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.”