At the start of her riveting new memoir, The Fact of a Body, lawyer turned writer Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich describes a famous case that illustrates the legal principle of proximate cause. A woman named Helen Palsgraf stands on a railway platform, waiting for the train that will take her family to the beach. Nearby, a young man leaps to catch another departing train. A conductor reaches out to pull him aboard; a porter gives him a boost from behind. In the process, a package he’s holding containing fireworks falls from his arms and detonates. Down the track, the explosion causes a baggage scale to fall on top of Palsgraf. It’s a Rube Goldberg–worthy domino effect, but how do we decide who is to blame? “The causes, in fact, are endless,” writes Marzano-Lesnevich. “The idea of proximate cause is a solution. The job of the law is to figure out the source of the story, to assign responsibility. The proximate cause is the one the law says truly matters. The one that makes the story what it is.”
In June of 2003, Marzano-Lesnevich, then a Harvard law student, was beginning a summer internship at a death penalty defense firm in New Orleans, when she encountered a case that altered the course of her life. As an introduction to the firm’s work, a lawyer played the interns a decade-old tape, in which a client, a Louisiana man named Ricky Langley, confessed to the murder of his neighbor, 6-year-old Jeremy Guillory. After that confession, Langley had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death; then, years later, the verdict had been overturned, his case tried again, and he’d been sentenced by a new jury to life in prison.
For an aspiring death penalty lawyer like Marzano-Lesnevich, Langley’s story should have been cause for celebration, but it was something else. Ricky Langley was not only a murderer, but also a pedophile and a child molester, who may or may not have sexually abused Jeremy Guillory before or after his death. And hearing Langley describe his crimes awakened in Marzano-Lesnevich a disconcerting feeling: She wanted him to die.
For years, Langley’s confession, and the fault lines he exposed in the author’s own belief systems, haunted her, so much so that she eventually requisitioned his case files, and immersed herself in his story. In Langley, Marzano-Lesnevich saw her late maternal grandfather, who had sexually abused her and her sisters throughout early childhood. In Jeremy Guillory’s mother, Lorilei, whose plea to the jury during Langley’s retrial may have saved his life, Marzano-Lesnevich saw traces of her own parents. They had eventually discovered her grandfather’s behavior, but they had shown some combination of negligence and clemency, decided not to make a thing of it, never cut ties. The abuse stopped (for his granddaughters, at least), but the harm, never properly acknowledged, festered.
There are no easy conclusions in The Fact of a Body, but there are many moments of profound revelation. Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir is a braided narrative, weaving together Langley’s story and her own. She plays with the concept of proximate cause, untangling the long string of events that led her to Ricky Langley, and the long string of events that led Ricky Langley to Jeremy Guillory. But the book is actually something of a tribrid, with a third strand that’s about the act of braiding itself: how a story evolves in the telling; how each storyteller decides which facts are important, projects her experience onto the events and the characters (here, quite literally, the author allows herself to imagine details of Langley’s narrative that aren’t captured in the record). Most provocatively, Marzano-Lesnevich forces us to question how all of those factors work when applied to the legal system. What are cases but stories? What are trials but showdowns between competing versions of the truth? What are lawyers, and judges and juries, but people who do what people always do: superimpose their own perspectives onto the matter at hand? What part can empathy play in a criminal justice system predicated on the delusion that there’s one version of the truth, one set of facts, one story?
Marzano-Lesnevich and I spoke by phone about the long road to The Fact of a Body, and about the very good questions she raises in her book.
You spent 10 years working on this project. Did you have an understanding of what you wanted it to be from the outset?
The idea was about 10 years in the evolution, but I’ve been working on the book for the last seven. I didn’t understand what was at the core of it when I set out. What I had seen so many years before at the law firm had haunted me, and I got the files from the Ricky Langley case thinking, “Okay, I’ll know the answers. The story won’t have its hold on me anymore.”
I think in some nebulous way, where I was sort of reassuring other people I had a plan, I was saying it’s going to be a book. But what I was hoping for when I finally brought myself to read the files, was that I wasn’t going to be haunted anymore.
I had always figured that it was just my failing, that I couldn’t leave behind my own past, and take the murder on its face, that I couldn’t look at Ricky and just see Ricky. Instead, what happened reading the files is that I started to see that everybody else had read the murder through their own past as well. The lead defense attorney would talk about his father. And the jury foreman talked about his brother-in-law.
Do you think the fact that all these people projected their own stories onto Ricky was in any way specific to Ricky? Or did it more broadly affect your understanding of the law?
It radically changed my understanding of the law. One of the big shocks for me in law school was understanding that the law wasn’t really a truth-finding mechanism, but more a truth-making mechanism. We hope the story has some elements of the truth in it, but it is a story, made out of the evidence that was admitted. I don’t think this is unique to Ricky’s case at all. We always do this when we hear about a crime. We read it through the lens of our own life. We also do this when we hear about each other. We read each other through the lens of our own past. We do that so commonly in life, it’s deeply remarkable that we’ve built ourselves a legal system that pretends we don’t.
Is that true? Or do you think we’ve just built a legal system that lacks a vocabulary to talk about it?
We have in that we don’t have much of a corrective for it, when you think, especially of the death penalty, of a jury having different people on it, and the outcome coming out differently. We certainly use the knowledge that people come from different backgrounds, and have different perspectives in voir dire, when the lawyers are trying to pick a jury who would be sympathetic to the case. But I don’t think we’ve thought deeply about what it means for punishment, or what it means for judging someone as guilty. As I say in the book: How we’re judging them has as much to do with who we are as what they did.
There are points in this book where you imagine details of Ricky’s story that don’t exist in the files. It strikes me that the book is, in a way, about reconciling two sides of your own nature: the lawyer side and the writer side. Was it a simple decision to let yourself embellish?
I thought a lot about that. At some point I thought I would write about this in a strictly journalistic way. And at some point I thought I would write about this in a strictly memoir way. I felt so haunted by these stories, both the memoir thread and Ricky’s story. [But] I would write about them and they would just seem flat. So much of what happens in the records is so incredibly vivid when I read it. It’s impossible not to hear the words people are saying to each other, see these images. At first I resisted that. I tried to write something much simpler and more straightforward. But when I started to see that everyone in the case had interpreted the crime through their own past, I started to realize that if I gave the reader my own memories, showed them how I was seeing Ricky’s story, what I was imagining, then I might give the reader the experience of what other people who came to the case were doing.
I never imagined in a way that changed the facts of what happened. What I would imagine was what somebody was wearing, or how their voice sounded, or how they looked when they got terrible news.
You encountered Ricky’s case coincidentally. Do you think if you hadn’t you would have found what you needed in another case? Or do you consider yourself lucky to have found Ricky?
Lucky? I’ve never thought about that. Haunted. Obsessed. I don’t think I would have come across this case. I’m sure I would have heard about it. But if I had not been shown that tape, I don’t think it would have haunted me. It was listening to Ricky describe what he’d done, having such a vivid memory of what my grandfather did to me, that lodged this inside me. I didn’t get the files for years. I couldn’t even remember Ricky’s name in all those years. I don’t think I would have gone looking. I don’t think I would have set out to write this kind of book. I wanted to write a novel. That’s actually what I started my MFA program for. It’s more that this book became the story I had to tell before I could tell any other. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but I think it’s true.
You write about your parents, that almost immediately upon finding out about your grandfather’s abuse they tried to sweep it under the rug and move on. Does this book emerge from the same impulse? Not to sweep it under the rug, but to leave it in the past?
The entire time I was working on the book, people would always say to me, “Oh, that must be so therapeutic!” And at the same time I was so incredibly tormented by the memories that this was dredging up. That comment seemed laughable to me. I always wanted to respond: not if you’re doing it right! And then, I found, to my surprise, that having written it is profoundly therapeutic. I didn’t write to leave the past behind; I wrote because I felt compelled and obsessed by these memories. I didn’t really have a sense that when I finished they would leave me alone. Yet it turns out that a hardcover book contains these past lives between these two covers. It’s funny, but it has helped me put it down.
It’s really your story and Ricky’s story, more than your grandfather’s story. His life, and why he did what he did, remains pretty murky. Did you try to find out more about him?
I did some digging for records and came up with very little. My grandfather wasn’t caught. He wasn’t charged with anything. And therefore there are no records about him. And in my family it’s been very difficult to get information about him. It’s not like I think I’m going to find the answer to this older Italian man’s life in Ricky’s life, but there’s something there. When I started this book, I remembered nothing about my grandfather except the abuse. I really had blotted out all the other memories. When I got the records from Ricky’s first trial, this woman Ellen who he knew in California, she described him coming to this party wearing a powder blue polyester suit. And I imagined him as a young man, standing at that party. I knew from the records that he kept trying to flee his past, trying to make this new life. He kept traveling looking for a new beginning, a new start. I believe he was haunted by who he was and was trying to figure out how to be someone else. It was in that moment that I thought of this wedding portrait of my grandfather as a young man. I found myself starting to try to think: Who was this man who climbed the stairs to my bedroom so many nights? I started to remember more about him teaching me to draw. That was something that really drew us together when I was a child. But I hadn’t thought about it in years, because in my mind he had become just the abuse.
This book is so personal and you’ve been working on it for so long. It’s interesting that it’s coming out at a moment when true crime—Serial, Making a Murderer, and S-Town—is really having a renaissance. Is that weird for you, for a project borne of such personal trauma to emerge into a world that’s so hungry for these kinds of stories?
Well, for years I described it as In Cold Blood, if Capote had been honest about his stakes in telling the story. This book is meant to be suspenseful. It’s meant to be a page-turner. I thought a lot about how to structure it in that way. Partially that was strategic: I knew that I had a difficult story. It was going to make people think about uncomfortable things. And I felt very strongly that if I was going to ask them to think about uncomfortable things, they had better be turning the pages.
Crime stories have passion, have blood; they have extreme emotion. I don’t think we’re only drawn to them for prurient reasons. I think we’re also drawn to them because they help us look at ourselves, at our society. I’m someone who appreciates those stories and admires the ones you listed. I’m really glad for it. I appreciate it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.