Errol Morris takes on Janet Malcolm in A Wilderness of Error.

Errol Morris Takes on Janet Malcolm

Errol Morris Takes on Janet Malcolm

Interviews with a point.
Sept. 13 2012 11:23 AM

Errol Morris v. Janet Malcolm

The documentary filmmaker takes on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case.

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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.