E.R. O'Rourke

The Red Parts


The first thing I do after I put down The Red Parts is Google “Maggie Nelson celebrity boyfriend.” I will Google “Maggie Nelson mother” next. Not much comes up on the boyfriend search. I try “ex-boyfriend.” I have a vague memory of reading about Nelson’s ex and her Googling this person too. In her other memoir, The Argonauts, there’s a scene of Nelson (or her friend) Googling him to discover he is cheating, or something like that. I’m too lazy to go to my bookshelf in the other room to check. I’m fairly certain she does not name him there either. I am jealous that Nelson dated someone famous. An article comes up from the boyfriend search about Maggie Nelson and privacy. I grunt. I think, Maggie is attractive but she’s not that beautiful. What do I know? I’m probably in denial because I don’t want to face that she’s more beautiful than me.

Whenever I read Maggie Nelson I think to myself how can it be. How can it be that this beautiful woman lives in Los Angeles in a bungalow somewhere with her kid and partner who fucks her on the floor up the ass with a strap-on? How can it be she exists? She lives in the same state as me! California. She teaches courses at an art school not unlike the courses I teach at Berkeley to students the same age. How can it be that she has written all these amazing books. Five? Six? Seven? I love her books. I tell myself, Maggie Nelson found a formula. I think, if I could just figure out her formula. Write about her writing. Read what she read.

Jane: A Murder came out when Nelson was 32. I reason that it must be her second or third book. Jane definitely came out after Nelson finished her dissertation on the women of the New York School. She probably had a PhD, an MFA, and a long-standing relationship with a press by the time she wrote Jane. Probably had a research grant for the entire year of 31 to write it. This stresses me out. The Argonauts stresses me out similarly with all the sex and the love and the perfect birth. All I can think is how much more did Maggie Nelson know at 32 than I did? How much more did she achieve? How much more had she experienced? Sex did she have? Drugs did she do? New York City apartments did she rent? Even these are ugly emotions Maggie Nelson would not approve of, let alone write about.

This number, 32, means one thing: I am 30 and have written no books, poetry or otherwise. And I definitely have not written a book about my friend Eve’s murder. Eve was murdered in 2008. I left North Carolina by the time they got around to the trial. I didn’t even think that much about the trial until my friend went to testify and told me that she did. I was working as a paralegal at the time in Washington, D.C. I’d occasionally check the case docket for new development, filings, pleas, motions, hearings, etc. I Googled when it got underway but the trial didn’t register as a real event for me. It felt more like a waiting game. Everyone was playing their part and doing their job so the chapter could close. One of the guys pled guilty but the other did not. The guy who pled guilty apologized and accepted his sentence publically. The other guy is the one who stood trial.

The Red Parts is subtitled “Autobiography of a Trial.” It is “about” the murder trial of her Aunt Jane who died before Maggie was born. Jane was strangled, shot, and left in a ditch to die during her first year of law school at the University of Michigan. She had posted on a community board that she was looking to hitch a ride home. She was actually on her way home to tell her parents she was getting married to a Leftist Jew and moving to New York. I am in love with this image Jane, maybe more than I am in love-hate with the image I have of Maggie’s life. I both want to be her (already in law school, starting a career to be a civil rights activist lawyer, to fight for justice) and to have that life (marry a Leftist Jew who is also an activist, perhaps a lawyer, and move together to New York City to change the world). The life I did not live, the life I am not living; the life Jane lived and did not live.

The story of Jane’s murder is told in The Red Parts but not really. The murder happened so long ago its violence is buried with Jane and remains a neural pattern of trauma for everyone else. No one wants to dredge it up, except maybe Nelson who is making a book, two books, of it. In the book, Maggie talks a lot about her family: her mom, her sister, Emily, and her, growing up together. There are signs of the murder in the memories. Her mom barricades doors in the house. The two of them are PTSD in movie theaters, especially when women actresses are shot onscreen. I know these feelings of intense, irrational fear, but they come in different forms to me.

Sometimes I get scared not of violence from the outside but violence from inside my body. I am afraid perhaps most of the things inside of me that will kill me, without my ever knowing they were coming for me, save in the few minutes of excruciating pain I will be made to suffer before my imminent death. I worry about exercising too much. I know this is counterintuitive to all the standard advice. What if my heart is not strong? What if it is actually too stressed? What if exercising makes its rare autoimmune disease worse? What if every time I get on the treadmill and ask my heart to work harder I am taking days, worse months, off my life? I look fearfully, woefully at my swollen right ankle. It flares up on hot days, when I drink too much beer, when I fly. Why have I not seen a doctor about it? Why did the nurse find nothing on my stress test? Did she know what she was doing? Did she let me off easy? Did I not push myself hard enough to get the machine to register the issue? I know why my fears take this form, but knowing why doesn’t matter much, doesn’t make it go away or stop.

“Nelson doesn’t use complex sentences,” I say to my partner Steve while taking a break from The Red Parts to eat chicken salad on pita bread. It’s not writing made for thinking. She uses her life in her writing. It is a writing about telling and showing. This, in fact, is part of the ethos of The Red Parts—the title is a reference to a murder Nelson witnessed one morning from her bedroom window in Brooklyn. Nelson saw a man get beaten to death with a baseball bat, and then watched as the day on the city street went on as effortlessly as any other. His body disappeared, someone washed away the pool of red blood, and people passed over the stain and scene as if nothing ever happened. Maybe, Nelson says to her mother about that time she fell in the kitchen, busted her lip, and told no one, if it happened it’s worth telling. I envy that Nelson is a poet. I envy that she spent her time with Notley and Mayer and other women poems, and not with male prose stylists and critical theorists as I did/do for my dissertation and research. Still, Nelson is a reader of Nietzsche and Winnicott, she quotes both frequently in her books, the former in The Red Parts on cruelty in the desire to know, the latter on fear and fear of the event of death or fear of a traumatic event. I flip to the back of The Red Parts and see in the short bibliography she does not list Winnicott at all, only Adam Phillips’s Winnicott. I feel a small triumph mount and announce this finding out loud.

I bought The Red Parts the same day I bought Hilton Als’s White Girls. I have barely even cracked the cover of the Als because I’ve been in bed with Nelson. Last month I saw part of Als when I saw the Alice Neel exhibit he curated in Chelsea with my mom. I hadn’t eaten all morning before we went so I stopped in to the Starbucks and my mom bought me a cashew yogurt and a water. The paintings were selected and hung with attention to body positioning. All the lone figures hung in sets of three and two seemed to turn toward each other. If there was just one figure on the wall, it was one that could hold its own. When I go home, I open a word document and write, On Alice Neel’s belief in the power of portraiture and On portraiture and commitment. I take note that Alice Neel sent a handwritten letter to Fidel Castro offering to paint his portrait.

My mom seemed to genuinely like the exhibit. She had been looking forward to the show ever since I mentioned it months before, sending me links to reviews about it in anticipation. She took a picture of a poem Neel wrote that they had in a glass display case in the hallway connecting the Spanish Harlem paintings to the Upper West Side paintings and sent it to Steve. Did you see these, Em? This is really cool. Here is Alice in her studio and they even have some of her poems. I took a picture and sent them to Steve because I figured he’d like the poems. My mom can be surprisingly thoughtful. I had to fight back the urge to question her motives at that moment. I hate that. My mom and I have had our struggles and still do, but she was there the whole time I was freaking out after Eve died when a lot of other people weren’t or didn’t know how to be. She made a psychiatric appointment for me and took all my medical fears soberly. She once brought me a brown paper bag to breathe into when I was having a panic attack during Jeopardy.

The Red Parts so far has been about a lot of things besides Jane’s murder and the trial. Nelson’s sister, Emily, and her adolescent rebellion. Emily’s abortion. Nelson’s grandfather and his red Christmas sweater. The trial, reopened 35 years later. Her aunt’s murder. Nelson’s mom’s second marriage. Their house in Mill Valley. The bay, its fog and hills. Her dad’s death. Board games. Reading. Writing. Being good. Being bad. Running away, parenting, voyeurism, American crime, prime-time TV, murder, the murder of young beautiful women with so much life left, sensationalism, DNA evidence and the strange and disappointing findings of DNA that lead at once toward certainty (171 billion to 1) and then take us three steps back when you remember the lab, the room for error, the botched samplings, the contaminations, subverting the scientific method and its promise (171 billion to 1), instead just reminding us of the enormity of human hubris, the foolhardiness of it all.

While writing it, Nelson was teaching at a college in Connecticut in Middletown. I am from Connecticut, not far from Middletown but not that close. I imagine Nelson living a professor life at 32 and I get angry because I know that at the same time as she is a teacher she is also living a life as a writer, a daughter, a niece, a sister, a researcher, a lover. I am jealous she has made these lives for herself outside the university. This institution that weights on me, that traps me and holds me downs. The scene of her in “The Ponderosa Room” of her house in Middletown (named by the landlady) pacing around with a whiskey makes me cringe. It recalls and anticipates the final scenes in Girls when Hannah (Lena Dunham) gets a job at a college that she could never have gotten in real life, moves upstate and into a gorgeous old farm house to raise her baby and teach “Internet Studies.” My real best friend, the one who responded to Eve’s death with a flat, “Sometimes people die, Em,” thinks its appropriate to say that to me that I’m similar to Lena Dunham. She thinks my intellect is like Lena Dunham-level. I’m nothing like Lena Dunham. I have a politics. I can actually write and teach. I have passed qualifying exams at Berkeley and studied with the greatest living philosopher. But then, all the things come crashing down and the doubt settles in. Why is it so bad to be compared to this extremely successful and talented woman who produces a series on HBO? Am I misogynist? Do I hate white women? I don’t like Girls, though I watched it all. This line of thought exhausts me and I hate myself. There is no value anymore today untouched by corruption.

I am worried now that I am writing like Maggie Nelson right now. That The Red Parts is inside me and causing this to happen. This is both good and bad. I like writing like this but I want to be my own thing. I also don’t want to stop. Does this mean that I always have to be reading Maggie Nelson to go on like this? What I like about Nelson is how honest she is. Nelson puts things down on the page that she otherwise probably wouldn’t be able to say out loud. She writes down her deepest fears, even if they sound irrational, all the more so. She writes down dark, uncertain sexual experiences. Bad decisions. She catalogues her thoughts and where they go on murder and shame at writing about murder. She recognizes this shame in the woman who found Jane’s body when she testifies at the trial. The woman who lied in the first trial and to the police about how close she actually got to inspect the body. The pages in The Red Parts exist to give these thoughts and confessions space to exist in a way they likely could not come into being otherwise in conversation with a lover—who would try to shut them down or fix them away—and give them permanence in a way they otherwise don’t have in a therapist’s office—they disappear into some vault. The page listens. It holds. Who knows if your therapist will even remember what you said? If she ever even writes it down?

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