Book Review: The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

September 6, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

Janet Malcolm’s famous intro to The Journalist and the Murderer goes like this:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.  He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

And that’s just the first few lines of her short book, originally published in 1990.

The Journalist and the Murderer tells the story of Dr Jeffrey MacDonald, a philandering, narcissistic man accused of killing his wife and two young daughters on 17 February 1970.  In June 1979, a couple of months before he was convicted, MacDonald commissioned journalist Joe McGinnis to write a book about him, hoping that the book will convince the world of his innocence.  The two struck a deal to split the profits, and McGinnis was entitled to write whatever he wanted, “provided the essential integrity” of MacDonald’s life story is maintained.

And so McGinnis officially became a member of MacDonald’s trial team and the two became extremely close friends, or so it appeared on the surface.  McGinnis had access to all of MacDonald’s materials.  In addition, MacDonald sent McGinnis tapes of recorded material, and the two frequently traded letters.  MacDonald believed his buddy was going to write a book that will help exonerate him.

Instead, when Fatal Vision was published in 1983, McGinnis painted MacDonald as a cold, remorseless psychopath that, in his opinion, undoubtedly massacred his family in a drug-fuelled rage.  MacDonald, devastated and angry (though still serving his sentence), commenced proceedings against McGinnis for fraud.  Amazingly, although the trial ended with a hung jury, five of the six jurors had sided with MacDonald, the convicted killer.  Eventually, the two settled out of court for $325,000.

Damn, I just told you the whole story, didn’t I?  Don’t worry, it actually helps to know the story when reading this book, which goes far deeper than just the story on the surface.

The Journalist and the Murderer is a fascinating book, the type of non-fiction that sucks you in and can be finished off in one afternoon sitting.  Having just started doing some journalistic work for my writing course, I found the themes to be particularly gripping — is it okay for a journalist to lie, or lead their subject on, just so they could gather the “truth”?  Is there a line that should not be crossed?  And did Joe McGinnis cross that line?

The book has compiled a number of key interviews with those close to the MacDonald-McGinnis trial, and it was remarkable to see the different stances that the two sides took, especially on the question of whether they thought MacDonald was in fact guilty of the crimes he was convicted for.

The book also contained various letters exchanged between MacDonald and McGinnis that really demonstrates the level of deceit that was occuring, and that MacDonald had absolutely no idea what was coming.

Of course, the fact that Janet Malcolm is also writing this critic of journalism as a journalist adds an additional layer of contemplation and complexity to this book.  In savaging McGinnis of his methods in gathering information, she is only too aware of the methods she is employing herself to get the most out of her subjects.  And one thing I didn’t know was that Malcolm herself was sued for libel by the main character of one of her books, In the Freud Archives.

I liked Malcolm’s style.  It’s bold and it’s cutting, but there’s also a sense of self-awareness to it.  You don’t have to like it to appreciate it.

Terrific read.

4 out of 5

[PS: this was another one of those books where I read the first few pages for my writing course but found it so interesting that I got the whole thing.]