreted them was different—and then those different interpretations got written into, and ended up shaping, future tellings of the story. After reviewing all this material, I realized that what I wanted to do was tell a story that would also be about the construction of all these stories.
Rumpus: And you do. Another difficult thing you make look easy is filling in details for scenes you weren’t present for. The memoir part of the book you were a witness to. But the murder part is often constructed from court transcripts. To keep our attention, you need to turn those transcripts into stories, give us characters we can see and hear. You signal when you’re adding something from your imagination or experience, and you tell us why you choose the details you do. Can you talk about the process? The technical and ethical issues you had to wrestle with and how you made them work?
Marzano-Lesnevich: I don’t think of it as filling in the gaps with my imagination. I think it’s really important to note that I didn’t invent events. It was more that, as I was reading these records—as happens to all of us I think when we read anything incredibly vivid—the scene would come to life in my mind. And so when I would read, for example, about this car crash, I would see these people in my mind. And then I would read that when Ricky Langley was an adult he told stories about having a dream about the car crash to a roomful of corrections officers, and that those corrections officers, they all gave affidavits afterwards in which they said what they recalled and the dream that he told comes through so vividly in these people’s retellings. So what I tried to do was bring that experience to life for the reader. At the same time, because I want to be straightforward about this process, I acknowledge that even as I was writing about how other people were making stories out of the murder, I, too, was necessarily making stories out of it.
Rumpus: Your narrator addresses the reader.
Marzano-Lesnevich: It was really important to me to have an active narrator voice so the reader would always know when I was telling myself a story from these records. My goal is for the reader to feel the presence of a single mind piecing together a story from all the information. And so it was essential for me to note where the facts were quite solid and where they had come from, and that’s why I have twelve pages of source notes at the end of the book.
Rumpus: I think you’re crystal clear about what your sources are and where the facts come from. By using an active narrator as our guide, you show us that we all make pictures when people are telling us stories. I appreciate how you make that process transparent. Did you always know this was the right approach for your book?
Marzano-Lesnevich: Oh man, I tried so many different approaches. So, so many. And that’s another reason why this book took so long to write, just the challenge of figuring out how to tell this story. How could I tell it in as complex a way as I needed to but still keep the pages turning quickly? As a reader, I really like page turners. So I knew I wanted to tell a story that would envelop the reader, make the reader feel as immersed in it as I felt when thinking about these stories. I tried at one point to tell it in a more straightforwardly memoir way. I tried at another point to tell it in a more straightforwardly journalistic way. I then realized that this element of storytelling that we’ve been discussing was too crucial to this book not to highlight it so I felt that I had to do a construction with a more active narrator. But then, since I have two threads, I had to figure out how to weave them. And the way I did that was I actually wrote a couple hundred-page condensed versions of the book.
Rumpus: Sounds like a lot of work.
Marzano-Lesnevich: Yeah, and then I threw the pages away! But the exercise helped me understand how the two stories were layered. I restarted this book many times. After getting the NEA grant, I again jettisoned everything except twenty-five pages and started all over again, basically. But all that work with the layering helped me trust where the meaningful connections were. And also learn which connections weren’t as meaningful. So despite the fact that the book has taken me years to write, about half of the actual pages were written in the last year before turning it in to my editor.
Rumpus: Interesting. Half the book took nine years, and the other half took one.
Marzano-Lesnevich: Yes—because I think when you finally find the voice of the book, the pages flow much more easily. But to find that, I’m someone who has to write, throw away. Write, throw away. This story took a long time to figure out how to tell, but one thing about that process was that it helped me trust my own sense of the story. It was only in the rewriting, frankly, that I became structurally braver. And also emotionally braver. Because as the structure of the book solidified I began to realize that I could go deeper into the rawer emotions without losing that structure, because I knew enough about the structure and how to keep it going. It’s notable to me that two of the most emotionally intense moments in this book—moments that now think are vital—weren’t there with that intensity until about two weeks before I turned the manuscript in.
Rumpus: Fascinating. Why do you think it happened that way?
Marzano-Lesnevich: If the structure hadn’t been solidly in place it would have felt too risky to delve into the rawer stuff because there would be the danger that the emotion would overwhelm the structure. Which is something I think you have to worry about all the time with memoir.
Rumpus: That it would take you into a detour, a digression that’s so powerful that you leave behind the thread of the story you meant to continue.
Marzano-Lesnevich: Exactly. I’d been working with the structure for so long that I understood how it was going to work, which structural signals I needed to put in, and what the logic of the book was. I think of that phrase a lot when I’m teaching.
Rumpus: The logic of the book. That’s a great phrase.
Marzano-Lesnevich: What I mean by it is, How is the structure tied to the angle of vision of the narrator and tied to the voice? What’s the interior logic to why this book works the way it does? What’s it trying to say about the world? And I think the reason I spend so much time thinking about that is it felt so crucial to this book. Because if there weren’t a narrative reason the teller of this story is so interested in storytelling, there wouldn’t be a narrative reason for how much it moves backward and forward in time.
Rumpus: The structure has to mirror the content.
Marzano-Lesnevich: I really think so. Ideally, the structure itself will reveal something about the meaning of the story.
Rumpus: When I teach memoir, structure is one of the things students struggle with the most. It’s helpful to have examples of different kinds of structures, and I’m sure I’ll be using your book as a great model.
Marzano-Lesnevich: Thank you.
Rumpus: You’ve described writing this book as an exercise in empathy. How did your empathy change as you found out more about Ricky Langley and your grandfather?
Marzano-Lesnevich: When I started first reading these records I had no empathy for Ricky Langley. How could I possibly have any empathy for him? He was a pedophile and a murderer.
Rumpus: Of course.
Marzano-Lesnevich: He wasn’t a person to me. He was what he had done. So when I started, the records were difficult for me because I didn’t have empathy for him. I was reading his therapy notes from when he was an older teenager and it was terrible for me to read them because he was so problematic to me. I mean he still is problematic to me, obviously, but at that point he just seemed evil. But I kept reading. And then slowly it became even harder—because as I read, I started to realize that here he was as a teenager arguably trying to get help, but at the same time being trapped by who he was. My understanding of him became more complicated, and more empathetic.
And then that was really hard for me! And really problematic in its own way, because then was impossible for me to escape the same questions about my grandfather. Who was he, when he climbed the stairs of my childhood bedroom? What was he thinking? What was that like for him? That’s such a terrible question, in a way, to have to ask as someone who was abused by him.
There’s something strange that happens when you write about real people. The real people become characters, which means that you have to have a fully rounded idea of them. I started to see Langley in this somewhat empathetic way—never losing sight of what he’d done, the terrible harm he’d caused, that he’d killed Jeremy Guillory and abused children—but also understanding that he was a person at the same time. Somehow that’s the most terrible, and most necessary, realization to me. And of course it made me think about my own life.
When we write fiction or creative nonfiction, we have to try to see our characters are rounded, and we have to try to understand what their motivations were and what the story they were telling themselves about their actions was even if we don’t agree with it, we have to at least understand it for the characters to be three-dimensional. That drove me to figure out why my parents made the choices they did and who they were as people and what they were struggling with that led them to make those choices. And then there was my grandfather. The realization that I was going to have to engage in that kind of empathy for everyone in this memoir was difficult but also probably life altering
Rumpus: Life altering?
Marzano-Lesnevich: Sure. It fundamentally changed how I saw things. It also forced me to look at my younger self in an empathetic way. Some of the moments in the book that I struggled with writing the most were the ones of me as a young adult and struggling with eating disorders and other problems. I had to look back at her and see how young she was and how much she was trying to handle and have empathy for her.
Rumpus: And yet it’s also possible to have too much empathy, right?
Marzano-Lesnevich: Oh, yes. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a girl in the records who Langley abused and I thought she was fourteen. I think, had I not been reading very empathetically, I might have stopped short when I was thinking she was fourteen and thought wait, that doesn’t match with everything else I know about who this man is. Is there a hidden story here? But instead, I had been spending so much time with him as a character in a book and as a person through the records that I was trying to see a way to understand him and in trying to think the girl was fourteen, I wrote a story in my head and thought, Maybe this was the one time it was different. Of course it would have been terrible if she was fourteen, too, but to when I found out she was five—at that moment I realized the danger of too much empathy.
Rumpus: It can turn into wishful thinking and denial and cover up.
Marzano-Lesnevich: Absolutely. And I think with my family, part of the reason they made the decisions they did was out of empathy for my grandmother. Out of empathy for her they tried to pretend that the abuse never happened. And that did a great deal of damage. And so with the book, one of the choices I made was to write about my mistaking a five-year-old girl for a fourteen-year-old girl because I wanted to call myself out on the danger of empathy, and to show that what’s important is to come back to the body, back to Jeremy Guillory’s murdered body, and back to the secrets my body held. I wanted to show that we empathize because we’re trying to understand, but at the same time, no matter how many times you tell the story you’re going to come back to the fact of the body.
Rumpus: The body is proof.
Marzano-Lesnevich: We tell stories and there are differences in how we interpret the facts, but there are still facts. In this case, there are many things that will never be known but there is still the fact of the body. And that’s true in my life, too. And so I wanted to show the many ways of holding that duality.
Rumpus: What response are you hoping to get from your book?
Marzano-Lesnevich: The most meaningful thing to come out of this book, for me, has been the conversations. It’s so profoundly moving for me when people read my book and then share their own stories about what they carry in their own lives.
Rumpus: The things we carry.
Marzano-Lesnevich: The other thing I hope people take from the book—and they seem to so far—is the awareness of its complexity. My deep hope was that in reading this story about how we make stories in this one case and also in my life that people might move forth into the world and question how other stories around them were constructed. Or see that construction in their own past. And that also seems to be happening, from what I’ve been hearing from readers, and I’m grateful.
I started this book well before the November election, an election which turned out to be a contest between stories on the national level. And I think there seems to be more awareness now about how we make stories out of facts. And if there’s something I’m hoping for concretely out of the book it’s that people pay attention to that complexity around them. In their lives and in the criminal justice system. And in the political sphere.
Rumpus: That we separate “alternative facts” from real facts.
Marzano-Lesnevich: Yes, on two levels. Certainly when the “alternative facts” are, as we often see now in the national discourse, just plain wrong. Just plain lies. Like moving the time of the crash, because to move it suited a narrative the person wanted to tell. But also to understand that the way we interpret facts often has to do with fitting them into a story we’re telling ourselves.
Rumpus: So even though you started your book in a whole different political climate, The Fact of a Body couldn’t be more relevant to what’s happening right now.
Author photograph © Nina Subin.