Grandfathers and Child Molesters

And of course that’s not what happened. He’s very large hearted, and likes to be in front of a crowd. Marzano-Lesnevich and her twin brother, along with their two younger sisters, grow up in a ramshackle Victorian house in Tenafly, New Jersey. Your childhood seems to have been fun and chaotic, but also full of silences and closely guarded secrets. But I thought that if I just had the facts of what had happened in Ricky’s case, it would not be so mysterious to me. Earlier that evening, Jeremy had gone over to the house where Ricky Langley was a lodger. I had a great deal of trouble reading the files. Ricky’s story stays in his chapter, and my story stays in my chapter. Had I known I would spend as many years as I did thinking about Ricky’s case, I’m not sure I would have gotten those records. Kevin Pitre just stayed there: he flashed his lights, and flashed his lights, and flashed his lights, and watched the woods and hoped that a child would come out. I was struck by his repeated attempts to try to get away from the past, to start all over again. What you’re telling me is that your own experiences influenced how you saw Ricky’s story. Reading this memoir, I thought you were immersing yourself in Ricky’s story to help make sense of your own life. But they were away. She teaches public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and works with memoir-writers at Grub Street, a writing center in Boston. I had no way to put the pieces together, to understand why both sides existed. As I say in the book: What you see in Ricky depends as much on who you are, and what’s happened to you, as what he’s done. So I decided I’d get a PhD and do academic research related to the death penalty. When I was in law school and starting to learn about death penalty cases, the need to write came back to me. And I saw the case through the lens of my grandfather. Through the MFA program, I had slowly started writing about things that had happened in my own family. But the more I read, the more I saw that this young man was in some way trapped by who he was. MAY 28, 2017

IN HER STUNNING first book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich doesn’t so much introduce her two main characters as immerse the reader directly in their lives. And then, the two narratives start to co-mingle. Super not what happened. I’d read something in Ricky’s file and it would make me think of my own life. Slowly, through my MFA program, I started writing about things that had happened in my own family. Was there a specific reason you decided to turn away from the law and become a writer? We would have 30 or 40 people over for Christmas dinner. I couldn’t remember, for example, that he had taught me to draw when I was young. Shifting to the story of Ricky Langley, I’d like to ask you to recount one of the most unforgettable scenes in this book: the night six-year-old Jeremy Guillory disappeared. It was really striking how much that night had stayed with people, how much they remembered the feeling of Jeremy being missing, and how much they remembered searching for him. Some days — fully aware of his hideous impulses — he begs to be locked up. You first became aware of Ricky Langley when you interned with a firm that worked on his defense. One can feel the anxiety of children watching their parents leave for the evening, and smell the stale breath of an old man as he spits out his false teeth, grins, and unzips his pants. Ricky answered the door, invited Jeremy in, and strangled him. And he said, “I remember it because my own son used to wear those T-shirts.” That night, no one had any idea where Jeremy was, but they thought maybe he was in the woods. I had always seen the world through the lens of writing, and I had no other way to process what I was seeing. During my second year of law school, I started taking fiction-writing classes at night at the Harvard Extension School. Jeremy’s mother came to the door shortly afterward, looking for her son. The only law I’d ever wanted to practice was death-penalty defense. I too was someone who had felt trapped, for a very long time, in a totally different way, and under totally different circumstances. I have no way of understanding who he was in a deeper way. When I got the initial set of court records — 8,000 pages — I had no intention of writing about Ricky. The author first learns about Ricky Langley when she’s a 25-year-old law student, interning with a firm that’s working on his defense. You’re a graduate of Harvard Law School. And then I started reading the records. That night, while the searchers were looking for Jeremy, Ricky took care of their children. The book begins in a very strict, braided narrative. I began to see both sides of him. I don’t have any records of my grandfather. If you tell I’ll always come find you.”  
“I have layered my imagination onto the bare-bones record of the past,” she writes, in order to better be able to evoke the grim and eerie world of Ricky Langley. But there are secrets: the inexplicable scar across her brother’s stomach, a sister who died in infancy, and nighttime visits — by Marzano-Lesnevich’s own grandfather — to the girls’ bedrooms. The first moment I saw Ricky, and heard him describe what he’d done, I immediately thought of my grandfather. I wrote a great deal of fiction, actually, all the way until my grandfather died. I’d work on a piece about my own life and suddenly I would think of Ricky. But before doing that, I also decided to give myself a fiction MFA as a present — for fun. ¤
TUCKER COOMBE: One of the central characters of your memoir is your father. And what my grandfather did blotted out the rest of who he was in my memory. He went over to play with his friend Joey, and Joey’s sister. Before he’s even a teenager, Ricky has begun to molest young children. They were really disturbing. What does one character — the author, a graduate of Harvard Law School with an MFA from Emerson College — have to do with the other — a pedophile and murderer named Ricky Langley? Being able to pin it down would collapse it, would make it safe in some way, and mean that I didn’t have to keep thinking about it. I wanted to get out of my own emotions — to wipe the past away — and I really thought it was my own failing that I couldn’t do that. I wanted the reason and rationality of the law. It was much harder, as you point out, to get the backstory on your own grandfather. Ricky was a child murderer and a pedophile. He had done terrible, terrible things. In some ways, the entire book is a reckoning of that duality. One of the people who testified about that night was a young police officer, Calton Pitre. “I’m a witch,” he whispers. Everything was a big party, and I loved it. So I have empathy for that. And as she absorbs the story of Ricky Langley, she begins to examine the uncomfortable truths of her own family. The night Jeremy disappeared, word got around the small town where he lived in southwestern Louisiana, then spread around the whole area, which was a knot of several small towns that I’ve now been to many times. She made some calls, then left to go to some other houses. Can you talk about how these two very different attitudes co-existed in your family? Is Ricky Langley a calculating killer, Marzano-Lesnevich wonders, or was the murder of Jeremy Guillory a warped reaction to some long-buried trauma? Looking at his life taught me about my own. In 1992, a six-year-old boy named Jeremy Guillory knocks on Ricky’s front door, looking for his friend Joey. That got emotionally quite complicated for me, for reasons that I think become clear in the book. It really struck me that Ricky called 911 right after she did to give them a better description of where to find the house. She came back to Ricky’s house, and called 911. Ricky stayed up that night. Three days later, Jeremy is found dead, stuffed in Ricky’s bedroom closet. As a child, it was very confusing for me that we would have that outward joy, but then there would be all the impossible-to-miss silence. Initially, you may have wanted Ricky Langley to die. She spoke to me from The Writers’ Room, in Boston, where much of this book was written. But he was both things, really: a grandfather, and a child molester. ¤
Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education. Other days he wishes for nothing but to be left alone, to hunt and fish and live quietly down by the river. He did laundry, he washed the floor repeatedly, and he put aluminum foil over his windows. As if, maybe this time he could have a different life. When I first started reading the files, it’s fair to say I did not feel much compassion for him. Meanwhile, the child’s body was upstairs in Ricky’s closet. He’s a bon vivant. Ricky had a hold on me that I didn’t understand. Young Ricky Langley is at once pitiable and repellent — jug-eared, slow-witted, and haunted by visions. And then he hid Jeremy’s body in the closet. At the same time, I wanted to write into the book, and acknowledge to the reader, how dangerous and slippery it was to have empathy for this man. But that’s not what happened. Her parents, both small-town attorneys, are ambitious and devoted to their children. And yet, the way I understood things became so tangled up with Ricky that when I tried to explain my own life, I needed also to talk about Ricky’s life, which had had a tremendous impact on me. The connections that emerge are surprising and deeply unsettling. After I finished law school, I knew I wasn’t going to practice law. I think both are true. When he died, I stopped writing — cold turkey — because somehow I was afraid that I’d write something that was close to my own life. You did a tremendous amount of research on Ricky Langley. There was always a lot of love. Did your understanding of Ricky in any way help you to understand your grandfather? There were many things that we were just not supposed to talk about. To the casual observer, the author’s own childhood seems idyllic. Later, the searchers collected their children and went home. Tell me about him. On a typical summer afternoon, the author shows her younger self perched at the top of an old swing set, reading a Nancy Drew book. I think in some ways I was looking at Ricky Langley as a substitute for my grandfather. Ricky’s lead defense attorney saw the case through the lens of his own childhood. And in the course of getting to know him, I began to see him as a complicated person. Marzano-Lesnevich writes about her own life in a way that’s both sensuous and heartrending. What drew you back? And her writing is evocative as well; the house where young Jeremy is murdered, for example, has “an ominous shape, as if [it] were just a skin worn by a creature who lurked underneath.”
Marzano-Lesnevich has contributed essays and short fiction to publications including The New York Times, Oxford American, and Virginia Quarterly Review. And often we land someplace quite deeper than we ever intended to go. Down in Louisiana, another story unfolds. It’s rural, but very close knit. ALEXANDRIA MARZANO-LESNEVICH: My father is a bit larger than life. I have always written. It was years later that you decided to return to Ricky and his story. I had a really strong, emotional response, and — despite what I believed about the death penalty — I thought that Ricky should die. In your early years, he’s characterized by a tremendous love of family, optimism, and unbridled enthusiasm. She lives in Cincinnati. She begins a thorough unearthing of Ricky and his family — poring over some 30,000 pages of legal documents, wandering through overgrown graveyards, and visiting the site of his last crime. The jury foreman saw the case through the lens of his own family. When my brother and I were in our 20s and realized we actually liked going to sleep at a reasonable hour, we would laugh because our parents would have dinner at 11 o’clock at night and always keep a later bedtime than us. He played with them in his bedroom. It was always very loud, and always very exuberant. Ricky invited her in to use the phone. Her father mows the yard on his tractor, and music blares from a boombox in the grass. Your depiction of Ricky, on that night, was particularly chilling. But throughout this book, you depict him with remarkable compassion. And as an adult, I was very drawn to this question. I just wanted to try to lay his story to rest inside of me. More than a decade later, she’s still troubled by his story. When I first saw Ricky, I viewed him purely as evil because he was a child molester and a murderer. And I was shocked to learn that all the people who had come in contact with Ricky’s case had interpreted it through the lens of their own past — that I hadn’t been the only one. In particular, you tell of one police officer who stayed out at the edge of the woods, looking for Jeremy, long after the other searchers had gone home. He loves a good time, he loves a good party, he loves a big family. I think that’s often true with memoir: that we stumble toward things we don’t quite understand, things that have a hold on us. “Don’t forget. And thinking a lot about Ricky and Jeremy. Ten years after the murder, Calvin Pitre remembered that Jeremy had been wearing a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt. I thought, at the time, that the law was a realm where we left our personal experiences behind. Looking at my life helped me try to understand his. I enrolled in an MFA program, thinking I would work on a novel and also write an academic book on the death penalty. I have no way of knowing why he did this, but from statements he made at his confession, I think he felt like he was being watched.