Joe McGinniss

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Josephine Hendin

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Even murder should have dignity. How can we justify the passage of brutality from the police blotter or tabloid to the permanence of a book, except as a necessary step toward restoring meaning and individuality to the victims or the killers? Murder books such as Meyer Levin's Compulsion, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, or Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song have looked for meaning even in the unprovoked or random murder of strangers, furthering our awareness of murder as a crisis of morality, psyche, and culture. Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss is different. It takes a crime of intimacy rich in meaning and refuses it significance, coherence, or explanation. (p. 35)

Issues of meaning, or morality, or motive recede when death seems less significant for itself than for the interest it arouses in others…. [Fatal Vision] renders seven hundred pages' worth of facts and viewpoints as adding up to nothing. It appeals so completely to the desire for pictures without captions that it is virtually a celebration of inexplicability. (pp. 35-6)

The gap between what MacDonald seemed to be and what he did is not a distance McGinniss cares to negotiate. He alternates "The Voice of Jeffrey MacDonald," composed of tapes of MacDonald giving his view of his life, with evidentiary material drawn from the investigations, hearings, and trial, and with interviews of family members, particularly MacDonald's in-laws who began as his supporters and became his accusers. Each person is presented as the star of his own story; no one's words are questioned or challenged. MacDonald and his amazing murders remain irreconcilable, incoherent. Yet it is clear he and his act exist in an elaborate relation of paradox: the slayer of children who is an expert on child abuse, the creator of bloody crisis who expertly redeems others from bloody trauma. These are selves existing in a tight, explicit relationship whose terms, if not conventionally rational, are not inexplicable either. The tragedy invites each reader's explanation. (p. 37)

Belief in inexplicable guilt, like belief in inexplicable innocence, ignores the exploration and judgment in which human understanding takes place. As the prosecutor bypassed such issues by obtaining conviction on physical evidence alone, believing that if he could prove MacDonald killed, he did not have to prove he was the sort of man who could kill, so McGinniss hopes, less successfully, to find a physical cause for the murders. Diet pills, he suggests, might have triggered an uncontrollable rage in MacDonald. Yet he also reveals this possibility is not supported by lab tests taken the night of the murder, which show no traces of drugs or alcohol in MacDonald's bloodstream….

Inexplicability is an intellectual and emotional alternative to dealing with complexity. Eroding connections between self and act, sliding over the nature of an intimacy that culminated in a triple murder, it releases McGinniss from the frustration of having to challenge anyone. Neither MacDonald nor [MacDonald's wife] Colette exist for him as people, only as unfathomable curios. Released from human meanings and connections that sustain individuality and dignity, they seem to exist only on the level of chance, of circumstance. In such a place, de Sade's hope finds a harrowing fulfillment: "Murder only deprives the victim of his first life; a means must be found of depriving him of his second…." (p. 39)

Josephine Hendin, "All-American Atrocity," in The New Republic, Vol. 189, No. 17, October 24, 1983, pp. 35-37, 39.

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