One day in March 1969, twenty-three- year-old Jane Mixer was on her way home to tell her parents she was getting married. She had arranged for a ride through the campus bulletin board at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she was one of a handful of pioneering women students at the law school. Her body was found the following morning just inside the gates of a small cemetery fourteen miles away, shot twice in the head and strangled. Six other young women were murdered around the same time, and it was assumed they had all been victims of alleged serial killer John Collins, who was convicted of one of these crimes not long after. Jane Mixer's death was long considered to be one of the infamous Michigan Murders, as they had come to be known. But officially, Jane's murder remained unsolved, and Maggie Nelson grew up haunted by the possibility that the killer of her mother's sister was still at large.
In an instance of remarkable serendipity, more than three decades later, a 2004 DNA match led to the arrest of a new suspect for Jane's murder at precisely the same time that Nelson was set to publish a book of poetry about her aunt's life and death - a book she had been working on for years, and which assumed her aunt's case to be closed forever.
The Red Parts chronicles the uncanny series of events that led to Nelson's interest in her aunt's death, the reopening of the case, the bizarre and brutal trial that ensued, and the effects these events had on the disparate group of people they brought together. But The Red Parts is much more than a "true crime" record of a murder, investigation, and trial. For into this story Nelson has woven an account of a girlhood and early adulthood haunted by loss, mortality, mystery, and betrayal, as well as a look at the personal and political consequences of our cultural fixation on dead (white) women.
Maggie Nelson is the author of nine books of poetry and prose, many of which have become cult classics defying categorization. Her nonfiction titles include the National Book Critics Circle Award winner and New York Times bestseller The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015), The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton, 2011; a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Bluets (Wave Books, 2009; named by Bookforum as one of the top 10 best books of the past 20 years), The Red Parts (Free Press, 2007; reissued by Graywolf, 2016), and Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (U of Iowa Press, 2007). Her poetry titles include Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2007) and Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull, 2005; finalist for the PEN/ Martha Albrand Art of the Memoir). In 2016 she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. She has also been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, an NEA in Poetry, an Innovative Literature Fellowship from Creative Capital, and an Arts Writers Fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation. She writes frequently on art, including recent catalogue essays on Carolee Schneemann and Matthew Barney. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and has taught literature, writing, art, criticism and theory at the New School, Pratt Institute, and Wesleyan University. For 12 years she taught in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts; in fall 2017 she will join the faculty of USC. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
A more direct Nelson than I'm used to, as she uses her characteristic analytic prose to discuss the trial of her aunt's murderer, the dissolution of a treasured relationship, and the death of her father. Much is fascinating here (though Nelson doesn't NEED an interesting subject to write interestingly, and in some ways I like her best when she makes small details sing). The court-case, shown in graphic, disturbing detail, takes place in 2005, but her aunt was murdered in 1969. Nelson is so intimately involved because she has just released a book of poetry that had information that police didn't know. This allows for examinations of time related to grief, inherited loss (Nelson never knew her aunt), and the way art can interplay with the brutality of life. All of this is very Nelson.
This book preceded her more fractured autobiographical books (BLUETS, THE ARGONAUTS), and I think it might make an ideal gateway drug for those who are interested in her stylings. The death of her father and her sister's rebellious reaction is mentioned often in the later works, and I somewhat regret not reading her consecutively. On the other hand, this is the weakest of the three books. The court case, though interesting, doesn't quite crescendo, since Nelson doesn't learn the answer to the most intriguing question (why was there a drop of a 4 year old's blood on her aunt's body?). This is not her fault, of course, but the narrative is set up around this question, which is dropped.
The writing about her family is accomplished and good, and I especially enjoyed how she treated her break-up. There's a marvelous scene in which she lies on the railway tracks on a wintry night, and proceeds to detail other times she went to the ground. It is also often very funny - the constant presence of television cameras lets her engage with the ludicrous role of media in trauma. This is the birth of a style that I love, and for that alone it's worth reading, but it's the unusual book that I would recommend to either true crime fans or Nelson lovers. In straddling that line, a tiny bit is lost, but it's also easy to see why THE RED PARTS made such a stir.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was one of the first non fictions books I read when I decided to vary my reading a few years back. I adored it – Maggie Nelson’s particular brand of intellectual maybe even academic memoir writing resonates with me. As such it is a bit of shame that it took me so long to read another of her books. But now that I read this, I will for sure read all her other books as well.
A few months before Maggie Nelson published her book of poetry, Jane, which focusses on her late aunt who fell victim to a violent murder, she is contacted by a police officer – the case seems to have finally been solved (more than 30 years later) and an arrest will be made soon. This book chronicles this time where fiction and fact collide. Maggie Nelson and her mother sat through the whole trial.
She does not only chronicle the trial but also muses on our society’s fixation on murder, especially on murdered young women. She talks about this obsession while also never losing sight of the fact that she perhaps is doing exactly the same thing the media is doing: telling Jane’s story without maybe having the right. This reflexive self-consciousness was my favourite part of this book. She makes her own experience vey much the center of her work while also understanding this and acknowledging it. This is very brilliant. This focus on herself and on the role of her art is so well done and I adore that she does not apologize for putting herself in the center of her book.
Maggie Nelson was born 4 years after her Aunt Jane Mixer, a University of Michigan law student, was murdered, in 1969, at the age of 23. Jane’s death was presumed to be one of “The Michigan Murders,” a series of women killed in the Ann Arbor area for which John Collins was found or assumed guilty. Jane’s file was finally abandoned, the family thought, as a cold case.
In 2005 Nelson completed a book of poetry, Jane: A Murder, mixed with some of her aunt’s diary excerpts. When the book tour was being set up and the book was just coming out she got a call from the police telling her that, after 35 years, a DNA match was made for Jane’s killer. A trial ensued, and for a few weeks national media was focused on the case once again. Well, what would you do in that situation? You write a sequel.
Jane said that with the work of her first book and continuing with this one she was possessed of an obsessive condition she termed “murder mind,” which in part means she read book after book and article after article on murder, serial murders, and so on. Her life was consumed by it, in part because she had decided to write a book about it, I ‘d guess. But there might be something about murder stories that leads to obsessive horror. Hey, I read this, too. And the phenomenon of serial killer obsession applies to Michelle McNamara's I'll be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, too, which I reviewed here. Or all the books about The Black Dahlia, such as James Ellroy's novel.
At the same time, Maggie never knew Jane. In a sense what emerges in the writing is Maggie writing about herself writing about Jane, and in the process writing about her own complicated relationships with men, and with traumatic death, such as the sudden death of her father from heart attack at the age of forty. The loss of her “wilder” sister Emily, too. In it she broadens her topic to issues of women in general, issues for women of boldness versus safety. In a sense what emerges is a meditation on the vulnerability of women in a world of sometimes disturbing men.
The trial itself is almost abstract, reinscribing daily trauma as one might expect. They go to the trial, they cry, they have no privacy, they go to their motel room exhausted. For Nelson’s mother, she has to relive the loss of her sister 35 years ago. When the conviction finally happens they aren’t even completely sure the guy who is convicted actually did it, though the lab test shows his DNA is on Jane’s clothes. There’s no peace, no relief, and so on, as one hears about such things.
Nelson realizes she could be seen as a kind of trespasser, writing this story. Her mother lost her daughter. Her grandfather lost his grand-daughter. So why does Nelson write it? Because she can, she’s a writer, and she has "murder mind." And to honor Jane’s memory, in part. Nelson is also dealing with her own recently broken relationship with a man, and all her own complicated issues with men. She admits quite honestly that she knows the national tv shows are mainly interested in the rape/death of white women more than any others. So why this story? Who gets to tell it? Because it happened, Nelson decides, because attention must be paid. Maybe because all such stories—while suspect in some respects—should be told about everyone, and maybe the death of women from violence in particular.
But Nelson’s not always likeable or agreeable. She says of her sister Emily all the time that she was “beautiful,” thereby reinscribing the "beauty myth". Then she says Jane “wasn’t beautiful.” Why should she say these things? Why should their beauty matter to us? But these are complicated issues many of us face, and possibly particularly women. Nelson exposes herself as vulnerable, emotionally complicated, needy, she makes bad decisions like we all do.
Nelson is also a really good writer that makes you feel suddenly very much on her side:
“Am I sitting here now, months later, in Los Angeles, writing all this down, because I want my life to matter? Maybe so. But I don't want it to matter more than others.
I want to remember, or to learn, how to live as if it matters, as if they all matter, even if they don't.”
“I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.”
As a memoir Nelson’s story is one of death and grieving and loss and the impossibility of representing with complete satisfaction anything truly traumatic. Like a lot of memoirs, it’s about the importance of writing, of bearing witness. Writing matters, or can make things matter.
She can be very moving, Nelson, here quoting as she does from time to time other writers:
"'Need each other as much as you can bear,' writes Eileen Myles. 'Everywhere you go in the world.'
I felt the wild need for any or all of these people that night. Lying there alone, I began to feel - perhaps even to know - that I did not exist apart from their love and need of me.
Of this latter I felt less sure, but it seemed possible, if the equation worked both ways.
Falling asleep I thought, 'Maybe this, for me, is the hand of God.'”
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was one of my favorite reads of 2016 (and possibly of all time), so when I learned that Graywolf Press was rereleasing her earlier memoir, The Red Parts, I was ecstatic and snapped it up as soon as possible. It did not disappoint. The Red Parts has an interesting framework: Maggie Nelson was just getting ready to release a book-length poem about her aunt Jane, who’d been the victim of an unsolved murder as a young woman decades prior, when she learned that Jane’s case was being reopened, and a suspect had been nabbed and was going on trial soon. Nelson therefore was in the odd position of doing events for her book about Jane just as the entire story got a new chapter, and potentially a new ending. These meta elements are pretty fascinating, but mainly the book is a fairly straightforward story of the new trial and how Nelson and her family handled it. While The Red Parts may not be as experimental in style as The Argonauts, it features the same shining intelligence and absorbing qualities that are the hallmarks of Nelson’s work. By the time I finished this I’d added every one of Nelson’s other books to my wish list, so it’s safe to say I’ll be back for a few more rounds of what she’s offering.
It feels a little presumptuous to read a memoir about a brutal, sexualized murder within the author's family, and to come out the other end thinking that they should have done it differently. Perhaps I won't go so far as to actually assert that. What I will say is that I wanted more. Structurally, the narrative could have been tightened up and focused, and the text occasionally made chronological jumps that were not included for stylistic purposes. The tone was often detached, which makes sense given that the author did not know or meet her aunt, but can be pretty off-putting for the reader. Finally, whilst I appreciate, and feel the need for Nelson's exploration of grief and family dynamics in the wake of tragedy, I didn't feel she pushed this as far as it could have stretched.
Jane Mixer's death remained formally unsolved for 35 years, lumped in with the murders committed by one of Michigan's serial killers but not matching the modus operandi of that killer (which, of course, is not sufficient evidence, per se, to suggest that that killer did not cause Jane Mixer's homicide). DNA testing of the victim's clothing in 2002 resulted in three matches.
The first match was to Gary Leiterman, a man living within five miles of the murder scene at the time of her death. Leiterman was convicted and sentenced to incarceration in 2005 on the basis of this evidence alone. A second match was to Jane's boyfriend at the time of her murder, on her jumper and a book he had given her. This result can conceivably be pushed aside given their relationship, but might, if framed in the guise of having 'DNA evidence against the boyfriend', could lead one to make a case against him. The third match, however, was to a four-year-old boy, whose blood on Jane's body cannot be conceivably explained in any way other than lab contamination.
The factor that links all three people is that their DNA was being processed by the same lab at the same time due to the passing of legislation at the time requiring felons to give their DNA to a database. Nelson concedes as much in the book in the brief time she examines this situation, which brings into focus the myriad issues with viewing DNA as tantamount to proof of guilt. Leiterman was convicted solely on the basis of this DNA evidence, but the man who was four years old at the time was, of course, not. I am not suggesting that this is proof of Leiterman's innocence; I am suggesting it's not sufficient proof of his guilt. Or, if it is, then there's just as much proof that the four-year-old was also guilty of Jane's murder. That Nelson doesn't explore this except to briefly note it as an anomaly and then push it aside strikes me as a wasted opportunity at the very best. I'm not expecting a treatise on the state of today's forensics, but to dismiss this out of hand whilst concurrently unquestioningly accepting that Leiterman killed Jane Mixer seems inconsistent.
On the positive side, when this book was good, it was a personal look at the American justice system, and an occasionally thoughtful - if brief - treatment of the fragmentation this can produce. I also thoroughly appreciate an alternative to pulpy true crime texts, especially one by someone who can write, and who has personal stakes in an issue. But, while I applaud its personalized tone, the author often wandered off into discussions of, amongst other things: finding her junkie ex-boyfriend's limp body in her bed after he'd overdosed yet again, her sister's adventures running rampant in Chicago as a rebellious teenager, her parents' acrimonious breakup as a result of her mother's infidelity, the alienation she felt when her mother married the man she cheated on her father with, etc. etc. ad nauseum. My problem with these things isn't that they're uncomfortable or too personal, it's that they had very little to do with the topic of the book beyond the author's trauma. If I'm reading a book billed as a 'blistering look at the personal and political consequences of our cultural fixation on dead (white) women', that's what I want. Beyond literally observing this once in one paragraph, this book did not provide that.
If anyone enjoyed the look at the criminal justice system in this book, I'd encourage them to seek out Helen Garner's This House Of Grief.
4.25/5. A harrowing account of the trial against the suspected murderer of Maggie Nelson‘s aunt who was killed in 1969, whose murder remained unsolved for decades and whose case was re-opened in 2005 due to new DNA evidence. It poses interesting questions about our society’s obsession with the deaths of (young/white/middle class) women and also works as an intimate look into Maggie Nelson‘s own inner life during the trial. It felt very honest and didn‘t shy away from anything and since it's a rather short read, I read it very quickly.
This book mentions the Michigan murders several times. Luckily I found a book on that event because I honestly don’t know a thing about that. I’m going to get that book within the next couple of weeks and see how they are related. SCRATCH THAT- I already own this in audio format! I’m am terrible about watching for duplicate purchases. You’d think I would have some sort of app or website that would help me keep track of those things….
Wow. I loved The Argonauts, but this was something else. This is Nelson recounting her aunt's murder trial (her aunt was killed as a young woman, before Nelson was born, and her murderer was brought to trial 36 years later). At every turn, Nelson gently questions everything: the way people publicly and privately think about crime (especially crimes against women); concepts like "recording" and "witnessing" and "justice"; and, most of all, her own motives as the storyteller. One of my favorite books of the year so far.
There is an old adage that is (was?) common in southern baptist circles, “If you want to know what Jesus said, read the red parts.” It is (was?) a reference to the King James new testament that set all of the messiah’s alleged quotations in red ink. Somewhere along the line “read the red parts” became an idiom for “find what is really important.”
On the surface, The Red Parts is all about the murder of the author’s aunt, Jane Louise Mixer. Jane’s body was discovered in a cemetery near Ypsilanti Michigan on the twenty-first day of March, 1969. She had been shot twice in the head.
The author writes about the circumstances that lead up to Jane’s disappearance, how her body was discovered and how the crime remained unsolved for decades. She writes about the impact this horrific event had on her mother, Jane’s sister, and how DNA evidence found at the scene eventually lead to the arrest and conviction of retired nurse Gary Leiterman, a man whose guilt is still questionable.
It is the subtext of this book that I find most intriguing. Mixed in with all the backwash of Jane’s homicide are bits about the 1984 death of the author’s father. His untimely heart attack. Her mother’s adulterous affair. The quips and quotations of family members that somehow don’t jive with the coroner’s verdict of “natural cause.”
Is this a book about one murder or two? You’ve really got to look between the lines here. Read The Red Parts.
Od pojawienia się mediów społecznościowych autorskie „ja” panoszy się zupełnie niesłusznie. Prawie wszyscy jesteśmy pisarzami i pisarkami, ogłaszamy mikrohistorie, opowiadamy wycinki rzeczywistości, przeżywamy życia mniej lub bardziej publicznie. Autobiografie - czasem bardzo intymne jak “Bezmatek” Miry Marcinów, niekiedy równie osobiste, ale podane z ironią jak “Rzeczy, których nie wyrzuciłem” Marcina Wichy, czy będące rebusem literackim jak “Nie ma” Mariusza Szczygła zdobywają nagrody, uznanie czytelników i czytelniczek, a po autobiografię sięgają pisarze i pisarki trzydziestoletni, którzy w mniej lub bardziej autobiograficznych formach opisują doświadczenie dzieciństwa na przełomie lat 80 i 90. Odautorskie „ja” nigdy nie miało się tak dobrze. Nasz wojeryzm również.
Maggie Nelson w „Czerwonych fragmentach” przełożonych przez Annę Gralak prowadzi czytelników i czytelniczki przez życie swoje i swojej rodziny bez znieczulania sztuczkami, ale i nie bez wątpliwości. Bo czy można opisywać ból własnej matki, która po trzydziestu latach musi ponownie spojrzeć na zdjęcia swojej zamordowanej siostry? Co z dziadkiem, ojcem zamordowanej Jane? Nelson opowiada własne życie i to, co widzi, wiedząc, że stąpa po cienkim lodzie przekroczenia granicy ekspiacji i runięcia w dół, do szeolu bibliotek pełnych kiczu i manipulacji emocjami czytelników i czytelniczek.
Maggie Nelson's memoir about the murder of her aunt, Jane is compelling, honest, and beautifully written. Nelson narrates the experience of her family, through the trial of Jane's murderer, 36 years after the crime occurred. The Red Parts is more than just a narrative of this trial though. Nelson intersperses this experience, with slices of everyday life, in doing so, effectively showing what it means to grow up in the shadow of such a tragedy; the extensive ripples of violent crime. Although an intensely personal, reflective story, this memoir also explores 'murder mind', and the culture of fascination around dead girls. At times confronting, almost exclusively sad, The Red Parts is an excellent memoir nonetheless.
It is always thrilling--and rare--to find a new author to fall in love with, and to discover that she or he has lots of books, and you're just at the beginning of the happy process of spending time with them. It's true I'm looking forward to reading books 2 and 3 in the Hunger Games series, but, fun as those are, it's nothing compared to how excited--really, joyful--I feel to have discovered Maggie Nelson's work. It's odd to feel joyful about a memoir that deals with the brutal murder of the author's aunt, as well as the heartbreaking end of a relationship and the death of the author's father, but Maggie Nelson writes so intelligently and honestly, with such grace and surprising humor, that joyful really is the right word. This is one of those books that feels like a companion, and one I'll want to reread, probably soon. It's an odd (in the best way) mixture of true crime, memoir, and academic study, and is beautifully, heartfully written. At one point a TV interviewer tells Maggie Nelson that sharing her story will help many people deal with their own similar situations, and her (very funny) response is to point out that her situation is so bizarre (aunt murdered before she, Maggie, was born; case unsolved for 36 years but assumed to be one of the "Michigan Murders"; a new suspect found and brought to trial just after Maggie Nelson's first book about her aunt is published) that people couldn't possibly relate to it. But the odd, or perhaps not so odd, thing is that I did find so much to relate to in this book, in spite of the fact of not sharing any (or very few) of the outward circumstances. It reminded me that that's what literature, at its best, does: makes us feel part of the human family, connected to each other no matter how disconnected and isolated we might feel.
Maggie Nelson’s aunt was murdered in Michigan in 1969. Thirty-five years later, just as Nelson had completed writing a poetry collection about her, the case was reopened when new DNA evidence emerged. Most authors would quickly zero in on the trial itself, giving a blow-by-blow of the lawyers’ questioning and witnesses’ statements. Although Nelson does document important developments in the month-long trial, and describes autopsy photographs in blunt detail, her account is much more diffuse than one might expect. Interspersed with Jane’s history are other dark memories: Nelson’s father’s sudden death, her sister’s wild years, aborted love affairs. 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. This fluid, engrossing narrative is no ordinary true crime story, but a meditative reflection on loss and identity.
So zwischen 20 und 30 habe ich eine große Menge "True Crime"-Bücher gelesen. Ich hätte jetzt gern eine Zeitmaschine, um der Person, die ich damals war, dieses Buch in die Hand zu geben, damit sie vielleicht etwas früher versteht, was die Probleme mit diesen Büchern waren (Voyeurismus, Denkfaulheit) (mieser Stil zwar auch, aber das wusste ich damals schon), und wie es richtig gemacht wird. Nämlich so.
I finished this book and am conflicted in how I feel about it. The writing itself is evocative and interesting, but sometimes feels overwrought. The subject matter (a sort of wandering exploration of how a murder impacts a family, the course of a trial, how certain events intersected with the author's life at the time) is obviously serious and compelling. Nelson's maternal aunt was murdered in the late 1960s (before Nelson was born), and her murder was thought to be committed by a serial killer. However, around 2004, a DNA match was found and a different person implicated. Nelson had finished a book of poetry that integrated her late aunt's own journal entries and Nelson's own impressions of her aunt and was closing in on her publication date when news of the reinvigorated investigation reached her. This book is largely Nelson's musings on her own life during this time period, memoir of some of her life growing up, and her impressions during and after the trial. I kept listening, and it was gripping, but at times I felt like a voyeur, at others Nelson's own recounting felt gratuitous (leaving the reader with the impression that she was focused on shocking or being particularly incisive, and not merely being honest). There are interesting insights throughout and some important points made (including our national appetite for shows depicting heinous crimes, and the disproportionate value we place on pretty, white deaths as opposed to the deaths of brown people), but these are in passing and only briefly discussed, leaving the reader to finish the book feeling like something was missing and an opportunity for a deeper book was left unrealized.
Maggie Nelson is one of my favorite writers. A poet and poetic memoirist, she has an interesting slant on everything she writes. Her mind is fascinating and her control of language amazing.
The Red Parts is one of her more straightforward works. It is a memoir of the trial of the man accused of murdering Nelson's aunt, a crime committed before Nelson was born but whose repercussions affected her life.
The book recounts the events of the trial but also Nelson's musing on the "murder mind" of all people, including herself. She revisits her own life, her private griefs and familial relationships, with her mother, father, sister who was out of control during her own teenage years. Also her relationships with the men in her life and with herself, her own demons.
This is not my favorite of Nelson's works, I prefer her more poetic books (including the biographical ones). I especially love Bluets and The Argonauts. But this book is still well worth reading, for Nelson's terrific writing and (as always) interesting mind.
I was supposed to be reading established poet and non-fiction author Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts for a book club I'm a member of, but unable as I was to find a copy, I plumped for The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial instead. This piece of extended non-fiction, which deals with the aftermath of her aunt's unsolved murder in the late sixties, and new evidence pointing to her killer, was first published in 2007. Of all of Nelson's books, this was the one which appealed to me the most.
The blurb piqued my interest immediately when browsing for Nelson's books on my local library catalogue. It reads: 'After asking for a lift to her hometown for spring break, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, was brutally murdered in 1969; her body was found the next day, a few miles away from campus.' Jane was shot twice in the head, and then 'strangled viciously with a stocking that did not belong to her'. Nelson, whose aunt was killed before she was born, uses The Red Parts to trace her aunt's death, as well as the trial which took place thirty-five years afterwards. Jane's case was reopened in 2004 'after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried.'
'Resurrecting her interior world during the trial - in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion - Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.' The Red Parts has been hailed by various critics as 'remarkable', 'Didion-esque', and a 'darkly intelligent page-turner', which gives 'the sense that the writer is writing for her life', as well as Jane's.
Within her book, Nelson is candid from the very beginning. She writes of the process of putting such a painful familial past down on paper, and how the trial and its evidence impacted upon her, her sister, and her mother, Jane's elder sister. In her preface, Nelson calls the book 'a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time's relation to violence'. She goes on to say: 'One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane's murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.'
Initially, police attributed Jane's murder to a man who had killed many other young girls in what were collectively called the 'Michigan Murders'. The new evidence found, however, attributed her murder to someone else entirely, a retired nurse. When Nelson sees him on trial, she writes: 'I feel disoriented too. Where I imagined I might find the "face of evil," I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.' She goes on to describe the difficulty which she has in coming to terms with what he may have done: 'I watch the light and I watch his hands and I try to imagine them around the trigger of a gun, I try to imagine them strangling someone. Strangling Jane. I know this kind of imagining is useless and awful. I wonder how I'd feel if I imagined it over and over again and later found out that he didn't do it.'
The Red Parts is very brave and directly honest; it is as objective as it can be, and whilst emotional at times, it does not read - as one imagines it so easily could have done - as a piece of overblown melodrama on the part of the family. She talks openly about all of the grief in her life, from her father's death, to seeing her boyfriend overdose more than once. The Red Parts is a multilayered and well thought through work, which merges biography and autobiography in a seamless and interesting manner. Nelson's writing is engaging from the very beginning, and is sure to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
I've suspected--no, known--for years that I needed to read this book, that it would unlock certain mysteries about memoir for me. And it has--though I'm hard-pressed to say why. I think Nelson is really good at positioning her subject in a way that it doesn't matter if the book is frequently about other things. While The Red Parts is ostensibly "about" the murder trial of her long-dead aunt Jane after DNA evidence implicates a killer nearly 40 years after the fact, a previously unsolved murder that happens to be the subject of her previous book, a work of poetry. The Red Parts is really about how these new developments unravel much of what she thinks or knows (or thinks she knows) about Jane, her book, her family, etc. In this way the book is very writerly but I think it's great appeal (at least to writers) is how disruptive it is. The entire project is written not from a place of authority over the subject, but it's lack. As Nelson turns her attention to other aspects of her past, one can hear the wheels turning behind the prose: what else don't I know? What other untruths have I allowed to define me? A brave an audacious book.
So glad I finally read some Maggie Nelson. Obviously this was greatness, but the way she ties in our cultural obsession with the death of young white girls, the cinematic tropes, the eroticism of slasher movies, our fascination with serial killers and the way we're told what to feel about it all, makes this not just a beautifully precise examination of her own personal experience with her aunt's murder but holds up that mirror to all of us.
This is a weird book. I bought it because I saw a 48 Hours Mystery piece about a writer who, while writing about an aunt's murder, finds out the murder is close to being solved. (It goes to trial, though even I, who usually side with the prosecution, think it's a shaky case.) Anyway, I thought this would be a book about a family seeking justice and answers. In a way, I think it's much more about how trauma affects generations of a family. Reading it triggered my frequent mantra-- Why don't more Americans get therapy? Because a lot don't. I mean, they go through horrific things and don't get counseling, and they never manage as well on their own as they would with a professional. I guess they decide that getting therapy means they're crazy, so they don't get it, and then over the years, they slowly go crazy.
I discovered Maggie Nelson in this week's issue of the LRB and then discovered she was a friend's former writing teacher. Nelson is an essayist, a poet, and writes 'memoir' (the singular is required to distinguish this genre of literary nonfiction from the recollections of retired politicians). Fortuitously, Nelson's mother had a sister, Jane Louise Mixer, who was murdered in March 1969, two years before Nelson was born. (I'm still not sure if that makes her Nelson's aunt). Nelson had just completed a book of poetry titled Jane, based on Jane's remains, when her family was informed by the Michigan State Police that they were reopening this cold case based on new DNA evidence indicating a new prime suspect. The Red Parts (referring the the rubricated passages in a Bible) is the story of how Nelson's family experienced that trial. Fortunately, Nelson eschews that horrible expression 'closure' to designate the experience of the convicted perpetrator Gary Leiterman's being sentenced for murdering her mother's sister (though she quotes one insensitive family member who did), but otherwise she appears to believe the current myth that a criminal trial should provide some satisfaction for the grieving relatives of the victim (so long as the death penalty is ruled out). They even await the jury's verdict in a space designated the 'Victim's Room': Nelson notes that the accused's family were offered no such amenity. In fact, in our Anglo-Saxon legal system it is not the victim or the victim's family who were offended by the perpetrator; in this case it was the State of Michigan, though in Britain it would be the Queen. Back in the seventeenth century philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke explained how it works. At some unknown point in antiquity our ancestors surrendered their right to avenge crimes themselves to the State, which undertook the duty to protect us. So the murderer of Jane Mixer dishonored not her, but the State of Michigan, and hence must be punished. (Personally, I think that shift in perspective strengthens, not weakens, the case against the death penalty. If the state finds it offensive to kill people, it ought not to be doing it itself.)
But suppose Gary Leiterman was innocent. Originally the police thought Jane was killed by a serial killer who preyed on other university students in the Ann Arbor area and was serving a life sentence for another murder. The match with Leiterman's DNA three decades later was totally unexpected, though the principal investigator had been suspicious that the MO in the case of Jane did not match that of the other victims, who had been raped and viciously mutilated. What is strange is that DNA examination of the body also turned up DNA from another murderer, a matricide, who cannot possibly have been guilty of killing Jane because he would have been four years old at the time of her death! As Nelson was writing memoir rather than true-crime nonfiction, perhaps we shouldn't complain that she fails to tell us how both the prosecution and the jury seemed to ignore this anomaly that clearly indicates laboratory contamination of the DNA evidence. Leiterman continued to protest his innocence and appeal; unfortunately he died in prison before the new trial he was granted could be held. Had he been represented by OJ's 'dream team' he most probably would not have been convicted in the first place.
Both as literature and as true-crime nonfiction I found The Red Parts totally engaging, but compared to Robert Kolker's Lost Girls and Emma Copley Eisenberg's The Third Rainbow Girl it seems patchy and self-indulgent, focussing more on the Nelson's artistic career and dysfunctional family than on the moral, legal, and philosophic issues raised by the murder and trial. The Gilgo Beach murders are still unsolved, and the solutions to the Rainbow Girls and Michigan Murders are uncertain. The conviction of Leiterman appears to be what in British law would be termed 'unsafe' and all three cases abound in loose ends. But as an idiosyncratic account of a criminal proceeding from the point of view of an avant-garde poet, The Red Parts is a fascinating artefact.
I'm the outlier on this one - really a 2.5. I did not read her earlier book the Argonauts which people loved - perhaps that would have changed my mind on this one. This book is all about how to take a lurid true crime tale and turn it into a self-absorbed boring memoir. I understand the perspective and writing choice - to make this more of a commentary on media, crime, feminism, memoir - I just did not find it very compelling. I also found the writer to be annoying - petulant - self-centered to the extreme - unreliable. Sure there were interesting moments - and good writing. I liked most the parts about the author's father and mother, and sister as well. But I still found this book wandering and unfocused. I am glad others enjoyed it as much as they did.
It feels kind of off to say I "enjoyed" this memoir/true crime book about the murder of Maggie Nelson's aunt, Jane, but this was an incredibly well written and moving book.
In The Red Parts Nelson recounts the murder, but also the shock trial of the prime suspect in her aunt's murder - which took place soon after her initial book on the murder, Jane: A Murder, was published. This isn't really your "typical" true crime book as Nelson also contemplates the nature of the genre, after being asked to participate in a tv show on the story of Jane's murder. The book is also about the journey Maggie and her mother take across the length of the trial, a kind of memoir of the experience.
Quite a different reading experience from The Argonauts - and a much more fulfilling and enlightening one for me.
What a beautiful book. This book is emotional without veering into sentimentality, beautifully written but not overwritten, full of questions and observations and dilemmas. Nelson writes in a way that is very self-aware and questioning. I loved every second of this book and I enjoyed it even more than The Argonauts, which I also highly recommend. I think Maggie Nelson might be one of my favourite living writers.