Posts tagged ‘Fatal vision’

April 27, 2011

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?”

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April 11, 2011

it could be you

by Megan Abbott


Recently, I wrote a piece for the Los Angles Times Magazine about what may be seen as the rise of the dark, complicated female protagonist in crime fiction (and film). Interviewing Gillian Flynn, whose novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects are prime examples, we began talking about made-for-TV movies from our youth. Wondering about the impact of these movies on writers around our age, Gillian noted in particular watching way too many “women-in-jeopardy stories: the woman who was stalked or attacked or abused.”

The influence of these movies is something Sara and I have discussed many times–especially powerful for us were the tales of teen hitchhikers and runaways and teen hitchhiker-runaways-turned-hookers (Sara, jump in here if I’m misremembering!). I also became pretty fixated on E!True Hollywood Story equivalent in the early 90s–especially the ones about porn stars (the best:  the truly sad tale of Savannah). In much the ways that Flowers in the Attic seems to have planted some dark seeds within our generation of women, these movies were somehow deeply resonant, perhaps in the way that True Confessions magazine may have been to a prior one.

By and large, these tales–at least the ones that seemed to have loomed large for many of us–speak to the price paid for transgression (disrespect for parents, selfishness, an inability to control their own impulses, or most of all poor taste in men) or, in the more old-fashioned strand, the inevitable price all women must pay, as their birthright (e.g., all women are at constant risk for being duped or hustled by bigamists, wifebeaters, pimps in disguise, married cads, embezzlers, con men–or all of the above).

But, gender issues, aside, one of the elements of these movies that stirred me so deeply was the powerful sense that violence and chaos can, or even will, unfurl in your own home. I was especially fixated on Fatal Vision, the superb 1984 miniseries about Jeffery MacDonald, the Green Beret captain and doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children, The Betty Broderick Story, which Gillian also cited, with Meredith Baxter Birney as the socialite accused of murdering her ex-husband and his new wife, Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Diane Downs, accused of killing her children, and Adam, about the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder, which seemed to traumatize a whole generation of children and parents and I Know My First Name Is Steven, another true-crime kidnapping tale, this one from the viewpoint of the kidnapped boy as he grows up with his captor.

There are countless more, but they all presented the suburban, middle-class home as not as the bland domestic space of yore, but as a powder keg. That violence could arise anywhere, at any time. It could find you there. It could even originate there. It could rise up within your own parents. Even you.