Top positive review
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on October 10, 2017
I am a late-comer to this story. When the MacDonald murders were committed in February 1970 I was a mere child. Over the intervening years (nay, decades) I had heard numerous references to the name (and the crime), but never really paid much heed, and although I was an avid television-watcher in the 1980s, had never even seen the four-hour mini-series of the same name based on this book. So I can honestly say that I opened up Fatal Vision with an unprejudiced mind.
I doubt if I can add anything constructive to the discussion here. I mean, what more can be said about this crime that hasn’t already been said in the almost 50 (!) years since its commission? [….And yet, this was still new territory to me….]
But one thing I can say is this: The book that I just finished reading was such an engrossing page-turner and so gripping and so riveting, that I almost feel like it has spoiled me for all other books to come. Now that is saying a lot!
In short, Fatal Vision tells the by-now infamous and well-known story of how Jeffrey MacDonald, seemingly the perfect husband/father, awoke in the middle of a rainy winter night to find a bunch of Hippie intruders in his home on the Fort Bragg military base who had, in Manson-like fashion, butchered his wife and children in their respective bedrooms (while he was asleep on the living room couch). Or so he claimed....
Bereft of evidence and with no leads as to MacDonald’s contentions, the law turned its gaze to him as a suspect. Truthfully, the mere suggestion that this seemingly upright, clean-cut individual could be accused of such a heinous crime had me believing at first that he was being scapegoated or railroaded by a system that was simply too inept to find the “real” killers. I soon changed my thoughts on that.
After an acquittal by a military grand jury, it was still possible to believe that this man was innocent of these horrible accusations. But the story picks up steam by the time (incredibly, several years later) he is brought to trial in a civilian court. By book’s end I felt convinced that he was indeed the perpetrator of these unspeakable crimes.
Until about half-way through I kept thinking that if I had been on the jury I would have a difficult time convicting this man. After all, he was the All-American guy: Movie star handsome, intelligent, over-achiever, a surgeon, a Green Beret, with a promising career and dreams of the future, and a perfect family. But Joe McGinniss did an extraordinary job of convincing me otherwise.
Fatal Vision is extremely well-written and exhaustively detailed. (I wish I had kept notes while I was reading of some of the author’s more artful turns of phrase.) At almost 1000 pages long, reading this book is a thoroughly immersive experience. For one thing, it will tell you everything you could ever possibly want to know about the events surrounding these brutal murders and MORE than everything you could ever possibly want to know about not only Jeffrey MacDonald’s background but his psychological make-up as well. Not only is the crime dissected, but so is his psyche. Even at this length, I finished the book in a matter of days, including an intense period of reading over a long holiday weekend when I simply COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN, and I feel like I lived this story and became intimately acquainted with all the characters - including the victims - whose portrayals by this author were nothing short of masterful.
The book takes the reader all the way through the serpentine legal history of this case: military investigation, tortuous (and torturous) indictment, lengthy trial, a series of appeals leading all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, etc. Remarkably (and owing to the author’s special privilege), interspersed throughout are long narratives in MacDonald’s own words.
At several points while reading I audibly gasped at something the author revealed – relating either to a development in the story line, or, in some cases, to something perfectly outlandish or outrageous spoken by MacDonald, who is portrayed as the ultimate narcissist and martyr.
One advantage that this author had over other authors who may have written other books on the same subject is that he actually lived with MacDonald and accompanied his defense team during the days of his trial and afterwards (after the conviction) had access to personal written materials that were not publicly obtainable. It was not only the closing arguments of counsel (memorialized verbatim here) that got me to change my mind, but also McGinniss’ equally adept post-mortem based in part on his access to these materials.
I just ordered a copy of A Wilderness of Error by a different author, which purports to take an opposing viewpoint to this book. I am very curious to see if this book will go to any length in changing the opinion I have formed from reading Fatal Vision.
An awesome, impressive read. An outstanding true crime story. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.