Trial & Error: Reading Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts


i.When I lost my grandfather I was little and I don’t remember much, except how much bigger the world seemed to me then. I remember my aunt crying by her father’s open casket. I remember wearing shiny black Mary Jane’s. I remember watching my baby cousin in her stroller, pushing her when she cried.

On the cusp of Jane: A Murder, prose informing the reader about Maggie Nelson’s murdered aunt Jane, Nelson receives the news her aunt’s case has been re-opened. Thus begins The Red Parts.


In reading The Red Parts it is difficult not to think of death: the space of it, how people deal with it. Of course, the book doesn’t deal with death, it deals with murder. Nelson’s aunt Jane was murdered during a sling of murders named “The Michigan Murders.”


I watched with a semi-bemused look on my face as Olivia Benson solved yet another murder: bagging the attacker and saving the attacked. Unfortunately, that’s not how Jane’s story went.


I wonder what it is like to be in Nelson’s shoes, writing about her murdered aunt Jane, writing a book of prose about a woman’s death she hardly new. I think of all of the biographies of death and murder written second-hand, lacking any first-hand perspective, lacking the specific details of familiarity. But, that’s what is so chilling about Nelson’s writing: she is able to take the journals, the bits and pieces of a woman she didn’t know and tell her story the way it needs to be told. Perhaps this is a form of healing for her.


There’s a photo I took early on in my reading of Nelson’s book. It’s of a paragraph where she writes about a lover she had had who made her a Plexiglas box. On the box she writes, “It is the container that can hold all the brokenness, and make it beautiful. Especially when you hold it up to the light.” Perhaps this is what Nelson does in her book, she takes all of the brokenness left in the wake of Jane’s murder and attempts to make something beautiful out of it. Although, the words she writes are often chilling, upon finishing the memoir I couldn’t help but think: she has done the impossible, she has taken this mess, this bone-chilling grossness, this sadness, this anger, and consolidated into something to exist in the world as a memorial for Jane.

The Red Parts is written with a fierceness and a  powerful eye. It addresses the obsession we as a people have with crimes even if we are so far removed from the world of murder, if Law & Order is the closest thing we have to it, if we have never set (had to set) foot in a courtroom for any other reason than jury duty.


Nelson writes a stunning portrayal of her experience with her aunt’s trial. She is honest and raw in only the way she can be.

I hope one day I can only be as generous with my words and experiences, portray my stories in the way she does in the hopes of finding myself healed or perhaps in the hopes of just having a place to put all of the things that I cannot put anywhere else.


The only time of been in a courtroom was for an unusually short jury duty. I remember the marble -- the endless slabs of marble. I remember feeling like I was being watched, every time I so much as blinked. I cannot imagine what it was like for Nelson and her family sitting day after day in a courthouse watching for hours as the brutal details of their daughter/sister/aunt’s murder were played for all & national television to see. It is any wonder that anyone can survive a trial, to write about one in such detail seems impossible. Nelson is known to do the impossible in her writing -- that is, she can convey a feeling or illustrate a scene using only the most pertinent words.

ix. “This is what I wanted love to be,” she concludes on the Plexiglas box. I believe The Red Parts does indeed convey her sincere love for her aunt, making the most of what sometimes can be a cruel and unexplainable world.

The Red Parts is out on April 5th from Graywolf Press.

A&EHaley Sherif