Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Book Review - Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

A friend told me "Green Beret" murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted in 1979 of killing his pregnant wife, Colette and their two young daughters, Kimberley, five, and Kristen, two at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina on February 17, 1970 now has a motion for a new trial being considered before the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, Virginia.

This is not the place for an in-depth discussion of Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt or lack of guilt or even his chances of getting a new trial. However, the discussion did lead me to reread Fatal Vision by Joe McGinness. Now, I’m not a "true crime" aficionada at all. Generally, I have no interest in "true crime." But Fatal Vision was and still is a special book. It reads more like a spellbinding novel than a non-fiction book about one of America’s most notorious family slayers and the man whose murder conviction has become the most litigated conviction in American history. Once you pick up Fatal Vision and begin reading, it’s very difficult to put the book down. The final sentence resonated with me years after I read it the first time, and I was as enthralled and horrified on rereading as I was the first time through.

Fatal Vision is an incredibly well written book. Joe McGinniss obviously knew his material and his subject extremely well. He did, after all, attend MacDonald's trial and even live in MacDonald's California condo. Better yet, he knew how to present that material and that subject so the reader gets to know them incredibly well, too. An intelligent reader finishes Fatal Vision knowing, beyond even a reasonable doubt, that Jeffrey MacDonald and only Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his pregnant wife, his daughter Kimberley, and his daughter Kristen. If one goes on to learn a little more about the facts in this case since the time Joe McGinniss wrote Fatal Vision, one becomes even more convinced of MacDonald’s guilt. Take just one aspect of MacDonald’s story. He claims four "hippies" broke into his home and killed his wife and daughters, three men and one woman. (The woman was, according to MacDonald, wearing knee-high boots, but his version of the color of those boots has run the spectrum over the years.) MacDonald claims that he was being attacked by all four of the "hippies" in the living room and at the same time he could hear his wife screaming, "Jeff, Jeff, why are they doing this to me," and one of his daughters screaming, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy."

Okay. But if four "hippies" were attacking MacDonald in his living room, and four people are the only people who broke into the very tiny MacDonald home as MacDonald has said many times, then who was attacking his wife and daughters? If all four attackers were busy fighting with MacDonald, why didn’t his wife gather the girls and run (there was a backdoor right through the master bedroom). And, it should be pointed out that while MacDonald's wife and daughters were the victims of overkill, MacDonald, himself received only very minor, non-life threatening wounds.

There are other, more complicated reasons why MacDonald’s story doesn’t wash with readers endowed with even the most casual of critical thinking skills, but they are far too complex to go into here.

Strangely, Jeffrey MacDonald, who has been in prison for a little more than thirty years now and who has long since had his license to practice medicine revoked, still has his followers who will go to the ends of the earth to proclaim either his guilt or his innocence, depending on whether or not MacDonald, himself took the time to write to them. His most vocal detractors are, strangely, women who still see him as the "golden boy" he once was, the brilliant and compassionate doctor, with the bright, shining future and the world at his feet. The fact that MacDonald married a Maryland woman several years his junior in prison in Victorville, California in 2002 doesn’t sit well with these women who used to live for the receipt of one of his letters.

Now, even Joe McGinniss found Jeffrey MacDonald to be a charismatic and, on occasion, a charming person, but McGinniss saw through this veneer, this fa├žade, to the heart of darkness underneath. I believe the women who wrote MacDonald before his marriage and are now spending their days on forums creating posts about what an "evil" man he is do see through the gloss of charm and charisma, but simply choose not to do so. Why MacDonald has this hypnotic hold on some people is beyond my understanding, even after reading Fatal Vision and getting a much better "look" at MacDonald. One woman even perjured herself and swore under oath in an affidavit that another, innocent man told her he was guilty of the murders. That man, however, never confessed to anyone, and it’s been proven that he was far, far away from MacDonald’s home on the night of the crimes. I guess these women simply like to keep their "golden boy" intact. It’s a strange phenomenon, and one I think Joe McGuinness could have predicted. But, back to the book because that's what's interesting.

Fatal Vision is a riveting, spellbinding, and ultimately, tragic book. It’s the story of a man who had it all – a stellar career in the Green Berets, a life in medicine, a life for which he had a brilliant natural talent, a caring and compassionate wife, who loved him dearly, two lovely and intelligent daughters, and the son he’d always wanted about to be born. It’s the story of how, in one fatal night, he destroyed it all. Joe McGinniss doesn’t know exactly why, but he is able to give us clues along the way. How those clues add up will no doubt be different for different readers. In the end, the only person who knows why Jeffrey MacDonald destroyed Jeffrey MacDonald and every member of his immediate family is...Jeffrey MacDonald. And he isn’t talking. At least not about that. My guess is he never will.

Even if you’re like me and true crime isn’t your cup of tea, I can’t recommend Fatal Vision highly enough. Once you pick it up, I think you’ll be hard pressed to put it down. The writing is as fresh and riveting as it was when McGinness wrote it, and since there is an outside chance that MacDonald may be granted a new trial based on prosecutorial misconduct by an attorney who was subsequently disbarred for embezzlement, among other things, it's still timely as well.


Recommended: Definitely. Even if you don't care for true crime, this book holds its own with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but in the case of Fatal Vision, nothing is fictionalized.

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