Feministing Reads: Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

Here are the basic facts: in 1969, a twenty-three year-old first-year law student was killed on her way home to notify her estranged parents of her engagement. She was the younger of two daughters, the middle child. Her murder would go unsolved for thirty-five years. Her name was Jane.

How do we talk about violence against women? And how do we talk about the memory of violence? I was worried about reading a narrative of murder because if you want to hear tales of violence, you don’t have to look very hard to find them. I worried about purposefully inundating myself with more. But Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—reissued by Graywolf Press nine years after its original publication—isn’t an inundation, as much as a parsing through. And while The Red Parts is undoubtedly about a murder—without the death of Nelson’s aunt in 1969, there would be no material—it also isn’t. It’s about family and the various access points that we, and others, have into our stories. It’s about grief and the disappearances, chosen and not, that knock the wind out of us.

The Red Parts picks up where Jane: A Murder, Nelson’s earlier book on her aunt’s death, left off. At the start of The Red Parts, Nelson and her family learn that a detective had been quietly working on her aunt’s case for the past five years. The police had been trailing a new suspect. He would be arrested soon. A trial would commence.

Nelson had also been working on the case for the last five years, albeit from a different angle. She had been writing Jane: A Murder, piecing together information about her aunt’s death, learning about her aunt through old diaries and new conversations. In The Red Parts, Nelson notes how Jane was about living “under the shadow of the death of a family member who had clearly died horribly and fearfully, but under circumstances that would always remain unknown, unknowable.” Throughout the course of this unexpected new trial, the circumstances did not become completely known, but they did become less unknown.

9781555977368In The Red Parts, Nelson meditates on the question of to whom stories belong. She never met Jane, yet she has spent long periods of time with Jane in her consciousness. They are related by blood, and yet, in some ways, Nelson is no more connected to her aunt than the officer who reopened Jane’s murder case. Visiting Jane’s grave alone, Nelson feels that without her mother as her connector, there is no “explanatory shelter of a ‘family story.’” The story of the death of Nelson’s father seems to be more fully her own than the story of her aunt’s, but she weaves these two stories, along with others, together masterfully in order to create a fuller picture and clarify the connections that exist.

There are multiple ways to proceed through a story, but proceeding does not always mean forward motion. As Nelson realizes, there are some things that are never processed, that you do not get over or move through. There are some things you carry with you.

Nelson takes us through the trial. But within this, she also weaves in her sister’s abortion and stint in juvenile hall, the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, the death of her father, her unraveling relationships, and her heartbreak. Nelson shows us many ways to be heartbroken by disappearances, from the breakdown of her mother’s body upon seeing photos of her dead sister during the trial to Nelson’s own feeling of falling out of a story after ending a relationship with a man she loved to her father learning how to cry in the last year of his life after her mother left him. Not all of these disappearances were chosen or explained and they leave a lasting mark.

A question of justice arises. After all, someone was murdered. This is a trial. The state is attempting to put someone in prison to pay for a crime. Nelson writes about the language of justice—how “it always swoops down on high—from God, from the state—like a bolt of lightning;” how “it is not, apparently, something we can give to one another, something we can make happen.” There is a difference between the justice that the state seeks and true justice. A man in prison can’t stop Nelson’s mother’s feeling that she must barricade doors and windows to keep intruders from entering when her husband is away. Incarceration won’t disrupt Nelson’s own childhood ritual of carrying a butcher knife as she checked beds, closets, and bathtubs for dead bodies or intruders after their house was burglarized. Nothing can take away the inheritances, the small violences that stemmed from larger brutalities. Nelson and her mother do not expect justice from the trial. But in considering what justice isn’t, Nelson implicitly asks us to consider what it could be. “I’m sitting here because I wanted—I still want—Jane’s life to ‘matter,’” she writes. “But I don’t want it to matter more than others.”

Relatively early on in the book, Nelson writes about going to the movies with her mother. They would go together on weekends, but frequently ran into a problem—Nelson’s mother “couldn’t tolerate scenes that involved the abduction of women, especially into cars, and she couldn’t watch women be threatened with guns, especially guns pointed at their heads.” These scenes were too traumatic for her, given the fate of her sister. “Try going to the movies with this rule,” Nelson warns, “and you will be surprised at how often such scenes crop up.”

NelsonOne day in San Francisco, they watch a film called Freeway. During the opening, a teen’s car breaks down and a guy pulls over to help her. A conversation takes a violent turn. Unexpectedly—and it is unexpected given how films like these normally go—the teen takes command of the situation and is able to escape. Nelson writes of how she doesn’t remember much about the rest of the movie, just what her mother whispered right before the teen gained control: that they should stay a moment longer, that maybe something unexpected would occur. This isn’t justice, but it is a victory. Perhaps justice isn’t in the switching of roles, but in a complete subversion of those roles. Perhaps it’s in the possibility that something unexpected can happen and that what was once expected is no longer the norm.

It was startlingly easy to recognize myself in Jane. It was also easy to recognize myself in Maggie. I recognized myself in Jane’s self-doubt and self-flagellating questions, in Maggie’s meticulous critical notation of events. I recognize myself in their humanity. We often want to distance ourselves from tragedy. It’s a common human impulse—that couldn’t happen here, what was she wearing, where was she going, why did she accept a ride from a stranger, why was she out late at night? But what is apparent here is that tragedy chooses you and sometimes, the best thing you can do in the end is tell about it.


Abigail Bereola has grown up all over the place. She aims to be a socially conscious creative.

Abigail Bereola has grown up all over the place. She aims to be a socially conscious creative.

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