I’m not sure why now, but the Jeffrey MacDonald case is having something of a cultural resurgence. A new Hulu/FX documentary based on legendary documentarian Errol Morris’s book A Wilderness of Error just aired, with a podcast, Morally Indefensible, to accompany it.
Ok, maybe it’s just that one thing which is actually two things, plus I coincidentally happened to finally get around to reading Fatal Vision, the controversial book about the case, in August after last year reading Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. Maybe also because of some brief mentions in an Elisa Gabbert essay. So long story short (too late) it feels like it’s everywhere.
In the early hours of a February morning in 1970, physician and Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald, one of those prototype, Princeton-educated, everything-going-for-him-on-the-surface young men, called police, reporting a home invasion and attack on himself, his pregnant wife Colette, and his two young daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, at their military housing in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
MacDonald was the sole survivor, with a few light stab wounds. His wife and children had been brutally murdered, “overkill” compared to MacDonald’s suspiciously minor — almost surgeon-precise — cuts. He claimed he’d been knocked out by hippies who’d broken into the apartment, including a woman with long blonde hair wearing a floppy hat and chanting “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” “Pig” was written in blood on the headboard of a bed, conjuring the horror still freshly resonant in the country over the Manson murders.
Despite objective lies as well as oddities in MacDonald’s story and the crime scene(s), including that each family member had a different blood type, which made tracking movements of bodies across rooms unusually easy and disproving MacDonald’s narrative, he was acquitted in a military hearing and moved to California, continued practicing, lived beachfront with a yacht, and dated a lot of women. Which: fine, he was free to do that.
But somewhere along the way, his father-in-law Freddy Kassab grew suspicious. Too much about MacDonald’s behavior was strange, his concerns were clearly only for himself and he showed little emotion for the family he’d lost so devastatingly. He was also reticent to share certain files with Kassab, who began poring over evidence himself.
So enter Joe McGinniss.
I suppose from the start I had suspected that there must be more to the case against MacDonald than he had suggested to me on the day that I met him. The Justice Department does not try a man for murder nine and a half years after the crimes just because his father-in-law is mad at him.
McGinniss, a journalist with a successful book, The Selling of the President 1968, already under his belt, was approached by MacDonald with the offer to embed with his defense team as they prepared for the federal trial.
McGinniss was given access to the defense’s entire materials, and MacDonald recorded diary-like tapes from prison at his urging, detailing episodes from his past. They are very sexually focused in a very uncomfortable way. Transcripts are reproduced in the book that will make your skin crawl, because his narcissism and obsession with sexual conquests, even twisting the truth or rewriting history around these for no apparent reason, is grotesque.
Fatal Vision, first published in 1983, is a perennially popular true crime book, and it’s easy to see why. It’s entirely immersive, as you’d expect from McGinniss’s position within the defense — they even lived together at a rented frat house in North Carolina before and during the trial.
But where the book, and a subsequent TV miniseries, gained infamy were in McGinniss’ methodology. He wasn’t the first author MacDonald approached to tell the story of being wrongfully accused — that was Onion Field author Joseph Wambaugh. He got a different impression at their first meeting, coming away from it convinced MacDonald was guilty. He offered to write the book, but to tell the story based on the facts he discovered. He never heard back from MacDonald.
McGinniss developed a friendship with MacDonald, initially believing him innocent. But the more time he spent with him, and the more he examined the evidence — and, really, regardless of whether you think his trials or media coverage were fair, it is next to impossible to argue with the mountains of physical evidence in this case. This guy is guilty, and McGinniss, with creeping horror, arrived at this conclusion. (As has basically any journalist who’s reviewed the evidence, with the exception of Janet Malcolm, who we’ll get to in a minute. Here’s Washington Post veteran Gene Weingarten succinctly laying out the most important, inarguable evidence of MacDonald’s guilt.)
But McGinniss didn’t let on that he’d changed his mind about MacDonald’s innocence. Instead, he encouraged him to keep making confessional tapes, effectively digging his grave deeper by providing McGinniss more ammunition against him. After the book’s release, MacDonald sued McGinniss for breaching their agreement.
Fatal Vision is massively compelling — I spent most of an eight-hour flight plus a few evenings totally glued to it — but some of the legal narrative, which comprises much of the book’s latter part, didn’t hold my interest. It’s not overly complex or esoteric, it just becomes repetitive and dry in the way that verbatim courtroom transcripts tend to be. I wished that such a large portion of it wasn’t directly quoted trial dialogues and questionings when McGinniss’ writing is so compelling and revealing otherwise.
But it’s a minor quibble. The overall impact of this thing, despite leaving you queasy, is mighty.
There does exist a great difficulty in accepting that a father would massacre his wife and children, which is, I think, why people consistently hesitate in accepting MacDonald’s guilt despite the overwhelming forensic evidence and the story that the crime scene, blood trails, and MacDonald’s own body tell in this case. The details are tough — like that his youngest daughter likely slept through the attacks on the other two, not witnessing what happened, but he made the decision to kill her anyway.
It is not easy for anyone who’s not a sociopath to accept these facts, so I understand why we insist on there being another explanation. The big alternative theory is around Helena Stoeckley, a hippie drug addict who could fit the description of the woman MacDonald described and who claimed to have been in the MacDonald house the night of the murders. She’s long been the linchpin in his defense.
Except she testified at his trial, denying her involvement despite years of confusingly telling people she “thought” she’d been there, she knew no details that weren’t public, and she’d been blitzed on various drugs for a long time, including the time of the murders, so a reliable witness she is not. McGinniss clearly shows what a red herring she is, but Morris saw things differently, and from that stemmed Wilderness of Error.
But first, in 1990 New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm got a bee in her bonnet about McGinniss’s journalistic ethics, and she interviewed MacDonald herself and perused the case files. As McGinniss’ widow, Nancy Doherty, relates in the new docuseries, Malcolm spoke with him as well, then publicly shamed him in The Journalist and the Murderer, using him as a case study for not doing his job correctly.
But Malcolm’s own angle here is curious. At one point, she exhaustedly references a towering stack of case files, saying that the answer isn’t to be found there. You mean in all the physical evidence? Seriously?
This was the problem of the book for me, and maybe a problem I have in general with Malcolm (yes, I know how arrogant this sounds to critique Janet Malcolm, but nevertheless). There’s an almost academic sort of loftiness to her work and analysis that I find off-putting and sometimes feels like reading too much into things.
So this becomes a book-length exercise in finger-wagging at McGinniss for not meeting the journalistic standards she expected, even though the book opens with the now-famous line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
It felt very much like being on a high horse, which, I agree that McGinniss was deceitful — if you listen to his letters to MacDonald read on the podcast, he clearly sets MacDonald up, encouraging him to relax and share lurid details of his sex life, including how he’d cheated on Colette.
But at the same time, he wasn’t exactly handing him a noose. McGinniss didn’t testify in the trial that convicted him and the book was published years after his conviction.
Something that comes up repeatedly in MacDonald’s defense is that there is no motive for him to be responsible. Maybe I’m just cynical, but what kind of detailed motive is needed? Family annihilators are what this kind of killer are called. It happens often enough that there’s a name for them. He wanted a commitment-free, bachelor lifestyle.
Colette had been a high school sweetheart, and they’d briefly separated at one point during that period, again during college. They reunited and she got pregnant while he was still a student. Is it such a shock that a self-obsessed womanizer would put his own desires ahead of the family he’d created? Not to mention that as McGinniss unearthed in MacDonald’s own notes describing the night of the murders, he was taking too much Eskatrol, a now-banned amphetamine then prescribed for weight loss, and which is basically speed.
Malcolm is impressed that MacDonald has consistently maintained his innocence; he will never admit to guilt even though it could’ve gotten him parole in 2018. This stalwartness is convincing to her. But that’s what narcissists DO. It is NEVER their fault; this is a fundamental tenet of narcissism (cf. Donald Trump.)
So although I found the book interesting, and interestingly meta, not to mention an important argument for ethics in journalism, what responsibility a journalist has, and the controversy around all of it, I was also irritated by her own hypocrisy. Doherty speaks on the podcast and in the series about how Malcolm also played as if on their side and then wrote something different, effectively tarnishing McGinniss’ reputation for the rest of his life.
This case is undeniably fascinating though, as evidenced by the amount of attention dedicated to it over the years.
Have you read either of these or watched the show?