Wednesday, December 12, 2012


An Open Letter to David Grann

Hi David,

We've never met, but I email people your articles from The New Yorker. Full disclosure: sometimes, if they're behind the paywall, I scan them and send them as PDFs. Sorry! Sorry. (Subscribe, everyone! Give a gift to a friend!) I will never do it again. Provided you help me out on this one thing.

Did Jeffrey MacDonald kill his family, or not?

You may not know now, and that's okay. That's why I'm politely asking you to devote a year of your life to figuring it out. It's kind of your wheelhouse! You made it extremely clear to me that Texas killed a guy for no reason, and the Guatemalan piece is, jeez, it's your Stockholm moment. Sometimes you even have to write blog posts to remind us that you're right about things. Flattery! There's more where that came from; help a girl out, guy.

Here's where I'm at. I read Fatal Vision, and I thought he did it. Then I read The Journalist and the Murderer, and I thought he did it, but that McGinniss was a dick. Then I read McGinniss' book about Sarah Palin, and I decided McGinniss was definitely a dick, but that MacDonald still did it. Then there was Errol Morris' book. And I was concerned. And then this review of Morris' book, and then this one. And I'm a big person, I'm open to being convinced that people aren't murderers, but then Gene Weingarten wrote this thing, and now I'm back to thinking MacDonald is a murderer.

And, hand-to-God, I will believe you either way. I have placed my journalistic trust in you. Tell me. Tell me if Jeffrey MacDonald killed his family.

Season's greetings,

Weirdos everywhere

P.S. Maybe you and William Langewiesche could team up on this one? If you feel at all over-extended.
P.P.S. MacDonald is mad litigious, so, you know, keep it above-board.

40 Comments / Post A Comment


Yeah, he did it. That WaPo piece was the nail in the proverbial coffin for me.

Also, I just read "Broken Harbor," so that may have contributed to my bias.


@Argyle Oh "Broken Harbor." It's so sad. I loved that book.

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@Argyle +1 for your excellent taste in books!


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Awwww so cute@a

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Oh hey, and just to add to the pile, McGinniss just published this.

Also MacDonald totally did it.


I am willing to contribute further flattery to this effort.


Weingarten's piece has me convinced that he definitely did it. And thought he was so smart that he could get away with it.


@Emby: The worst part of Weingarten's persuasive piece, for me, isn't that MacDonald did or didn't do it, but that it casts a discrediting light on Errol Morris' work.


For a long time I wondered about McDonald, but started leaning towards he did it, and I am now citing Weingarten's piece for any doubters. The thing is, listening to McDonald? I think he has been saying it so much, that he really believes he didn't do it.

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@SuperMargie I've read a bunch about MacDonald and really there's no part about him that doesn't give me the absolute creeps. Like he clearly things very highly of himself in a very particular, manipulative way. I also happen to absolutely agree with Weingarten's assessment of the relationship between MacDonald and McGinniss: "I think “Fatal Vision” is among the best true-crime books ever written, but I think Joe McGinniss unattractively betrayed Jeffrey MacDonald to keep the doctor talking. Still, I do not think McGinniss deserved the national scorn he endured. The partnership between the journalist and the murderer was an exercise in ferocious, mutual exploitation, for enormous stakes, and MacDonald’s lie — that he was innocent — was a far greater deception. And, anyway, in such a freighted transaction no meaningful measure of morality attaches."

Like I would not particularly want McGinniss writing a book about ME, but MacDonald ACTIVELY shopped around for someone to tell his story. He was clearly spinning things himself. It's not like they were really, truly besties and then there was this humongous betrayal. I think MacDonald totally lost sight of the fact that not everyone loved and believed him.


Oh man, I was JUST about to get back to my dissertation and then you have to go and post this. I am about halfway thru A Wilderness of Error, having already read the Journalist and the Murderer and the Awl piece, and I'm starting to get frustrated.

It seems to me that this is a case in which there is not a lot of evidence one way or another: the evidence for MacDonald's guilt maaaaybe (probably?) should not have been enough to convict him, and yet the evidence for what he says to be true is even flimsier. So, while if I had been on the jury, I may not have voted to convict, it seems to me that the odds are that he did it.

What bugs me about the Morris book, and the maelstrom of attention that continues to swirl around the case is the following:
1.) Overreliance on the claim that there was "no motive" and MacDonald was the kind of guy who couldn't possibly have done something so terrible. I'm sorry, but the truth is sometimes men, especially men who have been cheating on their wives, kill their wives, especially their pregnant wives. That's not evidence that he did it, but at the same time, I think it's naive to claim that something like that could never happen, because, tragically, it does.

2.) Aren't there a lot, lot, lot, lot, lot more people out there locked up on much, much, much, much, much more flimsier evidence? Why in the world are we all obsessed with this case? I feel like we could all (myself included) spend our investigative energies on more worthwhile sources, and it seems like this mass obsession must be rooted in some kind of squicky cultural weirdness I can't quite figure out.

Also, does anyone else think the real reason he was convicted is that, true or not, the sentence "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs" sounds completely and totally made up?


@Kristen Yes, to all your points.


@Kristen I have never heard of this case before and just read the Wikipedia article and I am pretty convinced that he is lying just based on that "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs" part. There is no way.

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@OhMarie That was actually an incidental argument about the legitimacy of that part of MacDonald's story. An investigator who worked vice (I think) who was more acquainted with the slang the kids were using at the time said that particular statement sounded like someone trying to sound cool using slang incorrectly.


Weird. I' d never pay for an article, (unless it was work related) but I would pay for a friend who would PDF said articles.


Boy oh boy, can Gene Weingarten ever write.


@cuminafterall That article is haunting. I have never doubted that MacDonald murdered his family, but his article laid out such a clear case on how the murders probably happened.

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@cuminafterall I know, right? Part of me wishes he'd do more of these long-form pieces instead of his normal humor column but then it might lessen my delight when he does publish a longer piece.

In particular, I just love this bit: "Finally, there is Brian Murtagh, the plumpish little government prosecutor on the other side of the courtroom, a resolutely boring man. His most distinguishing feature is the pair of suspenders he always wears, even at home. “It’s not a fashion statement,” he says preemptively, as if disturbed by the very idea. “I need ’em to keep my pants up.”"


I just went down a rabbit hole on this case last week because I suddenly remembered a Lifetime movie of my youth, where the parents of the suspected killer go to bed in the house/crime scene and, when they turn out the lights, lumenol everywhere. Nightmares for DAYS.


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@Edabelle His full length book The Lost City of Z is weirdly disappointing. It totally bogs down at the end and ends up without a real point.Unless this is some kind of witty meta-commentary on its subject matter (in which case, cool, but it doesn't really improve the book).


wait, can we do a thing where everyone here lists their favorite true crime books here? looking for a gift for my sister, who recently discovered the genre.


@juksie I have a present for you:

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@juksie I loved "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much," author forgotten by me. It is not a violent true crime book, more an intellectual one. Really interesting PLUS you are able to read it at night without being afraid of murder in your sleep.


@juksie "Son of A Grifter: The Twisted Tale of Sante and Kenny Kimes, The Most Notorious Con Artists in America," by Kent Walker with Mark Schone.


@Kristen AH THANKS! clearly wasn't paying attention the first time around (I can't decide whether it is scarier to read true crime when you live alone or when you don't, so that tells you plenty about how paranoid I am), but now I can peruse that/the comments for things for my much calmer sister.


@juksie Much better when you live alone, because clearly your family/roommate/boyfriend/girlfriend is going to kill you/have you killed/have you kidnapped and then killed. Natch.


@juksie And The Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi. Best true crime book EVER. It's probably the most gripping book I have ever read in my life. Either that or Helter Skelter.

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@Ellie Oh my god I loved And The Sea Will Tell SO MUCH. Never really could get into Helter Skelter in part I think it's written in this very lawyerly way: details! details everywhere! Like, please sort through these details, Mr. Bugliosi and get rid of at least a third of them. I didn't get that with And The Sea Will Tell, but then he was a more practiced writer by that time.


@Super Nintendo Chalmers Haha, I love allll the details and would have welcomed even more. I'm such a Bugliosi fan I was almost inspired to go to law school!


so, i knew about the MacDonald case, but i'd never read either of Grann's articles, nor Weingarten's, and i just spent the past several hours of my life having my mind perpetually blown.

and after rereading that dubious sentence, i officially count myself as one of the Weirdos Everywhere.


Extra thumbs up for "mad litigious."


So, I mean, I don't mean to be that girl, but do you need someone to get this to him? I can send a link, if you like. (not to him, but to people, but in a way that will get to him).
And, also, word.

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MacDonald's defense attorney was one of my litigation professors (he died last year - a lovely man). For what it's worth, he always said he didn't believe his client did it. I don't know about that, myself, but...


This case is open and shut. The prosecution presented over 1,100 evidentiary items at the 1979 trial and that was only about 60 percent of their case file. This included blood, fiber, hair, bloody footprint, fabric damage, bloody fabric and non-fabric impressions. No evidence of a known intruder suspect was found at the crime scene. No DNA, no fibers, no fingerprints, nothing. Jeffrey MacDonald is a serial liar, a coward, and a psychopath.

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