Final Fantasy

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial BY Maggie Nelson. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 224 pages. $16.

IN HER 2015 BOOK, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes an artwork by her partner, Harry Dodge: “Two Popsicles are talking to each other. One accuses, ‘You’re more interested in fantasy than reality.’ The other responds, ‘I’m interested in the reality of my fantasy.’ Both of the Popsicles are melting off their sticks.” Nelson has long been interested in the reality of our fantasies: how dreams, inexpressible desires, and private narratives shape and drive us—even as they distract us from what is happening.

In The Red Parts, her memoir about the 2005 trial of a man accused of the 1969 murder of her aunt Jane, Nelson contends with the host of powerful fantasies underlying the tropes of true crime, her family’s stories in the wake of the killing, the myths of criminal justice and law enforcement, and her own 2005 book of poems, Jane: A Murder. There, Nelson explored the slaying while it was still unsolved, mixing Jane’s voice, taken from her diary, with her own.

Nelson was born four years after Jane’s death, and throughout her childhood Jane’s story remained hazy. She appeared in phantom ways that strengthened Nelson’s identification with her: Nelson’s mother told her that “the spirit of Jane lives on in you,” and her grandfather often mistakenly called her “Jane.” When she was about thirteen years old, Nelson discovered some details of the crime by surreptitiously reading a book called The Michigan Murders. She learned that Jane, the younger sister of Maggie’s mother, was killed at the age of twenty-three. She was in her first year of law school at the University of Michigan, studying to be a civil-rights attorney. On March 20, 1969, Jane got a ride from an unknown man she met by posting an ad on a school bulletin board: “Would appreciate hearing from anyone who might be driving to Muskegon.” Her body was found in a cemetery the next day. For twenty-five years, it had been assumed that a serial murderer named John Norman Collins, who killed as many as seven young women, was responsible. But in 2004, a match in a DNA database implicated a different man, a retired nurse named Gary Earl Leiterman.

The Red Parts begins as Nelson’s family first receives word of the new suspect and covers the eight-month period of his arrest and trial. Nelson conveys a visceral sense of this time, as new evidence helps her see the crime more clearly, though no amount of information could ever really provide certainty or closure. Nelson’s formal approach remains true to her sense of irresolution: She works to soften the boundaries between past and present, and between a lyric tone and an analytic one. She even simultaneously maintains a clear vision of Jane’s gruesome murder along with a compassionate regard for the suspected killer. The stark facts of Jane’s death coalesce with the stories and images that people have used to try to make sense of it, as Nelson weaves together court testimony, remembrances from her childhood and young adulthood, recountings of dreams, and blunt descriptions of photographs from the crime scene and autopsy. Short quotes from cops, literature, and her family are sprinkled throughout, set in italics to call attention to the words’ strange resonances, whether they’re from a detective or Virginia Woolf: “We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.” “It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole.”

Nelson, whose genre-averse essays move freely between politics, philosophy, art, and poetry, is keenly aware of her position as an author—she often comments on and dramatizes the struggle of writing the words we’re reading. One of her key conflicts in The Red Parts is with the Joan Didion maxim “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” As she points out, Didion herself was skeptical of this dictum: “The White Album,” the essay in which the sentence appears, concludes with the author admitting that “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” Nelson goes further: “Stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it.” She aims to tell the story of Jane’s case but resists the narrative pull toward conclusion, suggesting that only self-erasure could free her from the dilemmas of storytelling in the wake of trauma: “I know what I want is impossible. . . . I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.”

Nelson wants to disappear because Jane’s killing, like any traumatic event, creates an unsolvable contradiction: It locks her in one unknowable moment—the instant before irrevocable violence—but also urges her to move forward with a comprehensible narrative. In the push and pull of these opposing forces, a bottomless space for fantasy opens up. Didion’s motto suggests that we can corral these spiraling fantasies, but they are far too unruly for that. Nelson describes a dramatic incarnation of this predicament, an affliction she calls “murder mind,” which first took hold after she’d immersed herself in the crime’s bloody details while working on the Jane poems:

In bed at night I found a smattering of sickening images of violent acts ready and waiting for me. Reprisals of the violence done unto Jane, unto the other Michigan Murder girls, unto my loved ones, unto myself, and sometimes, most horribly, done by me. These images coursed through my mind at random intervals, but always with the slapping, prehensile force of the return of the repressed.

Murder mind is narrative madness—fact and fiction breeding in outlandish ways. One fact of Jane’s case is weirder than any fiction: Before the DNA match to Leiterman, a test of an unsmeared drop of blood found on Jane’s hand returned a hit to another individual, a man named John David Ruelas. This suspect, who, it turns out, suffered from chronic nosebleeds, is in prison for beating his mother to death. Detectives refer to him as “little Johnny.” This is not because he is short, but because he was four years old when Jane died. Nelson is wary of the problem of explaining how blood from a child ended up on her aunt’s hand, and what it might mean (she does say it could have been the result of a DNA lab mistake). The task of writing about it is fraught with moral and aesthetic hazard: Faced with this unintelligible event, Nelson finds that cheap cinematic conjecture comes all too easily, as she sees on a law website where bloggers chime in: “The boy was wandering, on his own, and came across Jane’s body in the cemetery. The boy stood above her dead or dying body, horrified, confused, uncomprehending, as a single drop of blood dripped from his nose onto her hand.”

Harry Dodge, Reality of My Fantasy, 2012, ink and pencil on paper, 9 × 12". Courtesy the artist.
Harry Dodge, Reality of My Fantasy, 2012, ink and pencil on paper, 9 × 12". Courtesy the artist.

If you’ve ever binged on a true-crime story like this, you’ve experienced a mild version of murder mind. It is precisely what makes a podcast like Serial so seductive. Like The Red Parts, this show compels us because it makes one moment stand out from the stream of time. But unlike Nelson’s memoir, Serial casually viewed that moment as the starting point for multiple narratives that could converge and move toward resolution. Where a traumatized subject gets stuck, the true-crime fan gets enchanted: The unknowable gap in time becomes endlessly fascinating, ripe for the deep satisfactions of theorizing and story making. Serial’s premise, that a cacophony of first-person accounts could solve the mystery, seemed dubious from the start, and the show famously raised more questions than it answered. Maybe it wasn’t ever an investigation, but rather a lament, told in many voices but always driving at the same complaint: We can never really, like, know the truth. Nelson, too, wants to hear from every witness, but she knows she’s not searching for a clue to solve the mystery. She keeps her ears pricked for the ways that the impossible desires beneath the story are expressed—how an enduring wish to undo what has been done persists and is passed on.

The sections of The Red Parts about Nelson’s unconscious responses to the killing are especially revealing. She begins one vivid anecdote by explaining that her mother couldn’t watch movie scenes of women being kidnapped or threatened with guns and then describes going to the movies alone, writing that, “whenever such a scene arose I immediately felt my mother close beside me in the dark theater. Her hands spread across her face, her pinkies pushing down on her eyelids so she can’t see, her index fingers pushing down on her ears so she can’t hear.” With this image, Nelson reaches her ideal as a narrator: She walks out of the story for a split second and lets the involuntary imaginings of inherited trauma tell the tale. She expertly captures this moment, describing the apparition of her mom (and a fainter image of Jane) down to the detail of which finger does what.

The book’s most telling moment comes during another trip to the movies. Nelson and her mother go to see the crime film Freeway, starring Reese Witherspoon, who plays a teenage runaway. They watch as Witherspoon’s car breaks down, and she gets a ride from a friendly yuppie (played by Kiefer Sutherland). She soon suspects that he is the “I-5 Killer,” a serial murderer loose in the area. At this point, Nelson thinks that she and her mom will have to leave the theater. But her mother says, “Let’s give it one more minute—maybe something different is about to happen.” Then, the film’s story shifts: Witherspoon draws a gun, shoots Sutherland, and steals his car.

As a victim’s family compulsively returns to the moment of violence, maybe something different is about to happen is the phrase that binds them with a promise of freedom. It’s a fantasy of possibility, and of power. True crime invites us to inhabit this field of potential and to master it, to erase that “maybe” by playing author, accomplice, detective, culprit, and God. Even as these temptations tug at Nelson, she resists them because they pull her away from Jane, for whom something different never happened and never will. She plays at self-erasure—disappearing while remaining present—because it seems the most faithful to Jane’s perspective. It’s a radical move: True crime usually doesn’t put us in the victim’s position, which is why we tell ourselves those stories—in order to live, forever.

David O’Neill is Bookforum’s managing editor.