The following is from Maggie Nelson’s memoir, The Red Parts. Maggie Nelson is a poet, a critic, and the author of several nonfiction books, including The Argonauts, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Bluets, and Jane: A Murder. She teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles, California. The Red Parts is now available in paperback.
We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion. These were the words spoken by a detective from the Michigan State Police, in a phone call to my mother, one afternoon in early November 2004. After hanging up with the detective, my mother called me and repeated the message.
His words stunned me. As she said them I watched the hallway of my apartment tilt slightly downward, as if momentarily flirting with the idea of becoming a funhouse.
His words had stunned her also. She received his call on her cell phone while driving, and immediately had to pull over to the side of the dusty road near her home in northern California to absorb their impact.
The case in question was that of the 1969 murder of her younger sister, Jane Mixer, which had gone officially unsolved for the past thirty-five years. The detective said he had been working on it feverishly for the past five, but hadn’t wanted to call until an arrest was imminent. Which it now was.
This news would have been shocking in and of itself, but its timing made it uncanny.
For the past five years, I had also been working feverishly on my aunt’s case, albeit from a different angle. I had been researching and writing a poetry book about her life and death titled Jane: A Murder, which was just about to be published. I had no idea that Jane’s case had been active; my book was about a cold case abandoned by investigators long ago. It was about how one might live—or, rather, how my family lived, how I lived—under the shadow of the death of a family member who had clearly died horribly and fearfully, but under circumstances that would always remain unknown, unknowable.
When I first meet this detective—Detective-Sergeant Eric Schroeder—at a preliminary hearing for the suspect, Gary Earl Leiterman, on January 14, 2005—he will greet me with a bear hug, saying, I bet you thought you were working on this alone all these years.
Indeed, I had.
I grew up knowing that my mother had a younger sister named Jane who had been murdered, but that was about all I knew. I knew Jane had been twenty-three when she died, and in her first year of law school at the University of Michigan. I knew my mother was twenty-five at the time, and recently married to my father. Neither my sister Emily nor I had yet been born. We were born in northern California, where our parents moved in the wake of Jane’s death—Emily in 1971, me in 1973.
I had the vague sense while growing up that the deaths of other girls were somehow related to Jane’s murder, but I didn’t know how. Then one afternoon, home alone, around thirteen, looking for a book in my mother’s office, I spotted the spine of a book I’d never noticed before. Though nearly out of sight and reach, the garish, tabloid lettering, which read The Michigan Murders, stood out among the highbrow literary classics that my mother read and taught. I got up on a chair to pull the squat paperback down.
This simple act carried its own legacy of trepidation, as the first of the many bones I broke as a child—in this case, a cracked elbow that occasioned reconstructive surgery and weeks spent motionless in traction—was the result of climbing a bookshelf in pursuit of a book. That accident had happened in a bookstore in Sausalito, the harbor town outside of San Francisco where I lived for the first few years of my life. I was only two at the time, but I remember a brightly colored rabbit on the book’s cover, and I remember wanting it desperately.
After this accident I began to have a recurring dream. It was a dream of falling—or jumping—off the carport of our house in Sausalito onto the driveway, and hence to my death. I must have been dreaming this dream very young, threeish. In the dream a crowd of people come to look at my body, which lies at the bottom of the driveway as if at the base of a steep Greek amphitheater. It is difficult to remember the tone of the dream now: I remember horror at my action, a sense of detachment, a deep sadness, and some discomfort in watching my body be scrutinized as a corpse.
The cover of The Michigan Murders depicted a faux-photograph of a Farrah Fawcett–like model, half of her face peeling away to reveal an infrared negative. Its coloring and graphics, along with the furtiveness I felt in examining it, immediately brought to mind a certain issue of Playboy I had spent a great deal of time studying as a child in my father’s bathroom—the Valentine’s Day issue from 1980, featuring Suzanne Somers. I remember that my father had liked Suzanne Somers very much.
I opened to the first page of The Michigan Murders and read: In a two-year period, seven young women were murdered in Washtenaw County, some in so brutal a fashion as to make the Boston Strangler look like a mercy killer.
I flipped through the book anxiously, hungry to find something, anything, about Jane, about my family. I quickly gathered that all the names had been changed. But I suspected I was getting close when I read:
A trooper had brought the 1968 University of Michigan Yearbook [to the crime scene], and the smiling likeness in it of graduating senior Jeanne Lisa Holder of Muskegon, Michigan, did bear a resemblance to the puffed face of the young woman stretched out lifeless in Pleasantview Cemetery.
“Jeanne Lisa Holder” bore a resemblance to “Jane Louise Mixer.” One layer had begun to peel.
Years later, while in the thick of researching and writing Jane, the problem was not too little information. It was too much. Not about Jane—her murder remained maddeningly opaque—but about the other girls, whose horrific rapes and murders were described in excruciating detail in newspapers from the period, several true crime books, and on many “serial killer chic” Web sites. There were charts such as the one that appeared in the Detroit Free Press on July 28, 1969, titled “A Pattern of Death: An Anatomy of 7 Brutal Murders,” which organized the details under the categories “Last Seen,” “Where Found,” “How Killed,” “Other Injuries,” etc. The entries were barely readable.
During this research I began to suffer from an affliction I came to call “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 the violence done unto Jane, unto the other Michigan Murder girls, unto my loved ones, unto myself, and sometimes, most horribly, done by me. These images coursed through my mind at random intervals, but always with the slapping, prehensile force of the return of the repressed.
I persevered, mostly because I had been given an endpoint: the publication date of Jane, on my thirty-second birthday, in March 2005. As soon as I held the book in my hand, I would be released. I would move on to projects that had nothing to do with murder. I would never look back.
The reopening of Jane’s case did away with these hopes entirely.
In the fall of 2004 I moved from New York City, where I had lived for many years, to teach for a year at a college in a small town in Connecticut. The town was aptly named Middletown: in the middle of the state, in the middle of nowhere. My apartment there was beautiful—the bottom floor of a rickety 19th-century house, forty times as large as any apartment I could have afforded in New York. I set up my desk in a lovely room that my landlady introduced to me as “The Ponderosa Room”—a mahogany-paneled sunroom with three walls of windows.
In early October, about a month before Schroeder’s call, I sent galleys of Jane to my mother for her sixtieth birthday. I was nervous; I knew the book would immerse her in the details of a story she’d been trying to put behind her for thirty-five years. More than nervous—I was terrified. As I addressed the package to her in California, it occurred to me that the book might not constitute a gift at all. If she hated it, it could be construed as a birthday-ruining disaster, a bomb, a betrayal.
I was hugely relieved when she called me after finishing the manuscript. She was in tears, saying she would be eternally grateful both to it and to me. She said it was a miracle: even though I never knew Jane, somehow I had managed to bring her back to life.
This felt like a miracle to me too. 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.
From THE RED PARTS. Used with permission of Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2007 by Maggie Nelson.