Fatal Vision

Spring 2016 Informal Reading Group

Author: admin

A Reasonable Doubt, Pt. 1


On February 17, 1970, a man named Jimmy Friar needed to make a phone call. He was an AWOL soldier who, for reasons not made clear, needed to speak to Dr. Richard MacDonald. So he called around to some hospitals before one of them gave him the residence number of Dr. MacDonald. The wrong MacDonald. Our MacDonald.

From A Wilderness of Error:

Friar then called the operator at the same pay telephone and told her that he had just lost 10 cents in the telephone, and requested her to dial the telephone number which Womack Army Hospital had given him. The operator dialed the number and a female answered the telephone. Friar asked for Dr. MacDonald and the female broke into hysterical laughter. Friar asked again to speak to MacDonald and this same female continued to laugh…The only words which Friar could recall being said were, “Hang up the goddamn phone.”

The woman on the other end of the phone is believed to be Helena Stoeckley, the woman Jeff MacDonald believes to have seen in his house burning a candle on the night his family was murdered.

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New Reading Schedule

Hello, group!

I sent out an email with the new reading schedule, but I also wanted to post it here. Feel free to email me at dhjuby@ou.edu if there is a problem with the new schedule.

For 3/2 – All of Part Three (p. 295-416)
For 3/9 – I’m actually thinking we won’t do a reading here, and instead we’ll watch the first hour or so of the Fatal Vision miniseries/eat some pizza. This would also be a great moment to discuss things we didn’t discuss in previous meetings.
For 3/16 – No Meeting (Spring Break)
For 3/23 – All of Part Four (p. 419-646) (the idea here being, with the extra weeks, it should be plenty of time to complete the especially larger reading)
For 3/30 – Watch More of the Fatal Vision miniseries/eat more pizza
For 4/6 – All of Part Five (p. 649-806)
For 4/13 –All of the Conclusion (p. 809-908)
For 4/20 – Finish the miniseries/pizza


F**k Joe McGinniss


So far, I’ve been relatively coy about my feelings towards Joe McGinniss’ depiction of Jeffrey MacDonald.

Before this reading, McGinniss’ MacDonald is a charming, yet bumbling idiot whose hilariously bad alibi was miraculously validated by an even more hilarious, Benny Hill-theme-scored Army investigation. However, the end of the Article 32 hearing marks the beginning of MacDonald’s heel turn: no longer a man plagued by a suspicious nervousness, the new MacDonald’s swagger and media savvy, powered by his resounding victory, propels him to a national audience. Once an empathetic, if problematic victim of a bizarre triple murder, McGinniss’ new MacDonald is all about getting real paid, courtesy of a murder we’re still not entirely sure he didn’t commit.

A great writer never writes anything by accident. Because every word is scrutinized, and every sentence is assembled with precision, a great writer’s finished product resembles something comparable to a bridge, a feat of engineering where every strut and rivet serves such a hyperspecific function that it’s hard to imagine the bridge functioning without it. So it must be said that Joe McGinniss is a great writer, and by extension, Fatal Vision is a great book.

But there’s something deeply hypocritical about McGinniss’ exploration of this dark chapter in MacDonald’s story, and for that, I feel comfortable dropping the pretense: fuck Joe McGinniss.

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The Murders of Colette, Kimberley, and Kristen MacDonald

It was important to me that I begin the post by highlighting these pictures of Colette, Kimberley, and Kristen alive. Had these children not been killed, they would be your mother’s age today.





Warning: after the jump, there will be graphic images of the crime scene. Needless to say, this was not a fun Google search.

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Fatal Vision and Public Perception

During a press tour for his book, A Wilderness of Error, Errol Morris visited The Colbert Report. It’s a fun interview, and it provides a good recap of the events covered in Fatal Vision (as well as an opportunity to see Colbert wearing a carved-up trash can with an iPad glued to it).


An excerpt from A Wilderness of Error elaborates on why the documentary filmmaker could not get this story made into a movie (emphasis mine):

I am a filmmaker, so I first imagined it as a movie. I went to a variety of studio meetings. But the movie I wanted to make was nonstandard. The pitch: there are two opposed theories of what happened at 544 Castle Drive on the morning of February 17, 1970. Neither had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet most Americans had only ever been presented with half a story, the half that held that MacDonald was definitely the killer, the half that was the basis for Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a bestselling book that was adapted into a TV miniseries. So let me describe the movie that I imagined. I wanted to cast Gary Cole, who played MacDonald in the TV miniseries, and to use him for my own reenactments of the case. I would juxtapose these reenactments with scenes from the original TV movie. It would be a version of Rashomon, the film by Akira Kurosawa, with competing narrators and different points of view. Here, it would be by the same actor. Such a movie, I thought, could open the case back up and show how critical evidence was ignored or suppressed, how the evidence that was introduced does not confirm MacDonald’s guilt. It could help people think and decide for themselves. I stopped. The studio executive across the table clearly wanted to say no. She paused for a moment and said, “We can’t make that.” I asked why. “Because he’s guilty,” she said. “The man killed his family.” And I said, “But he might be innocent.” And she said, “No. He killed his family.” 

From The Journalist and the Murderer: when Malcolm was interviewing MacDonald, he spoke of one particular letter he received following the publication of Fatal Vision. “That’s part of the shattering impact of McGinniss’ book,” he said to Malcolm. “People who have read it feel that they know me, that they have got inside my head.” (emphasis mine)

August 19, 1984

Dear Inmate MacDonald,

   My wife and I are here in beautiful and sunny Hawaii having a great time, and we both have read the novel Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss while laying on the beach here in Waikiki.
We are both, I must tell you, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are guilty as all hell of the murders of your wife and daughters.
We have two lovely and bright daughters of our own and thank God they were not subjected to a “madman” of a father.
I have no compassion for an individual as sick, demented, and sordid as surely you must be. From the text of McGinniss’s well versed story about you, it is plain to see that you are a liar of outrageous stature.
   Anyone who could do what he did to a pregnant woman is really a slime, but what you did to two helpless children is even sicker and more difficult to comprehend and believe. It states in the book (I believe) that you are eligible for parole in 1991. We only pray to God that authorities in charge of such proceedings will have better sense than your Army peers did years ago and never let you loose. You are obviously a latent homosexual (or perhaps no longer latent now that you are where you are! Perhaps, by now, you may well be the “Queen of the Hop” there in the joint, hm?) who hates women because you are an impotent faggot, true?
   At any rate, we just wanted you to know we enjoyed the novel but feel sure you are guilty and a pervert maniac like you should never be cut loose. You should, probably, concentrate on getting yourself a “daddy” there in the joint and becoming the true fag you really must be.

With best wishes,
J— H—

Both Morris’ interaction with studio executives and this hateful letter tap into a common thread of the MacDonald casenot only is the public convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, they are empowered by McGinniss’ portrayal of MacDonald to relegate him to the sub-human status. If you have no reason to believe that MacDonald didn’t kill his pregnant wife and two children, if the only book you read on your Hawaiian vacation is Fatal Vision, then why extend any amount of empathy towards this monster?

(Another thing to note about the letter: the use of the phrase “latent homosexual” in describing MacDonald. Both the book and the case attempt to link MacDonald’s fragile masculinity and supposedly ambiguous sexuality to his decision to murder his wife and children, a link that is as spurious as it is homophobic. The phrase “latent homosexual” is lifted directly from Fatal Vision .)

This is hardly scientific, but during my time researching clips on YouTube, I couldn’t help but fall into the dark hole of the YouTube comments (not recommended, by the way), where the anti-MacDonald sentiment is as potent and charged today as it was back in 1984. Defenses of Jeffrey MacDonald were few and far between, and usually not met with courteous replies. The YouTube comment community doesn’t have a reputation of quality intellectual discourse, but since these comment threads represent public perception well enough, I went ahead and screencapped a few below. More can be found at literally any video concerning the case (although, again, as a general rule of thumb: bad idea. It’s dark down there).

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A couple of people who believe in MacDonald’s innocence. Nobody seemed to agree.

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Here’s what’s tricky about this situation: even when people are acting nasty and kicking MacDonald while he’s down, they’re not inherently wrong. We will never know what really happened that night, who is really guilty. So to these people, the Mr. J— H—s, the “boop poop dee doops” of the world who believe MacDonald is guilty, their outrage feels not only justified, but virtuous. Same goes with Joe McGinniss. If you believe that MacDonald is guilty, then McGinniss is doing a public service by peeling away MacDonald’s composed exterior to reveal the psychopath within, an attitude that has kept public opinion against him and, more importantly, kept him in prison.

But what if we removed the presumption of guilt from this case? What if MacDonald is truly (or even potentially) innocent, and McGinniss misinterpreted his emotional paralysis for psychopathy? How does Fatal Vision feel then? As I stated earlier, when all you believe is Fatal Vision, then you owe MacDonald nothing.

I’m sure I don’t have to try very hard to convince a group full of college students that maybe *don’t* take everything at face value, but you should also understand how much vitriol exists towards MacDonald and how it ends up guiding so much of the conversation around this case.


A Rough Timeline of Events

After the break is an edited timeline assembled from various timelines featured in A Wilderness of Error. I have omitted various points in the timeline (as listed in the book) that are not immediately relevant to somebody being introduced to the case for the first time, mostly concerning the timelines of Helena Stoeckley and Gregory Mitchell. These two will become important later.

This is nothing you need to study or internalize in order to understand or enjoy the events as they unfold in Fatal Vision. This is intended purely as a reference.

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On ‘Spoilers’

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:

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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?


About the Blog

Throughout the semester, I will be providing supplemental material for group members who would like extra context for the events that occur in Fatal Vision. 

We will be consulting two additional texts: The Journalist and the Murderer by columnist Janet Malcolm and A Wilderness of Error by famed documentary filmmaker and former private investigator Errol Morrisas well as other video clips and newspaper articles that give context to Fatal Vision.

The Journalist and the Murderer concerns itself not with the ‘whodunit’ that permeates Fatal Vision, but the ethics surrounding author Joe McGinniss’ portrayal (and betrayal) of Jeff MacDonald. Originally published in The New Yorker magazine as a series of articles, Malcolm uses MacDonald v McGinniss to examine the problematic, parasitic nature of the journalist/subject relationship. To whom does the journalist owe their allegiance? The subject, whose friendship only exists as a way to extract information? Or the publisher, whose desire to print compelling journalism directly influences your professional and personal livelihood? How much influence should the subject have over editorial content, and what are the ethical and constitutional implications of such privilege? Is there a meaningful difference between a “lie” and an “untruth”?

A Wilderness of Erroron the other hand, very much concerns itself with ‘whodunit.’ Errol Morris, famous in part due to his masterful exoneration of Randall Dale Adams in The Thin Blue Line, hopes to do the same for MacDonald, even if he was thirty years too late. Published in 2012, Morris reexamines the case depicted in Fatal Vision and comes to the conclusion MacDonald hoped that McGinniss would have reached in the 1980s: MacDonald did not do what the U.S Army and Justice Department said he had done on the night of February 17, 1970.

You are welcome to read – or not read – whatever I write in this blog. I’ll try to keep the posts short (1000 words seems like a good length, but brevity is hard).

My email is dhjuby@ou.edu if you have any questions.


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