by BJW Nashe
In Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision, we have a grisly triple murder at the Fort Bragg home of Ivy League doctor and Green Beret Captain Jeffrey McDonald. The doctor’s pregnant wife and two young daughters are stabbed and bludgeoned to death. The doctor suffers relatively minor, non-life threatening wounds. The crime scene investigation is botched. Charges are filed against the doctor, then dropped. Nearly a decade later, the doctor is put on trial. He enlists well-known journalist Joe McGinniss to tell his story. The doctor is eventually convicted of murder, for killing his own family. The journalist’s book, three years in the making, becomes a true crime classic. The doctor feels betrayed by the writer, so he sues him. The controversy surrounding the case shadows the journalist. He can’t get away from it. He is attacked by other journalists, criticized, called names. Thirty-four years later, the controversy still swirls, as attorneys push for a new trial in light of DNA evidence. It is a rich, multi-faceted tragedy, with tragicomic elements. The questions keep piling up and new books keep coming out. No one is quite certain whether Dr. McDonald is actually the murderer.
The triple murder on February 17, 1970 of Collette, Kristen, and Kimberley MacDonald was a perplexing tragedy that received plenty of national attention, though it was perhaps overshadowed by other high profile crimes committed during the same time period by the Manson Family, for instance, and the Zodiac Killer. And the MacDonald family murders were strangely linked to some of those other shocking deaths. A copy of Esquire Magazine with a cover story on Charles Manson was found at the MacDonald crime scene. (In 1970, Manson was somehow connected to everything — an essential part of the zeitgeist.) In the McDonald family master bedroom, above the bed, the word “pig” had been scrawled in blood. In numerous statements, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald claimed that he and his family had been attacked by deranged hippies saying things like, “Acid is Groovy” and “Kill the Pigs.”
The only problem was that there was no evidence whatsoever of any intruders. Not a hint of hippies — or anyone else other than the doctor and his family. Indeed, the crime scene appeared staged — showing few if any signs of a realistic, spontaneous struggle. The fact that Dr. MacDonald was left alive, while his family was so brutally murdered, seemed strange. Yet Dr. MacDonald, an all-American success story educated at Princeton and now serving as a Green Beret, with no history of mental illness or criminal activity, was about as far from the stereotypical psycho killer as one could get.
Could McDonald really be responsible for the carnage inside his house? When case-hardened MPOs (military police officers) arrived at his Fort Bragg home, even they were shocked. MacDonald’s pregnant wife, Colette, was stabbed 16 times with a knife and 21 times with an ice pick. Daughter Kimberly, age five, was bludgeoned and stabbed in the neck. Kristen, age two, was stabbed 48 times; one of her fingers had been nearly severed as she tried to fend off the blows.
At a closed military hearing, although Dr. MacDonald was the only likely suspect, initial charges against him were dropped due to lack of evidence, even though his version of events made little sense, and there was nothing to indicate an attack by intruders. Flamboyant defense attorney Bernie Segal was able to shred the testimony of investigators who had made a mess of the crime scene investigation. Even circumstantial evidence against Dr. MacDonald was cast into doubt. In the aftermath of the tragedy and the dropped charges, Dr. MacDonald — an extreme “Type A” personality — enjoyed a certain amount of publicity, or perhaps notoriety is a better term. He talked to news reporters at length; he appeared on the Dick Cavett show. He did not appear overly traumatized.
Dr. MacDonald’s father-in-law, who had initially supported the doctor, soon changed his mind following his own investigative work, and pushed civilian authorities to pursue the case. A grand jury subsequently indicted MacDonald in 1975. He was found guilty of murder four years later, and is serving three life sentences. If his appeal fails, he does not become eligible for parole until 2071.
All of this makes for a compelling murder case. When crafted into the shape of a true crime classic by journalist Joe McGinniss, the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald takes on a near-mythic quality. The story of how Fatal Visioncame to be written, and the controversy that still haunts the book to this day, is just as fascinating as the crime story itself.
Joe McGinniss was educated at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1965. After working as a journalist in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, he achieved massive success with his 1968 book about Richard Nixon, The Selling of the President, which is still considered a classic of campaign reporting. By 1979, he had written several other books, and was working as a writer-in-residence at the L.A. Herald Examiner. He was then approached by Dr. MacDonald, who was interested in having a talented, yet sympathetic reporter tell his story as he moved ahead with his upcoming trial defense.
For the trial, McGinniss embedded himself in the defense team. He lived in the same house as Dr. MacDonald for several months. Initially impressed by the doctor’s intelligence and charisma, and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, McGinniss gradually achieved a frightening new understanding of the defendant, and the tragic events of the night of February 17, 1979. McGinniss slowly became convinced that MacDonald’s outward appearance of all-American perfection, though compelling at first, in fact belied a psychopathic personality. He came to view MacDonald as a Gatsby-like character. Pull back the curtain on MacDonald, strip away the outer veneer of prestige, wealth, and success, and something truly awful was revealed. The over-achiever was over-compensating for some inexplicable inner darkness. Thus, we learn of the controlling behavior, the violent temper, the hatred of any criticism, the intolerance of imperfection, the amphetamine abuse, the womanizing.
Fatal Vision is a tour de force of true crime reporting, frequently compared with two other classics of the genre –Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. McGinniss’ s 900-plus page monster wipes the floor with most crime fiction lining the bookstore shelves, and blows just about every other true crime book out of the water. His close proximity to the defendant, his obsessive grappling with all details of the investigation and trial, and the steady revelation of the doctor’s psychotic, narcissistic personality disorder all makes for a powerful reading experience. McGinniss has described how this case consumed him — his sleepless nights and fits of anxiety, all brought on by the creepiness of the slowly unraveling mystery. This heady cocktail of diverse elements infuses Fatal Vision with a sense of drama and foreboding that is rare in non-fiction.
In writing this masterpiece, Joe McGinnis came to realize that the man he was living with, who had hired him to tell his story, was a murderer. No gang of crazed hippies had killed MacDonald’s wife and two daughters. It was the Green Beret doctor himself, in a speed-fueled psychotic rage. We can only imagine what the man’s patients — who he had been treating throughout the 1970s — must have thought about all of this.
But is this what really happened? Did McGinniss get the story right? Fatal Vision was a bestseller in 1983. A television miniseries followed one year later. Meanwhile, Jeffrey MacDonald was stewing in prison, plotting his appeals. And we get the sense that McGinniss was finally ready to move on, let go of his obsession with the grisly tale. The grisly tale, however, was not ready to let go of him.
MacDonald, although he had signed a release allowing McGinniss to basically write whatever he wanted, felt betrayed by the author and filed a civil suit against McGinniss in 1984, alleging that McGinniss pretended to believe MacDonald innocent after coming to the conclusion that MacDonald was guilty, in order to ensure the doctor’s continued cooperation. After the six-week civil trial resulted in a hung jury, the insurance company for McGinniss’s publisher chose to settle out of court with MacDonald for $325,000.
Then the inevitable backlash ensued. Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost published a book called Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders, which was a clear counterattack to Fatal Vision. Claiming that MacDonald was without a doubt innocent, Potter and Bost criticized McGinniss’s book for being wildly inaccurate. In particular, they tried to lay waste to McGinnis’s theory that the doctor’s murderous frenzy was brought on by abusing diet pills. At the civil trial, McGinnis had been forced to admit under oath that he had no hard evidence to support his diet pill theory, and that it may not have happened at all. Potter and Bost also pointed out that Judge Ross, who presided over the civil trial, had likened McGinniss’s conduct toward MacDonald to that of “a thief in the night.” Even worse, the judge had then corrected himself, saying, “I guess a thief in the night wouldn’t see you. He is more of a con man than he is a thief.”
Perhaps, but this might be said of all great writers. And in reading Fatal Vision, we have little doubt that we are in the company of an outstanding investigative journalist. Surely, some of our finest novelists and reporters have been called far worse things than con artists or thieves. Just read some of the criticism of Hemingway, for example. Papa could probably have lived with accusations like “con artist” and “thief” without breaking a sweat. In fact, he might have even viewed such claims as damned fine praise.
In her own book, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Janet Malcolm used the “Fatal Vision Case” to explorethe problematic relationship between journalists and their subjects. Delving into the murky world of journalistic ethics, rather than attempting some sort of nuanced position on the issue, Malcolm simply damns all journalists to hell for their immoral tactics. She is highly critical of McGinniss; yet she seems to be saying there is plenty of blame to go around. In other words, he is by no means alone in his transgressions:
“Every journalist,” she writes, “knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and then betraying them without remorse.”
McGinniss has responded to this by defending his methods. Of course, he argues, no journalist is going to show his entire hand when dealing with subjects. Both parties are engaged in a certain amount of cat-and-mouse. To accuse a writer of outright deception or betrayal is crude, however. A more complex game is being played by both journalist and subject in a case as morally complicated as the MacDonald murder trial. And the truth of the matter, according to McGinniss, is that Dr. MacDonald was the one most deeply committed to manipulation and persuasion, not vice versa. His sense of betrayal only reflects his disappointment over the fact that his attempt to sway the reporter ultimately failed. So who was really trying to con who here?
Malcolm’s critique of McGinniss is too one-sided. And besides, even if what she is saying has a kernel of truth — that journalists are “immoral” — we are still left with the question of “so what?” McGinniss got extremely close to the story he was covering. His book delivered the goods. Brilliantly. So what if he “betrayed” someone? Loyalty and trustworthiness were not exactly part of his job description in writing Fatal Vision.
It goes on and on. MacDonald’s attempts to appeal his conviction received renewed attention with the 2012 release of a book provocatively titled, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. Written by Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, this account of the MacDonald family murders portrays the Green Beret doctor as a man who has been wrongfully convicted on the basis of incomplete and corrupted evidence, as well as prosecutorial misconduct.
In December 2012, McGinniss himself felt the need to weigh in on the whole issue one more time with Final Vision: The Last Word on Jeffrey MacDonald.
Except that this won’t be the last word on Jeffrey MacDonald. We will no doubt keep hearing more about this unique American nightmare in the coming months, as the wheels of justice keep grinding.
Last year in September, MacDonald’s attempts to appeal his conviction resulted in a federal hearing in Wilmington, North Carolina. McGinniss was called to testify for the prosecution. He thus came face to face with his infamous subject for the first time in years. McGinniss found the doctor, after years in prison, to be a shadow of the man he once was. Even a Green Beret is no match for the penitentiary. At the hearing, MacDonald’s lawyers asserted that newly-discovered DNA evidence — three hairs that match neither MacDonald nor any of the victims — and the secondhand confession of a key witness who claimed to be at the family’s home the night of the murders, justify reopening the case. As yet, no decision has been made as to whether there will be a new trial.
The “Fatal Vision case” continues to wrap its tentacles around McGinniss. It appears to be the story with which he will be forever linked. For this writer, it has been a lucrative blessing as well as a troubling curse. Much like Capote and the Kansas murders depicted in In Cold Blood, McGinniss has enjoyed considerable fame and success as a result of his true crime epic. Yet he struggles to get past the Jeffrey MacDonald saga, to fully close the door on the psychotic doctor. Some of McGinniss’s subsequent books have been reasonably well-received. Others have bombed. None have enjoyed the stupendous success of Fatal Vision. At least McGinniss has continued investigating and writing, unlike Capote, whose life degenerated into a celebrity blur of booze, pills, parties, and talk shows.
McGinniss’s latest book is The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin (2011). Just as he bravely embedded himself in the psychotic doctor’s defense team three decades ago, in order to get as close as possible to the story, for The Rogue McGinniss moved to Wasilla, Alaska, in order to live next door to the Palin’s. Surely, McGinniss’s courage as a reporter is beyond any doubt. Being called a con man is the least of his worries.
In the end, McGinniss remains unconvinced by any attempts to tarnish his own book and exonerate Jeffrey MacDonald: “He’s a psychopath,” says McGinniss. “He doesn’t have the kind of emotions that you and I would have. He doesn’t have the capacity to feel badly about it. These weren’t his wife and children. These were people that got in his way.”
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