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A CONVINCING STORY
If God were suddenly condemned to live the life He has inflicted on men, He would kill Himself.
—Alexandre Dumas, “Pensées d’album”
It’s a nineteenth-century image. An island fortress, forbidding, dark, isolated, surrounded on all sides by cliffs and the sea. In Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo, that fortress is the Château d’If.
Dantès (who will become the Count of Monte Cristo) has been taken prisoner. In a rowboat, he is pleading with his captors. He demands to know where he is being taken.
“Unless you are blind, or have never been outside the harbor, you must know.”
“I do not.”
“Look round you then.”
Dantès rose and looked forward, when he saw rise within a hundred yards of him the black and frowning rock on which stands the Château d’If. This gloomy fortress, which has for more than three hundred years furnished food for so many wild legends, seemed to Dantès like a scaffold to a man condemned to death.
“The Château d’If,” he cried, “what are we going there for?”
The gendarme smiled.
“Surely, I am not going there to be imprisoned,” said Dantès; “it is a prison for high crimes of state and is used only for political prisoners. I have committed no crime.”
Dantès, a fictional character, has been framed for a crime he did not commit. He has been convicted and condemned by Dumas, his creator, to a prison from which there is no possibility of escape.
And yet Dantès does escape. Under an improbable set of circumstances that have been told and retold and that have inspired countless other stories. Dumas’s tale is a variant of the theme “never say never.” There is no fortress, no prison from which there is no escape. We marvel at Dantès’s daring—the fake burial at sea, the swim to a nearby island, the construction of a new, fabulous identity. But we know that he has escaped only because Dumas wants it so. There can be no denying his innocence, just as there can be no thwarting his inexorable climb to a position of wealth, power, and influence. Dumas has written it that way.
In a fictional narrative all of the pieces can be engineered to fit perfectly together. But reality is different. We have to discover what is out there—what is real and what is merely a product of our imagination. A real Dantès could turn out to be a schemer, a rat, a traitor. There is in principle no limit to what we might find out about him, to what we might uncover. A real Dantès, like all real characters, is bottomless. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, captured this in his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, written while he was in prison as a conscientious objector to World War I. Prisoners often have the time to reflect on the difference between artificially constructed stories and reality.
When you have taken account of all the feelings roused by Napoleon in writers and readers of history, you have not touched the actual man; but in the case of Hamlet you have come to the end of him. If no one thought about Hamlet, there would be nothing left of him; if no one had thought about Napoleon, he would have soon seen to it that some one did.
It’s now the twenty-first century. And we have a model of a prison that makes the Château d’If pale in comparison. Not an imagined prison of stone and steel, but a real prison built out of newsprint and media. A prison of beliefs. You can escape from prison, but how do you escape from a convincing story? After enough repetitions, the facts come to serve the story and not the other way around. Like kudzu, suddenly the story is everywhere and impenetrable.
Take the case of Jeffrey MacDonald. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the story was endlessly retold in the media. It was enshrined in a bestselling book (Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss), in TV journalism (60 Minutes with Mike Wallace), and ultimately in an incredibly popular TV miniseries with the same title as the book, starring Karl Malden, Gary Cole, and Eva Marie Saint. The 60 Minutes segment on September 18, 1983, was the season premiere of the show. It was watched by thirty million people. The book appeared a couple of months later and in the following years sold five million copies. The two-part miniseries on NBC was the most popular miniseries of the year.
Eventually, the media frenzy ran its course, and the public was sated with the version of events it had been fed. The case was cracked. Punishment was administered. Justice had been done. And Jeffrey MacDonald was condemned to the story that had been created around him.
The MacDonald case was once well-known but is quickly lapsing into obscurity. MacDonald was on the fast track: Princeton for three years, medical school at Northwestern, a Green Beret captain at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He had been accepted for a residency in orthopedics at Yale to follow his service in the military. He was young, handsome, and married to his childhood sweetheart, Colette Stevenson. They had two young daughters—Kimberley, aged five, and Kristen, aged two. They dreamed of owning a farm in Connecticut; they had a bright and promising future.
That ended early in the morning on February 17, 1970. The MPs who had responded to a call for help had found Colette, who was four months pregnant with a son, lying on the floor of the master bedroom. She had been brutally beaten and stabbed. Both her arms had been broken, her skull had been fractured, and there were numerous knife stabs in her chest and neck as well as twenty-four of what appeared to be ice-pick stabs to her chest and arm. Kimberley and Kristen had been found dead in their beds. Kimberley had been stabbed and the right side of her head had been crushed in with a club. Kristen had been stabbed but there were no fractures. There was blood everywhere.
MacDonald told Ken Mica, one of the first MPs at the scene, “Check my kids. I can’t breathe.” Mica began to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. MacDonald was lapsing in and out of consciousness, but he described to Mica how he had been sleeping on the couch in the living room, then was awakened by screams. He saw people at the foot of the couch. Mica asked whom he had seen, and MacDonald described the assailants: “There were four of them. One blonde Caucasian female. She had a floppy hat on. Two male Caucasians, and one male Negro. Why did they do this?”
Mica told Lieutenant Joseph Paulk, one of his superiors, that he had seen a woman matching the description on his way to the MacDonald home. But no effort was made to pick her up.
Within minutes, MacDonald was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Womack Army Hospital, where he was treated for multiple bruises, an abrasion, small punctures, two stab wounds (one in his stomach and one on the right side of his chest), and a collapsed lung—a serious injury, but not a mortal one. Specialist Seventh Class William Ivory was the investigator on duty for the Fort Bragg office of the CID, the Criminal Investigation Division of the army. He arrived about fifteen minutes after the first MPs and took detailed notes on what he saw:
A woman, apparently dead, is lying on her back next to a green armchair. The upper portion of her body was extremely bloody. She was clad in what looks like pink pajama pants. Across her abdomen a towel or bath mat is laying. Across her chest was some blue cloth with a part of it trailing across the floor to her left side. This was later identified as a blue pajama [top].
Ivory observed that Colette MacDonald had multiple head injuries and stab wounds in her chest and throat. And a large pool of blood was found under her head and shoulders. Nearby there was a pajama pocket, apparently torn from the pajama top. And then he found what appeared to be a murder weapon. “Between the green armchair & the dresser on the north wall there is observed a small wooden-handled knife. A close inspection revealed a blood stain near the point of the blade.”
Ivory went on to note that the living room was relatively tidy:
The furnishings on the west side of the living room did not appear to have been disturbed. A coffee table in the east side of the living room in front of a brown divan was tipped on its edge & under the edge there were numerous magazines the titles of which were not noted at that time. There is a plant with the roots in dirt a few feet east of the overturned table & a white plant pot sitting upright just north of the edge of the table.
About a half hour later, Robert Shaw, another CID investigator, arrived. His case file continues the story of the investigation. Three weapons were discovered just outside the back door of the house:
At 0642 hrs, a search of the outside of the quarters was conducted by this investigator. Found, located near the NE entrance to the quarters, a wooden club which appeared to bear blood stains and a paring knife with a brown handle; and an ice pick with a tan wood handle. The location of these items was sketched and the weapons were collected as evidence…The decision was made to collect this evidence…because the photographer on the scene had run out of film or bulbs or had some other tech problem and there would be an appreciable delay before he could take a picture.
Ivory, a young and relatively inexperienced agent, quickly came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the crime scene. There were signs of a struggle, but perhaps not enough to suggest the presence of four intruders. It wasn’t long before Ivory and Shaw devised their own theory of the crime.
Narratives are ubiquitous. They are part of the way people see the world, part of the way people think. All of us. Myself included. Without them we would be overwhelmed with undigested, raw facts. But that doesn’t mean that all narratives are created equal. There is fiction, and there is nonfiction. And one of the differences between fiction and fact is that a fictional character is controlled by its creator. It has no reality off the page. There is no physical evidence that can prove that Edmond Dantès is guilty or innocent of a crime. Only what the writer—the author—ultimately decides.
But what happens when the narrative of a real-life crime overwhelms the evidence? When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted—or is left uncollected at the crime scene—simply because it does not support the chosen narrative? It is easy to confuse a search for revealing plot details with a search for evidence. But there is a difference. In one case, we are wandering through a landscape of words. In the other, we are in the physical world.
By all accounts, the crime scene was horrific. Three bloody and battered bodies. But one detail stood out. On the headboard in the master bedroom, the word “PIG” was written in blood, recalling—perhaps reenacting—the Manson family murders committed only months before. In a real sense, the story of the MacDonald murders begins in the summer of 1969 with Charles Manson and his drug-crazed followers.