The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.
In 1969, Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane Mixer was found dead in a cemetery in Michigan having reportedly died of two gunshot wounds. A stocking found around her neck was used to strangulate her thereafter. Her body was then dragged to the cemetery and left there, while all her personal belongings were carefully gathered and laid beside her body. Jane was on her way home for spring break, and had advertised for a car ride to her home on the college message board. She was not seen since then until her body was discovered a few miles away from the campus.
Jane’s murderer was never found. At around the same time, there were a slew of young women who were murdered by a serial killer called John Norman Collins – these killings were labeled the Michigan Murders – and it was presumed that Collins had also killed Jane although it could not be effectively proved and Collins himself denied having done so.
Meanwhile, the family moved on, but the spectre of her aunt’s death continued to haunt Maggie, who had never met her aunt. She had just released a book of poems on her called “Jane: A Murder” and goes on to describe how the whole process of trying to make sense of that murder consumed her.
But then a phone call that Maggie’s mother received in November 2004 put a new spin on things and altered their world. The Detective Sergeant on the case – Schroeder – informed them of having uncovered new DNA evidence which led to the arrest of the suspect. Profile-wise, the person charged – Gary Leiterman – was nothing like what Maggie had envisaged as her aunt’s potential murderer. A family man and mild mannered, there was no way of gauging why he would brutally murder Jane…the lack of motive was a mystery, but the science of DNA, which overwhelmingly pointed out to him, could not be ignored.
As far as the DNA samples go, there is one particularly fascinating chapter which ponders on the question of how precise DNA testing is. Besides Leiterman’s DNA on Jane’s clothes, there was a single drop of blood on her body that belonged to a prior convict Ruelas. In 2004, Ruelas was an adult spending time in prison having murdered his mother, so he seemed like a likely suspect. But there was a problem. When Jane was murdered, Ruelas was a four-year old boy…obviously he can’t have killed Jane at that age, so how did his blood land up on her body?
One of the biggest themes that Nelson explores in this book is society’s relentless obsession with violence, particularly against women. She also touches upon how the murder of white women draws significant media attention, while the women of colour who are exposed to violence go unnoticed, as if all lives don’t equally matter.
While writing about her aunt, Nelson also reflects on her family – her parents’ divorce which bewilders her father, his subsequent death and the void it leaves in their lives, the difficulty of connecting with her then rebellious and wayward elder sister Emily, her love-hate relationship with her mom and last but not the least – the lack of warmth both Emily and she feel towards their stepfather.
Nelson particularly draws parallels between her aunt Jane and her sister Emily – both were rebels but paid a heavy price for not always conforming to societal expectations.
For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating. To be ‘a man of the crowd,’ or, conversely, alone with Nature or your god. To make your claims on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive.
It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling.
But more importantly, Nelson wrestles with the fact whether it’s even her right to write about her aunt, to present her story to the world, an aunt she never personally knew, and a story that is not Nelson’s in the first place.
Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. Nelson’s grandfather (Jane’s father) particularly feels that he would rather have an un-convicted man look him in the eye and confess he killed Jane rather than have a convicted man spend the rest of his life in jail maintaining his innocence.
Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. For Nelson’s grandfather it feels like his daughter has died twice. Nelson’s mother recalls her fears when Jane was just murdered, that she might be the next in line. And after so many years, even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?
The witnesses and detectives fold and unfold this towel many times, always with a certain solemnity and formality, as if it were a flag. But the flag of what country, I cannot say. Some dark crescent of land, a place where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear the most, where heavy rains come and wash bodies up and out of their grave, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.
Nelson wonderfully combines elements of psychoanalysis, a personal memoir that is deeply touching and an interesting crime story with a forensic portrayal of all the details that come with it – the grisly photos of Jane’s dead body, the list of items marked as evidence and an analysis of the truly perplexing enigma of the discovery of a 4-year old’s blood on Jane’s body.
The Red Parts, then, is an honest, gripping and moving account of the painful aftermath of a heinous act being committed. Maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”
I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.