During a press tour for his book, A Wilderness of Error, Errol Morris visited The Colbert Report. It’s a fun interview, and it provides a good recap of the events covered in Fatal Vision (as well as an opportunity to see Colbert wearing a carved-up trash can with an iPad glued to it).
An excerpt from A Wilderness of Error elaborates on why the documentary filmmaker could not get this story made into a movie (emphasis mine):
I am a filmmaker, so I first imagined it as a movie. I went to a variety of studio meetings. But the movie I wanted to make was nonstandard. The pitch: there are two opposed theories of what happened at 544 Castle Drive on the morning of February 17, 1970. Neither had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet most Americans had only ever been presented with half a story, the half that held that MacDonald was definitely the killer, the half that was the basis for Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a bestselling book that was adapted into a TV miniseries. So let me describe the movie that I imagined. I wanted to cast Gary Cole, who played MacDonald in the TV miniseries, and to use him for my own reenactments of the case. I would juxtapose these reenactments with scenes from the original TV movie. It would be a version of Rashomon, the film by Akira Kurosawa, with competing narrators and different points of view. Here, it would be by the same actor. Such a movie, I thought, could open the case back up and show how critical evidence was ignored or suppressed, how the evidence that was introduced does not confirm MacDonald’s guilt. It could help people think and decide for themselves. I stopped. The studio executive across the table clearly wanted to say no. She paused for a moment and said, “We can’t make that.” I asked why. “Because he’s guilty,” she said. “The man killed his family.” And I said, “But he might be innocent.” And she said, “No. He killed his family.”
From The Journalist and the Murderer: when Malcolm was interviewing MacDonald, he spoke of one particular letter he received following the publication of Fatal Vision. “That’s part of the shattering impact of McGinniss’ book,” he said to Malcolm. “People who have read it feel that they know me, that they have got inside my head.” (emphasis mine)
August 19, 1984
Dear Inmate MacDonald,
My wife and I are here in beautiful and sunny Hawaii having a great time, and we both have read the novel Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss while laying on the beach here in Waikiki.
We are both, I must tell you, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are guilty as all hell of the murders of your wife and daughters.
We have two lovely and bright daughters of our own and thank God they were not subjected to a “madman” of a father.
I have no compassion for an individual as sick, demented, and sordid as surely you must be. From the text of McGinniss’s well versed story about you, it is plain to see that you are a liar of outrageous stature.
Anyone who could do what he did to a pregnant woman is really a slime, but what you did to two helpless children is even sicker and more difficult to comprehend and believe. It states in the book (I believe) that you are eligible for parole in 1991. We only pray to God that authorities in charge of such proceedings will have better sense than your Army peers did years ago and never let you loose. You are obviously a latent homosexual (or perhaps no longer latent now that you are where you are! Perhaps, by now, you may well be the “Queen of the Hop” there in the joint, hm?) who hates women because you are an impotent faggot, true?
At any rate, we just wanted you to know we enjoyed the novel but feel sure you are guilty and a pervert maniac like you should never be cut loose. You should, probably, concentrate on getting yourself a “daddy” there in the joint and becoming the true fag you really must be.
With best wishes,
Both Morris’ interaction with studio executives and this hateful letter tap into a common thread of the MacDonald case: not only is the public convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, they are empowered by McGinniss’ portrayal of MacDonald to relegate him to the sub-human status. If you have no reason to believe that MacDonald didn’t kill his pregnant wife and two children, if the only book you read on your Hawaiian vacation is Fatal Vision, then why extend any amount of empathy towards this monster?
(Another thing to note about the letter: the use of the phrase “latent homosexual” in describing MacDonald. Both the book and the case attempt to link MacDonald’s fragile masculinity and supposedly ambiguous sexuality to his decision to murder his wife and children, a link that is as spurious as it is homophobic. The phrase “latent homosexual” is lifted directly from Fatal Vision .)
This is hardly scientific, but during my time researching clips on YouTube, I couldn’t help but fall into the dark hole of the YouTube comments (not recommended, by the way), where the anti-MacDonald sentiment is as potent and charged today as it was back in 1984. Defenses of Jeffrey MacDonald were few and far between, and usually not met with courteous replies. The YouTube comment community doesn’t have a reputation of quality intellectual discourse, but since these comment threads represent public perception well enough, I went ahead and screencapped a few below. More can be found at literally any video concerning the case (although, again, as a general rule of thumb: bad idea. It’s dark down there).
A couple of people who believe in MacDonald’s innocence. Nobody seemed to agree.
Here’s what’s tricky about this situation: even when people are acting nasty and kicking MacDonald while he’s down, they’re not inherently wrong. We will never know what really happened that night, who is really guilty. So to these people, the Mr. J— H—s, the “boop poop dee doops” of the world who believe MacDonald is guilty, their outrage feels not only justified, but virtuous. Same goes with Joe McGinniss. If you believe that MacDonald is guilty, then McGinniss is doing a public service by peeling away MacDonald’s composed exterior to reveal the psychopath within, an attitude that has kept public opinion against him and, more importantly, kept him in prison.
But what if we removed the presumption of guilt from this case? What if MacDonald is truly (or even potentially) innocent, and McGinniss misinterpreted his emotional paralysis for psychopathy? How does Fatal Vision feel then? As I stated earlier, when all you believe is Fatal Vision, then you owe MacDonald nothing.
I’m sure I don’t have to try very hard to convince a group full of college students that maybe *don’t* take everything at face value, but you should also understand how much vitriol exists towards MacDonald and how it ends up guiding so much of the conversation around this case.