A Wilderness of Error
The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
By Errol Morris
(Penguin Press HC, The, Hardcover, 9781594203435, 544pp.)
Publication Date: September 4, 2012
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Academy Award-winning filmmaker and former private detective Errol Morris examines the nature of evidence and proof in the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case
Early on the morning of February 17, 1970, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor, called the police for help. When the officers arrived at his home they found the bloody and battered bodies of MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters. The word “pig” was written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom. As MacDonald was being loaded into the ambulance, he accused a band of drug-crazed hippies of the crime.
So began one of the most notorious and mysterious murder cases of the twentieth century. Jeffrey MacDonald was finally convicted in 1979 and remains in prison today. Since then a number of bestselling books—including Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision and Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer—and a blockbuster television miniseries have told their versions of the MacDonald case and what it all means.
Errol Morris has been investigating the MacDonald case for over twenty years. A Wilderness of Error is the culmination of his efforts. It is a shocking book, because it shows us that almost everything we have been told about the case is deeply unreliable, and crucial elements of the case against MacDonald simply are not true. It is a masterful reinvention of the true-crime thriller, a book that pierces the haze of myth surrounding these murders with the sort of brilliant light that can only be produced by years of dogged and careful investigation and hard, lucid thinking.
By this book’s end, we know several things: that there are two very different narratives we can create about what happened at 544 Castle Drive, and that the one that led to the conviction and imprisonment for life of this man for butchering his wife and two young daughters is almost certainly wrong. Along the way Morris poses bracing questions about the nature of proof, criminal justice, and the media, showing us how MacDonald has been condemned, not only to prison, but to the stories that have been created around him.
In this profoundly original meditation on truth and justice, Errol Morris reopens one of America’s most famous cases and forces us to confront the unimaginable. Morris has spent his career unsettling our complacent assumptions that we know what we’re looking at, that the stories we tell ourselves are true. This book is his finest and most important achievement to date.
Errol Morris is a world-renowned filmmaker-the Academy Award- winning director of The Fog of War and the recipient of a MacArthur "genius award." His other films include Standard Operating Procedure, Mr. Death, Fast Cheap and Out of Control, A Brief History of Time, The Thin Blue Line, and, most recently, Tabloid. He is the author of Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.
"The literary equivalent of one of [Morris's] movies. It’s a rough-hewed documentary master class.... A Wilderness of Error upends nearly everything you think you know about these killings and their aftermath. Watching Mr. Morris wade into this thicket of material is like watching an aggrieved parent walk into a teenager’s fetid, clothes- and Doritos-strewed bedroom and neatly sort and disinfect until the place shines. ...He will leave you 85 percent certain that Mr. MacDonald is innocent. He will leave you 100 percent certain he did not get a fair trial... If this headstrong book doesn’t change your sense of the Jeffrey MacDonald case, I'll eat my Chuck Taylors."
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Critics sometimes confuse great books with important books — exceptionally written literature isn't always the same as literature that can powerfully affect society. But A Wilderness of Error is both great and important — it's a beautifully written book, and it has the potential to change the way the country thinks about a justice system that has obviously lost its way."
—Michael Shaub, NPR
"Mr. Morris has produced a brilliant book about the vulnerability of justice to the preconceptions of prosecutors and the power of certain narratives to crowd out all others, even highly plausible ones. I strongly recommend this book."
—Wall Street Journal
"A Wilderness of Error is a beautifully produced book, with chapters set off by line drawings of crucial objects in the case: a toppled coffee table, a flower pot, a rocking horse. It’s reminiscent of the recurring images in 'The Thin Blue Line,' iconic and mysterious, always on the verge of revealing the secrets they stand for but never quite yielding them. Morris may geek out on minutiae and hypotheticals, but he is enough of an artist to convey that every crime scene is a dialogue between time, as it sweeps away the irrecoverable past, and the material world."
"Morris’s thoroughly engrossing and exhaustively researched book is the product of more than two decades of work... 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."
—The Boston Globe
"Morris has been researching the case for over two decades, and the result of his inquiries is a thorough and compelling argument for the incarcerated doctor's innocence, a sobering look at the labyrinthine justice system, and a feat of investigative perseverance."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)