While scrolling through Twitter I stumbled upon a picture of a proof copy that had an interesting cover, it had no text but only a photograph of a house which made me very curious and immediately interested in it. I went on GoodReads to read the synopsis and I was SOLD. I sadly wasn’t able to get the proof with the house on the cover but managed to get a digital copy of the book with the amazing US cover. This is a really special memoir which still haunted me even after I finished reading it.
You’re out of Law school, you have decided to take on a summer job at a law firm to help defend men accused of murder, you have made this decision with a clear mind but upon reviewing the case video tapes of the man you’re supposed to help defend you freeze and something inside you changes and what comes to your mind now is hate and instantly you want this man to die – this is exactly what happened to the author of this book, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. At that moment she begins questioning everything that happened in her life, focusing on her past and how it has shaped her as a person as well as reviewing the case more and more and trying to find out the reason why this crime happened. That is basically all you need to know before getting into this book.
‘Grief takes root inside people.’
The story alternates from the past and the present as the author tries to paint a character study of Ricky Langley, his childhood, his adolescence and what drove him to commit this heinous crime. We also get the authors story as she revisists her past and focuses on the things that have left an impact on her today life. I have to say that the way Marzano-Lesnevich makes you feel somewhat empathetic towards Ricky, particularly the way his mind works, is very well done because she doesn’t make him a monster but a human being whose mind and emotional stability are fragile (but still twisted). The authors struggles and the trigger that Ricky Langley pulled into her mind which made her question her past were very raw and honest and they made this story even more gripping. A lot of themes are discussed in this story which I feel like I’ll ruin if I reveal them so go get this book and read it. After I finished reading the book I googled Ricky Langley and seeing a video of him describing his crime made me realise that this story is very real and has made an impact on many lives.
‘I have come to believe that every family has its defining action, its defining belief. From childhood, I understood that my parents’ was this: Never look back.’
This is a haunting story which in a way is very personal and that’s what makes it a compelling read and a book which any true crime/mystery/thriller lover should read.
***Warning: This memoir features child abuse and child molestation which may be a heavy/hard read for some readers.
I would like to thank the US publisher (Flatiron Books), NetGalley and the author (Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich) for allowing me to read an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Check out other blog tour posts for ‘The Fact of a Body‘:
You can read the first chapter of this book by clicking here.
*I am in no way compensated by this site. I am simply sharing it so people can find this book easier.
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of THE FACT OF A BODY: A Murder and a Memoir, which will be published by Flatiron Books (Macmillan) in May 2017. It is also forthcoming from publishers internationally. A National Endowment for the Arts fellow and Rona Jaffe Award recipient, she has twice been a fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo. Her essays appear in The New York Times, Oxford American, Iowa Review, and many other publications, and were recognized “notable” in Best American Essays 2013, 2015, and 2016. She earned her JD at Harvard and now teaches at Grub Street and in the graduate public policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Click the ‘continue reading’ to read the Q&A with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich plus the newspaper article images as well as other images from the case.
In The Fact of a Body, you move back and forth between your own life and that of convicted murderer Ricky Langley. Why did you decide to pair the two, rather than writing a more traditional memoir or narrative nonfiction book?
At first I tried not to pair them—my earliest attempts at writing what eventually turned into this book looked a lot more traditional. At Harvard, I had researched death penalty juries, and I wanted to write about Ricky Langley’s case through that lens, no memoir. But I found that whenever anyone asked me, “Why do you care so much about this?” I would tell them a story from my own life. I would tell them about my grandfather, and about how for me, Ricky had posed a conflict between what I believed and my past. Eventually I realized that the story I would tell them was the story I wanted to write. More than that: the story I had to write.
So then I tried to write it just as memoir. And that didn’t work either, because it was missing Ricky, it was missing Lorilei, it was just about me and I really wasn’t the most important part of the story at all. The most important part was the collision.
When I first learned about Ricky Langley’s case, it troubled me that when I looked at him, I saw my grandfather. I was in law school at the time, and I was very much taught that that’s not what you do as a lawyer. You don’t make the case personal. The case is about the facts of what happened and it’s about how the law applies to those facts. But of course, when I got the files in the case, I saw that for many people—the lawyers, the jurors—it had been personal. They had looked at Ricky Langley and seen themselves, just as I had. I couldn’t capture that without including his life, so that the reader would be in the same position as the jury. And I couldn’t capture that without telling my own story, so that the reader would have my memories and understand why they collided with Ricky’s story. I wanted the reader to have that experience themselves. Our stories had to be braided.
Why was it important to you to capture that collision?
Because I think we understand ourselves by looking at other people. We understand other people by looking at ourselves. But one of the most striking discoveries for me in law school was that we’ve built ourselves a system that pretends we don’t do that, that pretends we don’t make choices based on the experiences we’ve had, or the memories that shape how we see things. The metaphor for the jury taught in law schools is still that of a “black box:” into the jury information and law go, out of it a verdict comes. But the pages of voir dire, the jury selection process, from Ricky Langley’s case are incredibly long—almost 1000 pages just for his second trial alone. And they’re full of people’s memories, people’s pasts. You don’t leave who you are behind when you walk into a courtroom.It influences how you see a crime and how you see the person who committed it.
Ricky Langley’s case seems very unusual: he was tried three times over twenty years. Can we really learn anything from it about the criminal justice system?
I would say that his story has unusual elements—the accident that defined his family, the circumstances of his birth, his fixation with his brother Oscar—but as a legal case, it’s actually not that unusual. The average death penalty case lasts 6-10 years, but many last much longer than that. In the book, I don’t get into the first lawyer Ricky Langley was assigned once he was arrested, but the fact is that lawyer never once visited Rickyeven while he was representing him. And that, too, wasn’t unusual—it was horrifyingly normal in Louisiana at that time period.It’s still horrifyingly normal: in Texas and Louisiana, public defenders often have more than three times as many cases to handle as the states have said is the maximum for effective counsel. One Louisiana parish has only a single public defender. There are mass sentencings there, dozens of people sentenced to life at a time without trials.
Ricky Langley was fortunate in that regard. He ended up with an excellent lawyer. But the case was still ordinary in how many things went wrong and how unlike the legal system’s ideal of an objective and purely rational case it was.None of that surprises people who are up-close to the system.Some of the strongest opponents of the death penalty are those who’ve had to participate in it. Men like Donald Cabana, the late former warden of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, who supervised several executions and then began speaking out against the death penalty. Ron McAndrew of Florida State Prison—three executions, then he did. Jeanne Woodford of San Quention—four executions. It’s a pattern that goes back at least as far asLewis E. Lawes at Sing Sing in the 1930s and Clinton Duffy at San Quentin in the 1940s.Those wardens are who I thought of when, reading the court transcripts from this case, I discovered Judge Alcide Gray’s comments about the death penalty that are in the book: how much he feared Ricky Langley being sentenced to death because he knew it would haunt him. So I hope this book can also be an occasion for talking about the very real, very ordinary aspects of the legal system that too often stay hidden.Let’s talk about what’s being done in our names—and how far that is from the system we thought we designed.
You write in the book that you never came to know Jeremy Guillory.
Yes. I really struggled with that. Because I had tens of thousands of pages all about Ricky Langley—and really, I don’t think there were more than ten about Jeremy Guillory. This was a case about the end of his life, and who he was was absent from it. So in a way his absence in the book reflects his absence in the record, reflects victims’ absence in the criminal justice process. And I want the reader to notice that. I hope the reader’s troubled by it. I’m troubled by it. Criminal prosections are the state vs. the accused. Not the family. A crime is understood as a harm to the state.
In the book, your grandfather is a child molester, like Ricky Langley. Was he ever punished for his crimes?
No—and, actually, it was a shock to me to slowly realize that what he had done was, in fact, a crime. Crimes, plural. That didn’t happen until well into writing this book. I can’t really explain why it took me so long to realize that, except to say that I was so accustomed to thinking about what happened as a dark secret in my family, a dark secret in my life. A criminal was someone else. Not a grandfather. So that ended up being one of the things I wanted to capture in this book: the problem of who we can recognize as a criminal, what we can recognize as a crime. Most sexual abuse happens within families. Most pedophiles don’t look like Ricky Langley.
Many of the people in this book do complicated things. Did you worry about not giving readers anyone simple to root for?
I hope that what readers feel is the kind of empathy that says this is honest, this is real, people are complicated.
Do you think pedophilia is a mental disorder?
I do think it’s a mental disorder. One of the hardest things for me about Ricky Langley, in his files, is that it’s clear there are all these moments in which he knows who he is, knows he’s a pedophile, and he’s horrified by it. Not every moment, certainly, but there are these flashes of understanding—and then he’s horrified by himself, he threatens to kill himself. I believe my grandfather was like that. I believe he knew who he was. But it’s equally important to me that we don’t just say, oh poor Ricky, oh poor my grandfather. No. They did horrible, horrible things. Empathy and accountability.But none of that can happen without being open about abuse.
What has your family reaction’s to this book been?
It’s a hard book for my family, obviously, but an unexpected thing has happened: I’m closer to them now than I was before I started writing it, especially my parents. I think it’s hard whenever a family builds itself on not talking about something from the past—and then someone comes along and says hey wait, I really need to talk about that. That happens in a lot of families, in different ways, I think. Maybe it happens in all of them. But my hope has always been that with openness comes a new understanding, a new kind of closeness.
(Q&A courtesy of Pan Macmillan UK)