I have read many true crime books. I have consumed the good, the bad, and the ugly of this genre. I have been totally unaffected by some books, and unable to sleep because of others. The reaction I had to Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2017) is not only one I have never had before, but one I did not know what to do with. The story that Marzano-Lesnevich tells—not only of the horrific death of a child but of the complicated story of their own life—seeped into my bones where, I think, it will always remain. This book shows us what true crime can do. It shows us what memoir can do. It is the product of what happens where those two genres are expertly combined. Allow me to take you just some of the places this book took me.
In their prologue, Marzano-Lesnevich explains how they came to this case. While working at a law firm as a law student, they were shown the taped confession of Ricky Langley, who was found guilty for killing 6-year-old Jeremy Guillory in 1994. That verdict was overturned. Langley was tried again in 2003 and was convicted of second-degree murder. That verdict was also overturned. In 2009, Langley was tried without a jury (by his own choosing) and was again convicted of second-degree murder. In June of 2020, Langley’s lawyers took his case to the Supreme Court arguing that the third trial put Langley in double jeopardy and therefore was not legal. The court refused to hear his appeal and the conviction stood. But before all this, there was a tape with a confession, and there was a young law student watching:
“Working backwards from the transcripts, I have found the place where he lived and where he killed the little blond boy, and the gas station where he worked and was later arrested. From the transcripts, and by visiting the places in Louisiana where events in this man’s life took place, I have imagined his mother, his sisters, the little boy’s mother, all the characters from the past…I have sat across from this man, the murderer, in a visiting booth, and have looked into the same eyes that are on this tape. This tape brought me to re-examine everything I believed not only about the law but about my family and my past. I might have wished I’d never seen it. I might have wished that my life could stay in the simpler time” (5).
Marzano-Lesnevich takes us away from that “simpler time” with them, but not before they take us through their own childhood and early adulthood, beginning in New Jersey in 1983. Marzano-Lesnevich tells two stories at once, going back and forth between Louisiana in 1992 where the crime took place, and New Jersey in 1983 and onward where they grew up. Marzano-Lesnevich blends these two stories together, and because of this, details are projected from one onto the other until it is unmistakeable that one is helping the other take shape. I truly couldn’t imagine this story being told in any other way. Marzano-Lesnevich does, after all, quote Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) at the beginning of their prologue, and the quote reads: “It is always possible that the solution to one mystery will solve another” (1). Though the crime itself doesn’t remain a mystery for long and Langley is found out and apprehended quickly, there are several personal mysteries that Marzano-Lesnevich works through while working through the case.
Memoir & True Crime
Sexual abuse, mental illness, and family secrets become a lens through which we are asked to see the murder of a little boy in 1992. Marzano-Lesnevich outlines their experience of sexual abuse, abuse that is perpetrated by their grandfather. This section of the book affected me a great deal, as I’m sure it would affect anyone. There is a raw honesty with which Marzano-Lesnevich details the abuse that left me in awe of their bravery. It also kept me up at night, especially because of the way that Marzano-Lesnevich intertwines their story with the story of Jeremy’s murder. Marzano-Lesnevich says “When I began writing this story I thought it was because of the man on the tape. I thought it was because of Ricky. In him I saw my grandfather. I wanted to understand. But now I think I write because of Lorelei” (77). Marzano-Lesnevich powerfully recognizes the ways that Jeremy’s mother Lorelei has been victimized over and over again by this case—not only through the murder of her son, but through the three separate trails that took place. Because of this, Marzano-Lesnevich desperately tries to understand why, in the 2003 trial, Lorelei is called by the defence and has this to say to the court: “Even though I can hear my child’s death cry, I, too, can hear Ricky Langley cry for help” (78). This, of course, mystifies Marzano-Lesnevich as it did me.
To help themselves understand why Lorelei would speak in defense of Langley, as well as to begin to understand their own experiences of abuse, Marzano-Lesnevich begins to work through Langley’s past. This part of the book, which they title “Consequences,” is full of stark details about Langley’s birth, upbringing, and crimes committed prior to his murder of Jeremy. Going into the perp’s background is pretty standard fare for a true crime text, but what makes this section different from all the other’s I’ve read is that we are constantly, through intersecting sections, brought away from Langley, back into New Jersey, and back into the authors life. It is in this section they first start to really unpack their feelings about the death penalty, saying that, at a young age “death is what I’m afraid of…I have begun to think of the constitution as a document of hope. The law I love can impose death? Never mind the reasons in law books…[f]rom this moment on, I will always be against the death penalty” (95). Questioning the death penalty through this case and through their own abuse is an additional layer of complexity in this text. These complexities, however, do not fragment the narrative but rather evoke a richness that a story like this calls for.
The prose in the “Consequences” section is rich, evocative, sensory, poetic, and exact. It is some of the best writing I’ve seen in any memoir or true crime text. It doesn’t try to unearth something in Langley’s past that caused him to be a monster. It presents a series of events that build on one another and eventually lead to a little boy being killed. There is nothing to excavate here. Leave that to the psychiatrists. There is only a story to be told, one thing that has led to another. There are reasons, of course. Things that were overlooked in Langley’s life. Moments where he could have gone one way or another. Marzano-Lesnevich reminds us that these were his choices, and this was his life. Falling down the rabbit hole of Langley’s life, we also pursue the author’s life, learning about their movements through brief vignettes: getting into Harvard, moving to Chicago, dealing with an eating disorder. These vignettes are just as important as the details about the case as they are one part of a much larger picture that all fits together.
The issue of the death penalty is returned to in this section. Marzano-Lesnevich is asked in a job interview if they would be able to defend a child molester. In consideration of the question, they remember: “My grandfather had been dead for eight years, but suddenly I see him and my body seizes…this job will be my test. If I really oppose the death penalty, I must oppose it for men like him” (172). The author’s feelings about the death penalty do not remain steadfast for the rest of the book. They falter. They agonize over their own past and Langley’s crimes. And in the third and final section of the book, “Trial,” they visit the place where Jeremey died and was buried. They attend Langley’s third trial and discuss all of its awful details. This section of the book shocked me. Not because anything particularly shocking happened, but because the closer the author gets to the nucleus of the crime, the closer they get to the nucleus of the crime that was committed against them.
The Second Crime
There are two major crimes in outlined in this book, two pedophiles who commit crimes against children. One of whom is in prison, and one who got to live out their life into old age, free. The scene in chapter 30 when Marzano-Lesnevich confronts their grandfather and tells him what they remember about the molestation is about as powerful as writing can be. It is not dissimilar from the scenes where the author visits the Langley cemetery plot, or the place where Ricky was arrested. Through all these twists and turns, the author has been getting to the facts all along. The facts of their own body and own life, as well as the facts of Jeremy’s body, and Langley’s body. They ask in this chapter: “What fact does my body hold?” It seems like it’s the first time they’ve asked that question, but it’s not (246). Throughout the entirety of the text, they have been asking this question about themselves. They have been asking this question about Langley, about Jeremy, and about their grandfather. What they find out about the crime, the perpetrator, the victim, and the law, is one of the most impactful truths relayed by this book:
“So I thought that, faced with the question of whether Ricky should live or die, that the jury had refused to decide. But I have realized that I am to rescue a place for the un-neatness of everything that happened. Lorelei didn’t forgive Ricky, but she still didn’t want him to die. My grandfather did everything he did, and he was still my grandfather. The law—with each side’s relentless pursuit of one story—has never known what to do with this complicated middle ground. But life is full of it” (297).
The image of the middle ground is rounded off with two happenings, two stories, two essential pieces of the puzzle: the author visiting the graves of their grandparents, and the author visiting Langley in prison. I will say it again and again: this is the only way this story could be told. These are the facts of two bodies, two crimes, two lives that were never meant to intersect but did. In the end, the author says to the past—her past, Langley’s past, her grandfather’s past—“come with me, then, as I live” (309). Spending time with this book is bearing witness to incredible tragedy and pain, but it’s also bearing witness to writing that’s interested in getting the story right first, even if that means welcoming back the unpredictable past.
Content Warnings: Sexual Abuse, violence against children, sexual violence, violence.
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature.