Header image of a southwest view from the shoreline of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Jane’s hometown, by Darwin Smith Jr. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Book review: Jane: A Murder, by Maggie Nelson
“You know, for a world that demands direction, I certainly have none. Will I be a teacher? Will I go to France?”
An excerpt from law student Jane Mixer’s diary. Her adult life was just beginning when she organized a ride home to Muskegon over spring break via a college ride share board. Her body was found placed in a cemetery near Ann Arbor, covered by her yellow raincoat.
Mixer is poet and author Maggie Nelson’s aunt (they never met) and was murdered in 1969 by what authorities believed was a serial killer preying on coeds at the University of Michigan. But her death was always a little different in form and details than the others. In 2004, crime scene DNA saved for decades was matched to a different man – not John Norman Collins, the one convicted of the clearly connected serial murders and long presumed to be Jane’s killer, despite the different methods and circumstances.
Nelson was awaiting publication of this book when she got the news about a potentially different murderer being responsible. Her coverage of the trial and exploration of this twist in the case led to The Red Parts, a book I’ve already covered and mentioned often because it’s extraordinary.
In fact, as she combs through her Aunt Jane’s old journals from the 1960s, piecing together elements of her life and her relationships with family and loves, she drops in how she first came to the phrase “the red parts” in a haunting dream.
I was interested to read this having loved that other book so much. This one is excellent in its own right, but The Red Parts is better. In just two years Nelson had honed her style and grown as a writer, she had more material to work with and relevant experience to draw on.
But Jane marks the start of her obsession with learning more about her aunt and her family, and it’s a worthy and often beautiful, moving book. She extracts excerpts from Jane’s journals and formats them poetically, giving so much insight into who Jane was and how she was growing and learning about herself until her life ended before it really got going. It’s all the more devastating to know what was lost.
“At his trial the assistant-prosecutor closed his argument by saying Collins made ‘one stupid mistake…he sprayed black paint on that basement floor to cover up what he thought was blood.’ Or, another way to put it: the imaginary is what tends to become real, and when it does there’s no paint black enough to cover it up.”
I like when she writes like this, looking with a poet’s eye at criminal justice proceedings and the grit of crime stories, layering intimate, personal elements over the public’s insatiable appetite for gory details. Her writing is like nothing I’ve ever read before.
This book is much more poetic than its successor; it’s a true book of poetry, if a sort of concept one. But the formatting steps Nelson’s taken in telling the story and sharing Jane’s writings didn’t bother me, I just preferred the later work as a whole. Without the confines of poetic structure, I think her writing style and musings and all the other elements, like of psychology and memoir, that she weaves into her narrative just shine.
Jane is an interesting blend of poetry, memoir, true crime, and journal extracts, making it feel unusual from anything else falling into any of these categories. And it’s a haunting, thoughtful and strangely lovely beginning to the author’s pursuit and artistic documentation of the truth about her aunt’s life and death.
Jane: A Murder
by Maggie Nelson
published February 1, 2005 by Soft Skull Press
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