The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial
By Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press, 2016
Narrative nonfiction – memoirs, true crime tales, personal essays, long form journalism – has seen a growth in popularity and critical attention over the course of the last few decades. This partly explains why Maggie Nelson is at the height of her success thus far – her book The Argonauts just recently won a National Book Critics Circle award— as her writing is frequently based on personal experience and cultural critique. But her books sit uneasily next to other narrative nonfiction forms with their emphasis on storytelling as a path toward truth. In contrast, what she writes is more like anti-narrative nonfiction. That The Argonauts won for criticism instead of autobiography, a category it could have fit into equally well, suggests her resistance to writing in conventional forms. This is especially true of her 2007 book The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, recently reissued by Graywolf Press, which examines the 1969 murder of her aunt Jane Mixer and the reopening of the murder trial in 2005.
The Red Parts explicitly rejects stories and the power of storytelling. Nelson is troubled by Joan Didion’s famous line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Nelson responds:
I became a poet in part because I didn’t want to tell stories. As far as I could tell, 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. This has always struck me as cause for lament, not celebration.
The Red Parts both participates in storytelling and critiques it. It asserts the importance of distrusting some stories and ensuring other kinds are heard; it asks, always, that we be self-aware about who creates our narratives and what cultural work they perform. Nelson’s social commentary is incisive, and the memoiristic elements of the book are, in characteristic fashion, moving and emotionally raw. Her prose is simple and unadorned while also managing to be richly suggestive. But it’s her way of telling stories, while also leveling her critical intelligence against them, that gives The Red Parts – and, in fact, all of Nelson’s work – a thrilling intensity.
Nelson’s other books are also suspicious of storytelling, if in less explicit ways. The Argonauts describes meeting and marrying her gender-fluid partner Harry Dodge and getting pregnant and giving birth. But these stories aren’t the point; the book is, instead, about the breaking apart of stories. It’s an attempt to use personal experience and philosophy to ponder how identities are created and broken apart and how the disintegration of a person’s self can liberate instead of destroy. Bluets, from 2009, is written in short, numbered sections that hint at episodes in Nelson’s life, but never dwell on one story or even one idea for long before moving on. In it she tries to capture a state of mind indirectly, examining her obsession with the color blue from philosophical, historical, and scientific angles. But no angle ever dominates the others; they are all always in play, ever moving, refusing to settle down into order or organization.
Her 2005 book Jane: A Murder is another work made up of fragments. It covers the same subject as The Red Parts, the murder of Nelson’s aunt, but this time with a mix of Nelson’s poetry and other materials including sections of Jane’s childhood and adolescent journals. It’s about Nelson’s attempts to understand the woman who had a profound influence on her life but whom she never met. Jane’s story gets told, in a fashion, but, as with Nelson’s other books, it’s not told chronologically and is built up in pieces. One of the poems ends this way, the opening lines from Nelson and the italicized section presumably from Jane’s journal:
I love the sound of it, a girl
surging into herself
as she writes into the night–
I am all mixed up and these pages filled with writing haven’t helped any. I can’t sleep. I have to write.
Nelson’s pleasure at witnessing Jane find her voice is juxtaposed against Jane’s own uncertainty about the value of writing. Every assertion about the exhilarating power of writing is undermined by the possibility that it offers no consolation and doesn’t change anything at all.
These doubts about the purpose of storytelling and even of writing itself are woven into the fabric of The Red Parts. This book tells the story of Nelson’s discovery that even while she was writing Jane: A Murder, investigators had reopened Jane’s case, which had been officially unsolved. Most people assumed she was murdered by a convicted serial killer who had struck many times in the area of Michigan where Jane’s body was found. But now Nelson and her family learn that for the past five years, an investigator had been working on the case without their knowledge and was ready to bring a new suspect to trial. The Red Parts is an account of Nelson’s experiences watching the trial, and also a look back at how wrenching it was to spend her days absorbed in a gory murder case in order to write Jane. Along the way she examines how Jane’s murder changed her whole family, both those who knew Jane and those who didn’t. The Red Parts is not purely personal in its focus, however; it also comments on Jane’s place in our cultural narratives of womanhood, particularly those of vulnerability and violence.
The question of what stories are worth telling surfaces in a conversation Nelson has with her mother, who tripped while talking on the phone and fell badly enough to damage a tooth but continued the conversation as though nothing had happened:
She says the fall was too embarrassing to mention. I say that it might have been worth mentioning simply because it happened. We may as well be talking to each other from opposite ends of a cardboard tube.
Nelson herself feels embarrassment about the time she spends in the courtroom recording details from the trial in her legal pad. The whole enterprise seems voyeuristic and obsessive. But the same thing she tells her mother applies to her as well: “some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”
The question then becomes how to tell what happened in a manner that doesn’t “distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it” – all the things Nelson is so worried storytelling can do. Her answer is to include, even to emphasize, suspicions about storytelling even as she is in the midst of it. She will tell the story – bear witness to it – but will come back to her feeling of embarrassment again and again and write her sense of unease into the text itself.
The title The Red Parts signals the importance of bearing witness and also Nelson’s definition of what exactly this should mean. The “red parts” are, on one level, the words in the Bible spoken by Jesus, although Nelson never explains this directly. She simply describes a teacher’s suggestion that instead of reading her article on the book of Luke, she could just “read the red parts” on her own. At first Nelson doesn’t know what the teacher means. Instead, she thinks of another possible meaning of “red parts” – the inside of a body split open by a brutal murderer:
At the time I imagined slitting a body from chin to genitals, spreading apart its internal organs and trying to read them like tea leaves.
She then veers into an account of witnessing a murder in the middle of the night on the streets of Manhattan. By 8 a.m. all evidence of the murder victim had disappeared. The chapter then closes with a quotation from the book of Revelation:
Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be, hereafter. A red part.
In a withholding that seems purposeful, Nelson avoids exploring what the title implies: that the act of writing, and particularly writing the stories of those who cannot tell their own, might be a sacred act. She stands in the same position as the writer in Revelation who obeys the command to “write the things which thou hast seen.” While her version of witness is a secular one and she goes out of her way not to mention that it is Jesus who has issued the call to write, the feeling lingers that there is something holy in the act of writing.
But Nelson will not commit to this possibility, or even state it outright. She simply hints at it, and then devotes much of the rest of the book to undermining the idea of anything sacred beyond the physical world. The “red parts,” for her, are not Jesus’ words, but the body itself and the words we use to ponder, defend, remember, and memorialize it.
Two significant changes from the 2007 edition to the new one hint at Nelson’s preoccupations in The Red Parts: the subtitle has changed and there is a new preface. The subtitle to the new edition is “Autobiography of a Trial,” instead of the earlier, simpler, and less ambiguous “A Memoir.” At first the new subtitle seems to mean that the trial itself is writing its own autobiography, although that would make a very strange book and is not what Nelson has actually written. Instead, the “trial” is Nelson’s, with two different meanings: it’s a trial in the sense of an ordeal, and also a test of Nelson’s ability to write the story while staying true to her convictions about the potential dangers of narrative. These dangers are hinted at in her preface, where she hopes that the new edition will mean The Red Parts can become what she had always hoped it would be:
a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence, to grief, thankfully untethered from the garish rubrics of “current events,” “true crime,” or even “memoir.”
She wants her book to be its own thing, not limited by popular genres with their familiar conventions. What is being “tried” – attempted, tested – is something entirely new.
The book is in part a catalogue of Nelson’s sources of shame and embarrassment, another way of putting herself and her writing on trial. She chides herself for what she had hoped to accomplish in Jane: A Murder. She had thought she could help her family see that they had been grieving badly, repressing the pain “as an unhealthy vestige of a Midwestern, Scandinavian heritage.” But now she sees the foolishness and naiveté of this hope and feels only bewilderment at the idea of “faulty” or “successful” grieving. The cultural narrative that digging up family stories can help us understand them and thereby move on from them is powerful, but deceptive.
She also wonders if her use of Jane’s journals in her book is exploitive. After seeing the murder suspect’s journals projected onto a screen during the trial, she speculates:
Having one’s intimate musings seized by the police, chopped up into incriminating bits, then projected onto a screen for all to see and later committed to the public record is nothing short of a Kafkaesque nightmare.
It is also one way of describing what I did with Jane’s diaries in Jane. I had told the CBS producer at dinner that I made use of Jane’s journals so that she could speak for herself. That was true. But I also selected the words I wanted, chopped them up, and rearranged them to suit my needs. Poetic license, as they say.
It seems possible that instead of writing a tribute to Jane and helping keep her memory alive, she has instead erased her and turned her into the blank slate of a “Jane Doe.” Nelson feels horror at the thought. In this light, The Red Parts is an agonized rewriting of Jane: A Murder, an attempt, not to “restore” Jane or to do a better job telling her story, but to question the very premise of the earlier book: that she could give Jane a voice and thereby keep her, in some sense, alive.
If Nelson is ambivalent about her own storytelling project, there are other narrative forms and familiar stories she criticizes directly and unambiguously. She returns again and again to descriptions of movies full of violence against women, to the casual racism and misogyny she encounters, to the newspaper articles she reads that follow familiar, clichéd scripts in their portrayals of women as victims. She chafes against the pressure on women not to walk alone, as though they shouldn’t be allowed to occupy public space in comfort. The persistence of warnings directed at women makes it hard for her to tell if by walking alone she is being bold or foolhardy.
A particularly troubling moment comes when a producer of the television show 48 Hours Mystery wants to turn the reopening of Jane’s case into an episode. The producer thinks the theme of the episode will be grief and says its point would be to help other people mourn. Nelson decides to work with the producer and the episode eventually gets made, but all along the way she has doubts. She challenges the producer’s motives, and also the motives of everyone involved in producing and consuming a certain type of story:
With less graciousness than I’d hoped to display, I ask if there’s a reason why stories about the bizarre, violent deaths of young, good-looking, middle- to upper-class white girls help people to mourn better than other stories.
Throughout The Red Parts Nelson questions why some people’s stories matter more than others, why people become so fascinated with a particular type of crime victim while equally horrific crimes against a different type of person go entirely unnoticed. She wonders:
Am I sitting here so that Jane Mixer can join JonBenét Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, in the dead-white-girl-of-the-week club?
She reads websites and discussion board posts written by people obsessed with trying to solve this particular type of crime and wonders how what she is doing is different. She wants Jane’s life to “matter,” but not to matter more than anyone else’s:
I’m sitting here because I wanted – I still want – Jane’s life to “matter.” But I don’t want it to matter more than others.
Am I sitting here now, months later, in Los Angeles, writing all this down, because I want my life to matter? Maybe so. But I don’t want it to matter more than others.
I want to remember, or to learn, how to live as if it matters, as if they all matter, even if they don’t.
These lines encapsulate the tensions of the book perfectly, tensions that make it such a vital and moving work of art: Nelson wants to shed light on the lives of others, but she knows in doing so she is shedding light on her own as well. She wants her motivations to be pure, even though she knows they aren’t. She wants to live as though all lives and stories have equal value, even though the world and most of her experiences in it tell her otherwise.
Joan Didion’s line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” had been on Nelson’s mind because her mother wrote it on a congratulations card after a poetry publication. But several years after receiving the card, she looks up its source, Didion’s essay “The White Album,” where the confidence of the famous opening line soon deteriorates to “Or at least we do for a while,” and then to “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” Nelson knows that her mother is familiar with the whole essay and intentionally chose to include only the hopeful, confident part. She is grateful for her mother’s optimism, but is herself drawn to the doubts. Those doubts are where she wants to live.
Rebecca Hussey teaches English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut and blogs at Of Books and Bicycles.