Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Snape killed Dumbledore. Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald was found guilty by a jury of his peers for the murder of his pregnant wife and two children, ending an investigation that had lasted over ten years.
In putting together this reading group, I began to worry about the concept of “spoilers.” Everybody who consumes pop culture and treasures its impact has become deathly aware of the dangers of a spoiler in the wild. If somebody knows the ending, why stick around for how they got there?
I remember watching Game of Thrones years after everybody else had started it. I was already aware that *spoiler* Robb and Catelyn Stark die at the hands of Walder Frey (the Red Wedding). So, when I watched it happen, I didn’t jump on top of my couch and start yelling at the TV (that’s what the people who didn’t have that moment spoiled did, right?). Rather, I nodded contently and wondered if they really needed to stab Charlie Chaplin’s great-granddaughter in the belly so many times.
Even though I belong to the school of thought that believes spoiler panic is overblown (and spoilers have actually been shown to increase your enjoyment of literature), I get why people want to be protected from spoilers. But is it possible to spoil a nonfiction book? Can you spoil history?
When Robert Durst was arrested for the murder of Susan Berman early in 2015, I was shocked. I had fallen off of watching The Jinx: The Life and Death of Robert Durst, which before the finale seemed like a competent-enough documentary series about the legal privileges a father’s money can buy. So after hearing that Durst had made his way back into the news for the very thing covered in the documentary, it gave the show an intoxicating immediacy, especially after deducing from the CNN article (which carefully danced around the reveal) that something rawwww had gone down on HBO the night before.
Then I caught wind of this article in Variety, an entertainment trade magazine. The headline read:
I understand that The Jinx is a television show designed to entertain as much as it informs. I also get that hearing Durst straight-up maybe-confess to murder might have been the illest television moment of all-time (even if the filmmakers had to resort to vigilantism to get it out of him). So who would want that ruined for them? But it is important to remember that Durst’s bathroom confession isn’t his series finale. His life isn’t a television show, and neither was the life of Susan Berman. Or Morris Black. Or Kathleen Durst.
The same thing will be said about Colette MacDonald (35) and Kimberley MacDonald (5) and Kristen MacDonald (2), the wonderful women killed if not by Jeff MacDonald, then by somebody with a real, potent rage. As rational, civilized human beings, we are allowed to dabble in the macabre, and true-crime provides a safe, vicarious outlet for these curiosities, whether they are intellectual (criminal justice, law), psychological (what drives men to kill?), or maybe even participatory (What if I could figure this case out? Could I plan the perfect crime?). But to admit spoiler aversion is to regard their deaths as pure entertainment fodder, as if the MacDonald women owe it to us to have died in the most climactic, most literary way possible.
**Spoiler alert, I guess**
As of this post, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald is still alive. Now 72 years old, MacDonald will spend the rest of his life (an unlikely parole notwithstanding) serving out his three consecutive life sentences in a federal prison in Maryland. Over the years, he has maintained his innocence.
After the publication of Fatal Vision, MacDonald sued the author, Joe McGinniss, for fraud and breach of contract, fearing that McGinniss not only libeled MacDonald, but also misled MacDonald into believing he was writing one kind of a book (a gentle one) when he really intended to write another (Fatal Vision). They settled out of court, but the damage had been done, and the public was put in an uncomfortable position: do you side with the Joe McGinniss, the duplicitous-yet-vindicated author who believes wholeheartedly that MacDonald is not only guilty of the murder, but precisely the type of psychopath who would kill his family over something as innocuous as a little girl who wet her bed? Or do you believe Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the convicted murderer who watched as his good friend wrote a best-selling “nonfiction novel” filled with libelous non-facts and convenient half-truths?