Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins an internship at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes―the moment she hears him speak of his crimes―she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.
Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.
[Note: Although Marzano-Lesnevich now identifies as non-binary, I am using the official synopsis of the book as written on their website.]
Although neither of us went into this book expecting a jolly-good-times read, we were both a bit taken off-guard by the intensity of the subject matter. The book is beautifully and carefully written, and the parallels and connections between Marzano-Lesnevich’s own lived experience and the trajectory of Ricky Langley’s life are artfully drawn. Like many great true crime novels, The Fact of a Body raises more questions than it answers, with the added weight of the author’s personal connection hanging onto the facts they ask us to consider. But if you can stand to carry this novel’s heavy subject matter with you, it makes for a impactful and worthy read.
Discussion questions below the cut!
Consider the title of this book: The Fact of a Body. Throughout this true crime account and memoir, we are faced with the ways in which evidence is hidden or ignored, but also the ways in which the evidence that we do have is used in different ways to fit different narratives. Consider Marzano-Lesnevich’s relationship with their body as a crime scene throughout this book. How does the fact of their body and the evidence it holds help them? Do you think it sometimes hinders them? If so, in what way?
Throughout the book, Marzano-Lesnevich frequently imagines scenes playing out in a certain way, and creates for us a possible scenario, the way that they personally envision it. A great challenge in non-fiction writing is always the desire to create a vivid image for the reader, even though the author may not have many facts or verbal testimony to rely on. Do you feel Marzano-Lesnevich’s approach to this challenge worked for this book? Why or why not? Compare this book to other true crime novels you have read. How was Marzano-Lesnevich’s approach different from those novels? Do you think the fact that the book was also partly a memoir impacted Marzano-Lesnevich’s choices?
When speaking about the time they had Lyme disease while their family took a road trip, Marzano-Lesnevich says, “This is the logic I will never find an answer to, the way in my family a hurt will always be your hurt or my hurt, one to be set against the other and weighed, never the family’s hurt. Is what happens in a family the problem of the family, or the problem of the one most harmed by it?” (Ch. 14). With which of these two points of view do you think your family most aligns? Do you think your family’s approach to hurt has impacted larger ways in which you now interact with the world and the people around you?
When considering the fact that Jeremy’s body stayed hidden in Ricky’s closet for three whole days, Marzano-Lesnevich focuses on Ricky’s landlady Pearl and asks, “What does she see? What does she see, or what is she able to see? What does she look away from? Did she not know Jeremy’s body was there?” (Ch. 7). When we recently had our book club meeting for Sadie by Courtney Summers, we discussed the ways in which we often avoid examining too closely the stories we already suspect will lead to nothing but further horror, loss, and tragedy. However, Sadie was focused more on our willingness to listen as outsiders who are not intimately affected by the story. Do you think it is easier or harder to open our ears to a horror story that has slowly crept into our own lives? Explain.
When Marzano-Lesnevich’s brother asks them why, as a teenager, they never visit their grandfather, Marzano-Lesnevich says that in his expression there is “only the rote expectation that he will ask this question of me, the one whose role in the family is separation. The one who, confused and swirling and angry, already wants to get away. Are we already who we will always be?” (Ch. 14). Think back to your childhood and consider the memories you hold from that time. Do you ever feel that the person you are today can be traced back to the person you were then? Why or why not? Regardless of your response, answer this: is the thought that in childhood we are already who we will always be a depressing thought or a reassuring one?
Marzano-Lesnevich talks about the court’s barring the evidence of Ricky’s prior criminal history from his second trial, and says, “There are reasons for that, good ones. The trial was about the murder, not the whole story. But is an act ever really only about itself? Does any element of this story occur in isolation?” (Ch. 27). Do you feel the exclusion of Ricky’s criminal history from the trial was just or unjust? Explain.
“Criminal law doesn’t care where the story began. But how you tell the story has everything to do with how you judge. Begin Ricky’s story with the murder—and it means one thing. Begin it with the crash—and it means another. […] No one else can solve how to think about my grandfather. But with Ricky, at least, I hoped the jury would decide for me.” (Ch. 36) When it comes to criminal trials, we essentially allow a jury of our peers to decide for us what the truth is. After all, unless we are following the case intently from start to finish and attending the trial ourselves, it’s difficult for us to access all the evidence and testimony by which the jury makes this decision. After reading this book, how do you feel about allowing your peers to decide the truth for you? Does it worry you, or do you feel it’s the best solution available to us?
When discussing Ricky’s life leading up to the murder, Marzano-Lesnevich comments, “Like so much else, these years before the murder come down to what it always comes down to with Ricky: What do you see in him? Do you believe that he’s trying? Is his the story of a man who tries over and over again to get treatment, trying to change and take his changed self back into the world and live a new life, who tries and tries but is ultimately undone by the bulwark fact of who he is? Or is his the story of a man who leaves treatment over and over again, who never really tries but always runs?” (Ch. 17). After reading this book, which of these two stories do you believe in the most? How sure are you? Or, to ask that question another way, how comfortable would you feel as a juror if your belief in that story determines whether a man lives or dies? How do you think your answer to this question is affected by who you are and your own life experiences, rather than just the evidence of what Ricky did?
How do you feel about the death penalty? What reason do you have for your opinion on the matter? Are there factors regarding the death penalty that you feel you should investigate further before forming an opinion?