Janet Malcolm

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1519

Janet Malcolm 1934-

Czechoslovakian-born American essayist, journalist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Malcolm's career through 2003.

A highly acclaimed and controversial journalist, Malcolm writes introspective essays that explore ethical ambiguities and betrayal. From the unexplored social life of psychoanalysts to moral dilemmas in journalism, Malcolm analyzes the fabrications professionals use to maintain the perception of success in their fields and studies the effect betrayal has on those who trust them. Malcolm's essays are well researched and offer original viewpoints, startling conclusions, and thought-provoking questions. Upon reviewing Malcolm's Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001), Sebastian Smee stated that Malcolm “is one of the most consistent nonfiction writers of our time. Certainly, she is one of the most brilliant.”

Biographical Information

Malcolm was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1934 to a Jewish psychiatrist and his wife. Malcolm's family fled to America in 1939 to avoid the imminent danger to Jews from the advancing German invasion. After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, New York, Malcolm enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she met Donald Malcolm, a contributing writer to the New Yorker. She also began to write for the New Yorker, first on interior design and then on photography. Donald Malcolm died in 1975 and Janet married her editor, Gardner Botsford, several years later. Her first book, Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (1980), a collection of essays about the nature of photography and its relation to art, like many of her later works, is largely made up of essays she wrote for and published in the New Yorker. Malcolm encountered legal problems after In the Freud Archives (1984) was released. The work focused on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, an up-and-coming analyst within the Freudian psychoanalytic ranks. His libel suit against Malcolm, filed in 1984, contended that she had falsified some of the quotes attributed to him and changed the meaning of other quotes. After ten years of trials and appeals, a jury ruled that Malcolm did in fact fabricate quotes, but found that the quotes in question did not defame Masson. Malcolm has published several other nonfiction books including The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994), and The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999). Malcolm resides in New York and is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

Major Works

Diana & Nikon is comprised of ten essays that originally appeared in the New Yorker and one new essay. In this work, Malcolm examines pieces by traditional and contemporary photographers and analyzes the nature of photography as an art form. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981), Malcolm provides an in-depth look at the lives of Freudian psychoanalysts. Using the pseudonym Aaron Green, she details the social order of Freudian analysts, studies the neuroses of the analysts themselves, and highlights difficulties faced by therapists who are required to remain emotionally detached from their patients, yet are bombarded with highly emotional dilemmas and the need to maintain empathy for their clients. In the Freud Archives further investigates the hierarchy of Freudian circles by studying the rise of Jeffrey Masson in New York analytical society and his subsequent downfall. Masson, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto, underwent psychotherapy and pursued a career as an analyst. His writings on Freud brought him to the attention of Kurt Eissler, the caretaker of the Sigmund Freud Archives in Washington, D.C. Eissler was impressed by Masson, giving him access to the archives and naming Masson his successor. According to...

(This entire section contains 1519 words.)

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Malcolm, while searching through Freud's letters in the archives, Masson discovered information concerning Freud's “seduction theory.” Early in his career, Freud studied the possibility that adults who suffer hysteria may have been sexually abused as children. Freud later rejected this idea and began to study the theory of infantile sexuality and fantasy. Masson uncovered letters that he believes prove that Freud changed his opinion not because of academic study, but because his theory of seduction met with disapproval and ridicule. Masson contends that analysts who treat patients according to Freud's infantile sexuality theory and Oedipal complex theories are actually denying their patients the correct therapy they need and allowing sexual abuse to go unchecked. After Masson published his findings, he was fired and blacklisted from the society of Freudian analysts. Malcolm revisits the theme of betrayal inThe Journalist and the Murderer, recounting the relationship and subsequent lawsuit between Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald and author Joseph McGinniss. MacDonald, who was convicted of killing his wife and two children, contacted McGinniss during his trial and asked him to write about his story, in hopes that his innocence would be revealed. McGinniss was given complete access to all evidence and acted as part of the defense team. After MacDonald's conviction, McGinniss published Fatal Vision, which portrayed MacDonald as a psychopathic murderer. MacDonald was stunned and promptly sued McGinniss for pretending to believe in his innocence in order to retain access to damning information. Malcolm contends that although it may seem ethically reprehensible, journalists must occasionally use deceit to uncover important information and cannot be expected to adhere to the same moral compass as those in other occupations. Malcolm further explores journalistic integrity and writers' bias in The Silent Woman, where she empathizes with Hughes, underscoring hardships he experienced after Plath's death in 1963. Hughes has been vilified by many as a contributing factor to his wife's suicide and was frequently attacked for his methods of controlling his wife's literary estate. Malcolm analyzes five Plath biographies and concludes that such investigations often lend prestige to the deceased while survivors are wounded anew as facts are revealed. Malcolm compares the field of biography with that of journalism, skewering both and noting that a biographer “is like a professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers … and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” In The Crime of Sheila McGough Malcolm again critiques the American legal system. McGough is a lawyer who represented Bob Bailes, an indicted con man. Using his charm and social skills, Bailes persuades McGough to use legally questionable tactics to secure his release from prison. According to McGough, she became an unwitting participant in fraud. McGough served two-and-a-half years in prison; on her release, she wrote to Malcolm in hopes of clearing her name. Malcolm reviews the evidence and, believing McGough used bad judgment, concludes that McGough's only crime was her loyalty to an undeserving client. Malcolm asserts that the legal system is not interested in uncovering the truth, but in comparing “competing narratives” to see which one will win “the prize of the jury's vote.”

Critical Reception

Although widely considered a skilled and intelligent writer, Malcolm has provoked strong debate over her intentions for and methods of obtaining and relaying information in her stories. In Diana & Nikon, her questioning of the validity of photography as an art form has been noted as an interesting analytical theory, but other reviewers were dismayed by her opinions and felt that she misunderstands the genre of photographic art. Psychoanalysis and In the Freud Archives have been highly praised and are considered informative and enlightening. Critics applauded Malcolm's exploration of psychoanalysis and her detailed descriptions of analysts and their virtually self-contained social and professional community. These books helped propel Malcolm into the ranks of top journalists and essayists, but her journalistic integrity was called into question when Masson filed his libel suit in 1984. The ramifications of a journalist accused of libel and defamation created a stir in the publishing community. Many writers suggested that Malcolm compromised journalists by opening them up as potential targets of frivolous future lawsuits. Malcolm was supported by writers who believe that “cleaning up” an interviewee's words is not only acceptable but is standard procedure and often enhances the image of the person being interviewed. Detractors rebutted, stating that the correct use of quotation marks is mandatory, and that if an interviewer paraphrases, such comments should remain outside quotation marks. The Journalist and the Murderer was published during the Masson v. Malcolm trial and some commentators believed that Malcolm's morally ambiguous stance on journalistic integrity in this work directly relates to her legal troubles and that her objectivity was compromised. Other journalists asserted that Malcolm's particular type of writing is unrepresentative of the way the majority of newswriters, reporters, and columnists write. In The Silent Woman, Malcolm agrees with biographer Anne Stevenson's position regarding the Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes relationship. Stevenson's 1989 biography of Plath was derided for presenting a view of the couple's relationship markedly different from those commonly presented in the past. Malcolm presents details of her own interviews with Plath's family, acquaintances, and other biographers to support a more sympathetic view of Hughes, and enumerates difficulties he experienced after Plath's suicide. Many reviewers have questioned Malcolm's reasons for supporting this unorthodox view and some have argued she purposely ignores evidence hinting at Hughes's duplicity, but, on the whole, such dissenters note that Malcolm unearths intriguing material in The Silent Woman. Most critics agree that Malcolm creates a thought-provoking study examining interview methods and the art of creating biography in this work.


Principal Works