An accomplished literary debut weaves memoir and true-crime investigation.
Essayist and lawyer Marzano-Lesnevich (Writing/Harvard Kennedy School of Government) fashions an absorbing narrative about secrets, pain, revenge, and, ultimately, the slippery notion of truth. In 2003, working as a summer intern at a Louisiana law firm that defends clients sentenced to death, the author discovered the case of a child’s murder by a confessed pedophile. Passionately opposed to capital punishment, she realized that she wanted this client to die. That response—unsettling and unexpected—incited an interest in the case that became nothing less than an obsession. For 10 years, she read 30,000 pages of documents, including court transcripts, newspaper coverage, and a play based on interviews with the victim’s mother; watched the killer’s taped confessions from three trials; and traveled multiple times to Louisiana. That fixation inflames another investigation, as well, into her own troubling past. “I am pulled to this story by absences,” she writes. “Strange blacknesses, strange forgettings, that overtake me at times. They reveal what is still unresolved inside me.” With care and pacing that is sometimes too deliberate, the author reveals the blacknesses in her own family: her father, a successful lawyer, succumbed to rage and depressions; her mother, also a lawyer, was stubbornly silent about her past; the author learns that she was not a twin but really a triplet, with a sister who died within months, never mentioned by the family; and, most horrifically, her grandfather sexually abused her and her younger sister for years. When Marzano-Lesnevich finally revealed the abuse to her parents, they buried it, refusing to acknowledge her pain even when she became severely depressed and anorexic. Her family members, she realizes now, were “prisoners” of their own triumphant narrative: children of immigrants, they were living the American dream, “determinedly fine.” The author admits that she has “layered my imagination” onto her sources to make her characters vivid, inevitably raising questions about the line between nonfiction and fiction and about how such embellishment can manipulate the reader’s perceptions and sympathies.
A powerful evocation of the raw pain of emotional scars.