Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Error The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald

Sun Oct 21, 2012

I am from North Carolina. I’m quite familiar with the eastern part of the state, having lived there off and on for almost a quarter-century. Nothing surprised me more in this unusual book than learning there was apparently a thriving “hippie” scene in Fayetteville in 1970. It seems unimaginable from what I experienced, but the returning military from SE Asia, heroin, etc. dynamic was quite different from anything I remember. Anyway, while I was familiar with the broad outlines of the Jeffrey MacDonald case, I have never read any of the books about it (or seen the mini-series or any of the other documentaries). It’s an intrinsically fascinating story, and Errol Morris is in many ways an ideal author to explore them. Morris has been a philosophy of science student and private investigator in addition to the documentary filmmaker responsible for freeing an innocent man from a Texas prison, among other provocations. In particular, Morris is fascinated with epistemology and what he describes as “postmodernist” attacks upon it. He has written amusingly about his encounters with Thomas Kuhn in this regard, and his interest in this case was certainly furthered by Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, a book about the Joe McGinniss/Jeffrey MacDonald relationship that Morris thinks argues that the truth of the case is either essentially or practically unknowable. Morris rejects such an attitude with the entirety of his being, it seems. I find his objections either to be overstated or grounded in philosophical presuppositions that I don’t share, but it’s a witty and bracing attitude all the same.

Curiously enough, Morris’s remarks about Malcolm’s seeming skepticism about truth in the book reminded me of how Hal Incandenza attributes a similar skepticism about truth to his mother Avril in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I made this connection because of the various revelations about how often Wallace distorted facts in his creative non-fiction and reportage. I have never thought much about this, considering how obvious these distortions were, but it does raise serious ethical questions in many kinds of reporting. And the truth of the MacDonald case is very hard to discern. Very early on a February morning in 1970, MacDonald’s wife and two children were murdered. He was seriously wounded but not killed. The crime scene was not kept well preserved. Army investigators developed a theory that MacDonald staged the scene and blamed intruders. The intruders MacDonald described seemed to imitate the Manson murders, which raised suspicions in the minds of investigators. A copy of Esquire devoted to the Manson murders and other instances of countercultural violence was in MacDonald’s living room. (Amazingly enough, the entire issue of this magazine was read in open court at the trial that convicted MacDonald in 1979.)

An MP saw a woman standing on the side of the road on the way to MacDonald’s house. His description matched MacDonald’s description of this woman, and investigators quickly determined that a drug-informant named Helena Stoeckley fit the description. Stoeckley would implicate herself in vague and somewhat contradictory ways in the murders many times before she died in 1983. A former FBI agent hired as a private investigator by MacDonald named Ted Gunderson, who was in the process of becoming quite the conspiracy theorist, strongly played up Stoeckley’s possible interest in occultism, and she claimed in a late interview to have been part of a cult who murdered the MacDonald family ritualistically. (Another, more prosaic and probable explanation she gave is that she knew MacDonald from working as a nurse’s assistant, and that she and her friends went to his house to intimidate him into giving them drugs. MacDonald never mentioned this to investigators, however.)

Morris convinces me that MacDonald’s trial was hopelessly corrupted. He dwells less on MacDonald’s strange behavior, which included an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show so self-involved that it alone apparently convinced his wife’s step-father that he had in fact committed the murders. He also told the same man that he had tracked down and killed one of the culprits—a lie so brazen as to be nearly unimaginable. He started a new life in California much more quickly than his in-laws and prevailing standards of decency might judge appropriate. He showed disastrous judgment in his choice of defense attorneys, but it’s hard to say if this was sufficiently foreseeable.

The genre of true-crime is morally reprehensible. It’s easy enough to deduce this from general principles, but I have also read a book in this genre that involved the family of someone I knew, and it was full of outright lies and meretricious conjectures. That’s what sells. Morris makes a very convincing case that McGinniss realized that his access to MacDonald had not given him a marketable story, and so he came up with the diet-pill psychosis hypothesis to lend closure. Morris comes close in his discussion of this point to the realization that stories themselves are always false and partial, though this is very the claim he repudiates so strongly in Malcolm’s account. And I would agree with him that the economics of publishing and personal ambitions of an author should not be confused with grand claims about the inherently illusory nature of narrative.

Another interesting facet of the book is how it reveals Morris’s primarily visual imagination. While over five-hundred pages in length, the book seems much shorter, primarily because it is divided into over sixty short chapters. Each of the chapters is about the length of one of Morris’s blog posts (excuse me, “short essays”) for the NYT. The book also has some sharply designed diagrams. At one point, Morris reveals that he wanted to make a documentary about the case; but he couldn’t get funding because everyone he talked to about it had already made up their minds about MacDonald being guilty. Even allowing for the density of visual information, it’s hard for me to imagine how all of this could have gotten into a two-hour documentary, but who knows. I would have watched it.