BOOKS

The woman confronting childhood sexual abuse in a searing true-crime book

Kate Leaver meets Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich to find out why the author had to tackle a profoundly personal story before she could write one of the best non-fiction titles of the year

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By Kate Leaver on

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is moving house. As she’s packing all her things into cardboard boxes and suitcases, she will have to decide what to do with the 30,000 pages of court records sitting in her home, unassuming but deeply significant. The physical remnants of a story she has now, finally, told. In those pages is every detail of a murder and three trials: the murder of a six-year-old, flaxen-haired boy called Jeremy Guillory and the trials of an American paedophile called Ricky Langley. Marzano-Lesnevich has read, re-read and annotated all of them with the ferocious concentration of a woman possessed by the need to understand. She discovered this story when she started work as a 25-year-old law student in Louisiana on Ricky Langley’s case. At the time, he had been sentenced to die and it was Alexandria’s job to fight for his right to live. A job that was somewhat complicated by an epiphany she had watching footage of Ricky Langley speak about his crime: against everything she thought she believed, against her anti-death penalty stance, Marzano-Lesnevich wanted this man to die.

It would take a long time for her to understand why she felt that way. It would be a lonely, complicated decade piecing together Ricky Langley’s life and, as it became necessary, her own. Those two stories – Langley’s and Marzano-Lesnevich’s – now fill 322 pages of elegant, medium-sized font in what may be the finest true crime book of 2017. The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir is beautifully constructed, rigorously researched and deeply affecting. It is a gargantuan literary achievement and, as Marzano-Lesnevich tells me, a profound personal catharsis.  

On a grey London afternoon, Marzano-Lesnevich sits down with me to chat about life, death, trauma and the way we reconstruct the past. She is quiet; so quiet, she nearly whispers. She is, clearly, deeply humbled by the effusive and overwhelmingly positive reaction her book has had so far. And now, she finally understands why she had such a visceral reaction to Ricky Langley’s death-row case.

“I felt so haunted by this story for years. To my shock, when I was reading the court records, I very quickly realised that I wasn’t the only one that had seen my life in this trial, or seen my life in Ricky Langley’s. As you see in the book, the defence attorney did, the jury foreman did, everyone did. That’s when I realised I had to tell my own story.”

I had to accept that my grandfather was both a paedophile and child molester, and also my grandfather

Marzano-Lesnevich’s story is one of childhood sexual abuse and the silence that followed. It is about how her grandfather’s hands shaped a life.

“I would end up in a place where I had to accept that Ricky Langley is both a paedophile and a murderer and a human being. Where I had to accept that my grandfather was both a paedophile and child molester, and also my grandfather. That duality was really hard for me to hold. I was more inclined to go towards ‘Just a paedophile! Just a molester!’ because it’s much easier. Ricky’s defence was much more inclined to push that he was just a human being. To hold that duality was a deeply uncomfortable place for me to be. At least, to start with, it was. It ended up bringing me a lot of peace, which is not what I was expecting.”

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Photo: Nina Subin)
 

That peace is hard-earned. Writing this memoir required a courage and honesty that defies most people. Marzano-Lesnevich wrote about the very things her family tried for years to ignore, to hide, to heal without confronting. I ask how her family reacted to this book.

“It’s been complicated. Very often, I think when people ask that, what they’re really asking is, what happens when you talk about the things in a family that you’re not supposed to? We all have those things in our family. At least in my own, we have spoken now. It’s brought about a lot of conversations that I don’t think we would have had otherwise. For me, in an enormous way, though it sounds cheesy but I mean it, the book was an act of love. To try to understand.”

Since publishing The Fact of a Body, Alexandria has received a deluge of personal stories from strangers, both people who have been abused themselves and those who are more generally coming to terms with their own past.

“Writing is so solitary and isolating and then you end up with this little community. It can be difficult to hear what other people have been through but I also feel really strongly that I am honoured by it. It definitely hurts, frankly, to know how common it is. But mostly I would say that I hope, with this book, we can talk more about what happens. I just keep coming back to the word grateful; I am so grateful to have been able to tell this story and to be able to talk about it with other people. Just to hear that it’s impacting people in any way is really extraordinary. I’m really thankful to the readers who think ‘oh gosh, maybe I’ll contact the author’. I’m learning just how beautiful that is.”

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir is out now

@kateileaver

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