Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts Bends The True Crime Model Until It Breaks

Jane Mixer was twenty-three years old when she was found dead one morning in a small rural cemetery at the end of a gravel road. Mixer was murdered in 1969. She was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and she was trying to hitch a ride home from school to tell her parents that she had just gotten engaged.

For decades, Mixer’s murder had been thought to be the work of an infamous Michigan serial killer, but there were discrepancies between her homicide and those of the other six victims. For one, Mixer’s body hadn’t been mutilated like the others; her arms had been arranged across her chest and her belongings set beside her body, but she had still been shot and strangled — she still had her underclothes pulled down “in a final stroke of debasement.”

Jane Mixer was the aunt of Maggie Nelson, poet, critic, nonfiction writer, and author of the 2015 award winning, genre-defying, The Argonauts. Back in 2007, a then lesser-known Nelson published The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, a lyric meditation on the psychic consequences of considering her aunt’s life and death. Last year, it was difficult to get even a used copy of that book. Graywolf Press has done a great service to readers by re-publishing The Red Parts in 2016.

“In all desire to know there is already a drop of cruelty,” is the Nietzsche epigraph that opens this visceral meditation that’s part true crime, part memoir. In a cultural moment in which true crime narrative — Serial, Making a Murderer, The Jynx, etc. — has reached an especially hypnotizing level, Nelson’s book powerfully reminds us of the wrecked lives that violence leaves in its wake.

The Red Parts interrogates our cultural fascination with true-crime drama without easily condemning it. Nelson’s prose is cuttingly self-aware. As she works to make sense of her own morbid fixation on Jane’s murder, she finds that the more that anyone tries to tell a coherent story about meaningless loss, the more they misrepresent it. Nelson takes issue with Joan Didion’s idea that, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Nelson writes, “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.” Nelson’s story flirts with these perceived sins, yet it does it in a way that’s packed with self-conscious insight and grief.

Jane Mixer’s case was reopened in 2004, after a “motherload” of DNA evidence was discovered on the pantyhose Jane was wearing the night of her murder. Those pantyhose linked her murder to Gary Leiterman, a retired nurse who lived with his wife and two adopted Philippine children in a lakeside home in Michigan. More enigmatically, there was another DNA hit — to a John David Ruelas, four years old on the night of Mixer’s death — no relationship to Leiterman. The details of the trial are twisted and stranger than fiction, and they appropriately thwart clear explanations for what happened that night.

Whenever Nelson stops to ponder a defense of her family’s collective behavior, she just as quickly complicates it. Most palpably, Nelson continually remembers that Jane doesn’t care whether any of them attend her re-trial; she’s dead. None of them need to consider gruesome autopsy photos — or Leiterman and his family — or stop their lives to attend a months-long trial in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nelson knows that, at best, she and her mother are there to “bear witness,” but she forsakes the naïve idea that they are helping toward “justice.” Nelson writes:

I find the grammar of justice maddening. It’s always “rendered,” “served,” or “done.” It always swoops down from on high — from God, from the state — like a bolt of lightning, a flaming sword come to separate the righteous from the wicked in Earth’s final hour. It is not, apparently, something we can give to one other, something we can make happen, something we can create together down here in the muck. The problem may also lie in the word itself, as for millennia “justice” has meant both “retribution” and “equality,” as if a gaping chasm did not separate the two.

Late in the book, Mixer and Leiterman’s families wait for the verdict and the jury returns to the courtroom after a four-hour deliberation. The foreman of the jury rises and says the find the defendant, Gary Leiterman, guilty of murder, first-degree. The judge thanks the jury, and the jury neatly files out of the room. “As soon as the door shuts behind them, my family erupts in a greater outburst of emotion than I ever imagined possible,” Nelson writes. “‘Justice’ may have been done, but at this moment the courtroom is simply a room full of broken people, each racked with his or her particular grief, and the air heavy with them all.”

Nelson wonders why she writes about Jane, why she relents to some of the narrative impulse that makes her weary. She wants Jane’s life to matter, but not more than any other. She wants her own life to matter, but not more than others. She writes, “I want to remember, or to learn, how to live as if it matters, as if they all matter, even if they don’t.” In the aftermath of the trial, Nelson set up shop in a city that was alien to her, and started writing.

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