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The Red Parts: a tale of murder and misogyny

by Greg Clowes, Assistant Editor at Vintage Books

Murder, misogyny, stories, memory: these are some of the things that animate Maggie Nelson’s riveting autobiography of a trial, The Red Parts. On one level, the book tells the story of the trial of Gary Earl Leiterman for the murder of Nelson’s aunt, Jane Mixer. In 1969 Jane, who was studying law at the University of Michigan, posted a note on a student noticeboard to share a lift home for spring break. She was found dead in a cemetery not far from campus the following day. The killer was never found; the case went officially unsolved for 35 years. But in 2004, once technology had caught up, the case was reopened when DNA from one of Jane’s items of clothing identified Leiterman as a suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried. Nelson attended the trial, and The Red Parts is a product of this experience.

There are layers of complexity beneath this gruesome – yet fascinating – story, making the book far more memorable than a true crime page-turner. It interrogates our cultural obsession – even the sanctioned voyeurism – surrounding violent crimes, especially those inflicted on young women. The media’s reporting of these murders tend to fit a familiar mould: quasi-pornographic descriptions of the violence suffered by the victim, overlaid with schmaltzy platitudes about her having had so much to live for (usually characterized as career progression, a husband, children). One of the book’s many achievements is to expose this status quo, but also to handle the gory subject matter in a fresh way – borrowing from great novelists and psychoanalysis to invent a new genre of writing altogether.

Shame, in its various flavours, is central to the book’s concerns as well. At one point in the trial, Nancy Grow, who originally found Jane’s body in 1969 is reluctantly giving evidence all over again. She admits to something that she never told the police the first time around: that she’d ventured into the cemetery, past the chain-link fence, in order to take a closer look at the body. And revealingly, she cannot look at Nelson and her family when relaying all this to the court. It was this wanting to take a closer look at a stranger’s mutilated body that was so shameful – and was clearly felt all the more keenly when the stranger’s loved ones were present. Nelson knows this kind of shame all too well. Though connected by blood, Jane is as much a stranger to her as she was to Grow, so Nelson can’t help but wonder whether this is her story to tell, or if she’s really just trespassing.

The book is also fittingly suspicious of the supposed usefulness of stories, or rather the power that stories exert over our lives. What is this compulsion of ours to codify and systematize messy, traumatic events in our lives into a single coherent story? Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but much of The Red Parts is a bracingly honest memoir of Nelson’s own upbringing that steadfastly refuses to codify; instead embracing an exquisite open-endedness, an exhilarating incoherence, letting the chips fall where they may. The result is a book written in a prose so powerful, so frenzied, that it seems to capture the uncanny texture of real, lived experience: Jane’s death, the trial, and Nelson’s early life all sharing a single incandescent moment.

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