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FATAL VISION by Joe McGinniss Kirkus Star


by Joe McGinniss

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 1983
ISBN: 0451165667
Publisher: Putnam

At 4 A.M. one morning in 1970, at Fort Bragg, No. Carolina, the wife and two daughters of Jeffrey MacDonald--a young M.D. and Green Beret volunteer--were found beaten and stabbed to death; MacDonald, who was himself slightly wounded, claimed that a quartet of Manson-like cultists had overpowered him, killed his family. But, though MacDonald seemed an All-American model of the young husband/father/doctor/soldier, the Army investigators (epically clumsy in the case's first stages) believed he was guilty: hearings followed; the charges were dismissed; grand-jury proceedings began in the mid-1970s, largely because of the vengeance-crusade of MacDonald's father-in-law; finally, in 1979, MacDonald (now a successful California M.D.) was brought to actual trial. And he asked McGinniss (The Selling of the President 1968, Going to Extremes) to write the full story, with first-hand coverage of the trial and first-person testimony from MacDonald himself. Here, then, is McGinniss' documentary-like chronicle of the case--alternating with the suspect's chatty, spookily banal reminiscences of his life up through the 1970s. The bulk of the 700-page text consists of interrogation/hearing/trial transcripts (180 solid pages of Grand Jury testimony alone). McGinniss is invisible as a character, almost invisible as a writer--with little or no description of physical appearances, the surroundings, personalities. Still, for readers willing to wade through the repetitious transcript detail (on physical evidence) and the air-headed MacDonald memoirs, there is a slow, strong fascination to McGinniss' impassive assemblage: the growing impression of MacDonald's lack of genuine emotions (except anger at the investigators); conflicts in testimony that highlight MacDonald's lies (about his infidelities, his marriage); accumulating hints of mental disturbance--from family comments as well as the often-unimpressive psychiatric testimony; bits of seemingly irrelevant information that later take on importance (e.g., the fact that Mrs. MacDonald was at an adult-ed class in child psychology the evening before the killings); and, perhaps most crucially, an implicit sense of McGinniss' own shifting back-and-forth about MacDonald's guilt. Only in the last chapters, however, does McGinniss emerge from the shadows--recording the 1979 defense-team's strategies ("Paint it monstrous because we don't have a monstrous defendant"), receiving bitter post-conviction letters from the imprisoned MacDonald, and coming up with a psycho-diagnosis of this unlikely murderer: "pathological narcissism," aggravated by amphetamines, with latent homosexuality, an obsession with macho-masculinity, and a "fatal vision" (idealized, secretly fearful) of women. (The consensus-theory is that MacDonald's wife made a psychologically threatening remark, he struck her in anger, and the violence escalated--with the children's deaths as part of a panicky coverup.) The analysis is too little, too late. The acres of transcript-material will put off all but the most devoted courtroom/crime buffs. But, if not in a league (by a long shot) with such crime-reconstructions as In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song, this is a rigorous, journalistic approach to strange, engrossing material--and grimly rewarding for the patient, observant reader.