Janet Malcolm, Reluctant Memoirist

The Right Distance

Janet Malcolm’s autobiographical turn.


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.” This sentence is among the most famous in American journalism. It first appeared as the lede in a two-part essay published by The New Yorker in 1989, and then again in 1990 when the essay was published as a short book called The Journalist and the Murderer. Its author was Janet Malcolm, who was on The New Yorker’s staff and wrote lengthy profiles of writers, photographers, psychoanalysts, and many more of whom her writing alone made figures of note. When she died in 2021 at the age of 86, she left behind eight books of nonfiction, four essay collections, and a treasure trove of awards and honors that her work had garnered. The level of attention, positive and negative, that came Malcolm’s way leaves no doubt that she was a significant figure on the American cultural scene.

Malcolm was a writer of intense likes and dislikes, and one of her most notorious prejudices was her dislike of what has come to be called “life writing.” She thought the entire enterprise—whether biographical or autobiographical—meretricious. To write about oneself, especially, struck her as embarrassingly wrongheaded. Yet in the last years of her life, when she was sick and dying, she did exactly that. Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, Malcolm’s posthumous new book, is a collection of autobiographical essays (sketches, really) accompanied by photos (snapshots, really) that draws directly on Malcolm’s memories of childhood and youth. True, many of these pieces were published in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books before being compiled as a “memoir,” but it’s hard not to wonder whether Malcolm herself, had she been alive, would have wanted to see them published as a book.

Born in Prague in 1934 into a family of Jewish professionals, Malcolm soon fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with her mother, father, and sister, arriving in the United States in 1939, when she was 5. Her father was a doctor and the family culturally self-assured, so while they arrived without money and had to settle in a low-rent neighborhood on New York’s Upper East Side, the parents successfully navigated the assimilationist climb for themselves and their girls. Janet attended The High School of Music and Art and then the University of Michigan. Within a decade after graduation, having already exhibited a taste for journalistic work, she had landed at The New Yorker, where she remained for the rest of her professional life, honing the literary nonfiction for which she became famous.

Malcolm wrote on everything for the magazine—Freud’s Vienna, the New York art world in the ’80s, Rachel Maddow in the era of Trump—but the essay that eventually became The Journalist and the Murderer has always been one of the best examples of the way she worked, the effects she achieved, and the influence she exerted. The book tells the complicated story of a sensational trial held in 1984, in which Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army doctor convicted of murdering his wife and children, sued the journalist Joe McGinniss for breach of contract and fraud. MacDonald had hired McGinniss to write a book that would persuade its readers of his innocence, and McGinniss had given MacDonald and his defense team every reason to believe that this was exactly what he intended to do. Then he turned the tables on them and wrote a book (Fatal Vision) that, if anything, persuaded its readers that the good doctor had indeed murdered his family; by the time the book was published, MacDonald had long been found guilty in a court of law and sent to jail. It was from his prison cell that he did this very unusual thing: He sued McGinniss. The case dragged on for three years until it went to trial and was settled out of court in 1987.

Malcolm did not attend the trial, but when it attracted her attention a year or so later, she found herself drawn by the moral dilemma the situation seemed to represent. Because the journalist’s allegiance is inevitably to the story while the subject’s, also inevitably, is to his or her own version of the truth, each one’s motivation, Malcolm reasoned, is dangerously self-serving. It soon appeared to her that whenever a journalist and a subject got together, a deal was being made with the devil. Therefore, she concluded, the relationship between any journalist and any subject is inherently corrupt. The case was so unusual that, at first, Malcolm—who always needed some moral clarity to consult while exploring the unethical in a situation—didn’t know how to orient herself. But once she had this thesis, she was home free.

The Journalist and the Murderer gave Malcolm a chance to practice her art full out, thereby providing her readers with a chance to experience the originality of the narrating persona she’d developed to tell this as well as any other of her stories. To begin with, it possessed a formidably concentrated intellect bent on organizing what was usually a vast amount of material—in the MacDonald-McGinniss case, thousands of pages of trial transcripts—containing a wealth of information that was then absorbed and interpreted as very few journalists could… or would. In the pages of the trial transcripts, Malcolm’s penetrating eye uncovered undreamt-of connections among the various players, because it picked up on the merest hints of hidden involvement.

Together with its distinctive intellect, Malcolm’s persona also possessed an equally distinctive temperament, one with a strong penchant for the negative. By which I mean that it operated like a cop at a lineup: From the start, everyone is under suspicion. With a large cast of characters (the lawyers alone!) at her disposal in the MacDonald-McGinniss case, Malcolm was able to inspect the character and motivation of nearly everyone involved, easily catching out this one’s ignorance, that one’s self-deception, a third’s easily traced lies. It became a signature trait of hers: looking for (and finding) the incriminating flaw in whoever was standing in front of her.

This predilection could sometimes make the world she was surveying feel evenly divided between the mendacious and the severely stupid. In another writer’s hands, that might become wearisome, but in hers it did not. The moral high ground assumed by Malcolm’s persona provided a self-assurance that endowed her work with a strength that was hard to argue with. Out of that self-assurance, Malcolm fashioned some of the most memorable writing in American journalism. Her sentences, for instance, were incredibly clean. Cold, clear, and clean. It was as though they dared the reader to challenge them and, as a block of prose, seemed impervious to criticism. All in all, it was a remarkable performance.

It was only now and then that a sentence escaped the Malcolm persona that opened a seam in the garment of self-protection from within which she worked her magic. The title essay of her collection Forty-One False Starts contains just such a sentence. In it, we learn that Malcolm, in the 1990s, visited the artist David Salle repeatedly over a period of two years, often puzzling with him over the mystery of art: Why did one piece of creative work achieve that status while another did not? Malcolm herself was a collagist, and one day she brought Salle some samples of her own work, insisting that all she wanted was to be told whether or not they were art, and why. The experienced Salle knew that whatever he said wouldn’t be the thing Malcolm really wanted to hear. The two went back and forth, with him hedging uncomfortably until at last Malcolm stopped asking questions. “Looking back on the incident,” she writes in this essay, “I see that Salle had also seen what any first-year student of psychology would have seen—that for all my protests to the contrary I had brought them to be praised.” I can imagine Malcolm brooding for some time over having let such an unguarded sentence appear under her name.

For Malcolm, autobiography was the most illegitimate of literary genres because, as she said in a fragment on the subject, it was always “an exercise in self-forgiveness”; inevitably, the narrator in an autobiography tells his story (it was always “his”) “as a mother might.” I remember being shocked when I came across these words. Surely, I thought, there is some memoir writing that belies this take-no-prisoners judgment; one book or another where the autobiographer creates a persona that implicates rather than excuses, one that serves rather than is served by the tale being told. Surely. But then, in the very same piece, Malcolm supplied the complicating factor in her own draconian view of the matter. True enough, she would always find biographical writing objectionable on literary grounds, but there was more to it than that. After working for more than 20 years, she wrote, with “one brilliant self-inventive collaborator after another” (her subjects), the thought of working in solitary—of suddenly finding herself “alone in the room,” as she put it—made her shiver. It would, in fact, be “particularly hard for someone who probably became a journalist precisely because she didn’t want to find herself alone in the room.”

“Alone in the room”: a loaded phrase if ever there was one. In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And in the 20th century, as though illuminating Pascal’s stark insight, Hannah Arendt said of solitude that it was probably the salvation of humanity, because it is the only circumstance in which we keep ourselves company while we indulge in what Arendt considered most worthwhile: thinking. The whole aim of life was to have a self to converse with when in a solitary state. One wants, in fact, to live in a culture that values the idea that we have inner lives to consult while alone reflecting.

It has always seemed to me that good writing, imaginative writing—whatever the style, purpose, or genre—inevitably reveals a consciousness (a persona, if you will) that, in essence, is alone with itself in that empty room, trying to make some larger sense of insights that originate in one’s feelings but assume shape and meaning through a metaphorical context that supplies a deepening of both world and self. I count the memoir and the personal essay among those genres capable of generating such insights, nourished by a surround greater than the one occupied by petty self-absorption. One’s feelings, after all, are only of instrumental use in any serious piece of writing. Ultimately, the goodness of the memoir—like the goodness in any other genre—will turn on those words and phrases that, in accommodating the larger context, deliver the expressiveness necessary for a genuine reading experience.

The pieces that make up Still Pictures include descriptive accounts of Malcolm’s father and mother (separately and together), the family leaving Europe, Czech émigrés who come to visit in New York, a bad-girl school friend, a few pages on New York’s public schools, another few pages on summer camp, and a number of brief profiles of men and women who are remembered with varying degrees of warmth. Almost all the pieces are three to eight pages in length; all are possessed of charm and delicacy; and in all of them the young Janet is the character upon whom rests the burden of insight and resolve, the one to whom life is happening. Yet in almost all instances, the piece will be long on description, short on analysis, and more than somewhat vague in intent. If ever a book wished to see the light of day at the same time that it didn’t, this is it.

Interestingly, when Malcolm herself looked over her first attempts at autobiography, she judged them inadequate because, in her words, “Not only have I failed to make my young self as interesting as the strangers I have written about, but I have withheld my affection.” After reading the collection, I felt obliged to agree with her. Malcolm does withhold affection from her long-ago self, and as a result the most important element in memoir writing—a satisfying persona—is missing. One piece, however, “Sam Chwat,” is fully achieved, and it is the exception that proves the rule.

In 1983 Malcolm wrote “Trouble in the Archives,” an essay about a psychoanalyst named Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. When the article was published, Masson took offense and sued Malcolm (as well as The New Yorker and the book publisher Knopf). The case went to trial and the verdict went against Malcolm, but the jury became deadlocked over the question of compensation, so a mistrial was declared and another trial ordered.

Malcolm was very distressed over her own performance in court. She realized that she had wrapped herself in a mantle of New Yorker superiority that had alienated the jury, and now, given a miraculous second chance at a new trial, she decided to consult Sam Chwat, a speech therapist known for brilliantly guiding his clients through a public personality change. Malcolm’s piece about Chwat describes her time with him—the weeks in which he worked to undo the damage done by her first, prideful performance, teaching her how to walk, talk, and dress so that this time around she would gain the jury’s trust and sympathy. Malcolm’s writing here is wonderfully open, entirely free of defensiveness or self-protection; she seems genuinely interested in dismantling her own injurious behavior and learning from it. Altogether, the piece does for the reader what Chwat does for Malcolm, delivering a felt account of a transformative experience. The second trial took place in 1994, and this time the jury found in Malcolm’s favor. I could not identify another piece in Still Pictures as successful as “Sam Chwat.”

Clearly, Malcolm was of two minds about writing these accounts. On the one hand—and this is a sure sign that she is not herself in this book—she is amiable to a fault, at pains to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, she reveals time and again that she sees these memories not as an opportunity to explore the past but rather as a threat against which she must guard herself—as though dangerous revelations are just waiting to pour out of her, revelations that spell betrayal. Above all, she seems to dread the thought that she might be seen as trashing a friend or evening a score or, worse yet, humiliating a parent. In this regard, her father, whom she adored, is much on her mind.

At every turn, Malcolm tells us how kind, gentle, and intelligent her father was. In fact, no one she has ever known comes anywhere near this paragon of superior character. Then, in a piece called “Daddy,” she suddenly hints at feelings more complicated than she has been willing to acknowledge. “My mind is filled with lovely plotless memories of him. The memories with a plot are, of course, the ones that commit the original sin of autobiography…. They are the memories of conflict, resentment, blame, self-justification—and it is wrong, unfair, inexcusable to publish them. ‘Who asked you to tarnish my image with your miserable little hurts?’ the dead person might reasonably ask.” Later in a different essay, we are told about a friend of the family who was scolded by Malcolm’s father for leaving food on her plate at the end of a meal, whereupon her mother was mortified. Her father had fallen from grace, but instead of reflecting on the episode, Malcolm only wonders why the memory of it has stayed with her—and concludes that it is in the nature of memory to be capricious! “That this scene…should have remained with me over a lifetime,” she writes, “is a measure of memory’s willful atavism.”

In other words: I refuse to investigate a moment when my father seems less than perfect, but I also can’t lay it to rest, so, dear reader, I’ll just dump it in your lap and hope for the best. In fact, let me tell you right now that I’m not going to make sense in your presence of any emotional difficulty I have, because I trust neither you nor myself.

Remembering a piece of Italian china she bought long ago for the apartment where she met with the married lover who eventually became her husband, Malcolm writes: “What did it mean to me? Why did it come to mind after so many years? I know the answer, but—like a balky child—I find myself reluctant to give it. I would rather flunk a writing test than expose the pathetic secrets of my heart.”

And there we have it.

Speaking to the reader from just the right distance—not too far, not too close—is a major responsibility for a writer, one far more easily achieved when the writer is speaking through surrogates, as in a fiction or a literary nonfiction, rather than through one’s own undisguised self. The voice that is speaking to us in Still Pictures has not found that perfect place from which to address us. It comes from way too far away. It often can seem disengaged, even to the point of having no agency at all—and without agency, of course, one cannot put felt life on the page. Many writers, novelists especially, distrust the memoir and as a result never find the right place in which to stand when writing one. In this regard, Janet Malcolm is far from alone.

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