Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Macmillan; 336 pages; 2017.
True crime meets memoir in this unusual and striking non-fiction book published to critical acclaim last year.
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is a raw and uncompromising tale about child sex abuse and the far-reaching legacy it leaves on individuals, families and communities.
On death row
The book centres on a horrific crime carried out in 1992 by Ricky Langley, who was sentenced to death for sexually molesting and then murdering a six-year-old boy in America’s deep south.
A decade later the author, who was a 25-year-old law student at the time, took a summer internship, where she helped work on Langley’s retrial. As an opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich thought it would be a great opportunity to fight for what she believed in, but she had an unexpected reaction:
When I first watched Ricky Langley’s confession video it upended everything I believed and challenged the core of who I was. I saw Ricky and my instinctive reaction was I want him to die. It unearthed something deeply unresolved in my life. For a while I thought I should just leave the past behind but eventually I came to realise that could no longer be the case.
The book then segues into Marzano-Lesnevich’s painful excavation of her own dark past: she was sexually molested by her maternal grandfather for many years. When she eventually told her parents, they simply swept it under the carpet and it was never discussed or mentioned again.
Not traditional reportage
The Fact of a Body intertwines both these narrative threads — Langley’s life as a paedophile and Marzano-Lesnevich’s deeply personal account of what it is like to be a survivor of child abuse — in a compelling, raw and forthright way, but I had some issues with the telling of it.
The author tells Langley’s story by piecing together documents in the public domain — court transcripts, news articles and television reportage — but uses her imagination to fill in the gaps — for instance, the internal monologues and feelings of the murdered boy’s mother. This means the gap between fact and fiction becomes blurred in places.
That said, this technique does allow the reader to see the crime from different perspectives and provides a much more rounded picture than perhaps traditional reportage might have allowed. But it still made me feel uncomfortable.
The prose style also tends towards verbosity, but once you get used to it the subject matter takes precedent.
On the whole The Fact of a Body is a courageous, frightening and deeply unsettling book that paints an empathetic portrait of a complex man who committed a horrendous crime. But it’s also a rather brutal and forensic examination of a respectable middle class family that knowingly harboured a child abuser within its own midst. If nothing else, both stories — the murder and the memoir — show how crimes don’t fit into neat narratives, there are always shades of grey and even with all the facts, pinning down the truth can be fraught with difficulty.
Thanks to Elle Thinks, who named it on her 2017 books of the year list, for bringing it to my attention.