Saving One Man From Mormonism or Coercion? Inside Errol Morris' New Documentary 'Tabloid'
It’s tempting to call Tabloid, Errol Morris’s new film, an exceedingly strange movie. But it’s not a strange movie: it’s a conventional enough documentary, composed primarily of filmed interviews, with occasional clips of old film or TV footage, and some innovative use of old tabloid newspapers as exposition and transition. No, what’s weird about Tabloid is the story at its heart. Joyce McKinney, the subject of the film, wants viewers to see it as a tragic fairy tale, in which she, the beautiful princess, must rescue her handsome prince after he is spirited off and ensorceled by an evil ogre–in this case, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
McKinney became a household name in Britain in 1977 after her arrest for kidnapping Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon serving as a missionary in southern England. McKinney claims that she and Anderson were engaged in Utah when he disappeared one day without a trace. After a private investigator tracked him to England, McKinney hired a pilot to fly her, a friend, and a bodyguard to London in order to rescue her love from the “cult” that had kidnapped him. Anderson, who was six foot four (and, some accounts say, pudgy and pear-shaped) claimed he was chloroformed and abducted from a meetinghouse in Surrey; McKinney, a petite beauty queen from North Carolina, insisted he went willingly.
Morris' film The Thin Blue Line helped free a man wrongly convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, while The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara earned Morris an Oscar for best documentary. In Tabloid, though, he doesn’t attempt to get at the truth behind McKinney’s story as much as he shows that the truth is impossible–in part because people have very strong reasons for lying to themselves, and believing the lies they tell. “You know, you can tell a lie long enough, til you believe it,” McKinney says to explain why her lost lover’s account of events differs from hers–without realizing that she also indicts herself.
In any event, McKinney and Anderson ended up in a remote cottage in Devon for “three days of fun, food and sex.” McKinney said she sacrificed her virginity to undo the brainwashing that had taken Kirk from her; Anderson said he was manacled to the bed and repeatedly raped. McKinney laughs off any suggestion that a woman can rape a man: “that’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter,” she says. “A guy either wants to has sex, or he doesn’t. Either he has an erection or he doesn’t.” The film doesn’t seriously question her facile either/or. But just as flaccidity isn’t a sure sign that a man has no interest in sex, neither does an erection constitutes irrefutable proof that a man is psychologically willing and eager to have sexual intercourse, however ready his physiology might be. Arousal does not equal consent.
One thing, however, that requires not only consent but considerable planning and preparation is a Mormon mission. However coerced by societal pressures young men might feel, they still don’t end up on missions unless they volunteer and cooperate with the process. Because missions are so crucial to the maturation and acculturation of Mormon men, they typically tell everyone where they’re going as soon as they find out. If Anderson went on his mission without telling McKinney, it can only be because he didn’t want her to know–though why he wanted to keep it from her is another matter entirely. McKinney said she was dealing with two Kirks. Kirk 1 was the fiancé she knew and loved; Kirk 2 was a brainwashed cultist repressed to the point of impotence and dressed in ugly sacred underwear she had to rip from his body and burn. The idea that Anderson might have wanted, in any way, to be Kirk 2, was and remains inconceivable to McKinney. She cannot tolerate any version of her story but her own–and every single bit of it is her story. It’s certainly not the story of the pilot she hired, Jackson Shaw, charmed by a buxom blond who’d strip nude at the beach and conduct business in a see-through blouse and no bra. It’s not even Anderson’s story, so in some ways it’s just as well that he declined, quite understandably, to be interviewed for the film.
Because it’s her story and hers alone, McKinney objects to anything she considers a mischaracterization. Asked about her escape to Canada before her trial, McKinney snaps, “Don’t use the word ‘fled. I hate the word ‘fled.’” Instead, she “left.” Soon thereafter she appeared in Atlanta dressed “as an Indian from Calcutta,” in the words of Peter Tory, a reporter for the Daily Express, to which she sold her story for £40,000–provided they simply print a transcription of her telling the story of a poor innocent girl willing to do anything for the man she loved–including, as she famously put it, ski nude down Mount Everest with a carnation in her nose.
Meanwhile, Kent Gavin, a photographer on assignment in Los Angeles for the Daily Mirror, was told to investigate McKinney’s past. And that’s when Tabloid gets really lurid, because it turns out that McKinney had experience with kinky sex before she tied up Anderson.
Gavin comes across as sleazy, but in a Q&A following the Salt Lake City premiere, Tabloid producer Mark Lipson mentioned that Gavin is an award-winning photographer so respected and trusted that he was Princess Diana’s personal photographer. “I told Gavin that every movie has a villain, and he’s the villain here,” Lipson said, adding that Gavin shrugged it off. It seems reasonable to assume that as a photojournalist, Gavin understands something McKinney cannot: stories have lives of their own, and your part in one doesn’t entitle you to control how it’s told or received.
The film is called Tabloid because McKinney has been the focus of not one but two strange news stories: the second occurred in 2008, when she had her service dog Booger cloned in Korea and ended up with five little black Boogers. “I can’t see the connection between dog-cloning and a 32-year-old sex in chains story,” McKinney complains. Indeed she denied any connection at first, using her middle name and insisting that she was not Joyce McKinney. But here’s a connection: McKinney’s love for both Anderson and Booger involved intense loyalty, and in both cases, McKinney made sure that love never dies–even if the relationship or one creature in it does.
You need not be a starry-eyed romantic to know that you can fall in love with someone so intensely that you’ll love that person till you die–even (especially?) if things don’t work out and you split. Nor must you be a hardened cynic to know that one great love need not prevent you from loving someone else just as much. Plenty of people recover from heartbreak and go on to happy love affairs thereafter. But McKinney has never loved any man but Kirk–anyone else would be a shoddy substitute. Perhaps she also felt that simply another dog would be an unacceptable substitute for Booger–the only acceptable replacement was a version of Booger himself.
McKinney makes herself both savior and victim in her grand love story, a framing Morris seems willing to accept, even as he explores the possibility that she’s “barking mad.” But also interviewed for the film was Troy Williams, a Salt Lake City radio host and political agitator who served a Mormon mission in England in the 1980s. Williams hadn’t met McKinney when the film was made, though he had talked to her by phone. (Apparently she has a habit of phoning journalists and reporters in the hopes that someone will tell her story so definitively that it need not be told again.)
Williams explains Mormon theology and culture, functioning as an Anderson substitute of sorts: though unable to say what happened in that cottage in Devon, he understands that for Anderson this was not just a love story or a crime but a matter of life or death–not physical but spiritual. However attracted to McKinney Anderson might have been, he would have felt that his immortal soul and eternal life were jeopardized by the weekend in the cottage. Participating willingly in events might have made subsequent guilt and torment greater: he could have felt that by succumbing enthusiastically to the pleasures of the flesh, he was betraying every desire he’d had for his life, every ideal he’d ever held.
Ultimately, Tabloid reveals some of the weaknesses in binary thinking. Perhaps the LDS Church is neither the thoroughly evil cult McKinney sees it as, nor the only legitimate path to real happiness in this life and the next, as Anderson would have taught on his mission; perhaps it’s a complex institution that offers it followers a mix of happiness and grief, fulfillment and denial, and it’s hard to predict which you’ll get more of. when you sign on. McKinney insists that people deliberately portray her as the polar opposite of what she really is. But there’s considerable evidence that she is simultaneously both what she says and what photographs and other sources suggest--not either/or, not a blend, but both: a pairing of purity and licentiousness, cool cunning and heated madness, sincerity and deceit. It’s not just that truth, if it can be found at all, is sometimes discovered by comparing competing accounts and splitting the difference. It’s that the stories and people who captivate us most often involve seemingly incompatible extremes that nonetheless coexist and make the center more difficult to find.