Remembering Joe McGinniss, author of one of the best nonfiction books ever


Author Joe McGinniss, in a 2010 file photo. (AP Photo/Dan Joling, file)

Joe McGinniss, author of one of the best nonfiction books ever written, died yesterday.

I wrote that accolade in my head nearly two years ago, on the day Joe first told me he had inoperable, metastatic cancer. I felt it had to be said, and that, for complicated reasons, no one else would say it in an obit. All that was missing was the date of death.

I first met McGinniss in 1988, introduced by a mutual friend, when McGinniss was at the apex of his career, one of the most highly regarded writers of his generation. As it turned out, from that point on, the arc of his career would be not so much a tailspin as a nose dive. His decline was partly of his own making — some unwise choices, both personal and professional — but I believe it all stemmed from a single event, the publication of a grievously unfair 1989 article in the New Yorker that called him a journalistic con man.

At issue was McGinniss’s conduct while reporting his masterwork, “Fatal Vision,” a book about Jeffrey MacDonald, the handsome young army doctor who murdered his wife and two daughters in a drug-fueled frenzy in 1970. During the doctor’s 1979 murder trial, McGinniss had been invited by MacDonald and his lawyers to be a fly on the wall; in return for a piece of the book royalties, the writer was given unrestricted access to the defendant and his legal team. Just like the jury, McGinniss eventually became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, but did not tell MacDonald. To keep the murderer’s cooperation, which he desperately needed to flesh out his book, McGinniss feigned incredulity at the verdict and sympathy for an unjustly convicted man.

When it was published, the book took MacDonald by surprise. It said he was a killer, unequivocally. Its greatest strength was that it provided a riveting look inside the mind of a narcissistic sociopath, based largely on MacDonald’s own words, volunteered to the writer in hours of taped monologues from prison, when he presumed the author to be his friend and supporter.

After the book became a best-seller, MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of contract, saying, in effect, that the writer had deceived him. The jury was hung, but the trial transcript (including embarrassingly ingratiating letters from McGinniss to MacDonald) gave New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm a platform from which to skewer McGinniss — and, as it happens, to purge her own demons.

Her 1989 story — “The Journalist and the Murderer” — indicted not only McGinniss, but the sometimes manipulative craft of journalism for being ethically indefensible. Not surprisingly, her story had legs. Journalists love nothing more than discussing themselves.

This never really became a part of the narrative, but in writing this piece, Janet Malcolm was also wrestling with her own guilt. She had recently gone through a trial of her own, having been sued by celebrity psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson for a piece she had written that had called him a narcissist. Masson claimed she made up quotes, and though Malcolm won the case, it hurt her reputation. She was never able to convincingly establish that she had not made up quotes. When she was writing about the alleged journalistic misdeeds of Joe McGinniss, she had a chip on her shoulder, a boil to be lanced. It leaked all over the page.

Joe McGinniss wrote many excellent books in the first half of his career -– “The Selling of the President,” about the impact of PR on politics, was extraordinarily prescient, and “Going to Extremes,” about the weirdness of Alaska and Alaskans, is a forgotten gem. The majority of McGinniss’s work after “Fatal Vision” was inferior. 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.

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.”

This piece originally appeared in Weingarten’s online chat.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated.
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