Review: The Fact of a Body – A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

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★★

Flatiron Books | 2017


I really wanted to like this. I didn’t want to write a negative review for a book that is, in part, detailing the author’s personal experience with molestation.

The heavy subject matter makes a negative review seem tacky, to a degree. And I didn’t want to be that asshole. But, that’s not where this review is coming from. At all.

I applaud the author’s use of writing to work through her trauma and to find an understanding of how trauma shaped her. If this book was a tool for personal peace (which I suspect it was,) then really, any negative review means nothing in the grand scheme of that healing.

But, I am a reader and book reviewer and so I’ll be honest about my reading experience, as I always am, beyond the personal aspects Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich bravely shares.

The Fact of a Body weaves two true life events. One: the re-trial of Ricky Langley, a confessed pedophile who was sentenced to death in 1992 for the murder of his 6-year-old neighbour, Jeremy Guillory. In 2003, he was awarded a new trial. The intention of his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, was to reduce Langley’s death sentence down to life in prison. Clive the Lawyer runs a law firm which specializes in Death Row cases and he is staunchly anti-capital punishment, taking on many cases where the intention is only ever to reduce the sentence, not to prove innocence.

The author begins an internship at Smith’s law firm at the same time the re-trial is starting. During her orientation, Alexandria is shown Langley’s ’92 confession where he talks about his sexual attraction to children and what he did to Jeremy Guillory.

It was in this moment that Alexandria flashed back to her childhood. From the age of 3 and up, her grandfather would come into her room at night and sexually molest her or her sister. And here is where the second true event detailed in the book begins: the autobiography of the author.

Alexandria weaves a tangible account about her childhood, her molestation, most of her young adult life and her decision to pursue law (and then not pursue it) and her conflicted emotions around the death penalty. She talks about the emotional and physical trauma she has suffered, how it has impacted her thoughts and principals and opinions; the strain her secret and revelation has put on her familial relationships, as well as the romantic ones that she’s pursued.

I don’t know that this is a book that should “entertain,” but it is definitely a book that should make you feel, for a large majority of the narrative, disturbed. It is extremely detailed both in Alexandria’s recollection of what her grandfather did to her, and when it comes to Langley’s crimes that are laid out for the jury. If you are uneasy around the topic of child abuse, I would recommend moving onto something different.

If you’re reading this because of your interest in true crime – as I did – then I would say come prepared for this to be unlike any other true crime novel you have read before… and I’m not sure I mean that in a good way.

My problems with the book begin with the stubborn effort the author goes through to make her own molestation relevant to the case of Ricky Langley, when in reality, they aren’t necessarily similar. It’s true that there is a thread of child abuse flowing through the two events, but they aren’t analogous. The laborious effort to make them symbiotic was stilted and awkward and eventually uncomfortable. While a story of this content might make you think you should be uncomfortable, I think it’s better to say you should be disturbed. I was increasingly uncomfortable though, and it took a day of reflection to really understand why.

In stories where two events collide in a cohesive way, you can end up with a deeper understanding of both events. The natural duality can reveal an insight that allows us to make organized sense of things and to lend an epiphany to what might have remained obscured when looked at singularly.

It feels like the author so desperately wanted that epiphany, to make sense of her trauma, that she was forcing duality; forcing her experiences into the Ricky Langley case to find some kind of meaning.

I found this to be a plainly obvious exercise in jamming a square into a circle. While I have understanding and sympathy for the author, and her experiences, this whole novel read like she was using the murder of a 6-year-old boy for her own purpose: to tell her own story.

The fact that the author states that she made up the conversations, feelings and thoughts of those involved in Langley and Jeremy Guillory’s lives is just further evidence of that. Such vast liberties were taken with fictionalizing things for psychological and dramatic effect, that it doesn’t seem to me that author’s priority was what happened to Jeremy, as much as it was in expressing herself and projecting that onto the real-life participants of a tragedy that she was forcing herself into.

Jeremy’s story comes across as a means-to-an-end for the author’s real desire, which is to express her trauma.

That felt gross to me, nearly exploitative, and I didn’t like being involved in it. If the author had chosen to simply write a memoir, I would not feel as I do.

My other problem with the story is that it felt as though a campaign was waged from the beginning to make the reader sympathetic towards Ricky Langley. The author seemingly uses Langley and his actions as a stand-in for her grandfather, as though if she can apply some kind of logic and meaning onto Langley’s paedophilia than she can understand her grandfather, and therefore find closure. I can understand the impulse, but it was something better explored in therapy, not in a book where you are taking the death of a child to reach that closure.

Langley’s paedophilia is presented as a “mental illness” endlessly. At one point, Clive the Lawyer sets up a discussion forum-esque event where Langley attempts to explain to an audience of everyday people why pedophiles do what they do, and how they feel. It’s Langley and Clive’s hope that they can educate the general public about pedophiles, so that they are still seen as humans; so that the death penalty is off the table.

But, like…. WHO FUCKING CARES? Honestly? Is anyone who isn’t studying pedophiles truly interested in knowing how they tick so that you can exercise your empathy a little bit further?

Maybe I truly am just an asshole, but I couldn’t care any less about being understanding of people who fuck children.

First, of all, even if paedophilia was just a “mental illness” that was somehow treatable, I don’t know of any person actually suffering from a genuine mental illness that would ever agree it absolves them of the shitty actions they may choose to take. But second, fucking children isn’t a mental illness, it’s a disorder that cannot be fixed. And while I think being “offended” is usually pretty useless, I was fucking offended at this conflation between mental illness and paedophilia.

I’m sorry humans are so fucked up that we breed ones who never get a real chance at a normal kind of life, but it is what it is. They like fucking children. And you can’t fix it. And they can’t be rehabilitated. And the statistics prove they re-offend at alarming rates. They ruin people. Just as they are ruined.

I don’t need to find meaning in this or sympathy in this. It’s a fact of life. It might be dark and sad and fucked up, but it exists and I don’t need to assign any emotions, other than disgust, to that fact.

This attempt to explain away Ricky Langley’s choices as “oh, but his mama was a drunk and he knew he was different and it made him sad! Please, take pity!

greys anatomy idc GIF

With so much focus on casting Ricky as a victim, and in finding a tangible reason for why he did what he did – told from the perspective of someone who was biased by the result of her own experiences, ones that she was clearly still working through – left the story of what happened to Jeremy Guillory, once again, as merely a backdrop to the search for someone else’s meaning.

Jeremy Guillory was 6-years-old. He was strangled to death by a grown man. Langley led the police to the boy’s body and explained exactly how Jeremy died, in detail. Langley’s semen was found on the boy’s clothing. The author implies that there are unanswered questions around the boy’s death that may absolve Langley, but while there may be unanswered questions, the fact is that Langley sexually assaulted a child who ended up murdered. And he had been sexually assaulting children since he was the age of 9.

In the end, Clive the Lawyer wins a reduction to Langley’s sentence and the death penalty is taken off the table.

There are some interesting questions and points raised about parenting, trauma and its effects, but on the whole, I found this books to be an uncomfortable experience in projection and borderline exploitation that never truly makes the connections it was so desperately seeking out. It feels as though the author used a child’s murder in order to get her family to acknowledge what really happened to her.

I have sympathy for the author, and can understand the catharsis she was searching for, I can’t get behind the way in which she went about trying to have her voice heard. It felt wrong and borderline self-indulgent.

I am, however, a dissenting voice when it comes to reviews of this book, so if you’re intrigued by this one, I wouldn’t tell you not to read it.

🔪🔪🔪


Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes―the moment she hears him speak of his crimes―she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.

Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.

But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.

An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, The Fact Of a Body is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed―but about how we grapple with our own personal histories. Along the way it tackles questions about the nature of forgiveness, and if a single narrative can ever really contain something as definitive as the truth. This groundbreaking, heart-stopping work, ten years in the making, shows how the law is more personal than we would like to believe―and the truth more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.

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