Joe McGinniss

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Ann Jones

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Joe McGinniss, who had set out to chronicle a case of unjust prosecution [in Fatal Vision], changed his mind.

But he didn't tell MacDonald. How in the world could he? McGinniss had lived with MacDonald during his murder trial, and later, during one of MacDonald's preliminary stints behind bars, McGinniss lived in MacDonald's Southern California condo, drank his beer, watched his sunsets and went through his papers. He changed his mind—and went on writing. Consequently, we have here a kind of double story: the story of a killer being inched toward conviction by former supporters who have changed their minds and the story of a writer torn between conflicting moral obligations…. McGinniss scarcely mentions his dilemma—what moral allegiance is owed to a triple murderer, anyway?—yet it has affected the way he put this book together.

McGinniss keeps himself in the wings and gives center stage much of the time to the voice of Jeffrey MacDonald, letting readers develop their own distaste for him. (p. 472)

McGinniss is a terrific investigator, who obviously went to great trouble to gather this material, but even the reader who is fascinated by the psychiatric evaluation of Jeffrey MacDonald is likely to nod off when the fourth or fifth expert takes the stand to say essentially the same thing the other experts said in page after page of verbatim grand jury testimony.

McGinniss presents so much of the official record, I suspect, so that the reader, compelled as McGinniss was to slog through it, will come out as he did, persuaded from faith in MacDonald's innocence to belief in the certainty of his guilt. This is the device of an uneasy writer who assuages the guilt of his own apostasy by putting his readers through the same conversion, and for the most part it works. But dogged readers, worn down by many a tiring page and by a gnawing sense that the writer should have done a little more of his share of the work, will be filled with relief and gratitude when McGinniss finally shows up in the last seventy pages of the book, speaking in his own sensible voice, describing his own defection, telling at last what to make of all this. Among other things, he speculates on the narcissistic personality, enumerates some of MacDonald's lies and documents his heavy amphetamine use (to lose weight) just before the killings. I would willingly have taken his word for more than this, but McGinniss, oddly enough, seems to have underestimated his own authority as a writer. He has produced a long, surprisingly dull book with some memorable sections, a compilation of impressive but sometimes wearisome material that might have been completely gripping if only he had not been so timid about speaking his mind. (pp. 473-74)

Ann Jones, "An All-American Killer," in The Nation, Vol. 237, No. 15, November 12, 1983, pp. 471-74.

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