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Joe McGinniss and the Legacy of Fatal Vision

September 20, 2011

Joe McGinniss’ latest book The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin is released today, and its controversial claims about the former vice-presidential candidate have already generated a storm of publicity. McGinniss claims Palin had an extramarital affair and snorted cocaine amongst other sordid details. Now I am not a fan of Sarah Palin politically, but I do feel that it’s unfortunate an author with McGinniss’ shady reputation has set his sights on her. McGinniss shot to fame with his debut book The Selling of the President (1968) which examined the successful ‘marketing’ of Richard Nixon during the 68′ election campaign. Since then McGuinniss’ output has been mixed, with his nadir coming with the true crime book Fatal Vision (1983). Fatal Vision was a bestselling book which told the story of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret and army physician, who was convicted for the murder of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. MacDonald and McGinniss spent a lot of time together during the murder trial and MacDonald was fully expecting the book to portray him sympathetically and help prove his innocence. However, Fatal Vision presented an uncompromising portrayal of a pure psychopath guilty of multiple murders. MacDonald sued McGinniss and the case was eventually settled out of court. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for MacDonald, but McGinniss’ despicable behaviour during the drafting of the book has been laid bare by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) and in Laura Browder’s essay ‘True Crime’ for The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction (2010). In his search for a writer to portray his case in a good light, MacDonald had written to Joseph Wambaugh requesting that the novelist would take on the job but Wambaugh declined. Ironically, Wambaugh would later get into even more trouble than McGuinniss for his true crime book Echoes in the Darkness (1987).  Throughout the drafting of Fatal Vision  McGinniss told MacDonald that he thought he was innocent long after he had been found guilty at trial, yet all the while he was  busily writing a very different version of events. One of McGinniss’ techniques for encouraging MacDonald’s full disclosure was to condone MacDonald’s adultery by giving him multiple examples of his own infidelities. It makes you wonder how McGinniss obtained the revelations of cocaine use for his book on Palin.

Fatal Vision’s legacy is not just the controversies surrounding  a single book but its negative impact on the True Crime genre. Fatal Vision and many other books have given the genre a reputation for sensationalism, bad journalism and in some cases the publication of outright lies. This is a shame because there are many brave and honest writers working in the true crime field today. It’s difficult to imagine that over forty years ago Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) raised the true crime genre or non-fiction novel as he called it to an art form. But even the reputation of that book has suffered somewhat as Capote’s questionable behaviour during its composition has come under scrutiny.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 10:11 pm


    I wholeheartedly agree with your observations here.
    Speaking as a true-crime writer, I can underscore the need that it is absolutely essential that the author/researcher follow all the rules, in putting his case (book) together. If he or she wants to bend them to fit the narrative, fine, but do it as FICTION.

    When a writer decides to go in pursuit of the truth they take on huge responsibilities. They are required to follow the evidence, wherever that takes them. True crime and a search for the facts demands that “ideologies” be left at the curbside. Anything less than that, one is playing with fire and will and should be burnt.

    Keep up the good work.

    Steve Hodel
    Los Angeles

    • September 21, 2011 8:35 am

      Thanks Steve,

      You speak with the experience of a detective and I think a lot of true crime writers and readers don’t realise police investigation is hard work and requires training. I remember when I read ‘Diary of Jack the Ripper’ as a young man I was completely taken in with all of its conclusions and convinced it was genuine but it was only slowly and reluctantly that I learned of the fallacies at the heart of the book.

      Best wishes,

  2. Jim Brennan permalink
    December 14, 2013 6:43 am

    I agree that Capote has lost some literary cachet. But you have to be kidding me about MacDonald. To simplify, most crimes are solved by analysis of motive and opportunity. I suppose it is possible that others had the motive to kill a young Army wife and her two children. Hard to pin down, but maybe not impossible.But only one guy on this earth had both the motive and the opportunity. Deny that at your peril Sir.

    Regards always,

    Jim Brennan

    • December 14, 2013 11:32 am


      Thanks for commenting. I’m not trying to apportion guilt or absolve anyone in this post. I’m trying to highlight the flaws in the methodology of true crime writing.

      Best wishes,

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