Maggie Nelson examines the effects of her aunt's murder in...

Maggie Nelson examines the effects of her aunt's murder in "The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial." Credit: Harry Dodge

Two outstanding new memoirs deal with violent crimes against women.

In July 1984, Joanna Connors was on assignment for the Cleveland Plain Dealer to interview a playwright on the Case Western Reserve University campus. When she arrived a little late, she found the theater empty — except for a guy who told her everyone would be back in a minute, did she want to see the lighting?

After raping her at knife point on the stage, David Williams told her, “Now, don’t you go to the cops. If you go to the cops I’ll have to go to prison. . . . And when I get out I will find you.”

Then he kissed her on the lips and walked away.

“I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pp., $25) is an intimate memoir of this experience and the decades following. Connors did go to the police, and Williams went to prison. Though he never got out, he found her anyway, as the rape permanently twisted Connors’ behavior and thinking. For decades, though, she never mentioned it, never told anyone who didn’t already know. Finally, after visiting colleges with her daughter, she felt compelled to tell her children the story.

After that, she writes, “it came to me that if I made a list of the most influential people in my life, [Williams] would be near the top, with my parents and husband and children.” She resolved to understand how the two of them came to their fateful intersection, and how each was changed.

“I wanted to write about my rape in detail — detail no newspaper would print — to show that rape is not what people imagine it is from watching movies.” Like Alice Sebold in her memoir, “Lucky,” Connors depicts her experience with hair-raising immediacy, from the second it begins through the moment 20 years later when she returns to the campus theater.

Her attempt to learn about Williams is initially stymied because he had died in prison years before. So besides poring over court and prison records, she tracks down and interviews members of his family.

As Williams was African-American, Connors carefully considers how race plays in her story. One of the most affecting moments of this book comes when she finally figures out the answer to the question her lawyer asked in 1984:

“Why the hell did you go into that theater?”

The answer: “I could not allow myself to be the white woman who fears black men.”

In “The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial” (Graywolf, 201 pp., $16 paper), Maggie Nelson untangles the effects of a relative’s murder that occurred before she was born. Nelson is the author of “The Argonauts,” winner of the National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism. Though this book is less intellectual than that one, Nelson’s voice is as magnetic as ever as she again takes us behind the scenes of her interesting life.

Nelson’s mother’s sister Jane was shot and killed at the age of 23 near the University of Michigan, where she was in law school. The crime, unsolved for 35 years, cast a long shadow over the life of the author and her family. Nelson spent years researching it in order to write a narrative in verse called “Jane: A Murder.”

That book was headed to print in 2004 when she learned that the case was being reopened. DNA evidence had fingered the killer — a 62-year-old career registered nurse, a married man with two grown children.

Nelson and her mother met in Michigan to attend the trial. “Where I imagined I might find ‘the face of evil,’ ” she writes, “I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.”

The narrative of the investigation and the court proceedings, fascinating on a true-crime level, are interwoven with discussions of writing, teaching, bad romances, and childhood memories. Another death that figures prominently is that of Nelson’s adored father, who died when she was 9, which she has never quite gotten over.

“Conventional wisdom has it that we dredge up family stories to find out more about ourselves,” Nelson writes, “to pursue that all-important goal of ‘self-knowledge,’ to catapult ourselves, like Oedipus, down the track that leads to the revelation of some original crime, some original truth. Then we gouge our eyes out in shame, run screaming into the wilderness, and plagues cease to rain down on our people.

“Fewer people talk about what happens when this track begins to dissolve, when the path starts to become indistinguishable from the forest.”

With Nelson as guide, getting lost in the forest makes for an excellent reading experience.

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