A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
524 pages. The Penguin Press
Book Review by Sean Thibodeau
What do Jack Kerouac, Charles Manson, Sarah Palin and Edgar Allen Poe and all have in common?
It’s a long story and I’ll get to it in a minute, but the brief answer is: Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and former private detective Errol Morris’ new book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald.
Mr. Morris, a Cambridge resident, is famous for films that weave uncannily complex and compelling stories on unconventional topics. His signature is eliciting from interview subjects brutally bare confessionals. He gains these from a machine he invented called the interrotron. The interrotron is a camera that allows a subject to maintain eye contact with the interviewer and the viewing audience at the same time.
The direct eye contact from the person on screen makes for really engaging storytelling—it’s almost as if you were having a conversation with the talking head rather than being a third party witnessing an interview. If you haven’t seen Fog of War or Fast Cheap and Out of Control I suggest you do so posthaste. But I digress.
The point I am making is that Errol Morris is a clever, creative, critically acclaimed and unconventional filmmaker.
In 1991, he pitched a movie that no studio would back. That movie became this new book, which brings me to Kerouac.
In Book Two of Dr. Sax, Kerouac lays out what he calls “A Gloomy Bookmovie.” It’s a dramatic series of 25 little scenes centering on the indoor play of young Kerouac during a gloomy rainy day inside his house on Sarah Ave in Pawtucketville. Kerouac was pushing the boundaries of the novel by reorienting the reader to a cinematic vision.
Don’t stop to think of the words, just the image.
Morris is doing the reverse with Wilderness of Error, which reads front to back like one of his documentaries—including tons of visuals, transcripts from his interviews — essentially everything you would expect from one of his films except the soundtrack. I’ve never seen a book with so many pages darkened by drawings, newspaper articles and sketches. The book block looks like a barcode. And “gloomy” is a very proper adjective for the story he’s telling.
As the subtitle suggests, this is a “true crime” book about the murder trials of Jeffrey MacDonald.
In the early morning February 17, 1970 in Fort Bragg North Carolina, MacDonald, a green beret surgeon, phoned the police for help. When the police arrived at the scene they found the beaten and bloody bodies of MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters. The word “pig” was scrawled in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom.
While MacDonald was being treated for his own wounds, he claimed a band of drug crazed hippies were responsible for the murders. This was, of course, six months after Charles Manson and his drug crazed followers perpetrated their killing spree. MacDonald was originally cleared in a non-binding military inquiry in 1970 but then ultimately convicted of the murders in 1979 and is still in jail.
Unsettling questions about the investigation, court trials, and the media coverage of the case propelled Morris to gather evidence to answer a question “lost under the heap: had anyone proved that Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty of the murder of his family?”
The volume of evidence collected and arranged by Morris in this book is straight-up overwhelming. It’s clear he has obsessed over this case for a good number of years. Making it difficult for me to summarize here all that Morris has gathered. What’s most important to know is that by the end of the book you may or may not be convinced of MacDonald’s innocence but you will be certain he did not receive a fair trial.
Perhaps most interestingly, Morris raises questions about the media’s portrayal of the MacDonald case post-1979 conviction —most especially by Joe McGuinness’s 1983 book Fatal Vision, which was also made into a TV-mini series.
McGuinness was originally part of MacDonald’s defense team in 1979 but ultimately became swayed to thinking MacDonald was guilty and wrote Fatal Vision with that perspective, though throughout the writing process he led MacDonald to believe he was remaining impartial.
MacDonald sued McGuinness for fraud and breach of contract but the horse had left the barn. The TV mini-series was already underway and MacDonald was convicted again in the court of public opinion.
Incidentally, McGuinness’ agent for Fatal Vision was Sterling Lord — a man whose most famous client was one Jean-Louis Kerouac. McGuinness was also in Sarah Palin’s cross-hairs for The Rogue, his recent unauthorized autobiography of her. Her distaste for McGuinness garnered Morris unlikely praise for Wilderness from the former Alaskan governor.
Oh. And Poe? The title “Wilderness of Error” comes from Poe’s 1839 story “William Wilson.” Morris cites the passage in his epigraph: “I would wish them to seek out for me, in the details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error.”
Of course, William Wilson, in proto-Fight Club style is the perpetrator and victim of his own murder. Lost in a wilderness of error, confabulation was his killer.
Sean Thibodeau is the community planning librarian at the Pollard Memorial Library. He holds a BFA in Creative Writing from University of Maine at Farmington and a MS in Library Science from Simmons College. He grew up in Lowell and lives there now with his wife and son.