Thursday, May 27, 2010

Joe McGinniss' Newest Endeavor

About the same time I started graduate school, I developed an interest in true crime. As a result, I have a collection of books that take up about eight shelves of my study with accounts of all kinds of murders and swindles. There are half a dozen that I consider la crème of the 250-book collection. Among these is one titled Fatal Vision by journalist Joe McGinniss.

Fatal Vision was published in 1983 and tells the story of the 1970 murders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina of Colette MacDonald, her five-year-old daughter Kimberley and her two-year-old daughter Kristen. Colette was pregnant at the time of her death, and her husband Army Green Beret Captain (and physician) Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of the murders in 1979.

There are several features which set the MacDonald case apart from the run-of-the-mill family murder. One is the sheer brutality. Pregnant Collette was both clubbed and stabbed, and two-year-old Kristen had been stabbed forty-eight times ... with both a knife and an ice pick.

Another notable point is that--more than thirty years later--MacDonald is currently on his fourth appeal of his conviction; two of the previous three appeals were heard by the United States Supreme Court.

Another feature of the MacDonald case that makes it memorable is the unusual level of access Joe McGinniss had to Jeffrey MacDonald while writing Fatal Vision. Wikipedia describes it this way:
MacDonald chose Joe McGinniss to write a book about the case. [McGinniss] was given full access to MacDonald and the defense during the trial. MacDonald expected that the book would be about his innocence in the murders of his family. However, McGinniss' book ... portrayed MacDonald as a sociopath who was indeed guilty of killing his family ...

MacDonald subsequently sued McGinniss in 1987 for fraud, claiming that McGinniss pretended to believe MacDonald innocent after he came to the conclusion that MacDonald was guilty, in order to continue MacDonald's cooperation with him ... McGinniss and MacDonald settled out of court for $325,000.
McGinniss faced a fair amount of criticism for what amounted to a cynical decision to hoodwink MacDonald into cooperating with him after he knew that the book would not be favorable to MacDonald. He had insisted that MacDonald sign a release prior to their collaborative effort. However, according to the website here, MacDonald's attorney added a clause to the release: "provided that the essential integrity of my life story is maintained." That clause led to the out-of-court settlement after the breach-of-contract lawsuit ended in a mistrial.

I'm sure by now you're wondering why I'm nattering on about an old case. Let me start by saying I agreed with McGinniss' assessment of MacDonald as occasionally charming but narcissistic and amoral. Here's a clip of MacDonald appearing on Dick Cavett's Show ... just ten months after the brutal murders of his wife and young children.

But the real reason I'm rehashing ancient history started with a notice I saw in Publishers Marketplace about six months ago about a new book deal that had been inked:
Author of Selling of the President 1968 and Going to Extremes, Joe McGinniss's investigative narrative of Sarah Palin's significance as both political and cultural phenomenon and as an embodiment of the contradictory forces that shaped Alaska as it moved into its second half-century as a state, to Charlie Conrad at Broadway, for publication in Fall 2011, by David Larabell at the David Black Literary Agency (World).
Then on this Tuesday (May 25), there was an article in the Huffington Post here:
Lots of different journalists choose to cover the ever-evolving celebrity of sometime-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in lots of different ways, but only one man -- author Joe McGinniss -- has gone so far as to actually rent the house next door to the Palin's residence in Wasilla, Alaska. From that perch, McGinniss will study the Palin family's comings-and-goings for a book he's writing on the subject, which I guess has sort of taken a "Northern Exposure meets Rear Window" turn?
Buckle your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

1 comment:

Kaz Augustin said...

Wow, you always dig up such interesting news, Maya. Thanks for mentioning this; I'll be watching. And bringing popcorn!