Attacks From Within: On Janet Malcolm
In 1979, an Army doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald was tried in federal court for the murder, nine years earlier, of his pregnant wife and two daughters. The case attracted national attention, partly because of MacDonald’s sensational defense, which was finely tuned to the American paranoid hangover of the 1970s. MacDonald claimed that his wife and daughters had been killed by a band of marauding, Manson Family–style hippies, and that he, of Princeton University and the United States Army, had been injured while fighting them off.
Enter Joe McGinniss, a journalist who a decade earlier had humiliated the Nixon campaign with his bestselling book The Selling of the President, 1968. Convinced of MacDonald’s innocence, McGinniss persuaded the defendant and his attorneys to allow him to embed with them during the trial and its aftermath, so that he could write about the case from the defense’s perspective. The trial went badly for MacDonald, who was found guilty of committing all three murders and given three life sentences to be served consecutively. McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision, appeared in 1983 and was no less condemnatory. Abandoning his original plan, McGinniss depicted MacDonald as a ruthless sociopath, guilty as charged. MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud, arguing that long after McGinniss had concluded MacDonald was guilty, he continued to act and talk as if he believed otherwise. McGinniss protected his access to the defense team by pretending he still believed their side, even when he didn’t.
MacDonald v. McGinniss was a journalist’s dream, but some dreams are nightmares. On the one hand, the case had far-reaching First Amendment implications. MacDonald lost—the jury was hung. (He later wangled a settlement from McGinniss’s publisher, who was not eager for a second trial.) But if he had won, reporters would have felt obligated to disclose to their interview subjects their opinions of them, which would have made much investigative journalism, and most profile-writing, impossible to do. On the other hand, McGinniss lied blatantly to MacDonald. “What the fuck were those people thinking of?” McGinniss had written to MacDonald after the trial, in one of many ingratiating letters. “How could twelve people not only agree to believe such a horrendous proposition but agree, with a man’s life at stake, that they believed it beyond a reasonable doubt in six and a half hours?” McGinniss leapt so far overboard with false professions of friendship that it was hard not to feel sympathy for MacDonald. Five of the six jurors did.
Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, published in 1990, is a brilliantly clear description of this complex case. It is also a peerless statement of an ethical quandary—and good ethical quandaries, like other good philosophical metaphors, wear well. We may never improve on Plato’s cave; or Philippa Foot’s “trolley problem,” a famous thought experiment in ethics; or the question that can be summed up as “Joe McGinniss: journalist or scoundrel?” The succinct way Malcolm poses the question, and the sureness with which she leads the reader simultaneously through the facts of the case but also its implications, ensures her book’s place on English and journalism syllabuses for many years to come.
But if a writer’s body of work is to remain alive and vigorous, a reader’s first contact must lead to a more ravenous embrace. And many students, having encountered The Journalist and the Murderer, do seek out Malcolm’s other works of what could be called “intellectual orienteering,” in which she plops herself down, armed only with a compass, on a battlefield of ideas. As the adversaries sling accusations and insults at each other from behind trees and dugouts, Malcolm tries to find her way to higher ground, thence to figure out why they’re fighting. Money or lives or possessions may be at stake, but only as a proxy for the real quarry. In the Freud Archives (1984) chronicles a fight over Freud’s papers that is really a fight over his legacy. In The Silent Woman (1994), biographers of Sylvia Plath fight for and about her papers—but at bottom for the right to tell their version of Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes. In The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), a lawyer is charged with being an accomplice to a crime—but really, Malcolm shows, with being too obnoxious, too impossibly zealous, in defense of her client; it’s not Sheila McGough but the easy narratives required by the legal system that should be on trial. With these books, Malcolm has solidified her reputation as a guide who can expertly help readers through, as her New Yorker colleague Ian Frazier writes in the introduction to Forty-One False Starts, “a good big mess.”
But like music fans seeking out lost singles and album rarities, or film buffs buying DVDs for the director’s cut, hard-core readers want access to the early work, the old articles, the occasional pieces, the feuilletons, the moldy tear sheets once lost and just found. Forty-One False Starts is Malcolm’s third collection of shorter pieces, and these essays, all of them about writers and artists, are quite unlike Malcolm’s big-mess books. Many readers, including young ones who may know Malcolm only from her books, will be, if not disappointed, a bit discombobulated. She began writing long pieces about photography for The New Yorker in 1975, and she continues to write about it and other arts. (Her first contribution to the magazine, in 1963, was a poem, “Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House,” which includes the line, “One thinks of busy little souls/ Bent over little wooden bowls.”) Malcolm was the magazine’s first dedicated photography critic. Given the venue, and her avidity and talent, she made friends, enemies and waves, as a good critic should. Diana & Nikon, her 1980 collection of New Yorker photography essays and reviews, is as readable and engaging as anything this ignorant observer has read about the form. Forty-One False Starts includes, alas, no pieces from that collection, but it does contain, in addition to more recent photography essays, some very fine writing about literature, including essays on J.D. Salinger, Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsbury circle, and the Gossip Girl novels.
Yet there is the problem. Certain works of journalism, like In Cold Blood, J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground and The Journalist and the Murderer, are perennially interesting by virtue of their subject. By contrast, criticism dates almost immediately, most of its subjects rendered obsolete by the iron judgment of time. If in the year 2050 someone who reads The Journalist and the Murderer goes looking for other Malcolm books, she will find that The Crime of Sheila McGough and The Silent Woman still pay handsome rewards, perhaps with compound interest: the problems they describe will still seem fresh, and the books will double as quick, elegant histories of times gone by. If, however, she happens upon Malcolm’s 1994 profile of the artist David Salle, the title piece in Forty-One False Starts, she will probably be overcome by bafflement and ennui. Malcolm quotes a critic who, in 1993, wrote of Salle, a star artist of the 1980s, “He is definitely out. Like fern bars and quiche.” Twenty years on, does the critic look any less silly than Salle? Who is the fern bar now?
Despite the occasional serving of quiche, however, there are still good reasons to read this collection. One is the sheer pleasure of her rich descriptive power, her sentences turned like spindles on a lathe. There is the historical interest: reminders of who was once fashionable, should one care. There is the cruelly perfect aim of her insults. But there is, above all, the unequaled glimpse into the mind of Malcolm the critic, which is as close as we’re likely to get to the mind of Malcolm, one of our smartest, best writers, someone whose personal inscrutability and elusiveness I regret all the time. The less we care about the art discussed, the more we are free to care about the writer.
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