Books

Book review

‘A Wilderness of Error’ by Errol Morris

Errol Morris revisits the ’70s murder case and trial of Jeffrey MacDonald in a book to find where truth and narrative diverge.

On Sept. 17, 68-year-old Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret physician who has spent more than 30 years in prison for the murder of his family, will once again return to court, this time to request DNA analysis of evidence, which, his defense team asserts, will finally exonerate him. If MacDonald’s name seems unfamiliar or rings only a distant bell, that’s certainly not for lack of publicity — MacDonald’s was one of the most notorious murder cases of the second half of the 20th century.

The crime took place in 1970 at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg. MacDonald’s pregnant wife, Colette, and their two young daughters were brutally beaten and stabbed to death; MacDonald was stabbed too. He claimed the murder was committed by a group of hippies, one of whom — a woman wearing a floppy hat and go-go boots and carrying a candle — chanted “Kill the pigs” and “Acid is groovy.”

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MacDonald did not look the part of the stereotypical murderer — he was smooth, articulate, educated at Princeton and Northwestern universities, with no history of violence or mental illness. But, even with the story of the Manson family’s 1969 murder of Sharon Tate still fresh in the public’s memory, MacDonald’s narrative sounded fishy, and some of his behavior seemed bizarre. In an infamous appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,’’ MacDonald seemed more arrogant than grief-stricken. In 1979, he was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.

MacDonald’s case became the subject of “Fatal Vision,’’ a book by Joe McGinniss, which, along with its subsequent made-for-TV movie adaptation, helped solidify the public’s image of MacDonald as a charismatic psychopath. McGinniss had initially written to MacDonald, saying that he thought MacDonald was being railroaded; he was enlisted as part of the defense team, but changed his opinion along the way. MacDonald later sued McGinniss, saying he misled him, and the case was eventually settled out of court. McGinniss and MacDonald’s relationship was dissected in Janet Malcolm’s book “The Journalist and the Murderer.”

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The latest writer to take on the MacDonald case is documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. As the director of “The Thin Blue Line,’’ Morris has won a reputation as something of a truth teller after his documentary helped get Randall Dale Adams, who had been wrongly convicted of murder, off death row.


Oddly, in his most compelling work, Morris has actually been almost the opposite; one of his greatest accomplishments has been to subvert our concept of truth, forcing viewers to confront that much of what they assume to be factual has actually been manipulated into a coherent but misleading storyline. And that’s precisely what Morris says happened in the MacDonald case.

“Narratives are ubiquitous. They are part of the way people see the world, part of the way people think,” Morris writes early on in his book. “But what happens when the narrative of a real-life crime overwhelms the evidence? When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted — or is left uncollected at the crime scene — simply because it does not support the chosen narrative?”

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Morris’s thoroughly engrossing and exhaustively researched book is the product of more than two decades of work. In it, the author serves as MacDonald’s one-man legal defense team — examining evidence that was not heard in court; rejecting evidence that was; explaining how the crime scene had been tampered with; and focusing on the story of one Helena Stoeckley, a drug-addled young woman, known to wear a floppy hat and go-go boots and who, at various times, claimed to have been present at the MacDonald house during the murders.

As is nearly always the case in any Morris project, the character studies are magnificent, the attention to detail extraordinary, and the effect on the audience is dizzying, disorienting, and thought-provoking. Morris offers charts, timelines, transcripts of interviews and court proceedings. But this is no mere data dump — the breadth of information not only helps to cast reasonable doubt on MacDonald’s conviction and to create a compelling case for a new trial, but also demonstrates how facts are manipulated into narrative.

Generally, Morris makes the transition from director to author with ease. Doubt, murk, and fog are his specialties, and they’re all here in abundance. He is a compelling storyteller and an entertainingly erudite one too, dropping references to Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Johnson, and Alexander Dumas, likening MacDonald to the wrongly-imprisoned Edmond Dantès in “The Count of Monte Cristo.’’

Morris eviscerates McGinniss as an opportunistic con artist who, like the prosecution team in the case, manipulated evidence. In one particularly damning passage, he demonstrates how McGinniss’s editor cajoled him into altering his text so that MacDonald’s guilt would seem more clear cut.

Still, it must be said that, when the author takes on the role of crusading moralist, he is less effective — he is much better here at creating doubt than establishing certainty. And, some of his criticism of McGinniss can seem overly strident. However, one does not have to be a fan of McGinniss — a writer who infamously imagined the inner thoughts of Ted Kennedy in “The Last Brother’’ and moved next door to Sarah Palin in Wasilla, Alaska, to research “The Rogue’’ — to be taken aback by Morris’s suggestion that McGinniss’s position on MacDonald’s guilt was influenced by the prospects for book sales. And Morris’s armchair psychoanalysis of McGinniss, as predisposed to betray MacDonald because of the two men’s similarities, fails to persuade. Morris writes that both McGinniss and MacDonald were successful men of a similar age who had two young daughters and had been unfaithful to their pregnant wives and also that McGinniss once wrote that he had nightmares about his daughters’s destruction. “The parallels . . . are endlessly suggestive,” Morris writes. Not to this reader.

Nubar Alexanian

Errol Morris.

It would seem nearly as plausible to find an explanation for Morris’s antipathy toward McGinniss in their superficially similar biographies — both are married fathers born in the 1940s; both are associated with Massachusetts (Morris’s office is in Cambridge; McGinniss went to Holy Cross and wrote for the Worcester Telegram); and both have been sued by the subjects of works (McGinniss by MacDonald, Morris by Randall Dale Adams and now by Joyce McKinney who was featured in 2011’s “Tabloid’’).

But even here, maybe Morris is demonstrating his own point — that we’re all manipulated by the stories we’re most predisposed to believe. During an interview Morris conducted for this book, Janet Malcolm asks why so many people still believe MacDonald is guilty. “Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate,” Morris responds. “That an innocent man’s life has been destroyed…” But Morris, like the rest of us, is the product of his own favored narratives and perhaps, in part, he has fashioned this tale of a railroaded MacDonald because he couldn’t accept the alternative storyline — that a smart, educated physician could murder his family.

Even now, more than 40 years after the crimes, these two storylines continue to vie to become the official version. The next chapter begins tomorrow — in a North Carolina federal court.

Adam Langer’s most recent novel is “The Thieves of Manhattan.’’ He can be reached at adam@adamlanger.com.
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