What does it take to put the painful past behind us? How does memory get buried in our bodies and our lives? Must we forgive those who tore our lives apart in order to make ourselves whole again? Or is justice all we need? And what is justice anyway?
The recently-released, genre-bending book, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, digs into these questions with such a smooth, eloquent touch, you barely notice how deeply your heart’s been pierced until you turn that last page and suddenly find that everything you thought you knew is no longer clear.
The story begins…well, that’s another theme of the book. Just where does a story begin? The meaning of any story changes, Ms. Marzano-Lesnevich proves, depending on where it begins and where it ends, even if the facts remain the same. Yet every story must begin somewhere, and she chooses to start this tale during her law school internship at a firm specializing in the defense of death row criminals. She’s staunchly opposed to the death penalty, and has been for as long as she can remember. Until, that is, the first day of her internship, when she watches a video of one of the firm’s clients, an admitted pedophile, confessing to the murder of a little boy. Suddenly, she wants the man dead, and she doesn’t know why. Thus begins her odyssey for the truth about herself and her family, and the mystery of how her story is so tied up with the murderer’s.
This is a true crime book. This is a memoir. This is unrelenting reporting on a gruesome murder case. This is a story about how the secrecy and shame surrounding childhood sexual abuse strangles the flow of love and life from victims and their families. Marzano-Lesnevich deftly stewards us through a dizzying kaleidoscope of perspectives and timeframes, unraveling a tangled trail of facts that somehow always lead to more questions.
Along the way, remarkable parallels emerge between the lives of the author and the man she’s been hired to help defend. Phantom siblings. Family secrets. Hidden evidence. Both protagonists struggle to piece together the deepest mysteries of their childhoods so they can understand and move on. Both are stymied by families and cultures who refuse to see or acknowledge their pain. And both eventually find some version of peace by standing up and staring down the searing glare of truth that they alone refuse to hide from.
The Fact of a Body is the result of ten years of work by an author whose credentials read like a list of the literary world’s most revered programs and publications. Having put half that amount of time, so far, into my own memoir Wasteland Reclaimed, which explores similar terrain, and as a relative newbie to writing for publication, reading this book has grounded me in the reality of how much work and practice really goes into a masterpiece. Is “masterpiece” too strong a word here? I don’t think so. For me, this is the most important, life-changing book I’ve read in decades, as both a reader and a writer.
Here’s just part of how she describes the nauseating terror of having an abuse flashback during lovemaking with her present-day life partner:
“…it felt good and I moaned and it felt good again. And then it didn’t. When this happens I know it only the way you realize that the water has suddenly got too hot in the shower, has crossed over some invisible threshold and is now burning. Though it would be smarter to just hop out of the shower entirely—damn the bathroom rug, so it gets wet, who cares? —you stand under the spray that is now scalding you and you grope and fumble for the shower knob…Where does the mind go in these moments, while the body trembles? For me it is a white-hot slipstream blank-out, the nothingness of no time and nowhere and no one…”
She then goes on to explain how her flashback experience has changed through the years, and how she’s learned to process the memories by riding them out like a wave.
This is one of the many passages in the book that brings tears of relief and empathy to my eyes. Never have I felt so seen, understood and no-longer-alone, on such an intimate level before reading this book.
Another thread in The Fact of a Body that touched me personally is how the author sleuths into the pedophile-murderer’s story, searching for some explanation for how he morphed from boy to “monster”. She wants to understand, hoping it will lend insight into her own abuser’s transmutation. I search this way too in my own manuscript, into my parents’ marriage and what little I know of my father’s life. How could my father be both the man who helped my mother get sober, yet also be an abusive alcoholic? How could he cause so much damage to me as a child and yet so much of his positive influence still echo through my life to this day? How does the human heart manage to hate and love someone so deeply at the same time?
Marzano-Lesnevich explores these questions about her abuser too. That she finds no pat answer is more satisfying than if she pasted some over-simplified, band-aid rationalization onto her wounds in an attempt to prove she’s fully healed. As any trauma survivor knows, some mysteries are unsolvable and the healing process never ends. The Fact of a Body reveals the paradoxical beauty behind that reality.