I have a confession: sometimes when I get to the end of a book, I reflect on something about the author’s approach or treatment of the content, and I think, I could have totally done that. However, when I finished Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s captivating memoir, The Fact of a Body, and considered the intricate braid that layers the story of Ricky Langley, a Louisiana sex offender convicted of the 1992 murder of six-year-old Jeremy Guillory, with Marzano-Lesnevich’s own painful story of sexual abuse by their grandfather, I had the exact opposite reaction. I could never have done that. The many facets that contribute to the brilliance of Marzano-Lesnevich’s book, including their research, vulnerability, self-exposure, and narrative precision, place it at a level of literary excellence that I’m convinced few of us could reach.
I tell them exactly this when we sit down in a corner booth with wooden benches in Ula Café, an artsy, industrial-style coffee bar and bakery nestled among reconverted factory buildings in a corner of Jamaica Plain, a gentrified Boston neighborhood now characterized by its diverse community and locally-owned businesses. Marzano-Lesnevich smiles and thanks me, and then, leaning back in their seat and letting their shoulders relax, they say with an exaggerated sigh, “It took a lot of work and a lot of time.”
My ongoing pursuit of answers to the questions: What does it take to write an honest memoir? And what happens to us when we do? have brought me into the city from my Nashua, New Hampshire home to catch up with Marzano-Lesnevich in the middle of their hectic tour schedule. Unearthing the specifics of that work and time they are talking about and hearing about their personal and creative struggles along the way is exactly what I want to do. In June 2017, when Marzano-Lesnevich joined me and memoirists Alysia Abbott and Richard Hoffman at the Trident Booksellers and Café for a panel discussion about writing the tough stuff sponsored by GrubStreet, a Boston-based creative writing center, I recognized that Marzano-Lesnevich’s hard-earned wisdom would be a gift for writers and readers alike
Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir journey began unexpectedly in 2003 when they were a student at Harvard Law School. The summer after their first year, they accepted an internship at a New Orleans law firm that represented accused murderers. Their first day on the job, they watched Ricky Langley’s video-taped confession. In the first moments Langley appeared on screen and began talking about molesting children, Marzano-Lesnevich, who’d traveled to Louisiana with the sole purpose of championing their life-long opposition to the death penalty, knew one thing for certain: they wanted Ricky Langley to die. They write in their book’s prologue, “This tape brought me to reexamine everything I believed not only about the law but about my family and my past.”
Ironically, Marzano-Lesnevich never worked on Langley’s case. But his confession rooted its way inside them and tangled with long-buried threads of their past. “The details of the murder would come back to me, unbidden, and haunt me for years,” they tell me as we both dig into our lunches. “They haunted my imagination, haunted my memory.”
Marzano-Lesnevich finished law school, but never practiced law. The ghosts residing in Langley’s story and the complicated feelings they stirred up left them conflicted about their ability to ever be objective – especially if a case resonated at a particularly personal level. Instead, they pursued a degree in writing. “When I was a child, when I was a teenager, I wrote so much. I was so committed to writing. I was prolific. My high school yearbook has all these messages from people saying, ‘I can’t wait to read your first book.’” Marzano-Lesnevich pauses. “I hadn’t even thought of that until now.” They tell me that when their grandfather, the man who’d molested them and their sisters for years when they were little girls, died, they’d quit writing cold turkey. Marzano-Lesnevich’s expression grows thoughtful when they say, “I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but I think I stopped writing because I was afraid I would tell the story of what had happened in my childhood. My family had such a strong code of silence, that it was a very scary thing to contemplate doing.”
When Marzano-Lesnevich entered their MFA program, they very intentionally pursued fiction. “I really didn’t want to write about any of this stuff. But the memories kept filtering through.” Marzano-Lesnevich’s words aren’t new for me. I’ve spoken to so many memoirists, particularly memoirists who’ve written about trauma, who’ve told similar stories of haunting and resistance.
In 2008, Marzano-Lesnevich requested a section of the court records in Ricky Langley’s case. “Not because I thought I was going to write about it then,” they’re quick to explain. “But just because I wanted to lay this haunting to rest inside me.” It took them another two years, though, to harness the courage to read the records. “And it was reading them that made me start to understand that I was going to have to really write about this. Here I had been seeing myself or seeing my family’s past in this crime and thinking that if I were thinking the way that I felt a lawyer should, I would be able to not see my own life in it and just see it for itself. Then, I got these records and I started to realize that actually everybody who came to the case saw it through the lens of their own past and that this is something we’re not really talking about in the legal system, and, frankly, not really talking about in families – at least not in mine. That turned out to be the story I wanted to tell, and that was what got me to start writing about it.”
“Did you know that you were writing a book?” I ask.
“Let me answer this in two different ways. Did I say that I was writing a book? Yes. Did I know that I was writing a book? No.” They laugh. “I didn’t know what the heck I was doing.”
Marzano-Lesnevich found safety in wearing a veil of confidence, but they also recognized that they couldn’t completely commit to the big picture. “If you think about what you know you can do as being to the end of your fingertips,” they say, stretching their arm out over the table. “I always think it’s important to be writing about at least a foot out from that. Always be doing something that you don’t quite know how to do, that scares the shit out of you, and that you’re reaching for.” They call up a quote often credited to novelist E.L. Doctorow: Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. “I very much found that to be true.”
When I reflect on the complex narrative that became The Fact of a Body, I’m not surprised that Marzano-Lesnevich didn’t see a clear-cut path to its completion. Two stories were pulling at them: the Ricky Langley murder case and their childhood memories, and they recognized early that each was equally important. “What I was trying to capture was the collision of emotions within these two stories, so I knew very early on that the stories had to be braided. It took years, though, for me to realize that they really could be brought together.” Excitement widens Marzano-Lesnevich’s eyes behind their black-rimmed glasses when they describe the moment they recognized there was a third strand to the braid. “I started to realize that for it to be emotionally satisfying, you, the reader, were going to need somebody to step in at the end and be able to talk to you more about how and why she did it, why we were on this journey anyway.”
To get to that breakthrough moment, to figure this story out from a narrative craft angle and from an emotional standpoint, and to actually understand “what the heck” they were doing, Marzano-Lesnevich had to journey into what they refer to as “a fairly dark world.” They had to immerse themself in the pages and pages of public records, trial transcripts, and newspaper articles from the Ricky Langley case, and they had to take a frighteningly deep dive into their own traumatic memories.
An honest examination of both stories necessitated that Marzano-Lesnevich confront difficult truths and wrestle with daunting narrative choices. They knew their family’s silence around their grandfather’s abuse had to be broken. “I couldn’t write the story as though I’d been the only one in my family who was molested. In the book, I say I wasn’t willing to put myself alone in the experience again, but in a very real way, I also wasn’t willing to lie like that and try to cover up the story.” At the same time, they didn’t want to hurt anyone in the process. “What I decided to do was not have any scene that showed anything specific happening to my sisters, or not to do things that felt too intimate or too invasive in any way.” They stop for a moment, and I can see by the troubled look on their face that it’s a decision they are still wrestling with. “I had to write that it happened.” they didn’t hide the writing from their family. “I told them from the start. I told them early, I told them often, I told them repeatedly.”
In bringing Ricky Langley and the story surrounding Jeremy Guillory’s murder to the page, Marzano-Lesnevich also faced challenges. “It’s not a book where I went and interviewed everyone and was trying to solve the question of what happened. In a way, it’s not really about what happened. It’s about the way people told themselves the story at the time. The way I told myself the story and saw my life in it.” They wanted the narrative to reflect that telling. Extensive source notes at the end of the book demonstrate that all of the facts of the case remained intact, but Marzano-Lesnevich does write that they “layered [their] imagination onto the bare-bones record of the past to bring it to life.” They imagine people’s voices, thoughts, appearances. The compelling re-creation of these scenes instead of a strict journalistic approach is, I would argue, what makes this book so riveting for readers. “Nonfiction can capture how we imagine, how we dream, how we interpret. I think as long as the narrator is really up front about what they are doing and the reader never thinks it’s anything else, then we’re good.”
Marzano-Lesnevich says that teaching memoir and working with other people on stories that were traumatic at the same time that Marzano-Lesnevich was writing the book definitely helped them find balance. “One of the things I always tell my students is that some days you are going to feel like the conductor of the orchestra and you’ll have distance and see what’s needed in a craft sense. You’re shaping it, and molding it, and figuring out the reader’s experience, and it’s almost fun.” They’d warn their students that on other days, they’d lose that distance and control. “It would almost be like tripping and falling face forward into the emotion.”
During some of those initial trips when they lost their own emotional distance while writing The Fact of a Body, Marzano-Lesnevich worried they were doing something wrong. “And then I realized, no. What I needed to do was harness each for its strength. When it felt most raw to me, I needed to plunge into that space because those were going to be the deepest emotional hits for the reader. And when it felt more distant, that was a good moment to think about the overall arc, the emotional arc, narrative arc, pacing, and structure. The entire time of working on the book, it went back and forth, and I could never predict when was going to be what.”
“How did you cope in the midst of that process?” This question sparked my book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, and it’s the question that I’ve since discovered so many of us facing the task of bringing our most difficult memories to the page need answered from the writers who’ve gone before us.
“I have learned how to expect the trips. If you are a writer who is drawn to emotionally difficult material, which I am, you had better figure out how to take care of yourself.” Marzano-Lesnevich had a good support network of friends, many of whom are writers, who understood what they were doing. Marzano-Lesnevich also credits their time at arts colonies as one of the major factors that helped them find room and time to navigate the difficult territory of their writing. They won prestigious fellowships to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. “I think they are magical, wonderful places, run by amazing people who are really devoted to making space for art to happen. I’m just profoundly grateful to them and to all the donors that keep them alive.”
Another coping mechanism was to impose intentional geographic separations between their writing and their day-to-day living. “When I was in Boston and working on this book, I would work on it at a wonderful place called The Writer’s Room in downtown Boston, and the writing would only happen there and the records would be there. I would never work on it at home. Not ever – even if I woke up and I wanted to, even if I thought I could. I wanted my subconscious to know that there would be separation, and that when I was leaving The Writer’s Room, I was leaving the story. By having a separate workspace, I could actually go deeper into the hard parts because it was like my subconscious knew that there was going to be a way to leave it, so it was willing to go to riskier places.”
“That’s so smart,” I exclaim, thinking how easy it is for writers of memoir to feel like they can’t ever escape the story.
“It was born of necessity,” they say matter-of-factly. “Until I had that, I wasn’t getting much done. I have come to think that rescue at the end of the writing session is deeply important.” Hard-earned wisdom.
“I think a lot of being a writer is just learning the way you work,” Marzano-Lesnevich continues. I actually wince when they tell me that they wrote and threw away “hundreds, if not thousands of pages” during that learning process. “Even though I worked on this book for many, many years (almost ten), half of it (the book as it stands now) was written in the year after it was sold.” Writing, rewriting, reshaping, reimagining, refining – this was the work they had to do to finally figure out what she was actually doing. “The book teaches you how to write it.”
“What was it like for you when you knew you’d finished?”
“Glorious and also devastating and glorious and also devastating,” they sit up and slouch to match the rise and fall in the cadence and content of their words. “Now, it feels great, but the first time I sat down to look at it, I was just all gutturally raw. Suddenly, I’d lost the thing that was giving me purpose for so long. But, God, what a gift, too. I created all this space in my life to dream and embark on the next thing.”
Marzano-Lesnevich hadn’t written the book to be therapeutic. “I think that would be a sort of insane thing to embark on because writing it was so profoundly disturbing.” So, they were incredulous by how profoundly therapeutic having it finished and published actually was. “I carried this thing inside me for so long, and now I don’t have to carry it by myself inside me.” They pick up my copy of the book. “This stiff cardboard cover, and the pages inside it made a home for the stuff that was inside me to live. I’m not in the same emotional place that the narrator in the book is. I wrote the whole book, and the process of writing it moved me to a different place.”
The book has moved Marzano-Lesnevich to a different, and notable, place as a writer, too. Before its publication, The Fact of a Body was named an Indie Next Pick and one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by Buzzfeed, Book Riot, and the Huffington Post. Since its release in May 2017, Marzano-Lesnevich’s book has received critical praise by readers and reviewers. It was long-listed for the Gordon Burn Prize and a finalist for the New England Book Award. Entertainment Weekly named it one of the 10 best books of the year and it was The Guardian’s pick for Best Book of the Year. It received the prestigious 2018 Chatauqua Prize and a 2018 Lamda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Memoir/Biography. Goodreads nominated it for best memoir of the year.
“I’ve gotten notes from readers all over the world – in the UK, in the Phillipines, Australia, South Africa – talking about how much the book impacted them. They are saying that the book resonates with them, and that’s a really beautiful thing to hear,” Marzano-Lesnevich tells me when I ask about reader response. “If I did my job right, by the end, hopefully people are thinking about the stories that are told in their own families, in their own lives. And also the stories we tell in the criminal justice system.” They say that though some writers talk about the emotional toll of self-exposure that publication brings, they haven’t experienced that so far. “I just spent a really long time alone in a room with this story, and the idea that it’s reaching other people and it’s resonating with them is so profoundly moving to me. I feel grateful for every note.”
They learned quickly, though, that they had no control over how all people will interpret the story. “I did not understand how overshadowing the trauma would be for people. A lot of people just respond to that, and that’s hard because I want to say, ‘Guys! You’re talking to me about literally a third of the book. There is more there.’” I can’t help but reflect on how this response illustrates exactly one of the revelations in Marzano-Lesnevich’s book, though. We all approach stories with a subjective lens.
The book’s resonance from an artistic standpoint has been just as vital for Marzano-Lesnevich. “I have so much respect for people who say, ‘I’m just writing it. I don’t care if anyone reads it.’ No. No. I wanted people to care and to read this. I wanted it to be a page-turner. I felt like I was going to ask the reader to come to some difficult, complicated places with me by the end of the book, and in order to earn their investment to get there, I had to hook them early on. The messages that say, ‘You ruined my bedtime!’ or ‘I read this in a day!’ or ‘It was so disturbing, but I couldn’t look away!’ are also super fun.”
Before wrapping up our conversation, I mention how the layers of meaning inherent in the book’s title seem to mirror the book’s content. “This book was called something else for a very long time, but I knew it wasn’t the right title. A friend read the draft and he made a list of possible titles drawn from phrases in the book. I saw that title – The Fact of a Body – and it just leapt out at me. The title was one of the things that helped the book coalesce at the end. This idea of what the body holds gave the book its ballast.”
The lunch rush at Ula Café has dissipated, and the buzz of midday patrons that accompanied most of our conversation has quieted in these final moments. I think about all of the questions that Marzano-Lesnevich’s book doesn’t, and cannot, answer. So much in the Ricky Langley murder case can never be known for certain. Only Jeremy Guillory’s body holds those answers. There’s so much in Marzano-Lesnevich’s own past, limited by the stretch of their memories, that they will never know for certain. But their intuition tells them that somewhere deep within, their body holds those answers, too. Their last words settle in my mind, and long after we say our goodbyes, I realize how far they reach beyond Marzano-Lesnevich’s own book and how crucial they are for any of us venturing to bring our complicated stories to the page. “Just because we’re never going to know these things doesn’t mean they aren’t. We’re never going to know, and it still matters deeply.”