Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Mother of Invention

Completely unencumbered with any facts, McGinniss invented a story to explain how a man that everyone agreed was a man who loved and cared for his wife and children could suddenly become the raging maniac that killed the three of them.  McGinniss found out that in the year before the murders that MacDonald had taken some diet pills to lose weight.  In fact, he had taken just a few prescription diet pills, but not near the time of the murder.  McGinniss decided on his own that MacDonald was taking 2-3 pills a day which would have represented a significant overdose.  The author then imagined that in a rage brought on by amphetamine psychosis, MacDonald suddenly slaughtered his family because his little girl wet the bed.  McGinniss formulated this tale despite the fact that all of the tests done on MacDonald when he was taken to the hospital shortly after the murders were negative for drugs.   

MacDonald was devastated when he learned the truth:  that McGinniss's Fatal Vision had portrayed him as a particularly evil criminal psychopath who killed his wife and children.  Janet Malcolm, a veteran writer, was not surprised:  "Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect.  One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common...There are very few people in the country who do not regard with rapture the prospect of being written about or being interviewed on a radio or television program."

The betrayal of MacDonald by McGinniss was horrible and unforgivable, but the effect on MacDonald's future was irreparable.  Fatal Vision became a best seller and was made into a popular movie.  Consequently millions of people saw the Jeffrey MacDonald of Joe McGinniss's imagination as the truth  and MacDonald could not sue for libel.

But MacDonald could sue for fraud and sue he did.  In August of 1984, a lawsuit was filed on MacDonald's behalf for fraud and breach of contract against Joe McGinniss.  $15 million in damages was sought.


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