Joe McGinniss Joan Barthel - Essay

Joan Barthel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"If we can prove that he did it," the Federal prosecutor told the jury at Dr. MacDonald's murder trial, "then we don't need to prove that he's the kind of guy who could have done it." Both these questions are probed in Mr. McGinniss's "Fatal Vision," along with an obvious third question: If he did it, in God's name, why? It's a long, compelling story, with a cast approaching thousands…. (p. 12)

Dr. MacDonald's personality emerges in chapters of taped reminiscence inserted throughout the chronological narrative. At first, this device seems cumbersome. The time fluctuations become confusing, and Dr. MacDonald's sexual preoccupations constitute merely a pathetic and basically boring case of arrested adolescence. But as the story moves forward, the first-person counterpoint begins to sound much more significant, and eventually it adds to the book's impact. Other major figures are memorably sketched, especially the couple's parents. (pp. 12, 32)

But even a long story needn't have made such a long book. Some of the reporting is repetitive. The grand jury hearing spans almost 200 pages of verbatim statements….

Mr. McGinniss's compulsion to be comprehensive is understandable. He's re-creating a sensational, controversial case with legal, moral and societal implications…. So it's not surprising that he would step with scrupulous precision through the maze of facts, opinions, deceptions, contradictions and inconsistencies.

Indeed, Mr. McGinnis himself, without being intrusive, becomes a genuinely sympathetic character in the book, especially after he admits candidly that he took it on after four years of negotiations between Dr. MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh had broken down. He confronts recurring questions of guilt and innocence and the ambivalence of love…. If his personal epilogue seems a trace overwritten, he's entitled. He has researched and told a complicated story very effectively. And while Dr. MacDonald was back in California on appeal, he made Mr. McGinniss the custodian of the murdered children's baby albums, complete with locks of hair and a baby tooth.

These things happen when reporters become involved in people's lives and deaths, when a writing project evolves into a kind of selective, if unforeseen and not entirely voluntary, human bondage. It is this involvement, finally, that makes "Fatal Vision"—even beyond the fascination of the story it tells and even at this length—well worth reading. (p. 32)

Joan Barthel, "The Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case," in The New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1983, pp. 12, 32.