Two Infamous Looks at the Jeffrey MacDonald Case

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.

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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 1983is 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.

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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 Murdererusing 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?

16 thoughts on “Two Infamous Looks at the Jeffrey MacDonald Case

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  1. I was OBSESSED with this book Fatal Vision & the movie when it came out. I agree with your assessment of the forensic evidence…no matter what you think of McGinniss, there’s no amount of journalistic bad behavior that can dismiss the reality. I watched hours of interviews with McDonald and he defines narcissism (like another Donald without the Mac).

    I also watched the FX documentary, A Wilderness of Errors, and while the crime scene was horribly mismanaged, the mounds of evidence still can’t be ignored, no matter how much distraction they sprinkle. They did a good job but I remain unconvinced. In full disclosure, I’m in NC and most people here saw McDonald in all his inelegant glory ad nauseam during that time and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who believes he’s innocent. Hubby is from Fayetteville (home of Ft. Bragg) and when I mentioned the documentary, he unleashed a 10 minute tirade about McDonald.

    Excellent reviews, Ren💜

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    1. Thanks, Jonetta!! I first saw this covered (having heard of both of these books but not knowing in detail what they were about) on one of those Investigation Discovery shows, I think it was People Magazine Investigates. My takeaway was that they totally left the possibility open to this Helena Stoeckley/hippie home invasion angle, which is just so patently BS once you dig just a little deeper.

      That kind of purposeful omission of information or not covering both sides equally, is even more an example of unethical journalism than what McGinniss did, which to me doesn’t exactly sound all that different from undercover investigative journalism. I think Janet Malcolm’s playing at high ethical standards that even SHE doesn’t meet is what blew it all into something bigger. It’s an interesting case study in ethics, but again, I don’t see how it’s wildly different from being undercover.

      I didn’t get the impression that the documentary was indicating he might be innocent, did you? It seemed more to me that they were acknowledging the mismanagement and the alternatives but in a due diligence sort of way, to show the complexities of the whole thing. Even Errol Morris seems on the fence (he was also disappointed with what Weingarten found, in the WaPo link I posted, after fact-checking a detail that had bothered him and disproving it). I don’t think he even believes MacDonald is innocent, just that he didn’t get his fair shake, which I still think he did despite the mistakes.

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      1. I really loved your analysis of the journalistic ethics aspect as I’m no expert. Your perspective is compelling as I struggled to see where McGinniss misstepped in continuing to appear sympathetic. If he ended up with a factual piece, that element alone doesn’t feel wrong (aside from personal opinions about the subterfuge).

        The Errol Morris documentary left me feeling like he was leaning towards the possibility of McDonald being innocent. They seemed to place a lot of weight on that poor Helena Stoeckley, whose drug addled brain was too unreliable to put on the stand. I’ve one more episode so maybe that will bring more clarity.

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      2. Oh I am no expert by far, I think I was just bugged by Malcolm’s attitude around it all, especially since she wasn’t so ethical in her approach either. But I’m so glad it was interesting to read! And I agree, I just can’t fault him for some subterfuge when he was brave enough to finish reporting the truth while living in a house with someone he now knew was a murderer, and had been acquitted once and well could be a second time. I really admire that, actually.

        Supposedly Morris was in favor of his innocence when writing his book and that’s what the book argues (I haven’t read it and don’t really want to), but I think he’s swayed to admitting he doesn’t know and just thinks the investigation was botched. But like you said, the physical evidence here is just incontrovertible. And remember in the book when he lied to his father-in-law that they’d killed one of the home invaders, but otherwise he made zero effort to advocate for finding who actually did it? That just speaks volumes, he didn’t want anyone else digging any more into it. There’s just so, so much against him, circumstantial and forensically.

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  2. I only heard of the case recently, when the documentary came out, though I’ve heard that Janet Malcolm quote before. I am not quite sure what she thinks McGuinness should have done if he became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt – it’s not as though he fabricated evidence.

    I agree with your analysis of why it is so hard for people to believe that he’s guilty – it is always hard to believe that someone would slaughter his wife and family – but it does happen.

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    1. I felt the same; I’m not sure what exactly she expected him to do. If he’d told MacDonald he’d changed his mind it would’ve spelled the end of his opportunity to keep investigating and tell the full story. He admits in the book that he became quite frightened, living with someone he was now convinced was a murderer, and I think it’s brave that he continued. MacDonald had already been acquitted once, who’s to say he wouldn’t be again, and would then be free while a book laying out all the evidence for his guilt was published. He could’ve been less buddy-buddy with him, but I don’t see a massive difference between what he did and what undercover journalists regularly do. It was a strange thing for her to condescend about when she later did essentially the same thing to the McGinnisses!

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    1. I definitely think it’s worth reading. I’d avoided because I tend not to like older-style true crime but I couldn’t fully form an opinion on Malcolm’s book until reading it, and then I just felt more annoyed with her. It’s worth it to get the other perspective!

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  3. Fatal Vision has been saved in my Audible library for years. I have not read Janet Malcolm’s book; however I have watched the new Hulu documentary in full. I still believe that Joe McGinnis gives the most reasonable and closest depiction of what happened in 1970. Jeff is guilty. I hope that if anything ever happens to me my family respond like Freddie and Mildred Kassaub

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    1. I agree, I think McGinniss really worked out the closest approximation of what happened. Not surprising, since he spent the most time on it and had so much access to the materials, but makes it even the stranger that Malcolm was so sour about the whole thing. He did so much work and while living with someone he terrifyingly realized was a murderer in the process! I can’t imagine. And I know what you mean, her parents, especially her stepfather, were really a force.

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  4. I am not a true crime person generally but this post has me FASCINATED. Reading the pair or books like this, one for, one against, must have been such an interesting exercise. The first author’s experience sounds chilling – I can definitely see how easy it would be to get hooked on this story as he gradually realises what he doesn’t want to be true – that the guy definitely did it.

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    1. Yes, absolutely! It is a completely fascinating story, and one that just never seems to end. Even if you’re not a true crime reader but interested in the journalistic ethics aspect of it, I think you’d get a lot of reading the two!

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  5. I’m not a regular poster but I stumbled upon this topic and I wanted to join in. I’m probably older than your average readership here and I remember reading Fatal Vision when it first released (and reread it years later). I also saw the made for TV movie with Cole and Malden 2x. I just read Malcom’s book this year and wasn’t impressed.

    I’ve read articles about Morris recently and my take is that he probably thinks MacDonald is guilty but definitely doesn’t feel he got a fair trial (and a fair shake in the media). In my amateur sleuthing opinion MacDonald is the biggest narcissist out there, minus another Donald. If you watch old TV interviews he gave while out he just doesn’t process the trauma over losing his whole family in the manner that the “average” person would. He’s just creepy. I know that people internalize grief in many different ways, but after all my reading and viewing from years past to today, my take: he is guilty and will never own up to it. He lost control in one horrible night and will never admit he did. Thanks for letting me jump in on this topic which you can see I’ve invested much time in. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rita! Thanks for joining in! I completely agree, he comes across as such a raging narcissist. I think I watched one of the interviews you’re referring to, it was in a documentary on YouTube that showed his appearance on one of the late-night shows shortly after his acquittal and his behavior was unbelievable. Laughing and joking and basking in his celebrity instead of putting out a call for help from the public in solving the murders of his wife and kids, since ostensibly the killers were still out there. It was incredible.

      And I’m not a psychologist so I also try not to overanalyze, it’s as you say, everyone internalizes grief or shows it in different ways and lots of people have been wrongfully accused for these kind of assumptions, but he just did so much that was outrageous considering the circumstances and the evidence against him was overwhelming. What seemed most unfair was that he was even acquitted by the military in the first place.

      I wasn’t so impressed with Malcolm’s book either. The meta aspect was interesting but I’m not even sure why it’s enjoyed such popularity for so many years.

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  6. I loved reading this post, it was fantastic. Thank you! I have had the Janet Malcolm book on my reading list for ages, goodness knows where I got the recommendation from, it is probably on one of those best crime non-fiction lists. Am going to watch the documentary and read the McGinnis book. The case reminds me of another family annihilation case I saw a documentary about the other day, which was in Unsolved Mysteries, (which you put me onto because of the Rey Rivera case being featured). The family annihilation case took place in France and was of course dreadful but also I found some dark humour (because I am a horrible person) in the fact that one interviewee seemed to be upset that the murderer did not get his father’s “bague de comte” which is I suppose the family signet ring, as though this dreadful loss of noble emblem would reduce anyone to murder…Anyway, marvellous review by you, always a pleasure to drop by here.

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    1. Oh my goodness I can’t believe you hadn’t read the McGinniss book yet!! I think you’d love it. It’s a trip. I generally don’t like older true crime as much but that one is a deserving classic. I think the Malcolm book was on my radar for the same reason, it always makes best-of crime book lists, and I even chose to read it before/instead of the McGinniss. It helps to consider them both together, because this entire story became so wrapped up in the ethical journalism issues that arose. But I just can’t get on board with her conclusions when her own ethics are questionable, and of all the cases to be angry about, maybe not this one where he’s just so obviously guilty/a disgusting piece of shit.

      That episode of Unsolved Mysteries was such a good but chilling one (speaking of disgusting pieces of shit!) I didn’t pick up on that bit you mention but now I totally want to rewatch it because what a weird and somewhat hilarious conclusion to draw from it. I do remember the whole atmosphere of their perceived wealth and ancestral prestige. So weird that those things are still held up as protections against tragedy, isn’t it?

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