Towards the end of his life, the French theorist Roland Barthes elaborated what he called a “Grand Project” of reimagining the possibilities of language. Language, he argued, could work to center liminality and uncertainty, rather than centering the certainty of power and ideology. This “Grand Project” finds an unlikely contemporary analogy in a number of popular true crime texts, chief among them Errol Morris's 2012 book A Wilderness of Error.
In A Wilderness of Error, Morris, perhaps best known as the director of the true crime documentary The Thin Blue Line, interrogates and juxtaposes a variety of popular texts related to the case of Jeffrey MacDonald accused and convicted of the 1979 murder of his wife and two children. This chapter argues Morris does not straighten out the “raggedy-ness on the edges of reality” to produce the typical certainty promised by a true crime text. Instead, Wilderness becomes an intertextual palimpsest emphasizing the ungraspable nature of truth in the case, relinquishing the power of certainty, and reimagining the possibilities of the genre. In this way, that “raggedy-ness” becomes Morris's subject; the result, if not the goal, of Wilderness is to reimagine the true crime genre as something that can function outside the bounds of the power of institutions and discourses which have defined it in the past.