An Adult in the Room with True Crime



When I was in my twenties, music was my religion, and back when I lived in Los Angeles one of my favorite services to regularly attend was that of The Autumns, an intricately layered Dream Pop/Shoegazer band fronted by singer Matthew Kraig Kelly. Sadly, The Autumns played their last show in 2008 and as the years have gone by I have expanded my interests; history and True Crime being among those to have claimed some of my attention. So when I learned that my old friend Matthew Kelly had released a True Crime podcast called The Looking Glass, I was eager to check it out…

In this inaugural season of The Looking Glass we explore the story of Jeffrey MacDonald, a military physician accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters during the early morning hours of February 17, 1970. Through the course of ten episodes, Matthew plays Virgil to our Dante, meticulously navigating us through the gruesome details of the crime and the multitude of confusing conclusions they might lead one to wander towards. While it seems apparent that many in the past were led astray, it is the piercing light of a studied historian who guides this expedition to its ultimate end. After arriving at that surprising finale, I felt a slight, yearning sadness, joined by the desire for more that often accompanies the completion of any great series, so I decided to reach out to Matthew and ask a few more questions. The following is what ensued…

Culture Catch: Well, Brother, how are things going? How's the reception to the podcast?

Matthew Kraig Kelly: Well, the whole thing is up and out and even though we haven’t posted anything for a month I believe today we are still #4 on Podomatic "Top Ten True Crime." So that kind of amazes me, you know… we had a budget of zero, no promotion, no kind of backing. I think we’re at about five thousand downloads from all over the world… we have downloads in Ghana. The data tells me that people are talking about it to other people, that’s the only way, so that's encouraging.

CC: How do you make a profit with podcasting? How does that work? I know sponsorship is part of it…

Matthew: My understanding is you can either get advertising involved who pay for access to your audience or you can put content behind a paywall. You basically kind of ask your listeners to chip in and you give them bonus content. I think it was a good idea for us not to prioritize monetizing with our first season, put it out there like a piece of art and see what it can do. Who it can attract.

CC: You're production quality really stands out among many of the podcasts I've listened to.

Matthew: Thank you. I appreciate that.

CC: Dustin Morgan from The Autumns composed the music, right?

Matthew: That's right, Dustin did all the sound design as well and the reason why I went to him to do it is because we put it out there as a podcast but it really could have been released as a glorified audiobook. That's really what it is, ever word obviously is scripted, there's no banter, nothing is improvised. So it's a ten chapter book but we wanted to kind of draw on the old-time radio drama, the kind of thing you would listen to in your car like in the '60s when the aliens land.

CC: Like "The Shadow knows…"

Matthew: Yeah, just give it a bit of ambience so when we go back in time to a courtroom in North Carolina in the 1970s you have a feeling from the actors, the ambiance, the sound design… we were very insane about that. To give you one example: In Episode 1 you hear McDonald being interviewed by the army and when he was being interviewed there were trucks, army trucks, idling outside the interrogation room, so we went to great lengths to recreate that so it's like a time travel experience. Every word that every actor utters is exactly what was said historically. There's no tinkering with things, no creative license, we really tried to make it as historically accurate as we possibly could.

CC: I didn't specifically pick up on that one but did appreciate how you capture the sound during moments when they were in court, like someone speaking into a microphone during the McCarthy hearings and that echoing sound… I particularly love the intro music with the sound samples of Nixon…

Matthew: That's cool. I'm glad you appreciated those things.

CC: Obviously you have a history as a performer with The Autumns and other bands you've been a part of and I imagine that has informed your approach. What brought you, as an artist, to podcasting and how does your past experience influence you now?

Matthew: What brought me into it was that I found myself spending precious spare time reading police reports from 1970. I became obsessed with this case and thought, "I've got to go back and look at these documents." There's a super abundance of documents because the case is fifty years old. Ultimately, the only way I could justify spending so much time with the documents was to decide that I was actually writing a book about the case. And the book project ultimately morphed into a podcast project.

CC: Didn't Errol Morris do a pretty thorough investigation of these documents for his documentary?

Matthew: Anybody who has written about it, including Errol Morris, has gone into the documentary record of the case. But none of these people were historians. You can see this by reading their books, and they're good books. I like Errol Morris's book in particular, but you can see that the evidence is not being sorted according to any over-arching criteria. When you’re going through the documentary evidence of a case or a historical episode, you want to have some sense as what's going to count as totally vital evidence and what is going to count as suggestive, but not necessarily dispositive, evidence. So for example, a historian might employ the criterion of multiple attestation. Imagine, for example, that you are researching a bank robbery. And among the evidence you are examining is an account of the robbery in someone's private diary. Now you can read that account, but how do you know what weight to grant it? Perhaps the author of the diary passage was embellishing it in order to make the experience seem more dramatic or significant. That's very common, right? People tend to embellish their experiences when recounting them to others. But supposing that, in addition to the diary entry, your evidence base also includes several bank employees who made recorded statements about the robbery. And imagine that you also have access to police reports about the incident. Now you have a multiply attested event. And you can use these different testimonies to reconstruct what happened. You can note where the attestations overlap, what everybody agrees on. More generally, you can have much greater confidence that this thing actually happened than if your sole piece of evidence was the diary entry.

So that's the kind of evidentiary criterion a historian would use. I drew upon such criteria in examining the MacDonald murders. When you do that, you can see pretty clearly that some of what Errol Morris advances as "facts" in support of his thesis doesn't hold up. Morris would naturally be less sensitive to these facts given that his background is in private investigation and filmmaking, not writing histories.

That's why I wanted to go back over the documentary record, because I thought I could do so with an eye to sorting the evidence in a manner that would generate a more historically sound analysis of what actually happened.

CC: That makes sense. Is True Crime something that you're into in general?

Matthew: No. I wouldn't say that it is. But I have dipped into the true crime podcast space. And one of the motivations to produce The Looking Glass was that a lot of the existing true crime stuff either has a kind of NPR presentation -- where the host is always fifty years old but they sound like they're fourteen, and the pacing and music sounds like it was all made at the same factory -- or it's this sort of irreverent banter about serious, often horrific crimes. So I thought, not to put too fine a point on it, maybe I could be the adult in the room here and not sound like a teenager. Maybe I can make an actual contribution to this case, and in that way make a contribution to the true crime podcast space. I was betting that there would be an audience for that -- that's what I thought. And the truth is that I have talked to a lot of people who really liked what Dustin and I did precisely because they wanted something like this but it didn't exist.

Also, while I'm not a traditional true crime fan but, every once in a while, a murder mystery will capture my imagination for whatever reason. And the MacDonald case did that for me. I was a child when I first found out about it. And "found out about" means I learned Joe McGinniss's version of the story, which had MacDonald committing the murders. And then, a few decades later, Errol Morris pops up and says MacDonald didn't do it. That really recaptured my imagination. I immediately thought, "Morris can't be right about that." And then as I looked into it, I was really pulled down the rabbit hole. What most compelled me was the fact that my convictions kept changing the further I went along. I had never really had that experience before, of toggling so jarringly between two different frameworks for understanding a historical event. I would wake up on a Monday and think, "Eureka! Oh my God, he did it! I know he did it. I can see it now." And then, two days later, I would wake up in the middle of the night -- BOOM! "Oh! He's innocent! Oh my God, he's innocent." This went on and on and on, so I had to bring the issue to some kind of a resolution. I just couldn't keep going back and forth like that; it was driving me nuts.

There are just certain cases that I have found fascinating, rather than finding crime or true crime in general fascinating. The MacDonald murders, the West Memphis Three, and The Golden State Killer are cases in point. There's an element of -- I know this word gets overused -- but there's a mild element of trauma. I learned about the MacDonald murders when I was nine years old, which is a bit young to be hearing about such things.

With the West Memphis Three case, I was in my twenties when I saw the documentary Paradise Lost. I remember being stoned and turning on that documentary. As I recall it, the opening shot is from a helicopter flying over the crime scene. You see these children's dead bodies. I was not prepared to see that. And you know how when you're high, you're more vulnerable. So that got seared right into me and I thought, "We have to find out who did this." And by the end of that movie, you know it wasn't these teenagers they arrested. 

The Golden State Killer case is another one that captivated me. I was already interested in this DNA situation, where this guy had been raping and ultimately murdering in multiple jurisdictions, in different parts of California. And almost nobody connected the crimes to one culprit. It was the evolution of the DNA technology that ultimately told investigators that the rapes and murders were all committed by the same guy. I remember originally learning of the case in a Los Angeles Magazine article by the late Michelle McNamara. There was an audio clip embedded in that article. It said something like, "Hear the voice of the Golden State Killer." I was on a naval base with my family, my wife and my son were sleeping in one bed and I was in the bed next to them with the covers over my head and my laptop open. This was about 2:30am. I remember looking at that little play button -- "Hear the voice of the Golden State Killer" -- and thinking: "How about we don't do this. How about we just wait until tomorrow." But I couldn't resist. So I pressed play and it was this famous bit of audio where the Golden State Killer had left a message for a woman whom he had previously raped, he left her a message. He would do this to people.


CC: Yes. He was trying to scare them, also, into silence. Wasn't that his thing?

Matthew: Yes. And he was breathing heavily and he kept saying, "I'm gunna kill you." He would do this to his victims, speaking in this whispery voice through clenched teeth. And I had the same reaction: "We must catch this guy. Right now. We've got to catch this guy." I'm actually realizing this for the first time, talking to you, that there's actually this element of me having been kind of bruised by these particular cases. Because if you tell me that there's a podcast about a child murder, I won't listen to it. I don't want to hear about child murderers, I don't want to hear about Jeffrey Dahmer. I don't want to know about it. I don't want to hear about people getting eaten. I don't want to know about Ted Bundy. I'm emotionally averse to that stuff. But occasionally, one of these cases invades my private, comfortable world. And then I become obsessed. That is my connection to the true crime genre, as well.

CC: It's interesting... It's fascinating to me like this personal mission… That it seems so personal, like you must solve this. That's fascinating. I think that’s pretty unique, actually…

Matthew: Yeah. It may even be a little grandiose now that I think about it. With the Golden State Killer case, I didn't think I was going to solve it or anything, I was just following the case very closely. With the MacDonald case, I did think I could make a serious contribution. I would love to have solved it outright, obviously -- and Errol Morris says the same thing when he's interviewed by Marc Smerling in the A Wilderness of Error documentary: "I thought I could crack the case," basically. To be fair to The Looking Glass, I think we do point to the solution of the case. We name the piece of evidence that, if the government would actually test it, would close the case for good. But in the MacDonald case, as I said, there was more than just solving it. I wanted to come to some conclusion for my own sanity, so I could stop toggling between "he's guilty" and "he's innocent."

There was also the fact that, the longer you look at MacDonald, the more mysterious he becomes. I remember I would look at footage of him originally and I would think: "Look at him. He is so obviously guilty. Just look at him. Listen to him talk. Look at his face. He's guilty. You can see it." And I would show the same footage to my wife, Tammie, expecting her to say, "One hundred percent, you can just see it." And instead she'd say: "I don't know. He looks innocent to me. Why does he look guilty to you?" That also compelled me. Then I would start showing a lot of different people footage of him and I would get these split reactions. That alerted me to the fact that there’s an issue there… I reference this in Episode Seven, with the research of Timothy Levine at the University of Alabama. Levine discusses this phenomenon of humans having a delusional degree of confidence in our ability to detect lies. This is particularly the case with people who are trained to spot liars, like law enforcement. The liars these people are trained to spot are the ones whose verbal and physical behaviors conform to the tell-tale signs of lying. So they are watching your eyes to see if they shift and watching your palms to see if they sweat. The problem, which Levine points out, is that not all liars conform to those cues. In particular, "good liars"-- which everyone knows exist -- don't tend to manifest the tell-tale signs of deception. That's what makes them good at lying!

CC: Or there could just be an innocent person who's just nervous because they're being interviewed by the police. They're not hiding anything, they’re just inherently nervous.

Matthew: That's right. And then there are people like Amanda Knox -- I believe Malcolm Gladwell discusses this in his book Talking to Strangers, which also mentions Levine's research -- who weren't nervous, but their affect was off. One of the things that made the Italian investigators suspect Knox was her behavior at the crime scene. At one point, the investigators had Knox pull those little booties, with the draw strings, over her shoes so as not to contaminate anything when they were guiding her through the residence where the murder had occurred. Well apparently, she pulled on the booties and then kind of popped up and said, "Ta-Da!" Something like that. This was all just after someone had been brutally murdered in the next room. So naturally, given her totally inappropriate behavior, these Italian authorities thought Knox was some kind of psychopath.  But she wasn't, she was just a little different. She behaved a little differently than you would expect. These kinds of considerations complicate investigations and specifically determining when a person is telling the truth. The same problem plagues the MacDonald case.

I have been reading literature on lying for decades. I have long been fascinated by the topic of lying. Pathological lying. How to understand lying. When is someone a liar and when are they just a "bullshitter," to use Harry Frankfurt's terms. So that is another feature of this case. Is MacDonald lying? Is he a pathological liar? Does the fact that he lied about X, Y, & Z mean that he killed his kids? This was another consideration that pulled me into the case.

CC: What do you think the human fascination is with True Crime? Where do you think it originates from? What are your thoughts on that?

Matthew: I think the fascination with true crime is over determined. I think that there are multiple vectors along which people are led to true crime. The obvious one is just human fascination with the lurid -- the same reason people rubberneck when they're driving down the freeway and they see some awful accident on the other side of the divide. People are just drawn to the gory spectacle. Now, I don't think that really characterizes me, although I'm sure there's some part of me that's true of, but that's definitely not the dominant thing that drives me to true crime. Because as I mentioned before, I'm not really a true crime person in general. I don't listen to a ton of true crime stuff. There are just certain cases that have captured my attention. So for me, I think the draw is either, in some cases, to reconstruct the psychology of a killer, and in other cases, it's the thought that we actually aren't sure a person who has been convicted is guilty. So the West Memphis Three, Jeffrey McDonald… It's the consideration of who actually committed the crime? Somebody killed these children. In both cases, who was it? I don't think any rational person believes the West Memphis Three were guilty, but there are plenty of rational people who think that Jeffrey McDonald killed his family. In either of those cases, however, something about the case bothered me. The West Memphis Three case is very obvious, but in the Jeffrey McDonald case -- Errol Morris talks about it in his book, and he cites court documents where judges who have dealt with the case say things like, "There's something that bothers me about this case." You have this feeling that there's something we don't know and maybe that is related to who really committed the crime. That's the MacDonald case.

But something like the Golden State Killer case, it's more like: "Who is this person who acts in this way? Who is this insane serial killer who by day moves among us and is seemingly a perfectly normal person, and by night is this sadistic serial rapist and murderer?" And I think on that score, what fascinates us about people like that is that, in ordinary experience, when you're talking to a person and you're interpreting their behavior, you're interpreting their speech, you're interpreting their tone, their affect… You are always trying to interpret another person's behavior. You have to step into their shoes, is the common metaphor. But a better metaphor, I think, is that you're trying to run a simulation of what it is like to be them, right? But you're running it on the only hardware you have, which is you. So you're never really able to step into somebody else's shoes. You're just thinking: "If my face made that expression that his face just made, why would it have done that? If I had that tone in my voice that's in his voice, why would that tone be there?” And you reason like that. And that's a fairly reliable way to reason, unless you're especially inept socially and just bad at doing that. But for most of us, we can kind of make our way in the world by thinking, "Okay, why would I have done that, if I were him?" But you hit this firewall when it comes to people like the Golden State Killer because they…

CC:  Because they don't think anything like we think…

Matthew: Yeah. When it comes to violence, in particular, if a guy gets into a bar fight or a street fight, most of us can understand how that might happen. We can imagine circumstances in which we might do the same thing, however remote those circumstances might seem. But a guy who, for years, is sneaking into people's houses late at night, tying up the husband, and raping the wife in the next room… There are going to be very few people who can even begin to relate to such behavior. The circumstances in which you or I might behave that way aren't remote, they're non-existent. You could put a gun to my head and I wouldn't do it. So why is this person, who is a member of the same species as me, doing this? What is this about? I think that's a big draw: trying to untangle the riddle of a killer's psychology.

CC:  Yeah, I agree on that note, because you have mentioned some of this before. I know you said the West Memphis Three and the Golden State Killer. Are there any other cases or serial killers that intrigue you personally? Because I know you said you're not into Dahmer, Bundy… like, you're not drawn to the more famous ones that a lot of people know. Are there any cases that particularly galvanize you?

Matthew: No, I don't think that there are. I mean, I have put a toe into one or two different true crime podcasts over the years, but none that I've made a real study of. I did at one point… I didn't want to do it, but I did make a brief study of the BTK Killer. Dennis? What's his last name? It's going to drive me nuts if I don't... Oh. Dennis Rader is his name. I made a very brief study of him, but only in connection with the Golden State Killer, because of the parallels between the two cases. I was following the GSK case before he was caught. I was working as the senior intelligence analyst at B2G Global Strategies at the time, and the CEO, Steve Gomez, he sent me a text one morning at, like, 4:45am… and I was brutally sick. I was really sick, and he sent me a text saying they caught him, and I could not believe it. And then by that afternoon, I was talking to some news program about it because people were calling Steve, who was frequently interviewed by journalists, and asking him to weigh in on the situation. Steve told them, "I've got this guy who knows more about this case than me," and he started handing them off to me. And then I just went further into it. But once we learned who he was and learned a little bit more about GSK, Joseph James DeAngelo, the case became even more fascinating. And there were parallels between him and BTK. So I looked into those.

And actually, I'll just tell you this because I think it's so funny. The BTK killer was active for a long time, through the 1970s and '80s, and then he suddenly stopped killing. And years later, I remember I was living in Hollywood at the time, and I think it was an L.A. Times article. Somehow an article popped up. No. It was an article from Kansas, where he was from, I believe, maybe a Topeka-based paper. And it was an article written by someone who had a book on BTK forthcoming. This article said, basically, "We don't really know where this person is now, but the assumption is either he's dead or he disappeared into the prison system, and that's why the killing stopped." Well BTK, Mr. Rader, read this article and it upset him. This guy had been inactive for decades, but he reads this article and he's offended. So he sent the newspaper -- this is what I recall of it -- he sent them some items from one of the crimes, like a license that had been taken and things like this. And so at that moment, they realized, this guy's still around.

So then they bring in the federal authorities. Now, when BTK was doing his killing back in the day, the FBI units dedicated to serial killers, and the whole sort of field of the psychology of serial killers, were not as developed and advanced as they were by the time BTK resurfaced. So when he resurfaced, the FBI came in and started directing local law enforcement, helping them craft their messaging for their press conferences and so on. The FBI was telling local law enforcement the kinds of things to say, to put out there, in order to draw BTK out. So BTK responds and he then starts sending these letters in to the detectives. And pretty soon, somebody in the investigative unit in the local law enforcement is corresponding with him regularly. Now BTK is aware that he is running a risk sending in these letters, given the FBI’s forensic capabilities and so on. So every time he sends in a letter, he's going to these very elaborate lengths to conceal the origin of the letter. He’s going to 15 different stores to copy the letter 15 times over, so the letter law enforcement receives is actually a 15th generation facsimile or whatever. And at some point, he got fatigued with this routine, so he asked the detective with whom he was corresponding: "Hey, do you know, can you trace a floppy disk -- or maybe it was just a disk -- if I just send you a floppy disk with my next message?" And the guy, who I'm sure was amazed at his luck, replied, "No, we can't."

CC: (Laughing) No, not at all. You got us fooled.

Matthew: Yeah. So then he sends in a floppy disk. Right? And that's when they learned who he was. Their computer people came in or whatever... The information on the disc literally said this was created by Dennis Rader at this church where he was a deacon. So then they caught him and they brought him in. And when they brought him in, he sat across from the detective he'd been corresponding with... Now, he had admitted guilt immediately, but then he said, hey, you told me that you couldn't trace any information from a floppy disk. And the guy was like, yeah… And Dennis Rader looks at him and says “You lied to me”. (Laughing) I love that so much.

CC: It's like a punchline of a really dark joke.

Matthew: Anyway, sorry, I know you weren’t asking about that…

CC: No, I never heard that story, though, so that is fascinating. You mentioned the Manson murders and Helter Skelter. Is that not one that fascinated you?

Matthew: You can add those to the mix. Yeah. For sure.

CC: And you felt that Vincent Bugliosi… there's a more of a modern thought that he didn't quite get it right or he sensationalized it. I know you talk about that in the episode -- it's early on in the series. I'm just wondering if you had any thoughts outside of what you cover in the show…

Matthew: Well, Tom O'Neill, the journalist, published this book a couple of years ago called Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. And he produces the goods. He shows all kinds of things that Bugliosi overlooked. And Bugliosi also looks atrocious in this book. O'Neill, when he was in the initial research phase for the book, went out and met with Bugliosi at Bugliosi's house in Pasadena. He was just starting out with his research into the Manson murders and wanted to get the general kind of structure of the history. So who better to talk to than the author of Helter Skelter. But O'Neill then spent the next quarter-century continuing to research the case, and continuing to uncover hitherto hidden material. And he eventually concluded that Bugliosi was not only wrong about the murders, but that there were things in Helter Skelter Bugliosi knew full well were wrong. So he wasn't just mistaken; he was covering things up. And then, ultimately, O'Neill uncovered police reports relating to Bugliosi himself, showing that Bugliosi, for example, had an affair with a woman whom he got pregnant, and he demanded she get an abortion, and she didn't want to. And so he showed up at her house and beat the crap out of her. Yeah… and she called the cops. It was a whole thing. And Bugliosi went to great lengths to bury all this. But O'Neill uncovered it. Another thing… Bugliosi had an obsession with the milkman. He believed his wife had been having an affair with the milkman and that his child was not his own, that it was the milkman's child, and he began harassing the milkman and his family. The milkman did not have an affair with Bugliosi's wife, and the milkman and his wife ultimately made public the fact that Bugliosi was harassing them. I mean, it's a whole thing where Bugliosi is shown to be a highly pathological individual.

Now, I should say a lot of people would be inclined to think you can't believe anything Vincent Bugliosi says, given these damning disclosures, and I don't think that's true. In fact, I think that Bugliosi was what he's been purported to be: one of the great American prosecutors of the last century. But I think he was clearly obsessive, pathologically obsessive. That can be a great asset in a prosecutor. Because he will chase down every single detail. Bugliosi wrote a book about the Kennedy assassination, for example, and the book is, I think, about 2000 pages long. I believe there's a single footnote that is 170 pages long or something. Bugliosi deals with thousands of theories about the Kennedy assassination in this book. He rebuts every theory. Who does that? It's somebody who's grandiose and obsessive and won't let things go. So I think he's still worth reading. And I think you can learn a lot about the Manson murders from reading Helter Skelter. But the stuff O'Neill turns up is so wild that even he is not sure what to make of it. And to his credit, he doesn't try to tie everything up in a bow in Chaos. In fact, there's another book, a sequel coming, that goes further into O’Neill’s research. You just have all these extremely strange bedfellows… coincidences involving the Manson family and US Intelligence and so on. And I'm not sure what to make of it either. But it's certainly the case that Bugliosi's story is incomplete and there's something missing from his version of the story of the Manson murders.

CC: He just tied up loose ends that weren't meant to be tied up…?

Matthew: Yeah, maybe… Maybe he was compromised. Maybe…

CC: Oh, wow. So far as possibly, like… kind of deep state and conspiracy level?

Matthew: Yes, it's possible. There was certainly something like a "deep state" in the 1960s and '70. You know what I mean? So it's possible that he was compromised. But I also find Bugliosi's story… It does have a quality of verisimilitude. It’s too strange to be total fiction. It’s strange in a way that history often is. He may have covered some things up, but the theory Bugliosi propounded in court to convict the Mansons is so bizarre, it's probably true. O'Neill himself acknowledges much of Bugliosi’s account is accurate, especially the weirder bits, like Charlie thinking The White Album was speaking to him, and so on.

CC: That's from the testimony of former Manson family members. Like, there's never been any contradiction there…

Matthew: Right. It's too far out to have been fabricated. And sorry, I know we’re having five different conversations here -- I apologize for that -- but you're just opening up doors that are interesting to me. I find that, going back to Bugliosi and Kennedy, this is true. It's one kind of probe you can put into a narrative to test its historicity: does it conform to your expectations? And so I'll give you an example. It's funny. We're talking about the same kind of characters. It involves Errol Morris again… I want to say, on maybe the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, whatever that would have been, 2013 or something, Morris produced a short documentary. I believe he produced it for the New York Times, and I think it was called Umbrella Man. Okay. And it was about the guy who opened an umbrella on the parade route, right near the grassy knoll, when Kennedy's motorcade went by, just before Kennedy was shot. If you watch Oliver Stone's movie JFK, you'll see early on, they don't show the assassination, but they show the parade route and the people along the route jumping up and waving and different things. And you see an epileptic guy fall to the ground and start shaking, and then you see somebody raise this black umbrella. And then, in Oliver Stone's fevered imagination, all of these things are part of this conspiracy. They're trying to get people to look the wrong way, look left when they should look right, and so forth, draw attention away from the shooters.

But Umbrella Man was a fixture of the conspiracy theory community for a long time. I think there was even a book about how Umbrella Man was actually the one who killed Kennedy. His umbrella was an elaborate contraption and it fired tiny bullets when he opened it or whatever. But the standard theory was that he was giving some sort of a signal to the shooters by raising his umbrella at a certain moment. So Errol Morris tracked this guy down and it turns out the truth about him was too weird for anyone to have anticipated it. And this, in my experience, this is exactly what you find when you do real historical research. It tends to violate your expectations and it tends to be too weird for you to have made it up. So it turns out "Umbrella Man" was out there with his black umbrella on a sunny Dallas day as a protest. But he wasn't protesting John F. Kennedy. He was protesting John F. Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, who had been the US ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time when the infamous appeaser, Neville Chamberlain, gave his famous "peace in our time" speech after meeting with Hitler. So this guy still had a bee in his bonnet about the Neville Chamberlain incident 30 years earlier, and he was giving vent to his feelings by opening a black umbrella as John F. Kennedy drove by. This guy is out of his mind, in other words. No one in the world is ever going to infer Chamberlain from a black umbrella, obviously.

CC: Except one guy in England watching it, "Dear God. He's referencing Neville Chamberlain!"

Matthew: Ha! Right! The dots you have to connect to make any sense of this are so many that no one but this guy understands what he's doing. And that, to me, is what history actually looks like. When something conforms to a nice little theory, it probably isn’t historical. And with the Kennedy assassination stuff more generally, the various conspiracy theories fit a little too easily for my taste. They’re too easy to put together in hindsight. In reality, when you zoom in, historically, people are weirder and more idiosyncratic and more unpredictable than you would ever imagine. And that's a quality of historical authenticity, I find. It doesn't tend to conform to your expectations. But anyway, sorry, long answer. I can't remember where we were…

Matthew and I would go on to talk for a while longer, but if you've made it this far then I think it’s time to direct you to the source of this river: The Looking Glass podcast.

You can also check out Matthew & his music projects below:

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