18 January 2009

The Hypocrite and the Naif?

I didn't go into Janet Malcolm's THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER as a completely unbiased reader -- then again, it's hard not to be a little bit tilted against the convicted killer. But the book isn't really about whether Jeffrey MacDonald killed his wife and children or not, but rather about a subsequent case, in which he was alleging injury done to him.

MacDonald was a military physician who called 911 on February 17, 1970 reporting that four hippie types broke into his house the night before, killed his wife and daughters and injured him. Questioning the physical evidence presented, an army hearing on the incident (for which MacDonald was charged with murder) suggested the matter be taken up by a criminal court, which it was four years later.

Enter McGinniss: Someone on MacDonald's defense team had the idea that they should get a writer to sit in on the trial and write a book about him, with a cut of the profits going to his legal bills. McGinniss had one bestseller to his name and a few flops, so he agreed, living with the defense team in a converted dorm and, after MacDonald's conviction, writing to him for years afterwards. Then his book, FATAL VISION, comes out, in which McGinniss theorizes that MacDonald not only committed murder, but did so in this psychosexual haze that had built up over years of resenting his wife for forcing him to grow up and be responsible once she got knocked up.

MacDonald sues McGinniss for misrepresenting his intentions, which ends in a hung jury and a huge cash settlement granted to the plaintiff for, essentially, being misled about whether the journalist thought he was guilty or not. Malcolm interviewed both of them, as well as lawyers on both sides and some other ancillary figures, and concludes that journalists inevitably betray their subjects' trust when they move from reporting to writing their own accounts. McGinniss went further than was necessary, she decides, but his defense team didn't really do a good job defending his right to write his own book.

The name Joe McGinniss didn't ring any bells for me, but when I looked him up I realized I had read one of his most recent books, THE MIRACLE OF CASTEL DI SANGRO, about following a beleagured Italian football team. I'm of two minds about how he handled his work with MacDonald. On the one hand -- what did MacDonald expect? He should have known McGinniss, having seen and heard all the evidence in court, would decide he was guilty. And turning over private letters to a court lends the case an air of personal injury. On the other hand, McGinniss and MacDonald had a very weird and not entirely professional relationship. For the sake of his case, maybe it would have been better for them not to correspond at all than for MacDonald to be able to forget that everything he said was admissible as evidence either for or against him in the book.

THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER is a short but very thought-provoking exploration of reporting. As a reporter herself, Malcolm was accused of writing it as an admission of guilt for a lawsuit brought against her by a former subject, but I think her own history allowed her struggle with the issues and be more reluctant about assigning blame. It's a little esoteric, but if you like books about journalism or true crime, you might find it very illuminating.


ap said...

Gee, LN. You're really good at these reviews. You should consider doing this for a living. ;)

Ellen said...

Yeah, that one was a little long-winded, wasn't it?

ap said...

No, no, I thought it was good!