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.
Below is the interview from the end of Part Two. It’s not the actual interview but a 48 Hours segment about the interview (getting an archive of the interview requires me to be a much more important person than I actually am), but nonetheless we get to see a glimpse of MacDonald’s demeanor independent of McGinniss’ editorial lens.
And here’s the version that showed up in the miniseries. (Note that I link the entire video here, but it should jump to the interview. Simply stop watching when the interview ends. Or keep watching. Whatever you wanna do, man. I’m not your dad.)
This is a bad look for MacDonald who, as the 48 Hours segment noted, becomes his own worst enemy. MacDonald comes off as needlessly unconcerned and flippant. So when we see MacDonald using the death of his wife and children as an opportunity to bump shoulders with Countess Christina Paolozzi and make jokes about late-night talk show feuds on national television, it’s hard to find fault with McGinniss’ work. As it is noted in The Journalist and the Murderer, a text I will be referencing quite a bit in this post (emphasis added):
In my talks and correspondence with MacDonald I glimpsed some of the more appealing facets of his personality…and I came to allow for the vapidity of his speech and writing, as one allows for a handicap. But the MacDonald of Fatal Vision was also there. McGinniss betrayed him and devastated him and possibly misjudged him, but he didn’t invent him.
So why am I angry? Why did I spend all of that time talking about good writing and some nonsense about bridges only to blow my intellectual capital on such a vulgar, unwarranted attack against a great, dead author? In Fatal Vision, McGinniss comments after the Article 32 hearing (emphasis added):
Even before the Article 32 hearing began, MacDonald seemed entranced by the newspaper and television publicity he was receiving and decided that, eventually, he would like to have someone write a book about the case. Handled properly, such a book could make him not only famous but rich. He, after all, had a story, and nobody simply “told” a story anymore. People with stories sold the rights to them, something Bernie Segal repeatedly assured MacDonald that he would someday have the chance to do. (p. 270-271)
Yo, McGinniss: you are the one writing that book.
To elaborate: there’s a misguided, slimy attempt by McGinniss to take the moral high ground. He frames MacDonald as an opportunistic weasel, while McGinniss operates as more of a bystander than an author, implying that MacDonald is a horrible person for daring to seek monetary compensation for his story. Or did McGinniss write this book for charity?
To hear somebody who isn’t McGinniss tell it (via The Journalist and the Murderer):
“In Jeff’s case, there was the obvious self-serving motive: he wanted a book that would tell the world he was an innocent and a nice guy. But at some point the world’s opinion became secondary, and the real audience for Jeff’s ego became Joe.”
During the production of Fatal Vision, there was an anxiety among McGinniss, his agent, and his publisher that somebody else – somebody not him – was working on their own bestselling Jeffrey MacDonald work. These forces were “extraordinarily active” in their efforts to insure others were not writing about the case. (This effort is documented in The Journalist and the Murderer).
Two other authors, Bob Keeler (Newsday reporter) and our friend Freddy Kassab were eyeing their own takes on the story while McGinniss was still busy crafting his. Thankfully for McGinniss, Kassab’s book never came out, and Keeler’s was poorly written and critically ignored.
To a certain extent, I understand this act of self-preservation. Writing is a valuable art, and its efforts should be valued both intellectually and financially. Nobody wants to spend all of this time and effort on a wet fart. And nothing wets a fart quite like somebody else releasing the definitive account you feel that you alone are qualified to journal. But again, we’re dealing with an author who is openly chastising his subject for having a predilection towards recognition and fame that directly led to him being hired in the first place, a predilection that would one day pay for McGinniss’ groceries.
From The Journalist and the Murderer, concerning McGinniss (who starts to sound like a certain somebody else we think we know):
“I view McGinniss as part of the Eastern literati, as someone who relishes fame, someone who is adept at name-dropping, who enjoys the accouterments of money and influence, who likes partying and lighthearted leisure activities.”
Gary Bostwick (MacDonald’s lawyer during MacDonald v. McGinniss) also had this to say about McGinniss:
“McGinniss said he owed it to Colette and to the kids to write the book, but – as I said in my closing argument – it wasn’t them he owed, it was the Bank of New England. If you read those letters to MacDonald, you’ll see that he was in financial trouble the whole time.”
(A reference is made to “those letters.” Those will be posted at a later date. Just know for now that McGinniss sort of pretended to be MacDonald’s friend. Look for my opinion on that matter much later in a post that I guess can only be titled “Fuck Joe McGinniss, Part II”)
One of the unavoidable realities of this blog post: the argument that McGinniss’ scumbagginess runs parallel to MacDonald’s comes mostly from one source: The Journalist and the Murderer. This leads us to ask: is Janet Malcolm guilty of the same sin as McGinniss? (The actual answer is sort of/it’s complicated. Seriously, if you can, read that book. It’s amazing.)
But what about me? I’m like 1000 words deep into this sick burn of a blog post, yet I haven’t acknowledged the role that I have played in this cycle. After all, McGinniss – and all great writers – write to be read. As a reader of this true-crime masterpiece, I helped somebody make money off of a tragic murder. I am the end user MacDonald and McGinniss envisioned when they started signing deals and collecting advances and writing duplicitous letters. It’s hard to reconcile being a fan of true-crime with the fact that somebody’s death is somebody else’s gain. (Maybe I should change the title of this blog post to “Fuck Me.”)
The real reason I choose to scrutinize this Fatal Vision passage is because it informs so much of how we should view our relationship with Jeff MacDonald, and Fatal Vision, going forward. I’m not asking anybody to like MacDonald, nor am I asking anybody to discount everything that McGinniss or Fatal Vision says. But Fatal Vision is about so much more than “did he/didn’t he”: it’s an examination of a broken man’s bad attempt to avoid being cast as the villain in his own story. Unfortunately, his story was written by the great Joe McGinniss.