BOOKS OF THE TIMES
A New Angle on a 1970 Murder Case
‘A Wilderness of Error,’ by Errol Morris, on the MacDonald Trial
By DWIGHT GARNER
Published: September 10, 2012
In his films Mr. Morris comes off as a blend of Ralph Nader and Edgar Allan Poe — that is, he’s nerdy and tenacious, with a taste for the dark side. He’s an unhipster. Were he your neighbor, you would not wish to engage him in a zoning dispute. There is something almost autistic about Mr. Morris’s need to get to the bottom of things. In his mind, indeterminacy is the grit that makes the pearl.
In recent years Mr. Morris has turned his attention to prose. He writes regularly for the New York Times’s Opinionator blog, and last year he issued “Believing Is Seeing,” a counterintuitive book of investigative essays about photography. He arrives now with “A Wilderness of Error,” a book about the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. Bristling with charts, graphs, illustrations, snatches of court transcripts and the author’s own Q. and A.’s with key players, it is the literary equivalent of one of his movies. It’s a rough-hewed documentary master class.
You probably remember the Jeffrey MacDonald story. He’s the Green Beret doctor, a Princeton graduate, who was convicted of the hideous 1970 murders (committed with knives, an ice pick and a piece of wood) of his pregnant wife and their two young daughters. Mr. MacDonald said the killings were the work of drug-addled hippies; he was badly wounded in the attack.
This case became, over time, a kind of rotating media Ferris wheel. Joe McGinniss’s book “Fatal Vision” (1983), written with Mr. MacDonald’s cooperation, turned the tables on its unwitting subject and posited that Mr. MacDonald was a psychopath, strung out on diet pills and plainly guilty. The book was a best seller. It spawned a much watched “60 Minutes” segment and a popular TV mini-series.
Janet Malcolm would later publish “The Journalist and the Murderer” (1990), another book about this case, this one examining Mr. McGinniss’s bad faith in leading on Mr. MacDonald about his ostensible innocence. It contained what is probably the most famous first sentence of any nonfiction book in American literary history: “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.”
The MacDonald case continues to be rehashed in books and blogs. Mr. MacDonald is still in prison, more than 40 years later. He still proclaims his innocence. He’s still filing appeals.
Enter Mr. Morris. “A Wilderness of Error” upends nearly everything you think you know about these killings and their aftermath. Watching Mr. Morris wade into this thicket of material is like watching an aggrieved parent walk into a teenager’s fetid, clothes- and Doritos-strewed bedroom and neatly sort and disinfect until the place shines.
He will leave you 85 percent certain that Mr. MacDonald is innocent. He will leave you 100 percent certain he did not get a fair trial. Along the way he bops the poor Mr. McGinniss on the head several more times, the way a fisherman puts a flopping brook trout out of its misery before excising its innards.
He puts the gifted Ms. Malcolm in his sights too. He finds the premise of her famous first sentence to be ludicrous. His book is a 500-page refutation of its argument. He is here to demonstrate what morally defensible journalism looks like. He lays into “60 Minutes,” as well, for burying crucial evidence. A lot of carnage is strewed.
Mr. Morris dilates on the confessions of two people who could be among the hippies Mr. MacDonald said were there the night of the murders. He pores over grievous evidence-collection errors. He walks us through a trial that was demonstrably rigged for the prosecution.
Reading this book made me physically ill, as the author surely intended. “I am repulsed by the fabrication of a case from incomplete knowledge, faulty analysis and the suppression of evidence,” Mr. Morris writes. “Repulsed and disgusted.”
“A Wilderness of Error” tinkers explicitly with larger themes, not merely those of innocence and guilt and morality but also how we arrive at the narratives that undergird our notions of these things. “What if our expectations trick us into a false sense of security?” he asks. “What if everything is the opposite of what it seems?”
He is especially suspicious of media-imposed narratives, because of how deeply they burrow into our craniums. He is staggered to find that “60 Minutes” left on its cutting room floor a confession by a woman who said she was part of the group that murdered Mr. MacDonald’s family. About Mr. McGinniss, he suggests the author might have decided to find Mr. MacDonald guilty because it made for a better story, and might have altered his manuscript to make Mr. MacDonald look more guilty. “There is a sense,” he writes, “that anything goes throughout Mr. McGinniss’s correspondence and book.”
The Eagle Scout in Mr. Morris loathes Ms. Malcolm’s assertion, made in her book, that one “cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence” by sorting through the voluminous evidence. He writes: “For me, truth and falsity, guilt and innocence, are not incidental to the story; they are the story.” It is like watching a seasoned litigator cross-examine a poet.
Mr. Morris is not as talented a writer as he is a filmmaker. There are arid and bumpy spots. His righteousness and exasperation can cross over into graceless snark. (“Paul Strombaugh?! The pajama-folding guy?!”) He is not especially graceful or witty.
But his doggedness is inspiring, and his punches land. He asks near the end: “Is this what it all comes down to? Two journalists — one who betrays MacDonald by twisting the facts and another who tells him facts don’t make a difference?”
If this headstrong book doesn’t change your sense of the Jeffrey MacDonald case, I’ll eat my Chuck Taylors.
||Truth in Justice