Sunday, January 02, 2011

Fatal Vision (1983)

I first encountered this in the '80s, when it was wildly popular after a television production based on it aired and it quickly came to be regarded as something of a true-crime classic, compared favorably to such standards as In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song. If Amazon customer reviews are any gauge, it's still considered credible and significant, though it's hardly up to the levels of Truman Capote's or Norman Mailer's work. In fact, there are persuasive circumstances casting doubt on the overall integrity of McGinniss now, which we will get to, but even plowing through this again recently I still found it hugely convincing and frequently had to stop and examine more closely, in the context of what's been learned since its publication, exactly what Joe McGinniss appears to be up to in this book. It certainly meets the essential criteria for a solid true-crime book in that the case at its heart is fascinating, heart-wrenching, and lurid. Green Beret medical officer, serial philanderer, and chronic self-aggrandizing exaggerator Jeffrey MacDonald claims that, in the early morning hours of a Monday in February 1970, a group of intruders broke into his home, chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs" as they systematically and brutally slaughtered his pregnant wife and their two daughters, ages 5 and 2, while leaving him with relatively minor injuries. An Army investigation cleared MacDonald of any involvement in the crime, but many years later, in 1979, he was brought to trial and convicted for the murders; he remains in prison still. McGinniss was actually brought in to the case by MacDonald and his defense team in the hope that they could use his account of the crime and trial as ammunition in the public relations battle of the court of public opinion—McGinniss was even formally deputed as a member of the legal team in order to shield anything MacDonald might tell him under client-attorney privilege. At some point during the trial, however, McGinniss decided that MacDonald was actually guilty of the crimes (beyond a reasonable doubt, as he angrily attests still when pressed to it for public statements), although he was fatally slow to let MacDonald know anything of his change of heart, presumably in order to protect his book contract and continue to enjoy the access to MacDonald and his papers that no other journalist could have hoped for at the time (and obviously there were a number of them angling to get in on this story). As I said, the sleight of hand that McGinniss performs in this hefty slab of reportage, nearly 700 pages, is impressive, often using MacDonald's own words against him. Its most notable stunt is probably conjuring almost entirely out of whole cloth a motivation of amphetamine psychosis spurred by MacDonald reading an "Esquire" article about Charles Manson and a Mickey Spillane novel. For those with deeper sources on the evidence or a more nuanced approach—Jerry Allen Potter's and Fred Bost's Fatal Justice provides the former, Janet Malcolm's pithy The Journalist and the Murderer provides the latter—it also becomes apparent just how much McGinniss chose to shade and leave out of his account. With deft and subtle choices, McGinniss created an extremely convincing case for Jeffrey MacDonald as a kind of unprecedented, one-of-a-kind monster—a real thriller-chiller and a dilly of a story for anyone (such as myself) with a fascination for the perversions and depredations of true crime.

In case it's not at the library.

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