August 27, 1990 12:00 PM

by Janet Malcolm

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald is a murderer, convicted by a court of law for the brutal deaths of his pregnant wife and two small daughters. Joseph McGinniss is a writer whose book on the MacDonald murders, Fatal Vision, was a national best-seller and led to a highly rated television movie. MacDonald subsequently sued McGinniss. charging that the writer tricked him into cooperating on Fatal Vision by pretending to be sympathetic. These two men and the nature of their relationship are the subject of this long-winded argument that writers not only can but almost always do manipulate and abuse the feelings of their subjects.

Malcolm, a New Yorker contributor whose previous books went head-to-head with Freud and psychoanalysis, attempts to explore the moral dilemmas faced by any writer out to get a story or a book done: Is it betraying a trust or just doing your job to report everything seen and heard?

By choosing McGinniss as her focal point (using MacDonald’s suit as a launching pad), Malcolm further clouds the issue. With a murderer as the subject, the question becomes one of boundaries—whether it is ethical to mislead someone like MacDonald into believing you are writing a favorable book about his life when in truth you are writing a devastating one. Malcolm obviously thinks it is wrong. Very wrong.

But then, given the tone of her book, McGinniss is probably not very high up on Malcolm’s dance card anyway. Early on, we learn she believes McGinniss is’ someone not to be trusted when she tells of the time he helped himself to William Styron’s special brand of crabmeat while staying at the novelist’s home. We know she thinks McGinniss needs money and will do almost anything not to part with the $300,000 advance he got for the book. We know she thinks he likes to skewer people who trust him, based on the work he did in his first best-seller, The Selling of the President.

So in an odd twist, McGinniss becomes the villain of a piece that co-stars a multiple murderer. The main evidence Malcolm trots out is a series of letters McGinniss and MacDonald wrote over an almost four-year period, letters that began as writer-subject correspondence and ended up in a Butch and Sundance kind of friendship.

McGinniss’s letters include some chilling lines: “Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial”; “[I] spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey—not for long.” Clearly, somewhere in the process, McGinniss lost perspective or was flat-out lying. Those letters, no doubt, got McGinniss into the lawsuit (which was settled out of court). But were his actions wrong? This question, the intellectual equivalent of asking if Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame, will continue to rage wherever white wine spritzers are drunk.

The book, a slight extension of a two-part New Yorker article, is thoroughly researched and tediously written—not an ideal combination. Yet it gives a reader reason to pause and consider all those true-crime books lining bookstore shelves and wonder how much trust and truth were stretched in order to get at the facts. For that alone, Malcolm’s book should be deemed a success. (Knopf, $18.95)

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