Errol Morris v. Janet Malcolm
The documentary filmmaker takes on the 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.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.