Book Notes: Joe McGinnis’s A Fatal Vision

In the 1970s journalist Joe McGinnis spent a lot of time with Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor who was accused of murdering, in an extremely violent way, his pregnant wife and two small daughters. After the doctor was convicted of the murders, McGinnis wrote a book about it.

I started reading the book because I learned that McGinnis was later accused of unethical behavior because he’d ingratiated himself with MacDonald under false pretenses and betrayed his confidence. I thought this was incredible bonk and started reading the book being initially predisposed favorably towards McGinnis and negatively against MacDonald.

After reading the 1,000-page book, I believe the doctor was totally railroaded. I thought that before I googled the case and discovered that there is now DNA evidence that supports the doctor’s story.

By railroaded I don’t mean that the doctor was necessarily not guilty. I think he wasn’t guilty but nobody can know for sure. What I mean is that putting somebody in jail on the strength of this kind of “evidence” is a perversion of justice.

The doctor’s problem is that he’s an irredeemable jerk. He’s just not a nice guy. And even though somebody else confessed, throughout the years, on multiple occasions and to multiple people including her own mom, to committing the murders, it weighed more strongly with the judge, the jury and McGinnis that the doctor was a jerk.

McGinnis tries so hard to construct evidence of guilt where there’s none that he spends hundreds of pages conducting a sort of a pseudo-psychoanalytic analysis of MacDonald. To give a single example, McGinnis decided that the doctor slaughtered his family because he was “a repressed sexual invert” (meaning, gay) because he cultivated a macho persona. And so he must have been so afraid of his “latent homosexuality” being revealed that he shredded his family to pieces with a knife. There is a lot of this kind of pseudo-Freudian ramblings in the book, and they are, frankly, painful to read in their utter stupidity.

One of McGinnis’s main lines of attack against the doctor is that he had sex with many women throughout his life. The prissiness he exhibits when writing about it is so over the top that the book gets comical in places. Readers discover that MacDonald once stayed in a hotel where, months later, an orgy took place. MacDonald was long gone when the orgy began but just think about it! What kind of person stays in places where eventually orgies happen? He must be a closeted gay! And a murderer! That is the kind of analysis that McGinnis offers throughout the book’s 1,000 pages.

The doctor is now in his seventies and still in jail. I assume he’s as much of a self-important jerk as ever. But there’s strong likelihood that he’s an innocent jerk who was railroaded to compensate for a hopelessly botched initial investigation.

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22 thoughts on “Book Notes: Joe McGinnis’s A Fatal Vision”

  1. I dunno, McDonald’s claim that the “real killers” were chanting “Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs” seemed like the fakest thing I’d ever heard of, a bad parody of what a Manson wannabe might say… Has he ever said he was mistaken or mis-remembered or anything?
    “Acid is groovy…” No. No human ever said that before McDonald ‘quoted’ it to investigators.


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    1. I think the killers were junkies whom he sold drugs to. And when he refused they cut up the family. So yeah, I’m sure he lied a lot because he’s a jerk.

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      1. Okay, now my inner Miss Marple is activated. Here’s my story.
        He was a narcissist who wanted rid of his family and he thinks he can use the pseudo local hippies (no real hippies in NCarolina) to take the fall. His plan is to convince them to come to his house (in costume) where he will have staged the murder scene. He will miraculously “revive” enough to catch one or more but they’re fuck ups and don’t show up on time and he gets restless and goes ahead with the plan anyway, confident that his description will be enough to get them charged.
        But the military police were too stupid to catch them and his plan went south…

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        1. Totally possible. Because nobody investigated, the scene was botched beyond belief, and so now your scenario, my scenario and the prosecution scenario are equally possible. Which is a problem.

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          1. ” nobody investigated, the scene was botched beyond belief”

            New theory – the police did it and botched the investigation to cover their tracks. Now all that’s left is motive…. and I got nuthin’….

            If he did it, I think it was because he’d come to hate his family and wanted to be rid of them no matter the cost and he hasn’t been violent since because there’s been no opportunity or people he hates as much.

            If he didn’t do it then the druggies doing it out of revenge for him turning off the drug faucet makes some sense.

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  2. Auxiliary question here (for anyone familiar with the case)
    I tend to believe in what might be called the wisdom of crowds (not infallible but a valuable source of info).
    A few months ago, I started looking at info on Madeleine McCann case and it quickly turned out that every qualified investigator (no matter their nationality or specialization) comes to the same overall idea of what happened. There are still unanswered questions on the specifics of how and why but the overall outline of events could not be more clear to them.
    Is there something like that with the MacDonald case? Or is it permanently jammed with two conflicting narratives?

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    1. I don’t know about the McCann case but I want to find out.

      In the MacDonald case, nobody had a convincing story. The prosecution never found the slightest shade of a motive. The defense’s story is equally bonkers with the groovy acid stuff that you mentioned. There’s evidence at the scene nobody explained. One of the kids and the wife have DNA on the bodies and under fingernails that doesn’t come from any of the family members.

      McGinnis says MacDonald killed them because he must have taken a bunch of diet pills because MacDonald said he’d lost 12 lbs in 3 weeks. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that everybody exaggerates how much weight they lost, especially a braggart like the doctor.

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      1. “I don’t know about the McCann case but I want to find out.”

        The one time I was in Portugal (Algarve) was less than two months later and posters were still up all over the place… do you want the quick, spoiler version of what probably happened?

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          1. Okay, I’m assuming you’ve heard of the case (hard not to) the little English girl who ‘disappeared’ or was ‘kidnapped’ from her parents’ holiday apartment in Praia da luz Portugal. wiki link at the bottom.

            The basic outline (where all investigators agree): She was not abducted (every single investigator is sure of that – there is not slightest indication there was an outsider involved). She died, possibly in an accident a day or two before her ‘disappearance’ was announced, probably in the apartment (around a couch). The parents did not want to announce this to the police (because they didn’t want an investigation) and so they disappeared the body and feigned an ‘abduction’.

            This obviously leaves a lot of open holes such as how exactly she died and just why the parents didn’t want an investigation and where they hid her (probably twice, the was initial concealment before she was reported missing and then later he probably took the body to its final resting place in a rental car).

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            1. Oh wow. I’d heard of the kidnapped girl and found it very disturbing. Wasn’t there a belief that she was kidnapped by a pedophile ring? I stopped following after that because I can’t deal with stories about pedophile rings. And it turns out that the parents created a hoax. I feel a strange sense of relief. Although the girl is dead either way.

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              1. Like I said, lots of crazy ideas out there… but as one American investigator said, while sick pedophile rings do exist they don’t kidnap middle class children from affluent countries… It’s all conjecture, of course, but the hoax story holds together (and fits the evidence) in a way that the ‘kidnapping’ story never has.

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              2. Right. That was always my question. Why pick a kid whose disappearance would create such a major media wave.

                Is the investigation progressing in any way or has it been stalled?

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        1. Yes, they argued his ego was wounded by a dispute over bedwetting. If he’s so out of control, he cuts three people to ribbons over something so minor, how come he goes through the next half century without any violent episodes at all?

          The fellow has been under enormous pressure since then. If he could get this psychotic over a minor upset, how did he prove to be so resilient afterwards?

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  3. “Is the investigation progressing in any way or has it been stalled?”

    As far as I know it’s stalled. It’s one of those cases where every few years there’s supposedly a lead… and then nothing.
    Unless they find a body or someone finally talks it’s stuck in place.

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      1. “the parents truly punished themselves by making up this story”

        Well one of the main (more plausible I think) theories is that they were afraid of losing custody of their other kids if an examination turned up evidence that they were sedating their kids while they were out partying… if their goal was to keep their remaining children it worked.

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  4. Have you read Janet Malcolm’s brilliant book about McGinnis and this case, “The Journalist and the Murderer”? If not (and even if so), highly recommended.

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