My Jane: an extract from Maggie Nelson’s ‘The Red Parts’

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Our Author of the Month in June is Maggie Nelson, one of the most perpetually astonishing writers at work in America today. In this extract from ‘The Red Parts’, her singular account of her aunt Jane’s death and the murder trial that took place some 35 years afterward, she reflects on her literary relationship with Jane as she worked on the volume of poetry that preceded ‘The Red Parts’.

I never thought “my Jane” might approximate the “real Jane”; I never even had designs on such a thing. But whoever “my Jane” was, she had certainly been alive with me, for me, for some time. The book’s cover had been designed and pinned to my wall for months, and a defiant, androgynous, starkly lit, close-up photo of Jane’s face at thirteen, taken by my grandfather, stared me down daily. The book also contained many diary entries I had culled from Jane’s own writings, so copyediting the manuscript—which is what I had been doing when my mother called that November afternoon—involved paying as close attention to Jane’s voice as I paid to my own. To make sure I had her right, I had unearthed Jane’s original journals, and it was not unusual that fall to find me sitting on the dark wood floor of the Ponderosa Room in a sea of pages filled with her elegant handwriting. In returning to them I was newly struck by their tormented insecurity (often manifesting itself in torrents of rhetorical, self-reprimanding questions), which contrasts starkly—sadly, even—with her obviously deep powers of articulation and feeling. This contrast runs through all her writings, from her childhood to her college years. More than runs through them—it is their very engine. It was, in fact, what made me want to write about her in the first place, as much as, or more than, the weird and awful circumstances of her death.

Never be afraid to contradict yourself. But what is there to contradict? Could I after all be very stupid—and very wrong? You’re a good kid, Jane. Good for what? Who am I to judge? What was 1965? What’s been learned? What’s been gained? Lost? Loved? Hated? What do you really think? How do you explain yourself? Why don’t I ever know what I’m going to be tomorrow? What right have we to happiness?

I recognized myself here, although I did not want to. I would have rather chalked Jane’s self-doubting agonies up to the conundrum of growing up an effusive, probing, ambitious girl in the sedate, patriarchal ’50s—a conundrum that several decades of feminism were supposed to have dissolved and washed away by the time I came across her words. And now a detective had called to say that there had been a DNA match in her case, and they were sure they’d found the right guy—a retired nurse who had nothing to do with John Norman Collins, the man who was convicted in 1970 of the final Michigan Murder, and whom most had always assumed responsible for all. Schroeder told us that this new suspect was now under surveillance, and would be arrested within a few weeks. They had every reason to believe that the case would then move swiftly toward a successful conclusion. Leiterman was in fact taken into custody on the charge of open murder on the day before Thanksgiving, 2004, and then held, without bail, until his trial, which began on July 11, 2005, and ended on July 22, 2005. But over these eight months, the dread that had accompanied my initial forays into Jane’s story did not dissipate.

It shape-shifted. It grew.

The Red Parts’ is published by Vintage, priced £8.99. Explore more of Maggie Nelson’s work through our booklist, or visit us in Bury Place to browse our display.

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