she couldn’t have, she must have

by Megan Abbott

Last August, I wrote a piece for the splendid Mulholland Books blog. The post was motivated by my response to Janet Malcolm’s  much-talked about New Yorker piece, “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” (May 3, 2010), which chronicled a crime that took place in my own neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens.

A local orthodontist was shot to death in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a cousin to kill her former husband, with whom she was engaged in a tumultuous custody battle.

The original Malcolm piece has now bloomed into a book and I can’t wait to read it because I find Malcolm a fascinating, frustrating writer (see In The Freud Archives and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes).

And I’m captivated by the notion—central to her article—that she herself can’t fathom her own reaction to the case. Specifically, Malcolm knows the doctor is guilty of her husband’s murder and can’t quite reckon with her own intense sympathy (identification?) with her.

“She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it,” Malcolm writes.

I think this sentence speaks volumes to our fascination with true crime. A few weeks ago on this blog, we were discussing Fatal Vision, the story of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, M.D., who was convicted in 1979 of the murder of his pregnant wife and his two daughters. In the comments section, I found myself embarrassed to admit my knowledge of MacDonald’s own defense claims, all these years later.

At age 13, I was so transfixed by both the book and the movie, by something in them, something in the story, that I became obsessed with the case, reading everything about it. I see now I was operating on two levels.  The story works, captivates because this Green Beret doctor, handsome and perfect with a perfect life, seemed to have exploded one night in an uncontrollable rage, committing unspeakable acts.  Those aspects tantalized me.

But somehow, at the very same time, I wanted MacDonald to be innocent, deeply. Not, I don’t think, because of some romantic, crusading notion of a man wrongly convicted but…but…but because perhaps I didn’t want to believe I could be so fascinated by a person (which is to say, really, a story) that is so ugly.

Without yet reading Malcolm’s book (but based on her article) I think this is different in tenor from her relationship to her murderer, with whom she seems to identify (what she calls her “sisterly bias”)  in ways I did not with Jeffrey MacDonald. But she seems just as swept up in the swell, drama, sorrow and heat of it all. The case speaks to her aesthetically and emotionally. And she goes deeper into her own response, permits herself that inward gaze. She is not afraid.

Ironically (or not), one of the first books I read by Malcolm was The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), her book about the “immorality of journalists” as framed through the relationship between Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGinniss, the journalist who wrote Fatal Vision. Originally, MacDonald was working closely with McGinniss, hoping the book would exonerate him. But ultimately McGinniss came to believe in MacDonald’s guilt and hence Fatal Vision makes the case for MacDonald as a pathological narcissist, a sociopath, a man capable of butchering his family.

Malcom sees it differently. Though she offers no stated feeling of her own view on MacDonald’s guilt or innocence (it’s not her interest), she believe McGinniss slowly realized MacDonald was just plain boring. In the absence of character (not everyone is as lucky as Truman Capote, with the mesmerizing Perry Smith), McGinniss fashions one—one who is in fact a murderer.

And, as McGinniss sells out his subject, Malcolm eviscerates hers. Ultimately, we see, the writer is, as Joan Didion famously said, “always selling someone out.”

Of course, reading The Journalist and the Murderer, years after my fixation with MacDonald dissipated, I had all kinds of responses. Hustled by McGinniss, hustled again by Malcolm. Relieved in some part to know my holding-out-for-hope with regard to MacDonald’s innocence wasn’t perhaps as hapless as I’d come to believe.

And wondering the extent to which we ever really know anyone anyhow. Aren’t we always just reading into ourselves? Looking for ourselves?

There was something I wanted when I read Fatal Vision. And I read and read and read until I got it. (Though what was “it”?)

Maybe Malcolm, sitting in that courtroom, watching the accused woman, trying to penetrate the enigma of the case, was watching herself, was looking for something, a clue.  Asking, without asking, “Tell me: what is it about YOU that matters so much to me? Who are you, to me? What does this—this yearning and curiosity and fascination inside me—mean? What does it say about me?”

21 Responses to “she couldn’t have, she must have”

  1. Excellent stuff, Megan. I too was fascinated by Jeffrey MacDonald and read Fatal Vision and The Journalist and the Murderer, and I still don’t know how to feel about the way Joe McGinniss went about his work, though clearly a journailist winning somebody’s confidence and then ‘betraying’ that confidence is pretty commonplace. It’s also not too hard to imagine how grating it can be to spend a lot of time in the company of somebody who thinks they have a claim on your sympathy (“I’m an innocent accused of murder”) who is constantly revealing themselves as somebody who seems entirely capable of the crimes they’re accused of.
    On the other hand, whenever I read or watch a story of murder, I ‘almost always empathize with the killer. The whole time I was watching Dead Man Walking I thought that as a parent I should be relating exclusively to the parents of the murdered kids. But instead I kept thinking about the ways I might have ended up like Elmo Sonnier, the real-life killer represented by Sean Penn’s character. I don’t know what that’s about, but I think it has to do with ‘reading into ourselves,’ in your excellent phrase.
    I think we all have those moments in our lives where things can go really wrong, and maybe how we feel about the relationship between what we think of as our essential selves and our mistakes and bad acts informs our responses to crime.

  2. What a great point, Dennis–it’s funny how your vantage point can change, which makes your point of identification change….do you think that any of these cases that “have a hold on this” also mean we are, inevitably, identifying with someone? I tend to say yes, though I can’t guess who that was in Fatal Vision—though I think I definitely romanticized MacDonald (so well played in the TV movie), as a 13-year-old girl.

  3. Definitely, and it’s a fascinating thing to think about. Certainly you can tell a story of some terrible crime from different perspectives, changing none of the dialogue or action and just by inhabiting each character in a sympathetic way change the perspective of the reader. There’s that great repeated moment in The Ring, where Gore Verbinski presents the child monster talking about her hurting her mother. The first time the child’s dialogue (as interpreted by the Naomi Watts character) sounds plaintive and sorrowful and the second time, assertive and frankly malicious.
    My uncle told me a story about a defense attorney trying to find a way to interpret a transcript of somebody asking a mob boss for permission to kill somebody. The line from the transcript was “Kill him.” The attorney was trying out different ways it might be heard – “Kill him?” or “KILL him?” or “Kill HIM?” There are endless ways to represent facts, and how read them has got to be partly how they strike us and partly how we want to hear them, and all of that is absolutely influenced by how the news is delivered. It’s not that I don’t think there is an essential truth, just that we’re not usually in a position to feel we’re interpreting events firsthand.

  4. It’s funny, I’ve always kept my distance a bit on the MacDonald case, mostly because it seemed to me like he was guilty as hell and making it worse. It would be interesting if it turned out he was as narcissistic and sociopathic as he seemed (and as McGinnis came to believe) — but was not guilty of killing his family. Because then what? Moral ambivalence of the highest order, I suppose.

    • Yes–and I love the idea that maybe McGinniss just knew he was a murderer AND also boring–worse book subject ever. So better to make him a fascinating sociopath…

      BTW, Dennis, your comments–and Sarah’s–make me think of THE STAIRCASE, the doc about the Michael Peterson case:
      That’s a case where, to believe in the innocence of the (much more charismatic) subject, you have to accept that life isn’t structured like stories at all

  5. “Moral ambivalence of the highest order, I suppose…” I wonder if that’s part of the appeal of these cases to begin with? Maybe they serve as an outlet for/model of/metaphor for/ more everyday dilemmas? Similar to what you said, Dennis: “I think we all have those moments in our lives where things can go really wrong, and maybe how we feel about the relationship between what we think of as our essential selves and our mistakes and bad acts informs our responses to crime.”

    Believe it or not I had no idea that Janet Malcolm book was about Fatal Vision–where have I been all these years?!?!

  6. she believe McGinniss slowly realized MacDonald was just plain boring Aren’t all sociopaths boring once you get past the “Hey, buddy!” veneer?

    This whole talk of innocent versus guilty reminds me again of Flynn’s DARK PLACES and the women fans of the main character’s brother. Romanticizing killers is not uncommon. Never mind convict pen pals and death row inmates who marry women on the outside.

    • That is so interesting, Sara! It seems like the same ambivalence that draws us towards crime fiction
      for my part, I never wanted to meet MacDonald (!), and I had no interest in actually proving/disproving his innocence—it’s more about character and narrative. There’s something in the story, its elements, that stands in for something, as you say, Sara. Helps us work through something? The dichotomy of MacDonald both being utterly guilty and perhaps utterly innocent perhaps mattered most to me at 13, an age when so many of us are first get the sense that the Big World out there is more complicated, dense, thorny than we ever thought….

  7. Did any of you read THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR?

    Megan and gerard, you’ve brought me back to my favorite topic, which is how “murder mysteries” have really become our prime mythology where we play out so many of our doubts, etc. Like maybe we can deal with certain issues more easily (for example how do know who’s telling us the truth) by studying macDonald, McGuiness & Malcolm than by, say, looking at the members of our own community–we perceive the murderers as being removed from us so possibly it’s a “safe” place to explore certain issues that would be painful to examine in our own lives? Does that make any sense?

  8. The Staircase was also just fascinating – and the most excellent and disturbing case of the difficulty of trying to find your place in a story by trying to figure out who to sympathize with. I stumbled on it at a video store and didn’t realize until I got it home that it was the same case I’d seen represented much more sensationally on one of those A&E documentaries. I couldn’t stop thinking about that film for a long time. It was just absorbing as hell. You knew he must be guilty, but to see the case reduced (as I guess it always is) to the simplest propositions – he killed her because he was secretly gay – made it impossible to root for the prosecution. They knew how their audience would see that information. And of course the whole time I was thinking – what about my life could be represented to a room full of strangers so that I would seem capable of murder? Don’t we all dissolve into loathesome tics and blemishes when viewed without some sympathy?

  9. what about my life could be represented to a room full of strangers so that I would seem capable of murder? Don’t we all dissolve into loathesome tics and blemishes when viewed without some sympathy?

    So true! And goes a long way towards explaining how we can have such sympathy for these murderers, maybe?

  10. Boy, Dennis, what a great comment–the one Sara just picked up again. In the case of my fascination with Fatal Vision or even The Staircase, I think I’d use the word “identify” over “sympathize.” Or identify with some element in the story. The way it unfolds. Or even seeing ourselves as another “player” in that story and thus being drawn inextricably back into it. For instance, identifying with the victim or victim’s family but, because of that identification, not wanting to believe the killer is the killer. Some true-crime books (many, I suppose) seem to be structured around creating points of identification for you, frequently by making one of the criminals much worse than the other—identify with Perry, against all logic, because you CANNOT identify with Dick.

  11. Another reminder of Flynn’s work: an 8-year-old spared while the rest of her family is murdered. Also in a rural area.

  12. Evil is charismatic, so those who are already deeply drawn to storytelling at the age of 11-15 are going to find it vastly more interesting than a) “good” and b) the more blank terror that comes into play when one is confronted with evil on an everyday level. From a storytelling point of view, the “evil” character that turns out to be innocent of the “big crime” but still stained with moral lesions and deep-seated problems that need several lifetimes to overcome is without doubt the Unholy Grail. Adding complexity to a character or situation (whether it happens to exist or not) differs from mere titillation: without question this qualifies as an aesthetic fixation and is an uncanny marker of what the future held for Megan Abbott (and for a large plurality of those who write pulp-derived fiction!).

    I think it’s possible that those who identify with such situations in the manner described above do so in some part to ensure that they DON’T travel down that road. Of course, this type of logic leads to the (possibly) unwarranted conclusion that chronic masturbation, like marijuana, leads to sex crimes and heroin!

  13. P.S. Janet and I are NOT related!

    • “From a storytelling point of view, the “evil” character that turns out to be innocent of the “big crime” but still stained with moral lesions and deep-seated problems that need several lifetimes to overcome is without doubt the Unholy Grail. ”

      Wow, Don, that’s it precisely…..


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