The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson

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The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Nelson's aunt was murdered in Michigan in 1969. Thirty-five years later, just as Nelson had completed writing a poetry collection about her aunt, the case was reopened when new DNA evidence emerged. This fluid, engrossing narrative is no ordinary true crime story, but a meditative reflection on loss and identity.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: June 2017
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9781784705794

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Maggie Nelson is the author of four volumes of poetry and five wide-ranging works of nonfiction that delve into the nature of violence and sexuality. From what I'd heard about her writing, I knew to expect an important and unconventional thinker with a distinctive, lyrical style. Now Vintage is making some of her backlist, including this book (originally published in 2007) and the uncategorisable Bluets, available for the first time in the UK.

When Nelson's aunt, Jane Mixer, was murdered in 1969, she was in her first year of law school at the University of Michigan. She'd been on her way home to Muskegon for spring break to announce her engagement, having found a ride through a campus notice board. What she didn't know was that the man who volunteered to drive her gave an alias. She was shot twice in the head and strangled with a stocking; her corpse and belongings were left in a nearby cemetery.

It had always been assumed that Jane's was one of the so-called Michigan Murders – committed by a serial killer and rapist – even though her killing didn't seem to have a sexual element. While there was plenty of information out there about the Michigan Murders, there was very little about Jane's in particular. In writing her 2005 poetry book about her aunt, Jane: A Murder, Nelson drew on Jane's diaries but also on her own imagination and reconstruction.

Ironically, Nelson had been working on the book about her aunt for five years when detectives notified the family that the case had been reopened. Due to the uncovering of new DNA evidence, retired nurse Gary Leiterman would stand trial for Jane's murder in 2005. He came to the police's attention because of a prescription drug addiction. Nelson and her mother moved to Michigan to live in a friend's house for the duration of the trial.

Most authors would probably quickly zero in on the trial itself in a book like this, giving a blow-by-blow with the lawyers' questioning and the witnesses' statements. And although Nelson does document the important developments of the month-long trial, and describes the autopsy photographs in blunt detail, her account is much more diffuse than one might expect. Interspersed with Jane's history are all sorts of other dark memories: of Nelson's father's sudden death, of her sister Emily's wild years, of aborted love affairs, of a murder she witnessed in New York City, and so on.

The title phrase tangentially refers to the words of Jesus in the New Testament, traditionally printed in red, so it has a sort of dual meaning: this is a (futile) search for the gospel truth about her aunt's death, and also a conscious dive into the parts of life that frighten us. Your average true crime account would answer most if not all questions, and tie the case up neatly. But Nelson's seems to ask more questions than it answers, such that the trial verdict is neither here nor there. What was meant to bring closure has only left the family asking why? Whether it was Leiterman who did it or not, what was the motivation? Why Jane?

Nelson feels strongly that her role is to bear witness to her aunt's life and death – 'some things might be worth telling simply because they happened' – yet she hopes that she hasn't superimposed her own ideas onto Jane and thus only further obscured her true identity. A trial is generally presented as a face-off of good and evil, a chance to get justice at last, but Nelson ends up disillusioned about such grand notions:

'In short the ideal of catharsis that had served as a naive but real spur throughout my writing of Jane began to crack at the seams, and reveal itself as the ruse I had suspected it to be all along.'

(on seeing Leiterman in the courtroom for the first time) 'I feel disoriented too. Where I imagined I might find the 'face of evil,' I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.'

While this will undoubtedly be classed under true crime, it is more dreamy and literary than that designation suggests. Really it is a hybrid of many genres, including memoir, biography and sociology. It is fluid and engrossing and a book that I can solidly recommend.

Further reading suggestion: In true crime, we can also recommend Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann and The Doctor's Wife is Dead by Andrew Tierney.

Buy The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson at Amazon.com.


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