Maggie Nelson Refuses to Make Things Simple

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Photo: Andrew Toth

One Friday night in third grade, I ate pizza with my dad and watched an X-Files episode in which a “death fetishist” takes keepsakes — hair, nails, fingers — from women’s bodies. Scully, who is uncharacteristically shaken by the investigation, becomes his target. He runs her car off the road and confines her in his dead mother’s house, where he draws a bath and asks if her hair is normal or dry. Mulder arrives just in time, and Scully, scraped and bruised, breaks down in his arms. I was much more disturbed by the following episode, in which frogs rain from the sky and the Devil appears as a mousy schoolteacher.

Five years later, when I was 13, a family friend gave me a book about the show’s real-life inspirations. I read it in bed, the night before a class bowling trip. The episode was based on the serial killer Ed Gein, who “had a fetish for human flesh”: He upholstered furniture with female skin, kept vulvae in a box, and fashioned a corset out of a torso. I put the book in the closet, spine outward as if to quarantine its contents, and had my first panic attack. It was a coming-of-age moment, a privileged introduction to human evil and the fact that violent female death is both real and a mainstream fetish. Anyone who has lived as a female has had to adapt to this and its many cognitive tentacles. You’re formed in part by what you know to avoid; the ways you adapt become your normal, and then critique falls short.

Maggie Nelson is a cultural critic, but she is foremost an artist. Her works — four books of poetry and five of nonfiction, the most recent of which, The Argonauts, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism — crystallize experience while providing their own. (You could call what she does “wet theory,” a marriage of reason and passion; she’s taught a course called “Wild Theory” at CalArts.) Nelson is a cult author, in that she has an adoring following. But a cult leader peddles the answers, while Nelson does the opposite: She articulates questions.

In 2005, Nelson published Jane: A Murder, a poetry book about her mother’s sister, Jane Mixer, a law student who was murdered in 1969. (Nelson was born four years later.) The killer was presumed to be John Norman Collins, who’d been convicted of one of a series of murders in that area of Michigan, but at the time the case was unsolved. While Nelson was still copyediting the manuscript, her mother received a call from a detective who said he’d been working for years on the case: A DNA match had been made, and a suspect — Gary Leiterman, a retired nurse — would soon be arrested. The Red Parts, from 2007 but republished this month in paperback, is an “autobiography” of the trial. Along with 2011’s The Art of Cruelty, these books form an accidental trilogy, a gradient from art to exposition, a discourse structured by the rhythm of her thinking. It asks, without pretending to answer, how one can represent violence and its consequences without doing harm.

“It is foolhardy to take any artist at face value when he or she purports to use violence in only a moral way,” Nelson writes. “To be frank, I don’t believe such a thing is possible—not because of any failure on the part of the artist, but because of the unmanageable natures of violence, sadism, and voyeurism themselves.” Female creators (in Art of Cruelty she discusses Ana Mendieta, Kara Walker, Sylvia Plath, Mary Gaitskill, and Jenny Holzer, among others) are people, and understanding victimhood tends to complicate rather than simplify such moral tangles. The more you understand, the more conflicted you are by your own responses. These churnings of conscience produce a substance, an emotional compound of fear, anger, desire, aspiration — because the most “beautiful” women are the most fetishized victims — shame, disgust, and excitement. Nonfiction tends to dilute this substance to pathology or polemic, which makes sense: If the real world is your backdrop, you can’t ignore real people. But Nelson’s works create their own contexts, each project evolving around its set of concerns. The substance is better suited to art, even if art risks becoming its agent.

In Jane and The Red Parts, Nelson catalogs the scripts to which female victims are assimilated — thrillers and torture porn, but also the true-crime books, “‘serial-killer chic’ Web sites,” and newspaper articles that diminish the person while savoring her pain, pairing a “‘she had so much to live for’ sentimentality with quasi-pornographic descriptions of the violence each girl had suffered.” During her years-long research for Jane, she developed “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.” Jane reproduces this sickness. Reading it is appropriately difficult; the horror isn’t carnal, but existential. The book doesn’t pretend to know its subject, either. It presents an understanding of Jane, along with an understanding of her unknowability.

The Red Parts, by contrast, is a good read — a fraught quality applied to a relative’s murder trial, but this fraughtness is as much the book’s subject. Throughout the trial, Nelson observes all manner of dubious interest: The producer for 48 Hours Mystery, who, soliciting interviews for an episode called “Deadly Ride,” insists that her and her mother’s story could “really help other people in similar situations”; the men in law enforcement who invent intimacies with girls’ ghosts; the true-crime writer who sits near the family with his notepad; the “dowdy journalist” who eavesdrops on Maggie and her mother from a bathroom stall. “I sat in the courtroom every day with a legal pad and pen, jotting down all the gory details, no different or better than anyone else,” she writes. “Details which I’m assembling here—a live stream—for reasons that are not yet clear or justifiable to me, and may never be.”

The result is Nelson’s experience of a trial, an account of the state she was in while she witnessed it: “a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence, to grief, thankfully untethered from the garish rubric of ‘current events,’ ‘true crime,’ or even ‘memoir.’” In The Art of Cruelty, she uses similar language to describe Francis Bacon, whose 2009 Met retrospective had left her cold. It wasn’t the work, but the room set up for Bacon’s visual sources, images from film and sport combined with “dead, disfigured, or mutilated people from any number of twentieth-century conflicts.” His paintings gain intensity, she reflects, from their apartness, their out-of-time-ness, the completeness of the worlds from which they issue — “the solitary, pressurized environments created by Bacon’s rings of action.”

Comedians use a species of this rationale, the “sacred-space-of-the-club” argument, to justify offensive jokes. But offensive jokes, I’d argue, fall into one of two categories — those you laugh at, and those you don’t — and it’s hard to account for one’s reaction. Often it comes down to who is speaking, whether you trust them, and whether you need the release they offer. Nelson, though she complicates her own interest, remains a paragon to most of her readers: She arrives at good moral positions through good sense, and she carries us through our own conflicts.

Works that depict or enact cruelty can be unnerving and hard to bear. They can also be validating, productively challenging — or else they just offer a transgressive thrill, which has value, though it can’t be said to justify harm. At the same time, the potential for harm doesn’t preclude a work’s right to exist. Sometimes a piece’s okay-ness, Nelson writes, boils down to whether it works or not. The movie Irreversible felt, to me at least, like a long, tedious excuse for an inexcusable rape scene. The film exploits suffering for the sole purpose of giving offense — it doesn’t even care about its audience. But even great work, made in good faith, can’t stave off reality shock. In The Red Parts, Nelson remembers a Taxi Driver screening where a mostly male audience yells the most famous lines in unison. This is fine, until Scorsese makes his cameo as a jilted husband who monologues about murdering his wife: “Sitting alone in a sea of young men hollering, Did you ever see what a .44 can do to a woman’s pussy? was not amusing.” On the way home she thinks of Jane, and her mother and sister, and cries.

Nelson’s concerns are moral, but she doesn’t moralize, and I love that; it feels necessary, especially within a cultural niche that tends to sterilize itself at the hint of a bad idea, even within a good body of work. Nelson never claims that works are harmless, but she doesn’t condemn. Instead, she documents her responses, faithfully reproducing her own impressions and convictions, which are often very strong, and often at odds. She diagrams her knots. “True moral complexity is rarely found in simple reversals,” she writes. “More often it is found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance.” Nelson never flattens or contorts her own insights — she is not a polemicist; ambivalence is her element. Her trilogy doesn’t resolve the problems it raises, but it gives the reader permission to feel conflicted. Conflicted, I think, is the right way to feel.