Errol Morris and The Mask of Fatality: An Interview by Julie Cline

By Julie ClineFebruary 17, 2013

    Triptych image: Illustration from A Wilderness of Error
    Credit: Pentagram 2012

    THE INCIDENT REPORT is dated “17 Feb 70.” The report states that upon the MP’s arrival “the number of deaths had not been determined.” The report states: “Upon arrival it was noted that it was raining lightly and the ground was wet. The exterior of the building was appeared to be a two story brick dwelling with a wing on each side. The apartment in question …”

    The apartment, whose very brick façade seems to have been in question from the story’s beginning, is 544 Castle Drive, once home to a man who is or appears to be guilty of murdering his wife and two children in the small hours of that winter morning in 1970. Although a facsimile of this report turns up in the first chapter of A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, cover-ups, compromised confessions, and ways of both erring and knowing are at the heart of Errol Morris’s book-length investigation. Of the contents of the house, Morris writes, “Everything that wasn’t already locked up in a lab was incinerated [in 1984]” — “the walls, doors, windowsills, ledges, hardwood floors.” All was destroyed and buried at Fort Bragg. “Could the house itself be interrogated?” he asks. “Could it have been forced to give up an answer?” 

    Though I had not previously followed the MacDonald case, had not read any of the character-damaging books or TV spinoffs surrounding it, I have — since I was maybe 12 — followed Errol Morris’s film career. I knew that the case would hold the kind of dread-inspiring indeterminacy that has drawn me to his documentaries over the years. The nausea began, for me, with an animal rendering plant in Morris’s first film, Gates of Heaven (advertised as “Not a film about pet cemeteries”) and then worked its way into Vernon, Florida via the haze of an insecticide truck. In Vernon, Florida we trail a single-minded turkey hunter as he becomes lost in the forest, afraid of being shot at by other hunters. And then there’s McNamara’s orange fog in the Oscar-winning The Fog of War, a candy-colored apparition rolling from beneath crop dusters over Vietnam … 

    But depending on where you fall on the Venn diagram of Errol Morris followers and followers of the case of Jeffrey Macdonald, you may be most compelled to draw comparisons between A Wilderness of Error and The Thin Blue Line, his 1988 documentary that elicited, through filmed interviews, a confession from a cop-killer. Morris is a documentarian and a true detective; through hours of diligent work, and maybe luck, he was able to exonerate a man on death row. Okay, you might think. We’ve seen this one before — it can’t happen again. And you’d be right — except that’s not the point. Let lightning strike where it may, A Wilderness of Error is Morris at his best: his most personal, his most urgent. It’s Errol as the private investigator (or as Lawrence Weschler calls him, the forensic epistemologist) who has been for decades knee-deep in boxes and boxes of evidence, each in varying degrees of contamination. And the apparition, if you will, or fog, or haze this time around is erosion, loss. Helena Stoeckley, a potential witness whose multiple confessions were never heard in court, has been dead since 1983. Her brother lives with the belief that she was guilty. And Jeffrey Macdonald is serving three life sentences in Federal Prison — perhaps because not to confess is more damning. Regardless, he has been lost in this wilderness now for 43 years. Even by Old Testament standards, that’s three years too many of wandering. 

    Morris’s title, A Wilderness of Error, is taken from “William Wilson,” a story by Edgar Allan Poe about a man haunted by an ally-turned-adversary-turned-self. He is a card-shark doppelganger, or, as Rod Serling would have it (through a cigarette darkly), a prisoner of the mind.

    The epigraph, from “William Wilson”: 

    I would fain have them believe that I have been, in some measure, the slave of circumstances beyond human control. 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.


    1. MORRIS’ v. MORRIS’S 

    Julie Cline: I’m sort of going off the map here. I’m looking at your name on the First Person box set, the TV show you did, and there is an S apostrophe: “ERROL MORRIS’ FIRST PERSON” in block lettering. And that has completely contaminated every thought, every question I’d had before it.

    Errol Morris: Well, I can easily see why.

    JC: It’s a trifle, I know, but can you maybe clear this up?

    EM: I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if I’m responsible. Probably it should be an apostrophe S. 

    JC: But that would sound different — I guess for the brand, is what I’m thinking.

    EM: Yeah, I always run into trouble with apostrophe S’s. It depends I suppose on how you look at it. Being plagued or blessed with a last name ending with S, you would think that it’s a constant problem I should have learned to address consistently. But if you ask me, because I really have no memory of the cover at all, I would’ve put an apostrophe S after my name. Isn’t that the correct thing to do? 

    JC: “Errol Morris’s books.” Yes. But on your website I don’t think it is …

    EM: Really? Uh oh.

    JC: I seem to have this, this fascination (it’s an obsession) with single letters, single characters present or missing. 

    EM: Or the period or the comma or the semicolon, whatever. It’s one of those things that create constant anxiety in life.

    JC: It’s something I feel like informs the whole … I had so many questions after I finished A Wilderness of Error, but …

    EM: And all of them concern punctuation.

    JC: Well, finally all of them concern punctuation, or grammar. It all sort of comes back around to this.


    2. Books Are Books 

    JC: The techniques that you use in your documentaries — how do you bring those to bear on writing this book, the concerns of A Wilderness of Error being similar to the concerns of your documentary films?

    EM: Well, I don’t know if it is like the films. I mean the films — films are films, and books are books. I’ve read repeatedly that this book is in some way a film because it was made by a filmmaker frustrated in his attempt to make a movie about this and in the end resorted to the written word, as if that clearly is some extreme compromise, and I have never really seen it that way.

    And this case is very, very different from The Thin Blue Line. I mean, I have been struck over the years how different it is, really. I had a conversation recently with a private detective friend of mine, and, the example I always give is that there are mathematical theories that are convergent and there are theories that are divergent; there are theories that converge to a point, and theories that end up nowhere [laughs] and I wonder whether there are criminal cases like this — maybe this is an article of epistemology. It’s certainly not about whether reality itself is indeterminate but it is about whether we can ever know what happened in some instances. And of course the most famous example of the diverging theories case is the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Where 40 years, 50 years have gone by and we seem to be still spinning in multiple different directions without any conclusive or clear theories having been given. You know, someone will raise a hand and say, “I have the definitive answer,” and then someone else will raise their hand … Well, they all can’t be definitive answers. The MacDonald case is the closest thing for me to that kind of a case, where you investigate and you reinvestigate. And you reinvestigate some more. And instead of coming to some conclusive answer, that “oasis of fatality,” if you wish, you end up nowhere. You end up in a kind of No Man’s Land. The Thin Blue Line is completely different: it was converging; it was clear Randall Adams was innocent, David Harris was guilty. And the fact that David Harris confessed to me and told me he was guilty and that Randall Adams is telling the truth is just one article in it, but there was just so much evidence that’s been accumulated by that time, all leading to that conclusion. Different kind of case. Why do some cases organize themselves very nicely into answerable true and false questions and others do not? 

    JC: Do you think it’s possible, then, that it’s distinctly about reading, and if it’s about a way of reading, that this particular story can only be written?

    EM: I just believe it would have been very difficult to make this kind of a movie. I mean, I could have made a kind of filmed examination of the case, but I could never have done what I did in the book, in film. 

    JC: Is there a kind of, and this will sound maybe grotesque because of the horror of what we’re actually talking about, but is there a kind of delight on a certain level in the fact that, for instance, you have three elements: you have a castle — the name of the street; you have the fact that the suspect is a Green Beret; and also that the detective is named Ivory. I mean, they sound like chess pieces, but those are the facts of the case. Those aren’t things that you can make up. How do you feel about those details that seem like they write themselves?

    EM: I never actually thought about it that way before. It’s interesting … I suppose I look at the case in a very different way. I don’t look at it so much as a literary case. Although part of the book is about narratives and the power of narratives. But the case just personally disturbs me. I mean, I think of Jeffrey MacDonald rotting away in prison for some, well, 30-plus years, but it’s been 40-plus years since the murders themselves, and he has lived under a cloud during that entire period. It’s ongoing. Fine, you say, if he’s guilty, but what if he’s not guilty?

    JC: Yeah, and for this layer of the story, that’s the more queasy part. Sort of the most unsettling part coming away from the book is that, you know, one has to make a leap of faith to really accept the mass of evidence.

    EM: I wouldn’t call looking at the evidence a leap of faith. I would call not looking at the evidence a leap of faith. I mean the evidence is all we have to go on — that’s what connects us to the reality. It’s what connects us to the world around us. Which is not to say that evidence can’t be wrongly interpreted or misinterpreted.

    3. Engendering Error 

    JC: One thing I keep thinking about is the fact that, when he was first arrested, Jeffrey MacDonald said, “This is like something out of Poe!” He couldn’t believe it for the same reason people didn’t believe hippies could have killed his family, as he claims — because it was too Manson-like. And that’s in reports and it’s even in the script for Fatal Vision, the made-for-TV movie. The epigraph that you use, for this reason, is particularly affecting. Can you talk about your choice to use it, how that came together? 

    EM: I’ve often thought of everything I do as being an examination of error. Error fascinates me — how we fall into error, the ways in which we fall into error. Our almost unfettered ability to foster, create, engender error. The quote I’ve known about for years. I’ve probably known about it for 40-plus years. I read Poe as a child, and he remains my favorite writer after all these years. And there is a sort of metaphysical underpinning to all of Poe. Among many other things he’s one of our more interesting philosophers. The quote from “William Wilson” is about a kind of nightmare where in the end you have no idea clearly where you are. You don’t know whether it’s reality, you don’t know whether it’s a dream. You don’t know whether this doppelganger is imagined. Until perhaps near the end of the story, and even that, to me, retains the strange nimbus of doubt and confusion about what’s really going on. But that line I always wanted to use as the title of a book. I wanted to use it is as the title of a book before I even knew what book. 

    JC: Do you make lists of titles? 

    EM: No! This is just a quote that I’ve loved for years and years and years. “Seeking an oasis of fatality,” seeking certainty, seeking truth, seeking something that’s unimpeachable and certain in a sea of confusion, doubt, error, false beliefs. And it captures certainly the essence of this story because we know of course that it’s an article of faith at the heart of the book. We know that there is an answer to the question, “Who killed Jeffrey MacDonald’s family?” Who killed Collette? Who killed the two little girls? And it’s either Jeffrey MacDonald or it isn’t Jeffrey MacDonald; it’s someone else. There’s a real world in which things happen. So that is, if you like, that oasis of fatality, that bedrock, that certainty that something happened and that in principle we can know what it is. But guess what? That oasis of fatality is surrounded, engulfed by a wilderness of error, confusion, falsehood. I think it works as a title. I only regret I can’t use it elsewhere because I’ve used it here. 

    JC: Well that would be a funny kind of doubling. You could use it and then maybe use a semicolon [I meant a colon] but with a different subtitle.

    EM: There you go.


    4. Almost as a Brand

    EM: I have been obsessed — probably continue to be obsessed — with Hervey Cleckley. Someone really needs to write a Cleckley biography, but I don’t think it’s going to be me. He’s one of the unsung 20th century figures. He created two of the enduring myths — I would call them — of the 20th century. He wrote The Three Faces of Eve (1956), the book on multiple personality disorder. One thing I’ve noticed quite recently is how emphatically Robert Bloch gave Norman Bates three personalities. He was writing Psycho in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not so far from where Ed Gein/Norman Bates was up to his mischief. Psycho (1960) itself was influenced by Hervey Cleckley, by Cleckley’s belief in multiple personalities. Well, William Wilson, Poe’s William Wilson, may be an early version of Cleckley. The Two Faces of William Wilson would have been the name of the case study! The other book, of course, is The Mask of Sanity (1941). These ideas don’t originate with Cleckley, but Cleckley popularized them, he built them up, he sold them almost as a brand. The Mask of Sanity was a true 20th century demon, the person who looks like you and me but is devoid of emotion, devoid of feeling, most significantly devoid of passion, the kind of ability to empathize, sympathize, to connect with others. And yet presents a face to the world of utter [laughs] normalcy.

    JC: How do we know that anyone can connect, or sympathize, because what if nobody possesses sympathy? 

    EM: And how do you know that people don’t connect? What always disturbed me about Cleckley’s notion was, well, how do we really know what goes on inside another person’s head? I suppose it’s one significant question.

    JC: Maybe this is why there’s a shift for me, or it comes as a surprise for some reason, when we learn, well, first that Helena Stoeckley even had a brother, and that upon meeting him you “liked him immediately.” Leaving aside my initial, cruel oversight that this known drifter might have had a family, what made you like her brother immediately?

    EM: I had talked to him a couple of times on the phone before I flew down and met him at a motel — basically, right next to the Raleigh-Durham airport. And one of the reasons I liked him was that he had such a negative view of himself. Maybe I liked him for that reason alone. He has this view of himself that he isn’t particularly a nice guy, that he wasn’t a good person, and all evidence was to the contrary. He seemed to be a really good person, and a nice guy. And I was moved by his story. The fact that he clearly loved his sister and, well, the effect that this whole story has had on the Stoeckley family — his belief that his sister, for what’s its worth — was telling the truth, the relationship with the mother and on and on. I found it to be a very moving part of the story. Does it give us any kind of proof that Stoeckley was telling the truth, or that Stoeckley was in the house that night? No, it doesn’t. Nor do I think it’s intended to do that. It certainly makes you feel that Stoeckley was committed until the very, very end. 

    JC: Yeah, because it’s a painful thing for her family. I mean — why would she confess? There’s no reason to confess to her family. 

    EM: Well, maybe there is. Let’s give the other side the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Stoeckley had confabulated all of this and had convinced herself that she was in the house even though she wasn’t. You could even imagine that she saw her life as a waste and wanted to do one good thing for another human being, and felt that by offering an alibi for Jeffrey MacDonald that she was doing something good. I mean I do not know. And then of course there’s the possibility that she was there. 

    JC: The fact that she was a police informant, prior to all of this, that her mother had cautioned her not to inform on her drug friends, that it was dangerous – throughout that section you never, I notice, use the word “narc” or “rat.” There never seems to be any kind of judgment made on her having helped the police prior to this. 

    EM: Although she was a rat. And a narc.

    JC: Right. But there’s no … It seems that you, as a narrator, cast no judgment there.

    EM: Maybe I should call her a rat and a narc, I don’t know.

    5. Trust Me: I’m a Narrator

    EM: Years and years and years ago, I imagined myself writing about a series of crimes — this is nonfiction — that I was investigating in central Wisconsin, the Ed Gein murders being one of those cases, and I had imagined organizing the book around fetish objects. Rashomon-like, I would interview five or six different people about one thing. And I would organize the chapter around that one thing.

    JC: What would one of those things have been?

    EM: I’ll give you an example. I had spent a lot of time interviewing a mass murderer, James McBrair — M-C-B-R-A-I-R — he was known as Butch McBrair. And there were all these stories about his first engagement ring, Barbara’s engagement ring, and I allowed myself to take one picture of the engagement ring and I organized all of these stories about the engagement ring around that one picture. Well, the book was never finished. Like many of my projects it sits in boxes in my basement. 

    JC: Oh, this is something I remember from that Les Blank short, the one where Herzog eats his shoe because you’ve completed Gates of Heaven. At some point in there he says you’d had, I don’t know, tens of thousands of pages of writing, and he encouraged you instead to make films. Was that, do you think, a sort of an encouragement, then, away from what you would see as the real thing? Do you see Werner Herzog as a discourager of writing because he was an encourager of filmmaking?

    EM: No, I don’t see it. Either way. I just never finished that book that I was planning to write in my 20s. I mean, this is a daunting task, writing about this particular case [MacDonald’s]. I’m certainly not the first person to write about it and probably won’t be the last person to write about it. And over the years, because this is an unending litigation, there’s such a volume of material that to even call it “voluminous” is an understatement. And so how do you deal with that? You can’t be in any way inclusive of all of the material that’s available to cover the case in its entirety. You have to pick and choose. You have to take certain aspects of the case and work out on them. By the way, I do not see A Wilderness of Error as a failed movie, and I would like it to be judged as a book. For better or for worse. 

    JC: How do you sell a book like A Wilderness of Error when people are so set in their ideas, not just about the case but about what you do, who they think you are? I mean, how do you do an unreliable nonfiction narrator but in that unreliability be, like, deeply responsible?

    EM: Do you think that I’m the unreliable narrator in A Wilderness of Error?

    JC: That’s what I think people expect, people who think they’re familiar with or know your brand or who you are, the one outcome that’s expected is that you will not grasp onto this “oasis of fatality” and then you do — even if it’s attenuated or whatever. But it feels equally like a reversal and a natural progression from your early stuff, the sort of ideas of contamination and how we know things.

    But, yes, I do think you’re the unreliable narrator. I mean, you’re one of them. With the doubling, you know, which at a certain point is like cell division. Necessarily you’re in there, but it’s like you’re inside the evidence, and I think that’s what differentiates your documentaries from others’ is that, like with this book, it’s not just where the lens is but how it interacts with or how you grapple with the material. You’re on the ground, in there with it, reading it.

    EM: Well, I like to think that there’s a kind of metalevel in what I do, in everything that I do. I mean, there is looking at evidence, there’s looking at a triple homicide, there’s the effort of trying to figure out what really happened, there’s the whodunit aspect of it, which is there, and can never be forgotten, but then there’s the awareness that we are investigating something, we’re making choices about how we investigate it, we’re looking at what we seize upon, how we look at the evidence, how we arrive at the conclusions we make about it. I mean, that’s my greatest hope is that it’s part of the book. I’ve read all of these people attacking this book because I’ve come to the defense of Jeffrey MacDonald who’s obviously guilty, blah blah blah, how could I do such a thing? I’ve been duped, I’ve been tricked, I’m stupid, I’m craven — whatever the analysis in the end turns out to be, I would say I’m innocent [laughs a little] of those charges. Because I’ve really tried to examine, I believe, the nature of the case against him. And I have never declared myself in possession of certainty about what really happened at 544 Castle Drive in the house that night. And the reason that I haven’t is because I do not feel certain about it. And I think that’s made absolutely clear in the book. 

    6. Areas of Concern

    JC: I was thinking of Vernon, Florida as sort of prefiguring this project, that A Wilderness of Error just would not have been possible without your having first explored certain themes in Vernon, Florida.

    EM: In Vernon, Florida? Really?

    JC: Yeah, there’s this moment when the turkey hunter — and this seems like a kind of confession — when he tells you that hunting the turkey, the thrill of it, the nerves, makes him want to puke. He says, “You get the dry heaves like after a hangover,” and he’s describing this feeling of both catching the turkey and not catching the turkey — that it’s sort of the same thing. So this hunting and killing, along with the sort of contamination of the rendering plant in Gates of Heaven, it all seems to carry through for me maybe in a sort of paranoid, too-closely reading way, but it seems that A Wilderness of Error just wouldn’t be possible without that.

    EM: No! I mean it wouldn’t be possible, at least I like to think it wouldn’t be possible without me.

    JC: I think of the ending a lot — the turkey hunter again, in the final scene. He’s listening to some large bird taking off from one of the trees, and he says, “You hear that? Flop flop? That sound’ll sure mistake you for a turkey.”

    EM: Well I do love that scene. I mean I am the guy who did make that movie and my concerns were very much the same …

    In the book, A Wilderness of Error, the book is in good measure about how we come to conclusions, how we view evidence … 

    Yeah, it has a nice epistemological kind of ending. He’s counting turkeys in the trees which he tells you really aren’t turkeys — they might be turkeys but in fact they’re not turkeys, they’re vultures and he’s counting them and you don’t know why he’s counting them or whether it’s an accurate tally or even what an accurate tally might be in that instance because it’s all insane

    JC: Yeah, they’re flying away as he’s trying to hold them down.

    EM: Which might be the essence of this.

    JC: Who were you most fond of working with in Vernon? 

    EM: Albert Bitterling. He tells this anecdote about the two sailors looking out over the water and one of them says, “There’s a whole lot of water out there,” and the other says, “Yeah! And that’s just the top of it!” He and his mother had come down to Vernon on a bus and bought a house. He said he had a choice between the 2,000-dollar house and the 1,000-dollar house. And he said he liked the 1,000-dollar house but that you would have to say it was kind of … mediocre. That was the word he used. Then his mother died and he was left all alone down there. Crazy town. The Northern guy, some Yankee in the middle of — you can't even call Vernon, Florida, a southern town because it seems like off the charts, off the maps.

    JC: Some kind of a warp zone. Yeah, he’s a great character in there. Especially when he says, “Yeah, and that’s just the top of it!” in exactly the way you just said it.

    EM: Yeah, he laughs after it, I believe.

    JC: He sort of reminds me of your little sound cameos from behind the camera, in your later work — this sort of incredulous “You did what!?” You somehow remind me of Albert Bitterling.

    EM: Yeah, I think we have a lot in common… And we continued to correspond long after. He used to send me these clippings from Vernon, Florida. He sent me this clipping of a map of the United States that showed areas of hurricane danger zones, and there were areas where hurricanes were of great concern, areas where hurricanes were of some concern, and areas where hurricanes were of no concern. And so he sent me this map with an arrow pointing to New York, where I was living at the time, and there was, like, no concern. And he had circled the arrow pointing to New York and had written — he had this amazing handwriting — in block capitals he had written, “ARE YOU LUCKY ERROL.”


    That brief “oasis of fatality” is what I’ve come to see as a side effect, despite the queasy-making unknowns, of Morris’s work what I would call the “somebody’s in here” principal. This is that phrase many have uttered from inside a dressing room, when someone has jangled the handle or knocked on the door: “Somebody’s in here!” Somebody? It’s absurd. Why not “Occupied!” Too stilted? Or, “I’m in here!” Too entitled? The moment presents no other option than to cast oneself as the stranger, to assert only that there is another being possibly alien, probably human – on the other side of this door. From the start of his career, Errol Morris has been trying door handles nobody not even Errol Morris expected would turn. The doors may not all open, the brick may in fact be particleboard, but still, somebody is in there. Fatality is the blessing and the curse of imagination. Things go on in the real world. 


    LARB Contributor

    Julie Cline is a former editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her essays and reviews have appeared here and there. She is writing a nonfiction novel. 



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