Errol Morris vs. Janet Malcolm

The documentary filmmaker takes on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case.

Director Errol Morris.
Errol Morris’ new book A Wilderness of Error takes on the 42-year-old Jeffrey MacDonald murder case

Photograph by Martin McNeil/Getty Images.

With his harrowing, one-of-a-kind 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, the filmmaker Errol Morris exonerated a man convicted of murder. Morris, who’d formerly worked as a detective, didn’t believe that Randall Dale Adams had committed the crime for which he was in prison for life. On film, he proved Adams’ innocence, wringing a confession—on tape—out of the real killer. Adams was released from prison a year later.*

Soon afterward Morris became intrigued by another, already notorious murder case, the subject of his new book, A Wilderness of Error. On the night of Feb. 17, 1970, Colette MacDonald and her young daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, were stabbed over and over again in their home in Fort Bragg, N.C. The police found MacDonald’s husband, Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald, in the living room lapsing in and out of consciousness. He had stab wounds in the stomach and chest and a collapsed lung. The word PIG had been written in blood on the headboard of the bed he shared with his wife. MacDonald told military police that he’d gone to sleep on the living room couch, woken to the screams of his wife, and saw figures standing at the end of the couch. He ended up struggling with three men who looked like hippies while a woman hovered nearby, holding a candle. He heard her chant, “Kill the pigs. Acid’s groovy.”

Morris thinks that the military investigators quickly decided they didn’t believe MacDonald’s bizarre story. Some of the details—hippie killers, PIG written on a wall—were straight from the infamous Manson murders committed a year earlier. This was a faked copycat crime, the investigators decided. And MacDonald was the perpetrator. He was convicted based on that theory nine years later.

You’ve heard this story before in some form or fashion, as Dwight Garner points out in his praise-filled review of A Wilderness of Error. In his best-seller Fatal Vision, the basis for a hugely popular TV movie, the writer Joe McGinniss turned Jeffrey MacDonald into a terrifying character: the outwardly normal psychopath who gave way to years of repressed “boundless rage” at his wife and daughters because he’d gone crazy from taking diet pills. And in her classic The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm turned McGinniss into another kind of character: the traitorous journalist who betrays his trusting subject without warning.

Why did Morris take on the 42-year-old MacDonald story? I talked to him last week over coffee at a hotel in midtown Manhattan.

Slate: You tried to make a movie about the MacDonald case, but you couldn’t get funding because the studio executives you pitched were sure he was guilty. You’ve constructed the book like a film, with long interviews, diagrams, and a focus on particular objects found at the crime scene. Was that deliberate?

Morris: It was hard for me not to think about it that way since I’m a filmmaker. Years and years ago, I was living in central Wisconsin interviewing mass murderers. This was long before The Thin Blue Line. I wanted to write a book about them organized around fetish objects—I’d pick one object, like an engagement ring, take a picture of it, and then organize a chapter around it. I never finished that book but the idea has been with me forever. And so in this book, you see a whole set of objects, like the coffee table and the rocking horse. They focus your attention on various elements of the story. It’s an object, but it also has all of these associations.

Slate: Yes, like the coffee table. It was found in the living room lying on its side. The investigators said it was too top-heavy to have fallen in that position—MacDonald must have set it down that way when he faked the crime scene. Much later there’s a hearing where the military judge knocks over the table and it falls onto its side. But by then, prosecutors have cited the coffee table as proof of MacDonald’s guilt and one reason not to believe Helena Stoeckley, a woman who matched the description of the woman MacDonald said he saw, and who confessed repeatedly to being in the house and witnessing the murders.

Morris: Yes, and one of the times she confessed was right before she died, to her mother. There’s a Supreme Court case about involuntary commitment, O’Connor v. Donaldson, and the man at the center of it, Kenneth Donaldson, wrote a book about being involuntarily committed for 20 years. He keeps going back to this expression: Give a dog a bad name and you might as well kill it. I always took that to mean that once you label something in a certain way, an infernal logic takes over. There’s very little you can do about it. Once you label someone crazy, or once you label somebody guilty, usually you can find evidence to support that a priori conclusion.

Slate: How much did you talk to Jeffrey MacDonald in researching your book? It seemed to me, as I read, that your relationship with him was not what was driving you.

Morris: It isn’t. I think that’s a good thing. The story ultimately can’t hinge on that. I had a phone conversation with him in Harvey’s office, and I went to see him at Cumberland, years and years ago. [Harvey Silverglate is a friend of Morris’ who represented MacDonald in one of his appeals.] The question is not Do I like Jeffrey MacDonald, or even Do I believe or disbelieve him. There’s a story that goes beyond that, about all the evidence in the case.

Slate: I want to ask you about a passage by Janet Malcolm that you quote. I love The Journalist and the Murderer: I teach it in my law school class. But one passage has always bothered me—and you singled it out. She writes of her disaffection with the underlying murder case: “The briefest and slightest of inquiries on my part would bring twenty-page replies from MacDonald, and huge packages of corroborating documents. MacDonald does nothing by halves, and just as McGinniss had felt oppressed by the quantity of extraneous details in MacDonald’s tapes, so was I oppressed by the mountain of documents that formed in my office. I have read little of the material he has sent—trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports. … I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from this material.”

Morris: It should be bothersome to you. It’s the first paragraph of her book that everyone seizes on. [It begins, “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.”] But what’s really troubling is this passage, in which she says there is no there there. What bothers me, and I’ve told her this, is that she essentially made an argument for the relativity of truth. In general, evidence never speaks for itself, in spite of all the doctrines that says it does. Evidence always becomes part of an argument, a narrative. And that argument and narrative can be tested against reality.

Here’s a line I wrote that got left out of the book: Janet Malcolm says that trying to discern MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from the evidence he sent her is like trying to prove the existence of God by looking at a flower. But the existence of God is taken on faith. The innocence or guilt of a criminal defendant is not. Period.

Slate: You write of McGinniss and Malcolm: “Two journalists—one who betrays MacDonald by twisting the facts and another who tells him facts don’t make a difference?” What’s your feeling about the role they each played?

Morris: A man is drowning: He’s going under for the first time. He comes up and he sees someone standing on shore with a life preserver. Someone who looks a lot like Joe McGinniss. The man shouts, “I’m drowning, please help me!” The guy on shore says, “Fuck you. You’re a cold-blooded killer. I don’t give a rat’s ass about you. Die, fucker.” The man goes down. He comes up again and this time he sees a woman on shore who looks a lot like Janet Malcolm. He cries out, “Throw me a life preserver, I’m drowning, help me!” The woman on shore says, “I’d like to help you, but you misunderstand the nature of our relationship. You see yourself as a drowning man and me as a woman with a life preserver, but there’s a meta-narrative here. I’m studying the relationship between a drowning man and a person with a life preserver, and for me to throw it would be to break the constraints of the meta-narrative.”

So, which is worse: the post-modern meta-narrative that removes you from the sphere of journalistic responsibility, or just being completely irresponsible? It is a really important question. Janet Malcolm is one of my heroes, which is what is so weird about all of this. Her writing is extraordinary. She made McGinniss paradigmatic—a sinister sort of exemplar of journalism. But she misses the point. The facts matter.

A Wilderness of Error, by Errol Morris.
A Wilderness of Error, by Errol Morris.

Penguin Group.

Slate: At the time of MacDonald’s trial, years after the crime and the Manson murders, his story about hippies and “Kill the pigs” seemed weird and dated. Now I find Joe McGinniss’ alternate hypothesis—that MacDonald had “amphetamine psychosis” because of diet pills—even more dated.

Morris: Here’s why it’s not dated, though. The idea of some kind of hidden evil, evil incarnate, still drives a lot of how we see human behavior. Charitably you can see psychiatry and psychological explanations as an attempt to move us off that dime, although it’s not clear it has done so.

Slate: Is this a basic dividing line in how people see criminal behavior—a decent-seeming man like Jeffrey MacDonald can turn out to be riddled with hidden evil, and snap?

Morris: I think it is, actually. Psychopathy is a very powerful trope. I tried to interview Hervey Cleckley, one of the central figures in psychiatry in the 20th century. Cleckley wrote or co-wrote two books you might say define the 20th-century psychologically, both of which are insane. In Three Faces of Eve, he invented multiple personality disorder. His other book is Mask of Sanity, in which he invented, not out of whole cloth, but still, the idea of psychopathy. Cleckley’s idea being that the psychopath wears a mask that makes him look like everyone else. But guess what, underneath the mask is the beast. The guy with the horns.

Slate: As I read your book, I thought a lot about the passage of time—all the years that have passed since the murders in 1970 and how that affected your investigation. Helena Stoeckley, who confessed, died years ago. Is the lapse in time why you can show in the book that you think Jeffrey MacDonald was wrongfully convicted, but not that he’s innocent?

Morris: History is perishable. I did try to prove Jeffrey MacDonald’s innocence. I feel tantalizingly close at times. But I think I have a high bar about that. To me, there is no evidence that shows that he did it. There’s a counter-narrative that he didnt do it, if you like, provided by Stoeckley, which, if true, does explain the murders. And it was ridiculed at the time but it is not deserving of ridicule. It is plausible in its own right and supported in its own right. An explanation being ridiculed doesn’t mean that it’s false.

One of the sad things about this case is the enormous delay between the murders, and the Article 32 military hearing where the charges were essentially dropped, and the eventual trial nine years later. That’s a long, long time. In that period, the Manson murders had vanished as a narrative. People knew about it but it wasn’t on their minds.

Slate: Another piece of the puzzle is U.S. Marshal Jimmy Britt, who comes forward after 25 years to say that he saw prosecutors silence Stoeckley, by threatening to indict her if she testified about her confession to being in MacDonald’s house the night of the murders. How much weight do you give to Britt’s account?

Morris: Yes, U.S. Marshal Britt. Do I believe him? And do I believe him because I want to believe him? All these strange things about evidence. We want to grab hold of one piece of evidence that tells us everything, that’s the slam dunk. But this is a case about many, many, many details. I ask the reader at the end, consider the totality of the evidence, ask yourself, what’s your conclusion?  I think the book is unique in the sense that maybe it is my epistemological murder story. It’s asking the reader to think about the evidence in a way you’re never asked to do in this kind of story. It’s asking the exact thing of the reader that Malcolm didn’t. As the writer, you are always supposed to cut to the chase, make the argument, lead the reader along. I make an argument, but I make an argument in my own way. Do I believe Jeffrey MacDonald was railroaded? You betcha. Do I have a problem arguing that? Not at all.

Slate: How much does it affect your thinking that MacDonald has never confessed, even though he has been eligible for parole since 1991, and to get parole he would have to take responsibility for his crimes, which essentially means confessing? He continues to appeal his conviction—a hearing is scheduled for later this month.

Morris: There’s a man in prison who has steadfastly said “I didn’t do it.” He has never wavered for 30 years. Here’s a guy who was interviewed by choice by the military Criminal Investigative Division, and he allowed them to take his statement without the presence of lawyers. Why did he do it? I think because he believed that as an innocent man he had nothing to fear.

I’m glad I did the book, and I hope the book shows Jeffrey shouldn’t be in jail. However you cut it, there was a terrible miscarriage of justice and it shouldn’t be allowed to stand. His conviction should be overturned. And if this conviction were to be overturned, there would be no retrial because there is no case. There never was a case to begin with.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

*Correction, Sept. 13, 2012: This article originally misstated that Errol Morris captured the confession on camera. He captured it on tape.