Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The muddy doors of perception – thoughts on the Aarushi Talwar and Jeff MacDonald cases

[A shorter version of this piece appeared on The Daily O]

Savage crimes of passion lie beyond the pale of regular human experience – each such case tends to be singular, containing many little details that are morbidly peculiar to it and found nowhere else. But some crimes do strongly evoke earlier, unrelated crimes. While reading Avirook Sen’s book about the Aarushi Talwar murder case (which takes the position – as did Gaurav Jain’s long Tehelka story and Patrick French’s piece published in Open – that there has been a major miscarriage of justice), I thought about the little similarities between the Aarushi case and the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial of the 1970s.

I first encountered the MacDonald case as a child, deeply disturbed by Fatal Vision, the 1984 TV movie about the murders (a US-returned aunt had brought the videocassette with her, and my mother and I saw it during a sleepover at her place – probably not ideal viewing for an eight-year-old). Then, last year, I found myself reading about the case at some length. The immediate catalyst was this Washington Post article by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Gene Weingarten, which reacquainted me with the basic facts: the February 1970 murders of Green Beret officer Jeff MacDonald’s wife and two little daughters in their home, and the eventual trial and conviction of MacDonald, who claims to this day that a group of intruders were responsible.

In both the MacDonald and Talwar cases, a parent (or parents) was convicted of brutally killing a child (or children). In both situations, the Occam’s Razor principle came into play: if a murder has been committed in a house, and there are no signs of outsiders having broken in or being on the premises, the surviving member of the household quickly becomes the main suspect. But another similarity – one that can be seen as a counter to the above point – is that in both cases the crime scene was badly compromised at the outset.

In the MacDonald case, over a dozen military policemen – confused, spooked, untrained – traipsed through the house in the early hours of the morning, bringing in mud and debris from outside (it had been raining). Farcically, MacDonald’s wallet was stolen before he was taken to hospital, and his pajama bottoms – which could have provided evidence – accidentally disposed of; it was also alleged that some fingerprints had been erased. Even now, 45 years after the tragedy, those who believe in MacDonald’s innocence use that travesty to buttress their case.

Similarly, the Aarushi case was marked by a level of bungling that we in India tend to associate with police and investigative procedures. People walking randomly in and out of the house, touching things that shouldn’t have been touched; the bizarre failure to discover another dead body lying just a few yards away on the terrace until 24 hours later (and meanwhile, the pronouncing of that “absconding” servant as the main suspect); a ham-fisted approach to sleuthing that included making much of the fact that Aarushi had been reading a book with a “suspicious” title (Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of my Life).

(Another common point: the implication that someone else – a drug-addled young woman in the MacDonald case, three servants who underwent narco-tests in the Talwar case – had all but confessed to participating in the murders, or at least being on the premises at the right time, but that their evidence was suppressed by the authorities, who had their own agenda.)

No two cases are exactly alike though. Unlike the Talwars, Jeff MacDonald was incriminated by a pileup of damning physical evidence that strongly contradicted his version of events. One key factor was that each of the four members of the MacDonald family had a different blood group, which enabled investigators to exactly determine whose blood had been in what room in the house. Another factor was that while his wife and daughters had been violently bludgeoned and stabbed – “over-killed” almost, as a term used at the time had it – the physically fit army doctor, having supposedly been in a life-and-death struggle with four assailants, got away with relatively superficial wounds, the most serious being an incision that could have been self-inflicted by someone with medical knowledge.

My own feelings about the truth behind these cases aren’t really relevant to this post, but just for the record: based on everything I have read about the evidence – or “evidence” in quote-marks – and how the investigations were conducted, my view is that Jeffrey MacDonald is almost certainly guilty while the Talwars are quite possibly victims of a botched, prejudiced investigation and the initial impressions spread by salacious policemen and a sex-scandal-hungry media.

Which raises another point: looking again at both cases, close together, is to be reminded of how easily everyone plays detective when a case comes into the public domain, and how seductive and misleading “gut instincts” and notions about human behaviour can be.

For instance, though Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted on the basis of solid evidence, a lot of the initial public feeling about MacDonald came from subjective perceptions about how a grieving husband and father must behave – and how long he should nurture his grief – as if human reactions in such a grotesquely unusual situation can ever follow a neat template. Even today, online commenters on videos of MacDonald’s TV appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1970 (where he played to the gallery, smiled at the audience, focused more on the injustices done to him by the Army than on his personal loss) pronounce things like “he’s so creepy – looking at this I have no doubt he’s guilty” and “that’s not how anyone whose children have been murdered would talk”.

But how can they be so sure? How pompous do you have to be to think you know for certain how a particular person – possibly a person very different from you – would behave, simply by imagining your own reaction to a frankly unimaginable situation, and then convincing yourself that your imagination and empathy are both infallible?

In the social-media age, where opinions are cheap and plentiful, we are all judges and have forums on which to express our views – and media is happy to showcase the most extreme of those views. As Sen and others have pointed out, in the early weeks of the Talwar case, many people smugly watched Nupur Talwar on TV and decided she didn’t fit their pre-set image of a devastated mother. (Here’s Shobhaa De, one of many public figures who should have been more circumspect: “The conduct displayed by Mr and Mrs Talwar appears a bit too calculated, even cold blooded … For a mother of a dead girl to project such steely determination during what must have been the most harrowing time of her life, seems a bit unnatural… Their faces are stony, their eyes, strangely devoid of any emotion.”) Enough such opinions can easily drown out other assessments, and fix a narrative in the public mind.


The history of detective work and psychological profiling has, as with any other science, had many missteps and detours. There was a time when physiognomy – the study of a person’s facial features to draw conclusions about character – was considered a reliable aid to detecting criminals. Back when photography was in its infancy, it was thought for a time that photographing a murder victim’s eyeballs would reveal the final image seen by the dead person (which would hopefully be the killer’s face). We have moved beyond those ideas (and many of them seem like such gaffes to our 21st century eyes, we marvel at how intelligent people of an earlier time could have taken them seriously), but our very human tendency to judge by first impressions – or to filter everything through the prisms of our own reactions, fears and certitudes – won’t fade anytime soon.

Anyone who has studied true crime knows many such examples of trial by armchair detection. Lawyers, judges, casual observers, jury members, all have their prisms. So do writers, who might be expected to study a case over a period of time and with a degree of detachment and caution; some high-profile books have arisen from the “intuitive” method. The novelist Patricia Cornwell, for instance, went to Scotland Yard, took a look at a dark and disturbing painting by Walter Sickert, and just knew that the painter was not only a violent misogynist but Jack the Ripper to boot. She went on to write a book centred on dubious hypotheses and flawed research, announcing that she had unmasked the world’s most famous undiscovered murderer, pompously sub-titled it “Case Closed” … and rightly became a laughing stock for anyone who is acquainted with the actual facts of the Ripper case. But among gullible general readers, and fans of Cornwell’s fiction, much of this must have seemed legit.

One of the most brilliant comics I have read, “Dance of the Gull-Catchers”, is the 24-page coda to the immense Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell graphic novel From Hell. Having taken the reader through 500 pages where he rigorously works out a premise based on a widely debunked theory about Jack the Ripper (a theory that he himself doesn’t believe in), Moore now turns meta and casts a caustic, and very funny, gaze on the long, convoluted history of “Ripperology”– a pursuit that usually reveals more about the people obsessed with the case than it does about the murderer himself. “Jack mirrors our hysterias. Faceless, he is the receptacle for each new social panic.” 

That crime can become a distorting mirror for people reading about it or watching it on a news channel is wholly understandable; that’s human nature. But when impressions gained from looking through a glass darkly start to determine the official course of justice, it’s time to worry.

P.S. Not doing a review of Avirook Sen’s Aarushi, but I have to point out something about the beginning of the book that ran contrary to all my ideas about how good true-crime books (including those where the author makes his own position clear) should be written.

Sen opens the narrative in a lucid, journalistic way, with an objective recounting of the morning the murder was discovered – specifically, with the maid Bharti Mandal ringing the Talwars’ doorbell. Bharti is the reader’s point of entry into the story; the perspective here is that of a person who is wholly an outsider to the situation, someone who will never be under suspicion herself, but whose arrival at the crime scene sets events rolling. We learn that Nupur Talwar appeared at the inner door of the flat and told Bharti that the servant Hemraj had probably gone to get milk and locked the door from the outside; that Bharti suggested Nupur threw down the keys to her from the balcony so she could let herself in.

So far, so good. But now, barely two full pages into the book, Sen abruptly shifts perspective and tells us about Rajesh Talwar waking up, seeing a bottle of whisky on the dining table, becoming alarmed, rushing into his daughter’s room with his wife, and discovering the dead Aarushi – things that we know only from the testimony of the Talwars (who were definitely not outsiders in this situation; as we all know, they became suspects and were eventually convicted). We read, in matter-of-fact prose, about him walking in and out of her room in numbed shock, banging his head violently against the wall in grief.

As an avid reader of true-crime books of exactly the sort that Sen set out to write, I found these two or three paragraphs very problematic. (And again, I’m saying this as someone who thinks there is a real possibility that the Talwars are innocent and have been railroaded. But that is beside the point.) This sort of book – an investigative narrative about a contentious, high-profile case – should record all the clearly known facts first, and only then venture into the murkier terrain that has contradictory versions of events: at which point the author can start gathering evidence, analyzing testimonies and inconsistencies, and gradually making his own case about what really happened.

Aarushi is very much the result of Sen’s personal interest in the case, and a desire for justice; as he followed the Talwars’ trials over the months, he became convinced that they were innocent and he set out to articulate why. Fair enough
I have no trouble accepting that the book was written honestly, and with no prior “agenda” (something that the Talwars’ supporters are too often accused of). But to present the parents’ version of their actions that morning as objective fact on just page two of the book – before the reader has even been acquainted with the basic details of the case and had a chance to sift through them – is both manipulative and counter-productive.

And other true-crime authors have been condemned for less. Joe McGinniss’s massive 1983 book Fatal Vision – about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial – was described as dishonest by many (because McGinniss supposedly “exploited” his relationship with MacDonald), and became the centre of a storm about journalistic ethics in the late 1980s. I don’t agree with much of the criticism of Fatal Vision – I think it’s a more balanced book than it is sometimes given credit for being. But without getting into all that just now, look at how McGinniss begins the book, with a detached account of the known facts on the night of the murder (the phone call by an apparently weak, barely conscious MacDonald, the arrival of military police at the house and what they discovered there) and only then, over the course of many chapters, begins revealing all the things he learnt over his long association with the case; how his own feelings about Jeff MacDonald underwent a shift. For all the other merits in his book, I wish Sen had taken a similar approach in the opening pages of Aarushi.

An update, after a conversation with Avirook Sen (who has also left a comment on this post): in the postscript, I wasn't implying that Sen had presented a version of events told to him by the Talwars. As he points out, Talwar's version of events is part of the official record, and gleaned through a narco test. (And of course, given that the Talwars claimed their innocence from hour one, obviously their version of the morning's events would include something like "I saw the whisky bottle on the table, became alarmed, then saw Aarushi's door was ajar..." and so on as opposed to, say, "I washed the blood off my hands, finished drinking the whisky and then my wife and I again rehearsed the story we would tell the policemen, to convince them we hadn't killed Aarushi.") 

But that doesn't affect the basic point I was trying to make. Maybe I need to take some time out and make it at greater length, possibly through comparisons with other true-crime narratives. Will try.


[An earlier piece about true-crime books is here]


  1. Jai, if you like true crime, you should definitely listen to the Serial podcast which is also about a possible miscarriage of justice (you may already have, in which case, my apologies). It became a sort of sensation here in the US with people identifying with and against Adnan Syed, the convicted perpetrator. The best part is when you hear Adnan talking with Sarah Koenig, the creator of the podcast. It's impossible to describe how it feels to hear him talking.

    If you have already heard it, I'd be curious to know what you make of it.

    1. thanks! Will acquaint myself with the case a little first, and then hear the podcast...

  2. This book isn't available in Pakistan yet and I don't know if it'll be any time in the future but I read about this case on the internet and acquainted myself with the facts. It is very interesting that a murder case became so widely talked about in India, it reminded me of the O.J Simpson case and how almost everyone who had CNN had an opinion on it.
    This was a very comprehensive post and I loved how you compared two different writing styles about a murder trial. Nicely done.

  3. I consider myself a fairly cynical person but still found the picture the book paints of CBI, prosecution and the whole justice system very disturbing. I didn't notice the the problem you mentioned in your postscript. I assumed it is based on Talwar's statements. In fact the book itself shows how prejudiced everybody was to suspect the parents from the get-go and believe the witnesses like the maid and other bystanders & family friends who were assumed to have access to true picture of what happened and didn't have any agenda of their own.

    I also liked that Sen restrained himself from doing pop-sociological or psychological analysis or making the prose "literary". Initially I thought there was an element of class snobbery in the way he was writing about the judge and other people in Ghaziabad court but even that had a purpose as I realized when I reached the end. I hope the book is a success and more people get to read it and Talwar couple get the justice they were denied.

    I hadn't heard of fatal vision. will look for it.

    1. I didn't notice the the problem you mentioned in your postscript. I assumed it is based on Talwar's statements.

      Of course it IS based on Talwar's statements. No issue with that. The problem is that Sen presents it as objective fact on page 2 of the book, instead of first giving the reader all the undisputed information about the events of that morning.

      As for the picture of the CBI, prosecution etc, do also read that Gaurav Jain story I linked to - written four years ago.

    2. I remember reading about the case years ago and one thing that really hit me was the result of the class divide. The cops, from a different socio-economic background, didn't understand and therefore chose to grossly misinterpret things like the book she was reading, the fact that when she had sleepovers the parents gave the kids some breathing room (this is normal in my circle but the cops saw it as tacit permission for an orgy), her apology in an email was construed to be an apology for being pulled up for deviant behaviour and so on. The other thing was the flagrant goofups on evidence - with labels being blithely changed in the courtroom to suit the prosecution case. To those of us brought up on American legal drama and the details of CSI investigations, such forensic goofs seemed like strong reasons to have the case thrown out- instead I felt a sense of impotent horror when such goofs were treated as irrefutable evidence. Also, when the CBI closed the case as being unresolved - would a guilty person really plead for it to be reopened? I couldn't fathom that. It would need massive hubris or audacity to try to do a double bluff like that - to risk being implicated, which, indeed, is what happened.

  4. Two similar cases are the Madeline McCann case and the Dingo took the baby case

    Many people did/do believe that the McCanns are guilty

  5. Hi, Jai. This is Avirook. Super piece. And great tailpiece, too. Just to clear things up a bit about the problematic paragraphs. Rajesh Talwar's movements inside the house is not something that is the result of an interview with the Talwars. It is, in fact, gleaned from official documents, on record in various courts: his narration during narco analysis, quoted extensively in the behavioral assessment report and other places. You may have a view on the shift that description causes--and I welcome that view. This is just to tell you that this isn't 'my view'. It is a part of official record. Perhaps it would have helped if I had quoted this source up front. Perhaps.
    On another note, saddened you won't be reviewing the book. Was hoping you would.
    Best, and thanks for the post.--Avirook Sen

  6. I watched fatal vision on Star Plus years ago and this post brought the whole thing back. Such a ghastly crime and such a wicked wicked man. The only scene I remember visually from the movie is one of MacDonald getting into his car, all jaunty while going to or leaving court. I remember that as the exact moment I became convinced of his guilt! So strange! Brilliant write up as usual and thank for the link to the other great write up. Although reading about that crime left me very disturbed. That wicked man!

    1. MacDonald getting into his car, all jaunty while going to or leaving court. I remember that as the exact moment I became convinced of his guilt!

      Anon: can't tell if you're being tongue-in-cheek here, but that sort of "impression" based on observing someone acting strangely/inappropriately is exactly what I was cautioning against in the post. (And in this case, you aren't even talking about the real MacDonald - you're talking about an actor in a film that was made very much to emphasize his discomfiting personality.)

      There is at least a very small chance (though what do percentages mean in a situation like this, right?) that JM is innocent. And there is a significantly larger chance that he committed the murders but somehow blocked it out of his mind/came to believe his own hippie story over the years, so that he genuinely thinks today that he is blameless. (This is what a couple of the psychiatrists who have studied the case have suggested.) In neither of those two situations would I use the word "wicked" to describe him. Sociopathic/psychopathic, sure, but that's a different thing.

    2. (Glad you liked the post though! Sorry if I'm sounding pedantic about the other stuff...)

    3. Not tongue in cheek but I was very young at the time and that was my impression. I completely agree with your point by the way.
      I had forgotten all about this case till I read your post and then the washington post article. About the word wicked, it is very hard for me to be detached about this. I'm a parent and I'm very possibly losing sleep today from having read all this. Again, I appreciate your point and the distinction between a sociopath/psychopath and plain wicked but it's not working for me just now. I don't read too much real crime - it's too disturbing - and I will continue to avoid. I should mention that your post led me to read all manner of things today including a number of completely irrelevant stuff about the painter whistler! Enjoyed that.

    4. Cool - yes, of course it is hard to be detached about any of this...

  7. Interesting article. Yeah, it is often very presumptuous of people to make damning judgments on the basis of the reactions shown by the accused in response to a certain event. It makes me indignant as well. The example you gave was of an accused mother's appearance on TV. This is also how most adversarial legal systems generally function in the criminal context. Apart from the substantive evidence at hand, a lot can hinge on the kind of ‘performance’ the defendant gives at the witness box. It seems incredibly undignified for an innocent person to have to feign a response or behave in a way that more accords with the jury’s perception of e.g. how a grieving mother would outwardly respond to the fact of her daughter having been murdered, and that performance ultimately may be what saves them. Often completely artificial narratives are constructed, in accordance with preconceived patterns of conduct and standardized modes of behaviour. The picture thus created for the jury members, may be consistent with projections of popular culture (especially with the proliferation of legal shows/sitcoms) but completely conflict with the reality of the case, and the reality of human beings often behaving in highly subjective, idiosyncratic and irrational ways. E.g. in the Capote novel you discuss in the post you have linked, what was unusual was the complete lack of motive on Perry’s part. I think one of his associates on death row, Andrews, guns down his family simply because he was sick of his nice boy image and wanted to properly cultivate the image and deportment of a hardened gangster. If these two (particularly the latter) had not made the admission themselves that there was no earthly reason for them to commit those murders, we would still be searching for motives. Was there something darker going on underneath the façade of a happy family? Was Andrews secretly estranged from his father etc. These are extreme examples of psychopaths, but this practice of manufacturing arguments on the basis of clichéd understandings of how people conventionally feel and behave even appears to find resonance in the adnan case scritic has linked. There are like seven/eight podcasts. I’ve only heard the first two, and doubt I’ll listen to any more (they’re very long) but the grounds on which this guy was convicted for first degree murder appear to be tenuous in the extreme. There are these arguments ‘oh, he must have killed his ex-girlfriend out of jealousy, he felt humiliated on being dumped etc’. That he killed his ex has far from been established, and if he did it could be any number of things. It could be for reasons the judge/jury has no knowledge whatsoever of (I’m not sure if this is applicable in the Indian context, but in many other common law jurisdictions lawyers are at complete liberty to present extremely selective evidence, or deliberately withhold stuff that runs counter to, or further complicates their case). He could have even done it for reasons utterly inconceivable for any other human being.

  8. Loved this post! And as a long-term fan of your blog and the true-crime genre, I can't tell you *how* thrilled I am that I found the exact same flaw in narration that you mentioned a bit unsettling after having read the book and then immediately, the first chapter again. But I thought I was being nitpicky, because like you, I too am mostly convinced that the Talwars are not guilty of the murders here.

    "In the social-media age, where opinions are cheap and plentiful, we are all judges and have forums on which to express our views"

    I don't know if you've caught on to the Serial podcast phenomenon, but this is exactly what's happening there, even today, almost a year after the first episode aired. Reddit is full of armchair sleuths, picking out information and data from 15 years ago, spinning theories on what could have happened, but more disturbingly drawing inferences related to the crime based on how certain people "behaved" after the crime. And the people in this case are teenagers in high school. Sigh.

    PS: Sorry for the post-size comment. Really looking forward to the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book!

    1. Shivani: thanks. And no issue at all with "post-sized comments" - I don't get enough of those these days. (Another outgrowth of the social-media age!)

  9. I don't have an opinion on the Talwar case because I don't know enough about it, but I'm pleased to see one of my favorite journalists/writers, Gene Weingarten, mentioned here. You may already know this, but Gene hosts a monthly live discussion called "Chatological Humor" on the WPost website. The chats are pretty free-flowing and cover all manner of topics ranging from the absurd to the profound. I know that Gene has discussed his article on MacDonald and McGinniss several times. He argues persuasively for MacDonald's guilt. In case you're interested, here's a link to his columns, discussions and feature articles: