Sunday, July 9, 2017

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

WARNING: This review contains information that's mentioned in many discussions of the book, but some readers might consider the revelations spoilers. So - If minor spoilers bother you - stop reading now.
"The Fact of a Body" melds the true crime story of child molester/murderer Ricky Langley with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich's tale of being sexually abused as a child.

In 1992, Louisiana resident Ricky Langley killed his six-year-old neighbor, Jeremy Guillory, and - after being convicted by a jury - was sentenced to death. During his retrial a decade later Langley was defended by Clive Stafford Smith, a staunch opponent of capital punishment whose law firm specializes in death penalty cases. This time Langley got life in prison. (Note: Ricky had yet a third trial, years later, and was once again sentenced to life.)

After Langley's second trial, in 2003, Harvard law student Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich - who opposes the death penalty - became a summer intern at Clive Stafford Smith's law firm in New Orleans. During her orientation, the intern was shown Langley's taped confession from 1992, in which the murderer - a diminutive man with coke bottle glasses and jug ears - graphically described the crime.....and talked about molesting children: "Sometimes I, you know, rub my penis on them."

Marzano-Lesnevich's mind immediately snapped back to her childhood. She recalled how, from the time she was 3-years-old, her grandfather - when babysitting - would steal into her bedroom. He'd tug up her nightgown, pull down her panties, undo his fly.....and then her mind would go someplace else as she stared at her yellow lampshade.

While Marzano-Lesnevich was watching Langley's tape, she wanted the child molester to die.

After completing law school Marzano-Lesnevich decided not to practice law. Instead, she became a writer, and elected to tell Ricky Langley's story.....and her own.

To make sense of Ricky's life and behavior the author thoroughly researched his history - going all the way back to the courtship and marriage of his parents, Bessie and Alcide. The writer learned that Ricky was conceived while Bessie was in a full body cast after a horrific car crash - an accident that killed two of the Langleys small children. Bessie was drinking heavily and taking a cornucopia of drugs while expecting Ricky - and was advised to terminate the pregnancy. Bessie refused, and gave birth to a boy who had problems all his life.

Marzano-Lesnevich narrates the story of Ricky's life. As a child he lived with a semi-invalid mother (her leg was amputated), a hard-drinking father, and four siblings. The Langsley's could never make ends meet and had to move in with Bessie's sister and brother-in-law, devout Pentecostals with a strict spartan lifestyle: no music, no television, no booze (theoretically), and lots of talk about God.

Ricky was an odd friendless child who admits that he started molesting younger kids when he was nine-years-old. Ricky claims that he always knew something was wrong with him, and - as a young adult - tried to get help on several occasions, to no avail. Unable to control his compulsions, Ricky even attempted suicide. Finally, at the age of 26, the misfit became a murderer.

The summary above is the 'nutshell' version. In the book, Marzano-Lesnevich provides (what feels like) a week by week account of Ricky's life, with admittedly fictionalized components, including: descriptions of what people were wearing; what they were doing; what they might be thinking; what they were looking at; conversations they had; what they were drinking; whether sweat was rolling down their faces; and so on. The author also includes a detailed description of young Jeremy's murder, the extensive search for the missing boy, the police finding his body, and - finally - Ricky's arrest and trials.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich's personal story is interwoven with Ricky's tale. The author talks about growing up in New Jersey with two lawyer parents and two siblings - one a twin brother. The family was upwardly mobile, had a nice home, and went on yearly vacations to Nantucket or more exotic destinations. Young Alexandria's parents had an active social life and - when they went out - would ask the children's maternal grandparents to watch the kids. And that's when grandpa would molest Alexandria or her sister Nicola.

Grandpa would take out his false teeth, make a scary face, and tell Alexandria he was a witch who would 'get her' if she told on him - which terrified the child into silence. Even so - when Alexandria was about 8-years-old - her parents found out about the abuse when Nicola talked about 'sitting on Grandpa's lap.'

The parents learned the truth, BUT NOTHING HAPPENED. The heads of the family didn't call the police, didn't confront the predator, and didn't discuss the situation with the children. Instead, Alexandria's folks pretended nothing had happened. The grandparents still visited frequently, though grandpa was never again left alone with the children.

The molestation - and subsequent silence - scarred Marzano-Lesnevich for life and had a devastating effect on her relationship with her entire family - especially her parents and grandparents. When Marzano-Lesnevich got older, the memories of abuse also made it difficult for her to sustain romantic relationships or to be intimate with her partners.

Again this is the 'nutshell version.' In the book the author describes her childhood, and much of her young adulthood, in great detail, including the emotional (and physical) damage she suffered - and still endures. It's clear (to me) that Marzano-Lesnevich's mother and father mishandled the situation and compounded the damage caused by the sexual abuse. It's hard to fathom exactly what her parents were thinking, but this kind of 'secret keeping' is probably common within families. After all, to reveal the truth would destroy the grandparents lives. What would your parents have done in this situation? What would you do? (This would make a great topic for book club discussions.)

"The Fact of a Body" has garnered many stellar reviews and has been heralded as the 'must read' of the summer. That said, I'm not as big a fan as many other people.

First, I didn't see a real connection between Ricky's story and Marzano-Lesnevich's story. It's true that Ricky abused children and Alexandria was molested, but the situations aren't analogous.....and the author's attempt to segue between the separate crimes doesn't work (for me). It feels like two separate books have been stuck together, somewhat like an old Reader's Digest anthology. Moreover, the fictionalized details of the narratives - especially Ricky's - seem to serve little purpose, and detract from their versimilitude.

That said, I admire Marzano-Lesnevich's extensive research into Ricky's life and crimes. The author spent years preparing to write this book: she read thousands of pages of documents; listened to numerous taped recordings; interviewed people who knew Ricky; traveled to the killer's homes, jobs, and haunts; and even visited the convict in prison.

My final thoughts: the book tells two compelling true crime stories and I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy that genre.

Rating: 3 stars