The courtroom is a place where events recur. In the court, we are presented with recollections, archives, and evidence. In 1995, Americans watched the O.J. Simpson trial; ten years later the miniseries American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson appears in our living rooms. Crimes that were witnessed by many people are particularly suited to this type of recurrence. And the logic of the courtroom privileges the general over the specific, making “points” and “examples” that are cobbled together from crumbs.
Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial challenges this phenomenon. The memoir follows Nelson and her mother as they sit in on the 2005 trial of the man accused of murdering Nelson’s aunt in 1965 –the eponymous Aunt Jane from Nelson’s first book of poetry, Jane. In this re-telling, Nelson asks us what happens when old wounds get abruptly reopened. When, during the release of Jane, new DNA evidence in Jane’s murder case is discovered and a suspect is brought to trial, the little that the Nelson family knew—or thought they knew—about Jane’s death dissolves. In writing an addendum to a re-telling of a conjecture, Nelson fabricates The Red Parts with one binding caveat: nothing is certain.
Nelson dubs her mental state during this time as her “murder mind:”
I could work all day on my project with a certain distance, blithely looking up ‘bullet’ or ‘skull’ in my rhyming dictionary. But in bed at night I found a smattering of sickening images of violent acts ready and waiting for me. Reprisals of violent acts done unto Jane, unto other Michigan Murder girls, unto my loved ones, unto myself, and sometimes most horribly, done by me.
Along with the courtroom drama, Nelson documents parallel stories of grief: the death of her father, her relationship to her troubled sister, the emergence of a deeply troubling, alternative suspect, and a junkie lover.
In the courtroom, the Nelson family is subjected to images of Jane brutal murder in what Nelson calls a “live stream.” When Nelson appears on a 48 Hour Mystery episode about grief—in response to the producer’s innocuous quip that her “family’s involvement could really help other people in similar situations”— Nelson asks “if there’s a reason why stories about the bizarre, violent deaths of young, good-looking, middle-to upper class white girls help people to mourn better than other stories.” The media filters the pain of violence by presenting images removed from the here-and-now. In this way, we all are a bit numbed by what Nelson calls the “murder mind.”
In her typical clipped prose, Nelson constrains the emotions that swirl in this turbulent story, forcing her words to adhere to sentences as though she could enact a cathartic form of law. For Nelson, we live in a lawless world without logic or clear definitions: the word “solve” comes from the Latin for “loosening.” In other words, to seek solution is to dis-solve, to allow truths to break down and wash away. Nelson unravels.
The title comes from a former professor’s cryptic suggestion to search for “the red parts” in a confusing piece of text. The professor does not give Nelson an explanation, and Nelson does not attempt to spell it out for readers. Perhaps the red parts are the texts that we as readers are tasked with giving body to, the shapeless stories that we must flesh into forms. The Red Parts does not attempt to conclude a hazy family who-done-it, nor does it seek out reparations. Rather, it is a memorial that gives testimony the fallibility of Truth.
Family histories are often relegated to the realm of myth. Time puts pain at a distance, allowing wounds to crust over. But what happens when the wound is re-opened long after we have sucked the initial trauma dry? On one hand, forgetting gives us agency to write our own narratives. On the other, it allows for the telling of untruths. In The Red Parts, Justice is an echoing shot in the dark.
Meg Whiteford is a writer from New York now living in Los Angeles. She is currently a visiting writer and educator for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a Los Angeles critic for ArtForum, and has contributed to KCET Departures, ArtFCity, and The LA Art Book Review. Her book, The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies, was published by Plays Inverse in November 2015. Her writing for performance has appeared at REDCAT Theater, Pieter Performance Space, Coaxial, Last Projects, and 356 Mission in Los Angeles; Pocket Utopia in New York City; Living Copenhagen in Copenhagen, Denmark; and The Institute for Sociometry in San Francisco. She is also an active member of several Los Angeles feminist communities, maintaining ongoing collaborations with The Women’s Center for Creative Work and Barbara Grossman’s Breakfast Club. She is working on a book about female contortionists.