Trials: On Janet Malcolm | The Nation


Trials: On Janet Malcolm

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If there is any rival to Janet Malcolm as the most talented and incendiary woman journalist of her generation it is Renata Adler, and their biographies share some striking similarities. Both were born in Europe in the 1930s—Malcolm in Prague in 1934, and Adler in Milan in 1938—to Jewish parents who fled brewing troubles on the continent when the writers were young children. Both have had long relationships with The New Yorker, where neither has published much that is explicit about being Jewish, a woman or the child of refugees. Both have written extensively about libel law and have been sued in connection with articles they published in the magazine; Adler even took a break from her writing career to earn a law degree from Yale. There are also crucial differences. Janet Malcolm remains a lively if divisive presence in the journalistic milieu and a valued contributor to The New Yorker. Adler, who fouled its temple at the turn of the century with her damning memoir Gone: The Last Days of “The New Yorker,” has hardly been heard from since.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills
Anatomy of a Murder Trial.
by Janet Malcolm.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz is the deputy literary editor of The Nation.

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Adler’s alleged offense was the smearing of Judge John Sirica, an otherwise undistinguished jurist who became famous, and eventually an American hero, after assigning himself the Watergate trials. But as Adler wrote in an essay for Harper’s Magazine (“A Court of No Appeal,” August 2000), published after no fewer than eight New York Times articles had appeared denouncing her “irritable little book” (“A Question of Literary Ethics,” April 5, 2000, unsigned), the underlying aggravation was not Adler’s casual aside on page 125—“In the course of research, I had found that, contrary to what he wrote, and contrary to his reputation as a hero, Sirica was in fact a corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure, with a close connection to Senator Joseph McCarthy and clear ties to organized crime.” It was the 241 pages surrounding it, wherein Adler, with indecorous abandon and brief, mincing cuts, julienned a generous batch of New Yorker writers and editors, including, most fatefully, Charles McGrath, who was by then editor of The New York Times Book Review, and, most memorably, Adam Gopnik, for whom she revived the obscure but extraordinarily evocative adverb “meaching.”

“Renata Adler is being disagreeable again,” groused Judith Shulevitz in Slate, who used the occasion of Adler’s “spectacle” in Harper’s to bemoan her pathetic decline from “America’s most lacerating cultural critic” into a “crank.” Shulevitz faulted Adler for introducing no new, verifiable information about Sirica, and on that point, she is at least partially correct: Adler’s explication of Sirica’s criminal ties was based not in the written record of Sirica’s life but in some very intriguing gaps—gaps that, as far as Adler knew, no other reporter had bothered to investigate, least of all the yeoman Times reporters busy defending Sirica’s honor. Some suggested that Adler had committed libel and lamented that, as the jurist was dead, he could take no legal recourse against her. (Adler got the bit about McCarthy from Sirica himself, in his autobiography; she claimed that the ties to organized crime are suggested by the unaccountable good fortune and attentions of powerful men that dogged both Sirica, who boxed professionally at a time when the sport was controlled by the mob, and his father—described by his son as a serially luckless businessman—who was busted for bootlegging during Prohibition.)

Adler’s inclusion of that sentence was unfortunate, despite that every word of it could be true. But what is notable about the plaints of Shulevitz and her cohort is not their substance—Shulevitz turns from the particulars of Adler’s essay to a general polemic against journalism of the “neurotic,” “self-exploiting” strain, a charge that was hardly novel even in 2000—but the tone of their laments. “Adler specializes in unpleasantness of the high-handed variety,” wrote Shulevitz, her schoolmarm’s ruler poised for the knuckle-raps to come. She went on to describe Adler as “haughty,” “ungracious,” “sneering,” this all despite that “when it comes to the facts, she is not in error,” at least as far as Shulevitz knew.

In 2004 the elusive Adler allowed herself to be interviewed by Robert Birnbaum for the Morning News. The conversation turned to another Jewish woman writer, another refugee, who wrote controversial articles for The New Yorker and was widely vilified as a result. Birnbaum questioned Adler about her friendship with Hannah Arendt, bringing up the fracas that greeted the publication of Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial.

RA: So what made you think of Hannah Arendt? Why?

RB: I have always admired her and recently I read a recap of the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy and there is a new edition of Origins of Totalitarianism.

RA: That’s right. Everyone turned on her for the Eichmann book as well.

RB: She, of course, suggested it would have been better had people criticized the book she had actually written.

RA: That’s always asking too much.

“What is it about smart Jewish women that seems to spark antipathy?” asked Birnbaum, citing specific examples concerning Arendt, Susan Sontag and Cynthia Ozick. Adler refused to take the bait.

RA: I don’t think there is something about Jewish women. I don’t. Do you?

RB: I don’t know.

RA: About women generally, no, I don’t think that either.

RB: Well, that’s good.

RA: I haven’t thought about it. It may be so. But it certainly never crossed my mind.

* * *

The Journalist and the Murderer, remarked Craig Seligman in a portrait of Malcolm published a decade ago in Salon, “is one of those remarkable works that trusts the reader to meet it with all the sly intelligence that has gone into its composition.” The book is famous less for its account of Jeffrey MacDonald’s libel suit against Joe McGinniss than for its provocative opening sentences:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

Whatever else the book said or did not say, these first sentences divided American journalists. Some defended the book as a nuanced investigation of the relationship between journalist and subject, a relationship that is problematic if not basically antagonistic. Others took Malcolm literally, howling that she had impugned the honor of the entire profession. “That’s what you get,” wrote Seligman, “for trusting the reader.” This latter group closed ranks against Malcolm, who became something of a pariah, a sorcerer expelled from the order for revealing its mysteries.

Seligman and others have read The Journalist and the Murderer as a thinly veiled exorcism of the demons plaguing Malcolm in the wake of the libel suit brought against her and The New Yorker by Jeffrey Masson. (Masson claimed that she had fabricated a number of quotes attributed to him, the most damning of which were included in the extraordinary fifteen-page lunchtime interview that provides the narrative crux of In the Freud Archives.) In the book’s afterword, Malcolm cautions the reader against this facile assumption. She reminds us that “the journalistic ‘I’” of the preceding pages is an “overreliable narrator.” To understand this “I” as wholly contiguous with the journalist is a mistake. The “I” of journalism is, rather, “almost pure invention,” like “the chorus of Greek tragedy.” It is the “embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life,” an idea that, as Malcolm has showed us, is a cherished and convenient fiction.

How is it, then, that Seligman, who is an otherwise subtle and sympathetic reader of Malcolm, fails to understand that her “I” is always begging the question, even when she avows it is not? Malcolm has warned the reader that she, like her subjects and the reader, is a player in the story, and thus unreliable, as witnesses always are.

This is a lesson acknowledged but perhaps not fully understood by Katie Roiphe in her recent Paris Review interview with Malcolm. I say “with” and not “of” because even more so than the typical PR interview—which is a collaboration between subject and interlocutor, shaped through many months of collaboration into a document over which the subject has editorial approval—Malcolm is clearly running the show. The resulting text is a master class in dissembling and misdirection. It is not surprising that the woman who has irrevocably altered our understanding of the journalist-subject relationship should be the rare quarry to completely elude her hunter. What is surprising is the ease with which Roiphe, seemingly seduced by the “controlled, restrained, watchful” presence of the object of her admiration, rolls over. “Even though I ostensibly am interviewing her, I am still nervous about what impression I am making on her,” writes Roiphe, “still riveted and consumed by the idea of the three penetrating sentences she could make of me should she so desire.”

After Malcolm deflects Roiphe’s initial question about the role that psychoanalysis has played in her writing (“Although psychoanalysis has influenced me personally, it has had curiously little influence on my writing”), Roiphe tries again, this time quoting Malcolm in “Iphigenia,” in which she writes of journalism that “malice remains its animating impulse.” Malcolm replies:

I think you are asking me, in the most tactful way possible, about my own aggression and malice. What can I do but plead guilty? I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a “helping profession.” If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.

Legally, malice is an amorphous concept that is apt to “confuse as well as enlighten” a jury in a libel case. In this sense, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Supreme Court opinion for Masson v. The New Yorker, the term “malice” may “be an unfortunate one.” Actual malice, he writes, “should not be confused with the concept of malice as an evil intent or a motive arising from spite or ill will.” He continues: “In place of the term actual malice, it is better practice that jury instructions refer to publication of a statement with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard as to truth or falsity.”

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