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Fatal Vision

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Gene Weingarten has this story in the WaPo on Joe McGinniss, who died Monday.

McGinniss was invited by Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald and his legal team as MacDonald was on trial for the murder of his wife and two daughters.  He was "to be a fly on the wall" and tell the story of the team's fight to free the innocent man wrongly accused.  A funny thing happened on the way to the verdict.  McGinniss came to realize that MacDonald was guilty.

Weingarten writes:

But I am writing this because of "Fatal Vision," which was as good and as rigorous a work of nonfiction as there is. It belongs right here, in the same sentence as Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," which may be the greatest true-crime book ever written.

What was McGinniss supposed to have done when he realized, midway through the reporting, that the man he was writing about had lied to everyone? That he had killed his wife and older daughter in a rage -- and then calmly, methodically hacked to death his sleeping two-year old, stabbing her 33 times with a knife and ice pick, just to strengthen his alibi? Was McGinniss required to dutifully inform the murderer that he now believed him guilty, and invite him to withdraw his cooperation if he wished, possibly killing the book outright, but certainly killing it as a meaningful, enlightening, powerful examination of the mind of a monster?

There is an implicit covenant between a writer and a subject; in return for whatever agreement you might make for the telling of the story, the subject must tell you the truth. If he lies, all deals are off. It is impossible for a subject to be less truthful than Jeffrey MacDonald was with Joe McGinniss: he misrepresented the central fact of his story, his own guilt.

One of the main reasons that there is still doubt about Jeffrey MacDonald's guilt - 44 years after the crime -- is the degree to which "Fatal Vision" was unfairly pilloried by Janet Malcolm, and in a tsk-ing generation of journalistic self-righteousness that followed. It was a great book. It was a fair book. It is Joe McGinniss's masterpiece. If you are a writer, and you want a clinic in muscular storytelling -- how it can and should be done -- read "Fatal Vision."

Of course, not everything McGinniss wrote was good.  Weingarten says, "Much as I hate to agree with Sarah Palin about anything, his 2011 biography of her was thin and crappy and lazy, filled with poorly sourced innuendo."

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There is another side to the MacDonald story. There is a book called Fatal Justice, by Jerry Porter and Fred Bost, which details post-conviction evidence that shows MacDonald might have been able to raise a reasonable doubt if additional evidence had been presented.

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