Crime tells a story

The other day my sister Sharon called to update me on the Martin MacNeill trial, currently all over TV apparently. (I don’t have TV because, if I did, I’d be following murder stories—or watching shows about Tilikum and that trainer with the ponytail and why we shouldn’t keep orcas in captivity, which Sharon told me about the last time she called—instead of writing or grading student essays.)

“Today another mistress testified,” Sharon reported.

“There’s another other woman?!”

“Yeah. She looks just like Gypsy. His type, I guess.” (Gypsy, the main other woman, had testified previously.) “This new mistress—actually, she’s a previous one, I think—said that Martin once told her he could kill someone and get away with it.”

Here’s the gist of the case, in case you don’t have TV either: A doctor is accused of having murdered his wife, whose bathtub drowning after facelift surgery seven years ago had been ruled accidental.

It’s way more complicated than that, of course. Such stories always are. Within days of the wife’s death, he allegedly pretend-hired Gypsy to pretend-nanny the younger of his eight children, half of whom were adopted from Ukraine. Sometime thereafter, he and Gypsy ended up in prison for impersonating one of the Ukrainian daughters and thereby get Gypsy out of debt. (I don’t understand this part either. I’m not good at money.)

My sister went on and on about the fascinations of this trial. The excruciatingly miserable daughters, who’ve also testified. The benighted lovers. Various forensic revelations.

We’re on the phone for over an hour, during which I learn that one biological daughter is, like her father, a doctor. And that the other three biological kids (one of whom, the only son, apparently committed suicide after his mom’s death) suffered various mental illnesses. And that the daughters have struggled for years to have their father brought to trial. And that part of the rage and terror that fueled their efforts stemmed from his alleged threats to unadopt the nonbiological daughters and send them back to Ukraine. And that everyone involved—father, mother, biological and adopted daughters, the mistresses, even Gypsy’s aging mom—is fabulously good-looking.

It is a story more fictional-sounding than fiction. The plot is almost too wild to follow, much less believe. Certainly, as Tolstoy asserts in his all too believable novel, this hugely unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—or, in any case, unhappier than any I’ve ever heard of.

Except, maybe, in the Bible.

I think that’s what I like about true crime. It sounds, well, biblical. Villains as mean as any Lamech. Heroes as loving as any Ruth, as upright as any Joseph. Secondary players as round—exhibiting equally convincing good and bad traits—as Esau. Or that woman at the well. Or Simon the Sorcerer.

There is nothing, nothing, like story—whether true or made up—to enthrall an audience and make them think. I guess that’s why Jesus was always telling stories.