Janet Malcolm

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Peter Thompson (review date 30 March 1980)

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SOURCE: Thompson, Peter. “The Painter's Palette and the Camera's Lens.” Washington Post Book World 10, no. 13 (30 March 1980): 8.

[In the following review, Thompson disagrees with Malcolm's theories about photography in Diana & Nikon. Thompson feels a photographer's work should be considered artistic when viewed within the whole body of an artist's career.]

The 11 essays in Janet Malcolm's Diana & Nikon are very close to reviews. They were written from 1975 to 1979 for The New Yorker and The New York Times and were transferred intact into book form. Characteristic of reviews for those publications, 10 of the 11 essays are tied to specific events: the publication of new photographic books or the exhibition of works by known photographers at major galleries and museums. The exhibited and published works with which Janet Malcolm deals are, in order, those of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Irving Penn, Garry Winogrand, Richard Avedon, Herta Hilscher-Wittgenstein, Donald McCullin, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Eve Sonneman, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Chauncey Hare. To some—Stieglitz, Weston, Winogrand, Avedon, Frank—she returns more than once, as she does to the Museum of Modern Art's curator of photography John Szarkowski.

Malcolm's central thought is this: “Scratch a great photograph and find a painting (or painterly influence).” This idea is elaborated and restated in each essay. “If you scratch a great photograph,” she writes, “you find two things: a painting and a photograph. It is the photographic means with which photography imitates painting that produce a photograph's uniqueness and aliveness.” Elsewhere she says that “a photograph is most truly photographic when it is openly a parasite of a painting or a drawing—photography must not imitate art but may legitimately feed on it.” What's more, “if a photographer wants to create rather than imitate, he should get himself a brush.” She even states that “It may be that the golden age created by [Stieglitz, Weston, Strand, Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz] is a single, aberrant episode in a medium whose truest purposes are fulfilled not by artists struggling against its mechanical grain but by artisans and amateurs letting it call the shots.” “The most advanced photographers,” Malcolm concludes, “are painfully unlearning the art lessons of the past and striving to create an aesthetic out of the ineptitudes and inferiorities of amateur snapshooting. As a result, haphazardness, capriciousness, and incoherence are everywhere emerging as photography's most prominent characteristics.”

Underlying these statements is an answer to the question, “What is the authentically photographic?” Any photographer can find out, Malcolm seems to be saying, by relaxing his or her grip on painting. And what would happen to the photographic work? It would naturally slip back into the anonymous, incoherent, grainy, capricious Sea of Snapshots. All else is a working against the mechanical grain of photography and is an inauthentic aping of art.

Every medium has its equivalent to the qualities represented in snapshots. Artistic preoccupation with such qualities stems from a 20th-century feeling that life no longer lends itself to comprehension and management. Many artists, seeking to reduce their esthetic distance from life, have rejected artistically controlled and refined appearances as “inauthentic.” One of the meanings of the Latin authentes is “self-murder”: if the search for photographic authenticity is the goal, what better way to kill one's controlled artistic self than to take as model the self-inexpressive, anonymous, uncontrolled and often incomprehensible snapshot?

It is however a mistake to equate, as Malcolm does, the photographic work of a Winogrand, for example, with snapshots. That is like saying that the chatter of all cocktail parties sounds alike, and that therefore all individual representations...

(This entire section contains 1133 words.)

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of such gatherings are relatively indistinguishable. But what happens when one of the guests is a Winogrand (or an Ionesco) who supports his individual observations with a body of work revealing a point of view? If we have learned anything from photographs, we know that the appearance of an image is not its self-delineated meaning—that meaning can only begin to be approached through context. Stieglitz, the photographer whom Malcolm seems to admire most, understood this clearly: He had only eight exhibitions during his lifetime and insisted on having the totality of his work represented on each occasion.

What to me is most interesting about Malcolm is not the critical cargo she carries but her assumptions about navigation. She moves as if there were only surface. I think this is a way of proceeding that she might most seriously question. An example: She cites the surprising “artistic” merit embodied in the wide range of photographs reproduced in John Szarkowski's The Photographer's Eye. She reproduces several examples of paired photographs from that book, such as Weston's portrait of Nahui Olin and an unknown 19th-century photographer's portrait of Chief Medicine Bottle in captivity. Her conclusion: “Perusing The Photographer's Eye is a shattering experience for the advocate of photography's claims as an art form. The accepted notion that in the hands of a great talent, and by dint of long study and extraordinary effort, photography can overcome its mechanical nature and ascend to the level of art is overturned by Szarkowski's anthology, whose every specimen is (or, as the case may be, isn't) a work of art.”

I am puzzled as to why this observation should force this conclusion. It is indeed true that photographs from anonymous sources can be paired with prints by acknowledged masters without suffering in their company. This indicates the presence of visual thinking and that photography, like the guitar, is immediately accessible and gratifying to the beginner while being supremely resistant to the master. Both uses can move us while belonging to different contexts. It is the issue of context which is of importance and it has been left unaddressed. Malcolm judges a photograph as if it were an autonomous visual entity: “The picture of the Indian Chief is as beautiful and as moving as the Weston portrait.” This judgment on sheer visual appearance is like a navigator proceeding as if there were no difference between an ice floe and an iceberg because both look alike on the surface. It is potentially disastrous to dismiss the question of the body of work which lies unseen but supports and gives meaning to that which appears on the surface.

Malcolm's own image of her critical activity is that of a logger with an axe looking for soft spots as she circles and cuts the photographic tree. A more accurate image is to see critics' thoughts as overlapping petals of concern which protect and are in turn nourished by an art's still living and ultimately uncuttable core.

I would urge those who are interested in the issues of photography and its relation to the world to spend some time with Diana & Nikon. The book represents the thinking of a person whose questions about photography are serious and stimulating and must be reckoned with.

Clive James (review date 18 December 1980)

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SOURCE: James, Clive. “The Gentle Slope of Castalia.” New York Review of Books 27, no. 20 (18 December 1980): 22.

[In the following excerpt, James uses sarcasm to refute many of the proposed theories about photography in Diana & Nikon.]

The very first book illustrated with photographs, William Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature (1844), carried as an epigraph a quotation from Virgil. Talbot, who was a learned classicist as well as a chemist clever enough to invent photography, enlisted Virgil's aid in declaring how sweet it was to cross a mountain ridge unblemished by the wheel-ruts of previous visitors, and thence descend the gentle slope to Castalia—a rural paradise complete with well-tended olive groves. The gentle slope turned out to be a precipice and Castalia is buried miles deep under photographs. A subsidiary avalanche, composed of books about photographs, is even now descending. In this brief survey I have selected with some rigor from the recent output, which has filled my office and chased me downstairs into the kitchen.

In her book On Photography (1977) Susan Sontag darkly warned the world that images are out to consume it. Books about images are presumably also in on the feast. Hers remains the best theoretical work to date, although competitors are appearing with startling frequency. Gisèle Freund's Photography and Society, now finally available in English, is half historical survey, half theoretical analysis. Her own experience as a celebrated photographer has obviously helped anchor speculation to reality. When the argument takes off, it takes off into a comfortingly recognizable brand of historical determinism. Thus it is made clear how the early portrait photographers served the needs of the bourgeoisie and wiped out the miniaturists who had done the same job for the aristocracy: hence the collapse of taste. Baudelaire, who hated the bourgeoisie, consequently hated photography too. These reflections come in handy when you are looking at the famous photograph of Baudelaire by Nadar. That baleful look must spring from resentment. Sontag, makes greater play with such historical cruxes but Freund gives you more of the facts.

Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker's photography critic, has produced a worthwhile compilation of her essays [in Diana & Nikon]. She thinks “discomfit” means “make uncomfortable,” but such lapses are rare. More high-flown than Freund, although less self-intoxicatingly so than Sontag, Malcolm is an excellent critic between gusts of aesthetic speculation. Diana & Nikon is grandly subtitled “Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography.” Whether there is such a thing as an aesthetic of photography is a question which critics should try to keep open as long as possible, since that is one of the things that good criticism always does—i.e., stops aestheticians from forming a premature synthesis. In her essay on Richard Avedon, Malcolm assesses the April 1965 issue of Harper's Bazaar, the one edited by Avedon, as a “self-indulgent mess.” But she insists on being charitable, against what she has already revealed to be her own better judgment, about his warts-foremost portraits of the mid-Fifties. “Like the death's-head at the feast in medieval iconography, these pictures come to tell us that the golden lads and lasses frolicking down the streets of Paris today will be horrible old people tomorrow. … Avedon means to disturb and shock with these pictures, in the way that the young Rembrandt … the aging Swift. …”

Whatever its stature as aesthetics, this is low-grade criticism. Every artist who shoves something nasty in your face means to shock. When Rembrandt portrayed the decay of the flesh he was saying that ugliness, too, is a part of life, and even part of the beautiful. By using such a phrase as “horrible old people” Malcolm unwittingly proves that she has caught something of Avedon's crassness, even while taking him to task. A photographer might be permitted to think in such coarse terms if he is inventive enough in his work, but it is a ruinous habit in a critic and can't be much of an advantage even to an aesthetician, who should be above making her older readers feel uncomfortable, or discomfited. Cras mihi—tomorrow it is my turn—remains a useful motto.

Malcolm calls photography the uppity housemaid of painting. Not a bad idea, but like her range of reference it shows an inclination to worry at the phantom problem of whether photography is an art or not. Sontag does better by calling photography a language: nobody wastes time trying to find out whether a language is an art. But Malcolm, between mandatory bouts of ratiocinative fever, stays cool enough to give you some idea of the thinner book she might have written—the one subtitled “Critical Essays about Photography.” She shows herself capable of skepticism—a quality not to be confused with cynicism, especially in this field, where an initial enthusiasm at the sheer wealth of stimuli on offer can so easily switch to a bilious rejection of the whole farrago.

On the subject of Diane Arbus's supposedly revolting portraits of freaks and victims, Malcolm makes the penetrating remark that they are not really all that revolting after all—the reason for their popularity is that they are reassuringly in “the composed, static style of the nineteenth century.” Such limiting judgments are more useful than dismissive ones, and more subversive too. Similarly, when she says that Edward Weston, far from being the “straight” photographer he said he was, was simply copying new styles of painting instead of old ones, she isn't trying to destroy him—just to define him.

Anthony Storr (review date 16 September 1981)

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SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “Portrait of a Therapist.” New Republic 185, no. 11 (16 September 1981): 34-6.

[In the following review of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Storr evaluates Malcolm's views on traditional, dispassionate psychoanalysis, contrasting such methods to sympathetic and interactive analytical approaches.]

This short book [Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession] is based on a series of essays on psychoanalysis which attracted attention when they appeared in the New Yorker. As the bibliography attests, Janet Malcolm has done her homework. In addition, she recorded a number of interviews with practicing psychoanalysts, of whom “Aaron Green” is her principal informant. Aaron Green is a Freudian analyst of the fundamentalist variety. He has had two analyses himself: the first, lasting six years, when he was a medical student; the second, lasting nine years, when he was an aspirant psychoanalyst in training. He calls psychoanalysis a science. He believes that Freud made certain fundamental discoveries concerning infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex which ought to have been accepted and passed down in the way that discoveries in chemistry and physics are handed on, and is amazed that this is still not the case. He considers psychoanalysis equivalent to a surgical operation; that is, it is both extremely intimate and yet entirely impersonal. He will have nothing to do with the British school of “object-relation” theorists, like Winnicott and Fairbairn, and groans at the mention of Melanie Klein. Yet, in spite of his fundamentalist convictions, he is ready to admit that psychoanalysis is capable of only limited achievements. After 15 years on the couch, Aaron Green admits “with a rueful smile. ‘You see, I haven't changed all that radically. I don't think basic character structure ever changes. We're not that malleable.’”

This admission is all the more revealing because it is made at a time when many who seek psychoanalysis do so not because of disabling neurotic symptoms but because of flaws in character structure. As Janet Malcolm points out, “The consensus about what constitutes an appropriate length of time for analysis has shown an upward trend.” Gone are the days when Freud, after seeing the composer Gustav Mahler for a single afternoon, could claim: “If I may believe reports, I achieved much with him at that time.” Today, because the aim is the alteration of the total personality rather than the abolition of symptoms, “the appropriate length” for an analysis is six to eight years, and many go on for longer. Yet here is a leading practitioner saying that basic character structure cannot be changed.

If abolition of symptoms is no longer a criterion of “cure,” the right point at which to terminate the analysis becomes difficult to determine. As Janet Malcolm discovered, “Cases that formally terminate—i.e., end by mutual agreement of analyst and patient—are relatively rare. The majority of analytic cases end because the patient moves to another city, or runs out of money, or impulsively quits the analysis, or agrees with the analyst that stalemate has been reached.” Aaron Green, at the age of 43, admitted that he had as yet no experience of formal termination. “His earliest patients had all quit, and his subsequent more successful, well-established analytic cases were only now approaching the termination phase.”

When Jung first visited Freud in Vienna in 1907, the latter asked him what he thought of transference. Jung replied: “It is the alpha and omega of treatment.” “You have understood,” said Freud approvingly. Janet Malcolm rightly focuses her investigation on transference and countertransference, and, very sensibly, allows her conclusions to speak for themselves in telling quotations rather than spelling them out. In spite of his remark to Jung, Freud's attitude toward transference was, at best, ambivalent. In a letter to Oskar Pfister dated June 5, 1910, he writes: “As for the transference it is altogether a curse.” Freud originally thought of transference as an erotic attachment to the analyst, as indeed it can be, and he regarded it as a useful factor in overcoming resistances. Later, he came to think of transference as an artificially induced neurosis in which the patient repeated all the attitudes which he had held in early childhood toward his parents. By means of interpretation, Freud strove to convert this repetition into recollection.

Freud wrote:

The patient, that is to say, directs toward the physician a degree of affectionate feeling (mingled, often enough, with hostility) which is based on no real relation between them and which—as is shown by every detail of its emergence—can only be traced back to old wishful fantasies of the patient's which have become unconscious.

Psychoanalysis is an interaction unlike any other between two people. In what other encounter can anyone count on an attentive listener who, hour after hour, year after year, will devote himself to his patient's troubles without in any way obtruding himself? It is hardly surprising that patients become attached to their analysts, especially since many who seek analysis have had scant attention or understanding from their parents or from anyone else. Freud's reluctance to admit the reality of his patient's feelings about him in the here-and-now was surely a defensive maneuver on his part, a way of keeping patients at arm's length in tune with his admission that one reason he used a couch was because he could not bear being stared at.

Fundamentalist Freudians like Aaron Green say that “terms like ‘the real relationship’ and ‘therapeutic alliance’ and ‘working alliance’ simply obscure and dilute and trivialize the radical nature” of the task of acquainting the patient with “the child within him.” Such analysts therefore adopt an attitude of detachment which precludes ordinary human sympathetic responses even to such emotive events as a patient's bereavement. Janet Malcolm quotes an example given by Greenson in his book The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis in which a mother tells the analyst how worried she is about her ailing baby.

The analyst says nothing. His silence and lack of compassion cause the patient to lapse into a miserable, tearful silence of her own. Finally the analyst says, ‘You're resisting.’ The patient quits the analysis, saying to the analyst, ‘You're sicker than I am.’ Greenson, concurring with this opinion, advises the candidate to seek further analysis.

Aaron Green's reaction is to say that such stories are

completely off the mark. … In the case of the mother with the sick baby, it wasn't the analyst's lack of ‘compassion’ that caused the patient to break off treatment—it was his poor analytic technique. There are a hundred things he could have said to her other than ‘You're resisting’ which would have been helpful, which would have led somewhere, but which would have been neutral. The job of the analyst isn't to offer the patient sympathy; it's to lead him to insight.

Since there is no evidence that the traditional form of psychoanalysis produces better results than less rigorous forms of psychotherapy, and since there is evidence from research that suggests patients do better with therapists who show genuine concern and warmth toward them, the detachment shown by analysts like Aaron Green is likely to be harmful rather than helpful. It is surely significant that one of the patients with whom Aaron Green admitted complete failure was “one of the few patients I've ever had whom I really didn't like.” Yet he does not admit that this may be one reason why he failed with her, but attributes her lack of response to her not being analyzable.

The tradition of the detached, unresponsive analyst derives from Freud, but Freud did not practice what he preached. Janet Malcolm quotes the famous case of the Wolf Man, in which Freud stepped out of line so far as to set a limit on the time during which he would continue treating him, because he was “too comfortable” in the analytic situation. Had she read the Wolf Man's own account of his analysis, she would have found that Freud actually behaved in a way that certainly would have prevented him from being accepted as a member of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. The Wolf Man records that Freud discussed literature with him; told him his interpretation of a dream of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; revealed that he had just had news of his son breaking a leg; and discussed his youngest son's switch from painting to architecture. At a later date, when the Wolf Man, who was a Russian aristocrat, had lost all his money, Freud took up a collection for him each spring for six years. The Wolf Man went on to have further analysis with Dr. Brunswick. He then became involved with Muriel Gardiner and at least two other analysts. Some not only treated him free, but also became involved with him socially and engaged in lengthy correspondence with him. How shocked the mandarins of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute would be!

In view of the evidence, why is it that Aaron Green and his colleagues cling to an out-of-date technique which does not produce much in the way of results? One answer is to be found in the way psychoanalysts live. Janet Malcolm visited a woman analyst,

an older Middle European émigrée with a fresh, smiling face and a simple, gentle, earnest manner. … She spoke of her unequivocal devotion to the Institute and to psychoanalysis. She and her husband (also an analyst) are in the inner circle of the Institute. Her entire life was taken up with psychoanalytic concerns: during the day she saw patients, at night she went to meetings at the Institute, and when she and her husband went out to dinner or entertained at home it was always with analysts. Other people fall away, she explained. There is less and less to talk about with people on the ‘outside’, who don't look at things the way analysts do.

In other words, fundamentalist psychoanalysts tend to live in a closed society in which they get nothing but positive reinforcement for their beliefs from like-minded analysts. It is a phenomenon to be found on both sides of the Atlantic. There are people who actually welcome the atmosphere of an esoteric brotherhood, which most of us find claustrophobic. Aaron Green is ambivalent about analytic society. “I don't socialize much with analysts. My friends are mostly academics and writers and artists.” It is because of this that he feels that he has not advanced in the analytic hierarchy as far as he would wish. His ambition is to be in the inner circle of power, to become a training analyst, in spite of the fact that analytic society bores him. There is something pathetic about a 43-year-old man describing his trembling anxiety about whether or not he would be appointed to a minor administrative post in the institute; and his description of the hierarchy might have come out of Kafka. “There is a clique of people at the Institute who fill all the important posts and decide who is to become a training analyst, and there is another clique of people who don't have power and who want it.” Although Aaron Green rightly claims that this situation obtains in every other profession, psychoanalytic institutes throughout the world seem prone to quarrels and schisms of a particularly vindictive kind. This is, I am sure, because commitment to psychoanalysis is commitment to a system of belief which deeply affects the believer's whole life in exactly the same way as does commitment to a religious faith. Any questioning of the faith or deviation from it is therefore threatening.

Janet Malcolm's book is a powerful, though not unsympathetic, indictment of traditional psychoanalysis. Freud's wish to be thought a scientist, and his endeavor to make psychoanalysis as like a scientific experiment as possible, even though he himself often failed to maintain detachment, has much to answer for. So has his failure to take into account the reality of the here-and-now interaction between analyst and patient.

Today analysts who are not fundamentalists of the Aaron Green variety are less concerned with infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex. Instead, they concentrate upon understanding how a patient's relationships or lack of them in the past are interfering with his making fruitful relationships in the present. In order to do this, there must be a real relationship in the present against which to measure the distortions of the past. In the end, as I'm sure Janet Malcolm would agree, it may well be that the main factor in healing (and healing really does occur) is not the analyst's capacity for objective interpretation, but rather his unconditional acceptance of another suffering human being as someone who is worth immense time and trouble to understand.

Ann Shearer (review date 26 February 1982)

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SOURCE: Shearer, Ann. Review of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, by Janet Malcolm. New Statesman 103, no. 2658 (26 February 1982): 28.

[In the following review, Shearer lauds Malcolm's probing of psychoanalysis in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, contending that her examination of techniques used by analysts is enlightening.]

No, but what do they really do in those 50-minute hours? Janet Malcolm's idea of setting her own lucid outline of Freud's theory against the confessions of one of his strict disciples works marvellously [in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession], not just as a portrait of the man, but as a questioning of the creed he stands for.

The central mystery of the transference, without which nothing, may sound barmy to the unbeliever even after Janet Malcolm and Aaron Green, her pseudonymous interpreter, have done their best. But at the least it's one way of making sense of her own confession that she finds psychoanalysts ‘near-saints’—and that after all her hours with Aaron and the tape-recorder, not before. What the trade calls transference valence is clearly running high all round. He sounds to have been waiting for such a chance ever since he shrugged on the black-and-white herring-bone jacket which he discovered only later—aha!—to be the uniform of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. He keeps a vase of dying chrysanthemums in his consulting room, sometimes, and he feels, deeply and constantly, the wear and tear of keeping himself, in those analytic hours, from doing the things that decent people naturally and spontaneously do. Self-absorbed, he has guaranteed that his working day is spent among people who will not ask him how he feels. Ungenerous, he must keep the natural and spontaneous reaction at bay even when a patient doesn't pay him for eight whole months. He believes his work to be unhealthy. He believes it really does drive its practitioners crazy. Not a few of his patients have walked out on him.

But he loves and hates the New York Psychoanalytic, which makes up in internal rivalries what it lacks in openness to other methods, as the herring-bones jostle to reach its inner sanctum. Aaron can expect no more than feuding, when exclusion from that parental bedroom must bring bitterness, and the longed-for admittance nothing but shifty-eyed guilt. The profound pessimism of his narrow doctrines could hardly be more revealingly exposed.

But what do they really do in there? Hartvig Dahl has got 1204 tape-recordings of psychoanalytic sessions, and he believes that if he only listens to them long enough, what psychoanalysts call intuition will one day reveal its immutable, objective laws. So far, he's been working on session five for three years.

Meanwhile, Aaron Green and his colleagues go on working on the transformation of neurotic misery, into common unhappiness. And meanwhile, the New York Psychoanalytic is going steadily and inexorably broke.

Brigid Brophy (essay date 15 April 1982)

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SOURCE: Brophy, Brigid. “Transference.” London Review of Books 4, no. 7 (15 April 1982): 3, 5.

[In the following excerpt, Brophy occasionally questions Malcolm's beliefs and interpretations of psychoanalysis, but on the whole, states that Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession is thought-provoking, well written, and enjoyable to read.]

The phenomenon of transference—how we all invent each other according to early blueprints—was Freud's most original and radical discovery. The idea of infant sexuality and of the Oedipus complex can be accepted with a good deal more equanimity than the idea that the most precious and inviolate of entities—personal relations—is actually a messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems. Even (or especially) romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality. The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: we cannot know each other.

Janet Malcolm does not suppose that her distress about a fact will stop its being a fact. Neither is she part of the Freud-processing industry, whose ambition is to pop Freud into the blender and dish up something bland. Hers is a legitimate cry of wounded romanticism. As she utters it [in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession], she is adopting one of the methods—indeed, the classical (as well as the romantic) method—whereby humans can snatch pleasure, of a sort, out of distress: namely, to discern in the distressing fact the dignity and beauty of tragedy. In token of that aesthetic manoeuvre, the paragraph Ms. Malcolm herself constructs about the matter is a pretty good one.

All the same, I suspect that her cry is unjustified and the consolations of tragedy uncalled for. If you truly have accepted the ideas of infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex, you cannot have much in the way of a just cause to balk at the idea of the transference, which represents the continuation of their importance into adult life.

Perhaps the paragraph is hooked on the determinist snag, which can bedevil any hypothesis that attributes causes—or can, at least appear to, since it is partly a semantic conundrum. ‘I wish I were a different person’ is in a way an unwishable wish: if it came true, the I who wished it would no longer be there to receive the gratification. Likewise, to wish oneself free of the factors, whatever they are, that determine one's personality, including one's wish to be free of them, is to wish that personality and its wishes out of existence. Ms Malcolm is too sensible to be wishing away the concept, as such, of transference, an abolition that would leave us still blundering about in our Oedipal fog but without even the knowledge that we are doing so. It is presumably the phenomenon itself that she deplores. She seems to imply that, but for transference, we should be able to apprehend one another clearly and love one another for what we are. But if our personalities were not precipitated by our Oedipal experience and formed by it into an apparatus that continues to pursue Oedipal shadows, the result would be that we should not be we, either as individuals or collectively, since we should be a different type of animal.

There seems also to be an implication in the paragraph that there is some method by which our individualities could have been formed that would be more acceptable. But is there? Would it be nicer if we were ‘the stars’ tennis balls' and our relationships consisted of our collisions as we were ‘struck and bandied’? Would being in love be less ‘solitary’ if it were a spell cast by the capricious intervention of Aphrodite? Would it be less ‘impersonal’ if the great loves of our lives were dictated by a computer with a facility for spewing random numbers? Should we be more autonomous if we owed our loves and hates not to the Oedipus situation and, by derivation from it, to transference, positive and negative, but to ‘something chemical’, which, as the narrator of Brideshead Revisited remarks, was ‘the cant phrase of the time’ (the Twenties), ‘derived from heaven knows what misconception of popular science’ and employed ‘to explain the overmastering hate or love of any two people’? I suspect in passing that that cant phrase may have derived not only from ‘popular science’ but from scenes like the one the narrator records of undergraduates ‘making for the river’ carrying what he misnames ‘the Unpleasant Plays of Bernard Shaw’, though in point of pedantic fact it is in Plays Pleasant, and specifically in You never can tell (1897), that Valentine (who may, as a dentist, represent both popular and unpopular science) declares to Gloria Clandon: ‘You cant deny that there is such a thing as chemical action, chemical affinity … Well, you're attracting me irresistibly. Chemically.’

Transference, not in its generalised but in its narrow sense of the emotions felt towards the analyst by an analysand (who is not always, of course, a patient but may be a prospective analyst undergoing his ‘training analysis’), is Ms Malcolm's central theme. Her book, an expansion of an article written for the New Yorker, is in effect a conglomerate profile of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, in which many of the dramatis personae appear, like the patients in psychoanalytical case-histories, under pseudonyms, including her central figure and mouthpiece for psychoanalysis, ‘Aaron Green’. He is endowed with an appearance (‘he looks Jewish’), an age (at 46, he is one of the ‘younger members’), clothes (grey flannel trousers and a herringbone jacket) and an idiosyncrasy (‘the desire to be a beautiful woman’), but even so I think he may be a composite portrait, especially since he tells Ms Malcolm that, after buying his first herringbone jacket early in his career, he noticed that ‘everyone at the New York Psychoanalytic wears this kind of jacket.’

The journalist's habit of seeking his story where he senses conflict and personal emotion might anyway have led Ms Malcolm to concentrate her inquiries on the transference, but psychoanalysis had already done that for her. The transference reanimates the analysand's original Oedipal relationship, and it is the analysis of the transference that makes the Oedipal experience accessible. An unreconstructed Freudian, Aaron Green ‘closes his eyes and groans softly’ at the mention of Melanie Klein—which, to me at least, is one of the many sympathetic characteristics that Ms Malcolm gives him. The suckling's relation to the breast (or, as the Kleinians have it, to good breast and bad breast), important though it is, cannot justly displace the Oedipus complex from the centre of the psychic organisation, because it lacks the conflict essential alike to dramatic tragedy, good journalism and the precipitation of a personality. It may seem to the suckling that he is performing an act of cannibalism, but in fact what he does has the mother's consent. It is only when the infant asserts his incestuous wishes that the parents are bound to resist. Civilisation depends on their doing so—and prehistorically arose, if Freud is correct, from their doing so.

The analyst, cast by the transference in the parental role, is thereby bound to an ‘abstinence’ that Ms Malcolm finds near-saintly. Not only must he refrain from falling into the arms the analysand will almost certainly extend. He must deny himself even those polite murmurs of commiseration and agreement by which, in ordinary social life, one establishes oneself in one's interlocutors' eyes as a nice person, because such murmurs might inhibit the analysand from expressing hostility.

As therapy, psychoanalysis can usefully treat only a comparatively small number of types of disturbance, which need careful diagnosis. As theory, it can probably touch with illumination virtually everything except the specific content of the physical sciences. Freud's was one of the supremely commanding minds. If Aristotle, in the Organon, codified the syntax of rational thought, it was Freud who discovered the syntax of irrational impulses and their often distorting impact on reason. ‘It may rationally be said that every person is mad once in every 24 hours,’ wrote Thomas Paine in the ‘Essay on Dream’ that constitutes the third part of The Age of Reason. A century later, Freud used reason to interpret the language in which our nightly lunacy expresses itself.

Freud's accounts of his own and his patient's dreams lack nothing except circumstantial detail. Significant detail is, of course, abundant. Everything the dreamer says about the room he dreamed he was entering may be valuable secondary elaboration or association that can lead to the meaning of the dream. But in the nature of psychoanalysis the details are not valuable for their own sake, as they would be to a novelist and often are to the dreamer. Ms Malcolm's book restores the insignificant details to psychoanalysis or, at least, its milieu, at least in New York. Her analysts have not only clothes but consulting-rooms furnished in certain styles. She reports what they gossip about (the rare occasions when an analyst has broken the abstinence rule) and how they spend their spare time (chiefly with fellow analysts). Her book is entertaining and readable and also well-researched, citing and quoting many of Freud's own books and pursuing a persuasive psychoanalytical hypothesis of Ms Malcolm's own about why Freud picked a particular pseudonym to cloak a particular patient. It reads like a novel by a very, very intellectually classy Arthur Hailey.

Janet Malcolm credits her ‘Aaron Green’ with a sympathetic line in self-satire when he recounts that his training analysis was conducted by an analyst who had himself been analysed by Ferenczi, who had been analysed by Freud: ‘I could thus trace my analytic lineage back to Freud. You smile, and you should. It's a preposterous notion. It's the most primitive kind of family romance—my parents are aristocrats, I'm descended from royalty, all that sort of stuff.

Harvey Mindess (review date 17 June 1984)

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SOURCE: Mindess, Harvey. “Seductions in Psychoanalysis.” Los Angeles Times 103, no. 197 (17 June 1984): 2.

[In the following review of In the Freud Archives, Mindess, a psychotherapist, asserts that Jeffrey Masson's refutation of Freud's infantile sexuality theory is subversive, incorrect, and potentially could cause harm to patients.]

Dear Sigmund: I am sorry to have to tell you that they are dancing on your grave. Since your beloved Anna joined you at that great Vienna in the sky, there is no one so good at keeping trespassers away. Kurt Eissler still tends your shrine, but his veneration conceals a neurotic blind spot for a young man named Jeffrey Masson—an apparent opportunist if there ever was one—who had taken training in psychoanalysis and delivered some impressive papers.

Masson seemed like a great admirer of yours, so Eissler had him appointed his successor as keeper of the archives. Only then did Masson begin to issue statements defaming your integrity.

Masson's ambition, it turned out, was to wreck the entire edifice of psychoanalysis. If he could make his points, he gloated in an interview. “they would have to recall every patient since 1901.”

But that was only the beginning. Soon another assassin entered the scene—a Welshman named Peter Swales. This master of invective began to circulate rumors that you not only slept with your sister-in-law but also plotted to murder—yes, murder!—your friend and colleague Fliess.

And how do I know these unsavory details? I just stayed up half the night reading a book called In the Freud Archives, by a woman named Janet Malcolm. She writes in a lively style, is familiar with psychoanalysis and has a keen eye for personal quirks. While reporting who said what to whom, she manages to portray everyone in an unflattering light.

The only thing that raises this whole affair out of the gutter is the central issue on which Masson hopes to skewer your reputation. He calls it your “abandonment of the seduction theory” in favor of the theory of infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex. Since you first believed that neuroses result from the sexual seduction of children by adults, but switched your view to the notion that children themselves have sexual impulses, he says you must have been trying to protect the reputation of your friends or to protect yourself from attack. You were right the first time, he claims, and the Oedipus complex is really a myth with no psychiatric substance.

So what do you say to that, old friend? And what would you say if I told you that in California, where every flaky idea becomes fad, there are already dozens of therapists trying to capitalize on Masson by convincing their patients that their problems are due to sexual abuse? No longer must they contend with the complexities of their own psyches, for the cause of their neuroses is ultimately mistreatment by someone else.

If you care, I suppose you can take some satisfaction in seeing that your insights into the irrationality and venality of human nature are still confirmed today.

John Seabrook (review date 24 July 1984)

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SOURCE: Seabrook, John. “Psychoanalysis: A Telling Critique.” Christian Science Monitor 76, no. 168 (24 July 1984): 21-2.

[In the following review, Seabrook characterizes In the Freud Archives as a captivating examination of psychoanalysis and an insightful look at the tenets and practices of analysts who follow Freud's teachings.]

In the Freud Archives is Janet Malcolm's second book about Freudian psychoanalysis. In her previous book, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Malcolm recalled the heyday of the discipline, the 1950s, when with unlimited optimism analysis reached out to every kind of human disorder. In the 1960s government-funded clinics made analysis accessible to almost everyone, and analysts talked about improving the health of society as a whole.

But in the '70s both the money and the optimism ran out. Today analysts acknowledge that at least as many treatments fail as succeed, and success has been more modestly defined. Most analysts won't treat the severely ill, and most prefer educated patients to uneducated ones. The average analysis takes six to eight years, 11 months a year, five days a week. Many analysts have begun to rely on antidepressant drugs to effect the “cure” their method promises. And other, less severe kinds of therapy have eroded the supremacy of Freudian analysis.

Having devastated the profession in her last book, Malcolm now proceeds to take on the analysts themselves. In the Freud Archives is a fascinating account on intrigue and imbroglio within the secretive psychoanalytical establishment.

The story begins in 1974 when Jeffrey Masson, a 33-year-old Sanskrit scholar who had decided in his brash way to become a psychoanalyst, met Kurt Eissler, secretary of the Freud Archives and one of the most respected psychoanalysts in the world. Masson's wit and energy captivated the diffident Eissler, who soon came to love the younger man as a son. He showered Masson with favors, the biggest of which was to persuade Anna, Freud's daughter, to show Masson some unpublished letters that her father wrote to his friend Fliess in 1897. Eissler would soon regret his generosity.

1897 was a breakthrough year for Freud. Up to that point he had believed his neurotic patients when they told him, as most did, that their parents had seduced them as children. His “seduction theory” simply stated that parental abuse is at the root of most forms of hysteria. But in 1897 Freud began to suspect that these tales of incest were fantasies, not real experiences. His search for an explanation led him away from the social reality of parental cruelty, toward the “psychic reality” of the unconscious mind. The Oedipus complex soon followed, and psychoanalysis was born.

One of the 1897 letters suggested to Masson that Freud had it right the first time, and that he knew it. His suppression of the seduction theory was in fact, said Masson, a cowardly and dishonest retreat from the miseries of the real world, and the main reason that present-day psychoanalysis is so ineffectual. Masson turned his ideas into a book, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory, published amid a blaze of controversy last winter.

True, Freud's reasons for discarding the seduction theory were less than scientific. But then the unconscious was never a scientific discovery in the sense that, say, DNA, the genetic building block, was. Freud used metaphors like “psychic reality” and “dream-life” that his followers have taken literally, and he made mistakes—they're plentiful in the Fliess letters—that his idolaters, like Eissler, have tried to cover up. If the Freudian establishment weren't so inflexible, its antagonists, like Masson, wouldn't be so hyperbolic.

But it remains to be seen whether classical Freudian analysis, in the hands of such obstinate, eccentric practitioners, will survive. All analysts are in analysis themselves (that was one of Freud's commandments), and many of them are analyzed by doctors who are their superiors within the psychoanalytic hierarchy. The fears and desires that are unleashed in analysis get confused with professional relationships outside of analysis, to the point where the analysts start acting crazier than the people they're supposed to cure. In the Freud Archives brilliantly and vividly illustrates the perils of the profession.

Mary-Kay Wilmers (review date 18 April 1985)

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SOURCE: Wilmers, Mary-Kay. “Fortress Freud.” London Review of Books 7, no. 7 (18 April 1985): 10-11.

[In the following review, Wilmers studies Malcolm's Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, underscoring the exclusiveness and the separatist aspects of the psychoanalytical professional's lifestyle.]

Psychoanalysts have a difficult relationship with the rest of the world—or, as they sometimes call it, ‘the goyim’. Janet Malcolm's two very striking books of reportage, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, make this clear. Freud's wife, according to her grandson, ‘divided the world into those who knew of grandfather and those who did not’. The latter, he said, ‘did not play any role in her life’. In that sense every analyst is Freud's wife and lives in a world entirely taken up with psychoanalytic concerns. Sometimes it seems that they hardly know what may happen in real life and fear it accordingly. On the night of the New York black-out in 1965 someone I know was with his analyst. As the lights went out the analyst—not the patient—jumped out of his chair and shouted: ‘They're coming to get me.’ Psychoanalysts have had good reasons for considering themselves beleaguered, but for the past twenty years at least, the world, being less interested in them, has been less interested than they imagine in finding them out. ‘No decent analyst would let his picture appear in the Times,’ one New York analyst snapped at another, as if he had caught him sneaking his image into the temple of Baal. Ms Malcolm speaks of the ‘chilly castle of psychoanalysis’ and admires its austerities. One might less admiringly think of it as Fortress Freud and question whether it too needs to be so insistently defended.

The idea that psychoanalysis is something to be guarded from the world was of course Freud's: ‘we have been obliged to recognise and express as our conviction,’ he said in 1933, ‘that no one has a right to join in a discussion of psychoanalysis who has not had particular experiences which can only be obtained by being analysed oneself’; and Ms Malcolm, who is unusual in being nice as well as astute, wants us to know that he regretted this—‘you can believe me,’ she quotes him as saying, ‘when I tell you that we do not enjoy giving an impression of being members of a secret society.’ Though she concedes that he went too far in speaking of a ‘right’ to talk about psychoanalysis, she also believes that he had no alternative: ‘From the resistance that even card-carrying Freudians put up against the Freudian unconscious, the resistance of the non or anti-Freudians may be deduced.’ But the idea of ‘resistance’ is an old Freudian wheeze for dismissing other people's opinions; and one doesn't have to cite the shortcomings of the rest of the world in order to account for Freud's attempt to declare psychoanalysis a total exclusion zone.

Despite what is said by loyal members of the task force, Freud was never entirely on his own, though it's true that in the years of ‘splendid isolation’, as he called them, the years of his friendship with Fliess, no one shared the confidence he had in himself. By 1902, however, a psychoanalytic society met every Wednesday around a table in his waiting room; and if to start with it had only four members, its discussions were still considered sufficiently interesting to be reported each week in the Sunday edition of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt. At the end of his life, when he made those remarks about giving an impression of belonging to a secret society and not enjoying it, his ideas were ‘detonating’ (Ms Malcolm's word) throughout the intellectual world. He was passionately determined to make his mark as a scientist, and it could be that the most effective way of persuading the world that he'd seen further than any of his rivals, especially those among them, like Adler and Jung, who'd been obliged to pack their bags and leave the Freudian house, was by surrounding his secrets with secrecy. ‘I am nothing by temperament but a conquistador,’ he said in a letter to Fliess, and he fought hard to make his sovereignty over the unconscious secure. In the world at large Freud's revelations were assimilated in all sorts of ways. Psychoanalysis, however, was a family matter.

The situation has scarcely changed even now. Take, for example, Freud's own reputation. Present-day analysts, so Ms Malcolm asserts, are unruffled by what is now routinely, though not always persuasively, said about Freud: that he persecuted his colleagues, that he took unfair advantage of them, that he faked his evidence, that he fucked his sister-in-law. ‘Most Freudian analysts,’ she writes, ‘can take or leave Freud himself,’ and reading that sentence, one may briefly wonder what can have happened to make them all so reckless, but her real meaning, to judge by the analysts whom she herself cites, is that they can take or leave what is said about Freud by anyone who isn't an analyst. Within the profession security is almost as tight today as it was when Freud was in charge, and it is still the case, Ms Malcolm reports, that ‘outsiders wishing to join in the discussion of psychoanalysis are in effect told to go away and maybe come back after they've been analysed.’ No analyst would say in public that he had doubts about Freud.

The first of Ms Malcolm's two books is an account of the contemporary psychoanalytic profession largely based on the experience of one middle-aged New York analyst whom she calls ‘Aaron Green’. He is an edgy, discontented man, committed to Freud's legacy in its most classical form and at the same time acutely aware of the profession's shortcomings. He discusses, for example, the period when he was in training at the New York Institute of Psychoanalysis:

‘I had several friends who were asked to resign.’

‘After a long time in training?’

‘Yes, sometimes after many years.’

‘What does it mean when someone is dropped?’

‘I don't know. These things are shrouded in mystery.’

Far from having been abandoned, the ways of the secret society have been institutionalised. Authority relies on silence and mystification to get its effects and no one knows on what grounds candidates for membership have been blackballed: they simply vanish into the daylight. Ms Malcolm, whose own feelings about psychoanalysis aren't at all easy to gauge, talks about ‘the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy’ and represents the training institutes and analytic societies as ‘decrepit mansions with drawn shades’ planted along ‘hidden, almost secret byways … marked with inscrutable road signs’. What she seems to have in mind is something drawn by Charles Addams, homes for ghouls rather than the headquarters of what is commonly assumed to be a form of therapy.

Once an analyst has completed his training he begins to hope that he will, in time, become a training analyst himself; or, as Green puts it, be admitted into the inner sanctum of psychoanalysis, his own analyst's bedroom. ‘Not everyone,’ he says, ‘feels like that—some people drop out of the Institute world and go their own way—but the majority, like me, for whatever infantilely motivated reason, hope that they will get into that bedroom: that they will become training analysts.’ Once they are in the bedroom that's where they want to stay. Analysts, it seems, spend most of their time in each other's company—at meetings, over supper, in matrimony; they worry to an unusual degree about each other's good opinion and, as they say themselves, find little to talk about with people ‘on the outside’; the members of a given Institute speak the same way, even dress the same way. ‘Aaron's attitude towards the NYU Institute is … affectionate’: for the Columbia analysts ‘he has nothing but bitterness and scorn.’

‘But the schism was years ago,’ I said. ‘What's the matter with them now?’

Aaron frowned, and said in a low, dark voice: ‘They're sharp dressers.’

In the early Sixties I used to see a middle-aged analyst who found it impossible to accept that the reason some of his patients wore miniskirts was that most of their friends wore them too: it must, he insisted, have some deeper significance.

There are many analysts—Green is one—who would agree that analysts spend more time closeted with each other than is good for them; and the question of what psychoanalysis can and cannot sensibly account for is more unstable, or ambiguous, than most patients realise when they are lying on the couch wondering why their analyst hasn't spoken for the past three-quarters of an hour. For example, Ms Malcolm says of Freud that ‘it has become a kind of cliché that he was “no Menschenkenner”’ (i.e. no judge of people). To those who are not au fait with the subtle, self-protecting, teasing ways in which psychoanalysis both tries and refuses to connect with the external world this may seem surprising. ‘Throughout his life’, Malcolm continues, Freud ‘was beset by the affliction of overestimation’, but since the overestimations she cites—which are the ones that are usually cited in this context—are his overestimations of Breuer, Fliess and Jung (‘the most prominent of those who came within the orbit of Freud's propensity for idealisation followed by disillusionment’), one might suspect that the cliché, however well founded, is also a convenient way of making it seem that there was nothing in Freud's behaviour that could decently be thought reprehensible.

Psychoanalytic theory offers no grounds for expecting analysts to be wiser than anyone else: its view of human nature and its capacity for change, let alone improvement, is far too gloomy for that. According to Green, ‘such small edge as analysts have they exercise in only one situation in life—namely, the analytic situation.’ Ms Malcolm is more eloquent. ‘The greatest analyst in the world,’ she says with seeming admiration, ‘can live his own life only like an ordinary blind and driven human being,’ but the unjustified sinner, the really ordinary human being, may think there is something tricky about a science that claims so much and so little for itself and its adherents. Her remark, intended perhaps to release psychoanalysts from the uncomfortable burden of other people's expectations, at the same time makes it plain that analysis should not be seen in the way it is conventionally seen—as a means of assisting people to get their lives in order. What it provides is, appropriately, both more modest and more magisterial: an initiation into its own way of thinking.

On the other hand, if it's the case that the greatest analyst in the world can't get any more grip than the rest of us, why have Freudians laboured so hard to keep up the image of Great Father Freud? And why have so many people, most of them loosely or formerly connected with psychoanalysis, felt it necessary to work away at the destruction of that image? It has often been said, and not only by its detractors, that there is too much of the family romance in psychoanalysis (consider the number of analysts who, as Green points out, boast that their analyst was analysed by X who was analysed by Freud or Abraham or Ferenczi—though I've not yet come across any who've boasted about being analysed by my relative Max Eitingon): maybe a history in which filial passions have played such a critical part can itself be taken as evidence in favour of Freudian theory.

The current black sheep and family snitch is Jeffrey Masson, the principal subject of Ms Malcolm's second book. Masson made his first appearance in the international psychoanalytic community in the early Seventies and the community was dazzled. ‘He wasn't,’ writes Ms Malcolm, who has an eye for these things, ‘like the other analytical candidates one sees at congresses—quiet and serious and somewhat cowed-looking young psychiatrists who stand about together like shy, plain girls at dances … Masson was dancing with some of the most attractive and desirable partners at the ball.’ He was a student of Sanskrit at Harvard when he first had recourse to psychoanalysis (‘my main symptom was total promiscuity’). From Harvard he went to Canada to teach Sanskrit at the University of Toronto and on the day term began realised he would have to give it up. (‘I couldn't sit there with four students, all eccentric, and read this little script. I just couldn't.’) So he decided to embark on a training analysis at the local Institute in preparation for a second career. As with everything else in his life, he was first enraptured, then bored—though to begin with, he was bored only with psychoanalysis in Toronto: ‘when I get to the real heart of things,’ he told himself, ‘it will all be different.’ In 1974, at a meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in Denver, he gave a paper on Schreber and Freud: ‘Canada,’ a New York analyst said, ‘has sent us a national treasure.’

It was at the Denver congress that Masson met his man. Kurt Eissler is one of the grandees of contemporary psychoanalysis, the guardian of Freud's good name (he once wrote a review of Freud's Collected Letters to which he gave the title ‘Mankind at its Best’) and, more to the point, the exceedingly jealous guardian of the Freud Archives in Washington. Like Freud when he first met Jung, Eissler was enchanted by Masson. ‘He embodied all that Eissler most cherished in people: intellect, erudition, energy, zest, colour, sparkle, even a certain wildness—qualities that the early analysts evidently had in abundance but that today's sober practitioners entirely lack.’ In his turn, Eissler, who, at the time of their first meeting, was exactly twice Masson's age, represented everything that in a perfect life a son might want of his father; and not only did he, as Malcolm reports, love Masson ‘quite beyond all expectation’, he also promised him the freedom of the Archives—which, given that Masson's interest in analysis was almost entirely historical and that large sections of the Archives are closed to everyone else, was like giving him the keys to the kingdom.

In October 1980 Masson was appointed the Archives' Projects Director, to the dismay of many members of the analytic community, which was by then losing confidence in him. (‘This man,’ they said, ‘is a mistake.’) Even worse, when Eissler retired Masson would be taking his place. But Eissler didn't read the papers Masson was sending him and, it appears, didn't listen to the things he said. In October 1981, after two articles appeared in the New York Times announcing to the world and to his unsuspecting patron that Masson had developed new and heretical ideas about Freud, his appointment was rescinded. ‘I'm going to recommend to the Board that you be terminated,’ Eissler is supposed to have said: the implication being that, in ceasing to be acceptable to the family, Masson would also cease to exist—another casualty of the ancestral propensity for idealisation followed by thoughts of assassination.

In the Freud Archives was initially published in the New Yorker after Masson had been expelled from the analytic community but before the appearance of his own book, Freud: The Assault on Truth, which, he believed, would blow away the foundations of psychoanalysis. It will be like the Pinto, he told Ms Malcolm: they will have to recall every patient since 1901. But when the book came out last year, though it had many reviews, no patients were recalled and the only effect it's likely to have is to ensure that no one else makes it into the Archives for many years to come. Not even the anti-Freudians welcomed it. Frank Cioffi, for example, whose opinion of Freud could scarcely be lower, took the view that Masson had achieved the remarkable feat of concocting an account … no less tendentious and unreliable than Freud's own'. Yet for all Masson's excesses and his wrong-headed scholarship, there is something sympathetic in what he says about psychoanalysis.

The subject of his book is the seduction theory, which Freud held between 1895 and 1897 and then dropped—in Masson's view, suppressed. In April 1896, in a paper on ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’, Freud argued that sexual abuse in infancy or early childhood was the invariable cause of the hysterical symptoms which so many 19th-century women (and some men) developed in adult life, that these experiences ‘could be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis’, and the symptoms thus relieved. This, in brief, is the seduction theory. Its importance for Masson is that it was based on the idea that people are made ill by something that really happened to them. The paper was delivered to the members of the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology and, Freud reported to Fliess, ‘met with an icy reception from the asses’; Krafft-Ebing, who was in the chair, said that it sounded ‘like a scientific fairy-tale’. At the time Freud was enraged (his colleagues, he told Fliess, could go to hell), but it wasn't long before he, too, began to think he'd been wrong. His patients weren't getting better, for one thing—and in those days patients were expected to get better pretty quickly.

The seduction theory eventually yielded to the theory of infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex; ‘psychical reality’ took over from ‘material reality’; when patients talked about childhood seductions they were no longer thought to be talking about something that had really happened to them but about something they wished had happened. This has generally been taken to be one of the great moments in the history of psychoanalysis: a victory for common sense (it was, after all, unlikely that so many children were either assaulted by their fathers or seduced by the maid—Jocasta, as so often, barely features in the story), and one of Freud's decisive contributions to the way we think of ourselves. Masson, however, sees it differently: ‘by shifting the emphasis from an actual world of sadness, misery and cruelty to an internal stage on which actors performed invented dramas for an invisible audience of their own creation, Freud began a trend away from the real world that, it seems to me, is at the root of the present-day sterility of psychoanalysis and psychiatry throughout the world.’

There are many sober, dark-suited analysts, Freudians as well as post-Freudians, who might agree with much of what is said in that sentence (provided they didn't know it was written by Masson) without wishing to see the seduction theory brought back to life or sharing Masson's hectic suspicion of the reasons that led Freud to ditch it. Reviewers of Masson's book have had no difficulty in persuading their readers of the sloppiness of his research or the simple-mindedness of the conclusions he draws from it: indeed one doesn't have to have read the whole of Freud to see that Masson got much of it wrong and that his book is chiefly interesting insofar as it constitutes another inglorious episode in the long-drawn-out family romance. It is still, however, the case that the relationship between orthodox psychoanalysis and the reality of patients' lives is ambiguous and often unhelpful; and that when analysts say to their patients, as most of them do, ‘I'm not interested in what happened to you but in what you have made of it,’ the patients may reasonably feel that hermeneutics are not enough. As Leonard Shengold, one of the most sympathetic of the analysts Ms Malcolm talked to, said in a paper on child abuse, ‘the patient must know what he has suffered, at whose hands, and how it has affected him.’ It's an important point, and not exactly arcane, yet the issue is far too often evaded.

The behaviour of the analyst I used to see varied with the time of day when I saw him. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I saw him early in the morning and these ‘sessions’ were, I imagine, like everyone else's, low-key and fairly formal. On Mondays and Fridays my appointment was at six and he was usually more friendly and forthcoming. On Wednesdays, however, I went at 6.30 or seven and often he used to make odd, disconnected remarks and sometimes his speech was slurred. I couldn't figure out what was going on, but from time to time I would nerve myself the following morning to ask him whether there'd been anything wrong the night before, to which he always responded by asking me what it was about me that caused me to find reasons for alarm in other people's behaviour. The last time I saw him, around five o'clock in the afternoon, he was quite bananas and kept repeating questions I'd already answered. Afterwards, wanting to make my peace with psychoanalysis, I talked to other analysts, whose response was always much the same as his. Fifteen years later someone told me what should have been clear to me at the time: that the man was an alcoholic. If it wasn't so easy for analysts to deny the reality of their patients' lives (to use a phrase of Masson's) and if this analyst's colleagues had been less concerned to protect him and more willing to grant that patients have an important stake in their own perceptions, I might not, despite six dutiful years of analysis, have ended up with such fiercely ambivalent feelings about it. Similarly, if the keepers of the Fortress were less concerned to protect Freud's good name, to preserve the mysteriousness of his mysteries and to foreclose discussion, if, for example, their archives, like most archives, were open to scholars, Masson and others like him might not become so inflamed every time they succeed in prising away a bit of evidence that shows (or may show) that Freud was (or may have been) less than totally perfect.

David Rieff (review date 11 March 1990)

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SOURCE: Rieff, David. “Hoisting Another by Her Own Petard.” Los Angeles Times Book Review 109, no. 98 (11 March 1990): 4.

[In the following review of The Journalist and the Murderer, Rieff investigates Malcolm's theories regarding the role of journalists and the ideas of exploitation, integrity, and artistic merit.]

Some years ago, Joan Didion ended one of her most famous essays—a piece that all her admirers remember, and, fortunately, that few of her subjects subsequently took to heart—with this gaunt, defiant coda: “Writers,” she warned, “are always selling somebody out.”

At times, Janet Malcolm's brilliant and discomfiting new book, The Journalist and the Murderer, is an attempt to graft flesh onto the bones of that remark. Her formulation is, if anything, even more stark than Didion's. “Every journalist,” she writes, “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. … Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public's right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

Hard pounding, this, as the Duke of Wellington remarked at Waterloo. There is harder to come. In Malcolm's account, the relationship between journalist and subject is inevitably one of seduction and betrayal. All the rest is wishful thinking on the subject's part, duplicity on the journalist's.

The best thing for a wronged subject to do, Malcolm suggests, after what she calls his inevitable “dehoaxing,” is to consign the experience “to the rubbish heap of love affairs that ended badly.” The worst thing is to sue. But, of course, it is precisely the subject who can't let go and the writer who denies his perfidy that engages Malcolm.

In 1984, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret captain then serving three consecutive life sentences for the murders of his wife and two young children, sued Joe McGinniss, the author of a best-selling account of the case called Fatal Vision. MacDonald claimed that he had only cooperated with McGinniss—cooperation so unstinting that at times during his several trials he had treated McGinniss more like a member of his defense team than like a journalist—because the writer had asserted an unshakeable faith in his innocence.

The suit, MacDonald's lawyer, Gary Bostwick, maintained, was “a case about a false friend.” For in between 1979, when he first approached MacDonald, and 1984, when the book appeared, McGinniss had become convinced that his subject was indeed a murderer. What made this change of heart bad faith was that after McGinniss had changed his mind, and was telling his publishers that Fatal Vision would portray the doctor as a killer, he continued to insist to MacDonald, even after the guilty verdict had come in, that he still thought the charges were false.

For Malcolm, the case of MacDonald v. McGinniss “was unprecedented in being concerned with a writer's personal conduct toward his subject,” an opportunity to explore not only the moral ambiguity of journalism but what she regards as its essentially authoritarian nature. Approached by one of his lawyers, who wrote of the “grave threat to journalistic freedoms” that the case posed, Malcolm went to see McGinniss hoping, as she puts it rather too grandly, that their conversations would be like that of two experimenters “strolling home from the lab together after a day's work, companionably thrashing out the problems of the profession.” Instead of finding a co-experimenter, however, Malcolm encountered another masochistic subject. McGinniss, she writes, with the brooding contempt that marked her portrait of him throughout the book, insisted that “we play the old game of Confession.”

Of course, the subject of The Journalist and the Murderer is writing, not crime. Nevertheless, Malcolm's portrait of McGinniss is so damning and her portrait of MacDonald so noncommittal that one sometimes has to wonder about an approach in which a writer's dishonesty is treated with more heat than the murder of three human beings.

Malcolm has always had a taste for demolition. As McGinniss defenders pointed out when the book first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker, when she talked about journalism as an ethically ambiguous activity she might have been thinking less of MacDonald v. McGinniss than of Masson v. Malcolm. A few years earlier, Malcolm herself had been sued by Jeffrey Masson, the former curator of the Freud archives whose character and competence she had effectively demolished in another series of brilliant New Yorker pieces. The piece on McGinniss, her critics insisted, was more an elaborate rationalization of what she had done to poor Masson than a truthful account either of McGinniss or of journalism.

Malcolm relies so heavily on psychotherapeutic, and usually rather rigidly Freudian, explanations for people's behavior that she should not have been surprised when this rather dubious weapon was turned against her. In her afterword (there was no mention of Masson in the body of the text). Malcolm denies the connection. Readers will judge for themselves.

In the end, however, the question may be irrelevant to the book's quality, if not to its author's motivations. Like all of Malcolm's best work, The Journalist and the Murderer is an attack, and what McGinniss and Masson really have in common is that they have been well and truly skewered by a writer as pitiless as she is talented.

Her masterpieces of severity will, as her subjects must know, endure long after their own work is forgotten. Indeed, the only recent piece of Malcolm's that was a disappointment was her admiring portrait of Ingrid Sischy, the former editor of Art Forum magazine. She is not at her best when she is being kind, a fact she seems to acknowledge when she writes that “I, too, have committed the journalistic solecism of putting a person's feelings above a text's necessities.”

The limitation of the book is not that it is wrong but that whatever she may claim. Malcolm's subject is really not journalism at all. Malcolm affects to misunderstand the hostility with which her articles were received by working journalists, but the explanation is obvious. A reporter covering the START talks or Mandela's release may have an ego as big as all outdoors but his principal relation to his subject is neither of seducer nor of exploiter.

Moreover, Malcolm's casting of the journalist in the position of authority and the subject in that of the victim ignores all those examples of the journalist as the tame and obedient creature of the powers that be. Think of the free ride the press gave John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan during his first six years in office.

In fact, although Malcolm condescends to the notion of the journalist as artist, preposterously arguing that writing is best thought of as a way to make a living (why not go to law school then? The money's better and the work exercises some of the same abilities), her jeremiad, at once so self-lacerating and so curiously complacent, applies not to working journalists, filing every day to deadline, but to writers like herself who produce long articles or books on subjects of their own choosing according to schedules, the money permitting, of their own devising, writers whose points of view are as important as their subject matter: in short, artists.

For it is not with regard to journalism but with regard to the making of works of art that Malcolm's important book gathers its inspiration, its breathtaking rhetorical velocity, and its great truth.

Catharine R. Stimpson (review date 25 June 1990)

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SOURCE: Stimpson, Catharine R. “The Haunted House.” Nation 250, no. 25 (25 June 1990): 899-902.

[In the following review, Stimpson discusses The Journalist and the Murderer, and Malcolm's opinion that moralistic shortcomings are inherent in journalistic endeavors.]

The Journalist and the Murderer is a slim book that has raised a hefty ruckus because of its chilly thesis: “The journalist must do his work in a … deliberately induced state of moral anarchy … [an] unfortunate occupational hazard.” To get information, a journalist must gain access to people. To write up this information, he must betray their faith in him as a good buddy and sympathetic publicist. Journalism is a rough trade that trades off human solidarity for the chance to craft a powerful likeness of reality. Trado, ergo sum, not Cogito, ergo sum or even Scribo, ergo sum, is its existential slogan. In brief, the journalist must become a kind of murderer.

Journalists have endured harsher opprobrium than this. Think of Matthias Pardon in Henry James's novel The Bostonians (1886), a giddy lightweight of an interviewer for whom a person is but “food for newsboys.” In 1978 the argument of Sissela Bok's ethical meditation, Lying, anticipated the worst of The Journalist and the Murderer. “Journalists, police investigators, and so-called intelligence operators,” Bok wrote, “often have little compunction in using falsehoods to gain the knowledge they seek.” Though a polite iconoclast, Bok found Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward remiss for not acknowledging in All the President's Men the moral dilemma of telling lies in order to get at truths.

James was being satiric, while Bok was a philosophical investigator. Ironic, watchful, canny, Janet Malcolm assumes both those judgeships. She also serves as self-appointed diagnostician and therapist. “This book,” the jacket flap promises, “examines the psychopathology of journalism.” Malcolm believes in freedom of the press but not in its innocence. She deploys demystifying metaphors for the relationship between journalist and subject. In one, a figure of eros gone wrong, the journalist is a seductive confidence man who fleeces a “credulous widow.” In another, a figure of family life gone wrong, during an interview the subject regresses to the blissful condition of a child with an all-forgiving mother. But then, at his desk, the writer becomes the “strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.”

Malcolm focuses on an aristocratic form of journalism, the long nonfiction essay. Her journalist is that anguished modern figure, the private detective stuck with reality; Malcolm specializes in the realities of an encounter between reader/text and interviewer/subject. Not for this book the bump and grind between the media and publicity offices; nor the sweat and flap of the daily deadline, be it for print or television; nor, on another level, the heroic crusades of an I. F. Stone or an Ida B. Wells. Nevertheless, Malcolm calls for the profession as a whole to achieve a stoical self-awareness about the impossibility of the profession, an intelligence that The Journalist and the Murderer displays and that its controversial first sentence extols: “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.”

None of this would guarantee a jolly ride on the press bus or a drink at the bar in the Holiday Inn of professional popularity. Moreover, Malcolm's investigation is a case study of epistemological difficulties. Like many vivid narratives about the travails of knowing, it involves the courts, an institution that the gods and the devils must have invented together during a wild, let's-really-get-the-humans night of revelry. For the courts are the arena of zero-sum games in which adversaries tell bitterly competitive stories to unpredictable judges and juries about a dramatic but enigmatic world. Those stories are simultaneously cognitive (Did X thrust a knife into Y?), moral (If so, is X a bad person?), legal (Which laws might cover X's alleged action?) and medical (Was X sane?).

Malcolm originally published The Journalist and the Murderer in The New Yorker. There she explored two interlocking trials. In 1979 Jeffrey MacDonald, a handsome doctor, was found guilty of the 1970 murder of his pregnant wife and two little daughters. Before the trial, MacDonald had hired Joe McGinniss, a celebrity journalist, as a member of his defense team in order to write a book about the ordeal. For the next four years, McGinniss led MacDonald to believe that this journalist was a friend who would exonerate him. To MacDonald's horror the book, Fatal Vision, as well as its film version sustained the jury's guilty verdict. In 1984 MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract. A 1987 trial ended in a hung jury and a settlement.

On the basis of the 1979 trial material, Malcolm neither accepts nor rejects the “truth” of MacDonald as murderer. As agnostic about the belief in Nature as the Book of God, she writes, “It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower—it all depends on how you read the evidence.” With some interest she quotes Gary Bostwick, MacDonald's lawyer in the suit against McGinniss, who carefully distinguishes between “knowing” whether or not a MacDonald is a murderer and “believing” that he is not. His trial then is less a “search for truth” than a “cathartic” release of tensions and differences. Indeed, our major trials are rituals that reenact deep social patterns of guilt and punishment, innocence and release.

Malcolm's fastidious professional skepticism leads to portraits of the intellectually and morally self-assured that are as edged and edgy as the Avedon photographs in which subjects posed in front of blank white paper: a writer and political scientist who testified against McGinniss; a psychiatrist who testified against MacDonald. Malcolm is even more sardonic about the certainties of psychiatric discourse: “Our standard psychiatric diagnostic nomenclature has all the explanatory power of the nomenclature of medieval physiology involving the four humors.”

However, Malcolm can abandon the multivoiced statements of the agnostic in order to deliver an unequivocal judgment. Exploring her tense relationship with McGinniss, who emerges as less than ethically and psychologically kempt, she admits to the parallels between this relationship and his to MacDonald. Both journalists began to see increasingly unlovable subjects through the rude eyes of their legal opponents. Yet she finds McGinniss guilty of “crude and gratuitous two-facedness.”

Next, in an “Afterword” that did not appear in The New Yorker, Malcolm admits to still another parallel between her career and that of McGinniss. In 1984 she too was sued—by Jeffrey Masson, the central character in her book In the Freud Archives. The well-known libel case, Jeffrey M. Masson v. The New Yorker Magazine Inc., Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Janet Malcolm, is usually abbreviated to Masson-Malcolm or “The Malcolm Case.” In a variation on the theme of doubled and reversed identities, the hunting journalist became the hunted defendant; the writer of one text became a character in another, the legal document; and the powerless subject became the powerful plaintiff.

Retaining her poise during her self-defense, Malcolm describes such suits as therapy, a gratifying “law cure” for narcissistically wounded subjects that is healthier for writers than assassination on an ayatollah's order. More icily, Malcolm denies that she took up MacDonald v. McGinniss as a screened confession that she had wronged Masson. She is too sophisticated to note the vulgar coincidence of writing about two Jeffreys (MacDonald and Masson) and four names with the initials “J. M.,” but that very sophistication should have instructed her to warn her New Yorker readers that their guide to MacDonald v. McGinniss had been the defendant in Masson v. Malcolm. For surely this experience gave her some expertise and authority. Such a warning would also have saved her a pack of trouble. With uncharacteristic vehemence, Malcolm refutes both Masson's accusations that she “fabricated notes and invented quotations” and the New York Times account of the case by Albert Scardino, now David Dinkins's press secretary. Yet she wearily recognizes that the same power of the press that she exercises as a journalist has branded her an erring journalist. She is “tainted—a kind of fallen woman of journalism.”

The tale of the three caskets has attracted mythmakers, fictioneers, folklorists, Shakespeare and Freud. In The Merchant of Venice, a different drama about suitors and lawsuits, Portia's would-be husbands must choose among the caskets of gold, silver and lead. Perhaps in The Journalist and the Murderer trials have become a substitute for the caskets, a journalist for the suitors, the winning of “truth” for the winning of a wife. In the MacDonald case, equivalent to the casket of gold, Malcolm finds death—MacDonald's wife and children and his reputation. In the McGinniss case, equivalent to the casket of silver, Malcolm finds a fool, Shakespeare's “blinking idiot”: McGinniss himself. In the Malcolm case, equivalent to the casket of lead, she finds her own portrait, though no gallant Bassanio has claimed that it is spun of sugar and gold.

The picture is that of a writer. To analyze it, Malcolm juxtaposes the overlapping genres of fiction, nonfiction, the letter, psychotherapy and law. With shrewdness and style, if without desperate originality, she asks about the ontological status of their respective characters and authors. So doing, she reiterates the modern romance of the novelist as hero. He “fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure [while] the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe.” The shivers of the journalist, I might add, are akin to the goose bumps of the critic.

Malcolm is smartly aware of the impurities of nonfiction. Only naïve readers are not. Yes, nonfiction is also covert autobiography, a projection of “the writer's most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties.” “Masson,” she writes with a small, ironic flourish, “c'est moi.” Yes, nonfiction has a fictive character, the “I,” its “overreliable narrator.” The uniqueness of McGinniss was not the discrepancy between the “I” of Fatal Vision and the McGinniss who signed a book contract but the fact that this discrepancy provoked a lawsuit. And yes, the journalist can touch up a subject's tape-recorded comments in order to convey their truth. Accurate prose is more shapely than a raw transcript.

Yet Malcolm will not collapse nonfiction into fiction. Adapting Henry James's figure of the “House of Fiction,” she plays with the conceit of the “House of Actuality.” The writer of nonfiction only rents this house and must live by the terms of his lease. He can bring in his own furniture, but he must leave the place the way he found it. The writer of fiction has “more privileges.” “Master” of the house, he can rampage around, even tear the old manse down.

The passages about the “House of Actuality” are paths that lead to some difficult copses in this spare, lucid, clever book. Malcolm accepts an adulterated relationship between the writer of nonfiction and the techniques of fiction—for a reason. This coupling renders nonfiction more virtual and therefore more virtuous. However, Malcolm's argument retains the illusion of the existence of “the actual,” an uncontaminated referent, a pure realm that exists out there and that our discourse has not already interpreted for us.

A metaphor for my meaning: I own a copy of The House of Fiction, Leon Edel's 1957 collection of James's literary criticism. A scalawag friend once wrapped it in the jacket of an edition of Vicki Baum's novel Grand Hotel that was issued after the film version. I gaze at the image of the gaze of Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery. The jacket copy blares out, “Reader! Treat yourself to a glowing evening packed with moments of romance and excitement. Here is the story that has thrilled the theatre-goers, movie fans and readers of two continents.”

I live in a house with new gutters and old moldings that need repair. However actual this house might be, however actual my life within it, I cannot sense and interpret them for themselves. Instead, I sense and interpret my homestead through acts of language that cover acts of language that cover acts of language: such legal documents as my deed and mortgage agreement, such metaphors as the House of Fiction and the House of Actuality, such cross-media narratives as Grand Hotel and such drastic accounts as that of the MacDonald family in their apartment on the night of a triple murder.

Obviously, postmodernism has been the voice box for this quaver. Feminism is the voice box for my next: Malcolm masculinizes the act of writing. All writers are “he.” A “master” throws his weight around the house of actuality. Malcolm might shrug and call me persnickety, but her tone-deafness about gender blunts her ability to hear and tell her story.

Two examples. Malcolm describes the friendship between McGinniss and MacDonald as “of a particularly American cast, whose emblems of intimacy are watching sports on television, drinking beer, running, and classifying women according to looks.” This is not particularly American, but particularly male American. How masculine was the world of the MacDonald defense team? How might this have influenced MacDonald's sense of betrayal? Malcolm tells of a male interviewer who asked McGinniss if he was going to treat Jeffrey MacDonald as he had Richard Nixon in an earlier book, to “be … in his confidence … and then run it up his butt sideways.” In theory the metaphor of the anal rapist might be applied to bullies of both sexes, but fear of the homosexual anal rapist is particularly male. How masculine is the world of journalism? How does this shape reports about the House of Actuality? And responses to responses to these reports?

Emily Dickinson's “Poem 1400” is a mordant lyric about epistemology. “But nature is a stranger yet,” she writes. “The ones that cite her most / Have never passed her haunted house.” A modernist text, The Journalist and the Murderer finds human nature both strange and a stranger. It suspects any commentator who cites human nature without self-interrogation. It offers little consolation to writers of some integrity who devise “counterparts to real life.” Such writers do what they must, but some blood will fleck the keyboards of even the wisest among them.

Linda Christmas (review date 25 January 1991)

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SOURCE: Christmas, Linda. “Get the Story.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 135 (25 January 1991): 35.

[In the following review of The Journalist and the Murderer, Christmas focuses on the lengths journalists will go to get a story and comments on their perception of moral obligations.]

This [The Journalist and the Murderer] is a book about betrayal: about journalists who give fake sympathy and support to interviewees in order to encourage them to talk freely, and then go back to their keyboards and put the boot in. It's also an American book, so I'd better start at the beginning. Some 20 years ago, in North Carolina, a woman and her two daughters were murdered. The husband, Jeffrey MacDonald, serving as a doctor in a Green Beret unit, was charged and then cleared by an Army tribunal. But, eight years later, the stepfather of the murdered woman succeeded in bringing the case to trial.

MacDonald, proclaiming his innocence and in need of money to pay for his defence, decided to let a journalist become an official member of the defence team in order to write a book about the case. Joseph Wambaugh turned down the invitation. “I suspect that you want a writer who would tell your story, and indeed your version may very well be the truth as I would see it. But you'd have no guarantee, not with me.” Admirable straight talking.

Joe McGinniss accepted the offer, along with US $300,000 from publishers Dell/Dellacorte, a quarter of which was to be paid to MacDonald. The trial came: MacDonald was found guilty. McGinniss went away to write his book, keeping in touch by letter with the prisoner. The letters were friendly: “A total stranger can recognise within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial …” When the book was published, it told another story. It said MacDonald was guilty. It was called Fatal Vision and was a best-seller in America.

In 1984, MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract. The trial ended in a hung jury. Five of the six jurors were persuaded that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and two children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who had deceived him.

Enter Janet Malcolm. She was contacted by the McGinniss lawyer, who suggested that the verdict was a “grave threat to established journalistic freedoms” in that it set a new precedent. It would mean that writers could be sued for unflattering articles, should they ever have acted in a fashion that indicated sympathy towards their subjects.

Malcolm says she set out to write a book about the relationship between subject and journalist or author. If that was her aim, she should not have restricted herself to one example. And a bad example at that. On the evidence given, McGinniss deserved all he got. In court, when asked if he intended to deceive MacDonald, he answered: “There certainly came a time when I was willing to let him continue to believe whatever he wanted to believe so he wouldn't try to prevent me from finishing my book.”

I began this book with relish and finished it with relief; the characters are so unpleasant. Yet it haunted me for days, for several reasons. Malcolm adds in an “Afterword” that she is being sued for libel by a character in one of her previous books. This should have formed the preface, so readers know from the beginning just where she stands.

During the fraud trial, two writers, William F Buckley and Joseph Wambaugh, gave evidence. Both testified that the author's task “is to get the story and that you do what is necessary to get the story”. The statement is grotesque. It is followed by the suggestion that “getting the story” allows the author not to tell lies, but to tell untruths.

Wambaugh explains the difference: “A lie is something that is told with ill-will or in bad faith that is not true, while an untruth is part of a device wherein one can get at the actual truth.” Dodgy. And surely the publisher's role in all this ought to be questioned. It's clear from this book that America, too, is having problems with journalistic ethics.

Julian Symons (review date 25 January 1991)

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SOURCE: Symons, Julian. “Journalists on Trial.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4582 (25 January 1991): 14.

[In the following review of The Journalist and the Murderer, Symons disagrees with Malcolm's assertion that journalists must use any means available to report a story.]

The background should be briefly sketched. In 1970 the wife and two young children of Jeffrey MacDonald, a physician serving with the Green Berets in North Carolina, were stabbed and bludgeoned to death. MacDonald, who had been slightly wounded and knocked unconscious according to his account by never-discovered intruders, was charged with the murders and acquitted by an Army tribunal. In 1979, however, largely through the persistence of the dead woman's stepfather, he was tried again in a criminal court, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

MacDonald's guilt or innocence remains a matter of passionate argument in the United States, in large part because of the furore caused by the publication of Fatal Vision, an account of the case by Joe McGinniss, who had sprung to instant journalistic fame with The Selling of the President. This was a book about the successful advertising packaging of Richard Nixon (an early and less sophisticated version of the equally successful packaging of Margaret Thatcher). McGinniss had been given access to the deliberations of the Nixon team, and accepted an invitation from MacDonald to write a book about his case “from the perspective of the defense team”. McGinniss and MacDonald soon became friendly, and the journalist was given an insider's spot with total access to the defence strategy. A publishing contract was made by which MacDonald would get a third of the royalties from a book which he expected to be favourable—or, to put it more explicitly than was done at the time, pronounce him innocent. In Fatal Vision, however, McGinniss concluded that MacDonald was a psychopathic killer, and the upshot was a lawsuit brought by the convicted man against the journalist hired to tell his story. The case ended in a hung jury, the suit being settled when McGinniss gave MacDonald $325,000, a sum probably paid by the insurance company covering such a contingency. Five of the six jurors favoured MacDonald, but the sixth held out against them.

Janet Malcolm is a journalist, and her book [The Journalist and the Murderer] appeared originally in the New Yorker. Her subject is what she sees as the problems of journalistic ethics involved in McGinniss's behaviour. Her first sentence announces: “Every journalist knows that what he does is normally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” One notices first that this is far from true of every journalist—it has little or no application to war reporters, book reviewers, or a dozen other kinds of journalist. And next, it's observable that this is a self-serving excusatory accusation. Confession thus made, Ms Malcolm can get on with writing her book about the irresistible logic that drove McGinniss to his betrayal of MacDonald, and by extension the logic that has lured her into writing about McGinniss. She begins by talking to McGinniss at the end of his hung court case, a journalist interviewing a journalist. When he wisely fights shy after five hours of chat, she goes on to talk to everybody involved in the affair, the lawyers on both sides, the jurors in the McGinniss court case, another journalist who planned to write a book about MacDonald, psychologists who gave “expert” evidence, a relentlessly moralistic Leavisite academic also “preparing a book on the case”, the writer Joseph Wambaugh who appeared as a witness for McGinniss, and of course MacDonald himself, who proved as eager to co-operate with her as he had been with McGinniss.

The briefest and slightest of inquiries on my part would bring twenty-page replies … and huge packages of corroborating documents. MacDonald does nothing by halves, and, just as McGinniss had felt oppressed by the quantity of extraneous detail in MacDonald's tapes, so was I oppressed by the mountain of documents that formed in my office.

In the end, she gave up doing more than glance at the masses of paper as they arrived.

MacDonald's papers naturally related to his own trial, and were to the side of Malcolm's main concern, which was: should a journalist lie to his subject? McGinniss certainly lied, at least by implication, to MacDonald. By his own account he came to believe fairly early in the trial that MacDonald was a murderer, but he kept this belief to himself and, like others in the defence group, wept at the guilty verdict. Over the next four years, while researching for and writing Fatal Vision, he sent more than forty letters to his friend Jeff, saying things like:

It's all so fucking awful I can't believe it yet—the sight of the jury coming in—of the jury polling—of you standing. … What the fuck were those people thinking of? How could 12 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?

It is no wonder that in the later lawsuit MacDonald's counsel “mauled McGinniss until there was little left of him”. As one reads the extracts from the letters printed here, the journalist professing sympathy until the last possible moment before publication of his book with the man he was branding a psychopathic killer emerges as one of the champion creeps of all time. Wambaugh, when approached earlier by MacDonald with the suggestion that he might consider writing a book about the case, laid it on the line, saying at once that any book would be his story and not MacDonald's, that his subject would have no editorial rights, and should not expect to see the book before publication. He even mentioned the “ugly possibility: what if I … did not believe you innocent?” Wambaugh, however, gave evidence for McGinniss, saying that an “author” should never disclose his views to a “subject” because to do so might prevent the subject from offering important information. William F. Buckley, another witness for McGinniss, did some semantic quick-stepping around the word “lying” as distinct from “deception”: “Thomas Aquinas would say I was lying, a lot of other people would say I wasn't.” The judge's comment seems appropriate: “A lie is a false statement of fact, Mr Buckley. I'm sorry you're having such a difficulty.”

Buckley's attitude seems much too high-flown, like McGinniss's invocation of a passage from Thomas Mann about the difference between one's attitude as a man, “patient, loving, positive”, and as an artist, “recording all as mercilessly as though you had no human relationship to the observed object”. Malcolm, who has a hankering for psychological explanations, is similarly trying desperately to make the obvious subtle when she asks herself whether McGinniss wrote the disastrous letters to MacDonald out of a masochistic desire to be one day “in a courtroom in California having his liver ravaged by a pitiless lawyer”. Here, as in general, the overt is to be preferred to the covert. McGinniss wrote those wretched letters because, for whatever reason, he was desperately anxious to keep on good terms with the man he believed to be a psychopathic killer, and to get more information out of him.

But such an action is not that of every journalist, as Malcolm's opening sentence implies, and what she calls in the book's last paragraph a “moral impasse” is in most cases her own invention. It may be resolved by a statement of intention like that made by Wambaugh, or (in a related field) by a biographer's warning to his subject, relict or executors that anything revealed to an author may be used at his and not the subject's discretion. A measure of honesty is requisite in all decent human dealings, and the sort of journalism in which it does not exist is contemptible.

With that said, Fatal Vision is a long-winded but convincing book. The basic reason for believing MacDonald guilty is mentioned in passing in The Journalist and the Murderer. MacDonald charmed many of those he came in contact with, including the jurors who wept as they returned a guilty verdict, but he was unable to charm away the many discrepancies between the story he told and the often damning physical evidence presented against him.

Lynn Barber (review date 21 March 1991)

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SOURCE: Barber, Lynn. “Lynn Barber of the Independent on Sunday Defends the Indefensible.” London Review of Books 13, no. 6 (21 March 1991): 5.

[In the following review, Barber faults The Journalist and the Murderer, alleging the book fails to carry the weight of its opening lines and that Malcolm's intent in writing the book is aimed at deflecting blame in her own legal battles.]

I shall bite the next person who comes up to me at a party and asks if I've read The Journalist and the Murderer. It is not a well-intentioned question. It implies that Ms Malcolm's book has dealt irreparable damage to me and my kind (journalists who do interviews for a living), and that henceforward we must hang our heads in shame. I don't see it myself, but let's begin with the book.

It is an account of the ethical issues supposedly arising from the MacDonald-McGinniss case in the United States. Jeffrey MacDonald was a Green Beret doctor who was found guilty of murdering his wife and children. Joe McGinniss is a journalist who, shortly before MacDonald's trial in 1979, signed a contract to write a book about the case. (Books about murders were all the rage then.) Under the terms of the contract, MacDonald was to waive libel rights and give exclusive co-operation to McGinniss, in return for 26[frac12] per cent of the book royalties. McGinniss interviewed MacDonald during the run-up to his trial and afterwards in prison. He wrote often to MacDonald assuring him of his friendship and belief in his innocence. But when his book, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983 it depicted MacDonald as a cold-blooded murderer. MacDonald, not surprisingly, felt betrayed. He then sued McGinniss, not for libel, the rights to which he had waived, but for breach of contract on the basis of an odd little clause to the effect that ‘the essential integrity’ of his life-story would be maintained. The evidence was certainly embarrassing to McGinniss, but a hung jury resulted in his acquittal.

Ms Malcolm came late to the case after the murder trial and after the McGinniss trial—when, journalistically, the story was dead and buried. But, as we shall see, she had her own reasons for getting involved. Her book begins with a bold and now much-quoted contention: ‘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.’ Well! This is certainly what we journos know in the trade as a good opener—‘UFOs land in Crewe. Official’—but unfortunately nothing in the rest of the book lives up to the excitement of this paragraph, and, more seriously, nothing in the rest of the book substantiates it. It is a headline without a story; it is the journalism of Sunday Sport.

The rest of the book is a disjointed account of Ms Malcolm's meetings with various people connected with the case. There are some nicely drawn vignettes (especially of a stubborn juror) and many witty one-liners, but nothing that adds up to an argument. Indeed, insofar as Ms Malcolm does attempt to follow her own thesis, she comes to the following conclusion, which, because sensible, does not have the high quotability of her opening; ‘What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject's blind self-absorption and the journalist's scepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject's account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.’ Exactly. This is something we all learn at our first editor's knee. So why does it take Ms Malcolm 144 pages and a lot of hot air to remember it? Obviously she is unhappy in her work, but why?

The answer coolly emerges in an Afterword which apparently she only tacked onto the book after a certain amount of pressure from her publishers and colleagues. She is currently being sued by the subject of her previous book In the Freud Archives because, he claims, she misrepresented him by doctoring his quotes. Her defence of this is quite jaw-dropping. If you tape-record an interview, she says, the resulting transcript doesn't read very smoothly or grammatically: so naturally, she says, you re-arrange it and tidy it and paraphrase it. ‘Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist,’ she maintains, ‘will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs.’ Oh really? Since when? Rule one of journalism is never make up facts; rule two is never make up quotes. Of course spoken speech reads differently from written prose—that is why we put it in inverted commas. If we wish to paraphrase what someone has said then we don't put it between inverted commas, and if we do, we are perpetrating a lie. It is as simple as that.

No wonder Ms Malcolm has a problem with journalistic ethics. No wonder she worries about the fairness of the subject-journalist relationship. It would be a foolhardy subject indeed who would talk to a journalist who could so blithely confess to doctoring quotes. But just because she is ethically adrift doesn't mean she has a right to blacken the whole profession. There are bad journalists, but ‘every journalist knows that what he does is morally indefensible’? Pish and tush!

Nevertheless, there remains a problem. Why has The Journalist and the Murderer caught on as readily as it has? The reading public is always happy for a stick to beat journalists with—we are used to being the most reviled profession after politicians—but why do journalists themselves seem to welcome Ms Malcolm's strictures? Do we want to believe that we work for a morally indefensible profession? Is there some appalling moral flaw at the heart of the journalist-subject relationship, and if so, what is it?

Incidentally, I don't want to get stuck with defending McGinniss. His behaviour sounds pretty bad as related by Ms Malcolm, though in the light of her Afterword I am not prepared to take her word for anything. She argues that the MacDonald-McGinniss encounter was ‘a grotesquely magnified version of the normal journalistic encounter’. I would say that it was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different, and that journalists do not normally, or even occasionally, perpetrate the degree of deception that McGinniss perpetrated.

But is there even some deception at the heart of the journalist-subject encounter? Yes—but it is the subject's self-deception, unaided by the journalist (by this journalist anyway). Honest journalists make no promises. Subjects agree to see them because they believe they can charm or persuade the journalist to their point of view, and sometimes they can and sometimes they can't. Both sides hope to get something out of an interview: in the journalist's case, a story; in the subject's case, money. The money can either be direct, as in the MacDonald-McGinniss contract, or when the tabloids pay for a kiss-and-tell story, or it can take the indirect form of ‘publicity’, which, after all, equals money if it brings more readers/viewers/listeners to the subject's work. Thus when Kirk Douglas or Richard Adams or Melvyn Bragg ‘agrees to see me’ shortly before their new book comes out, they are not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts but in hopes of a socking great plug. And even if I say their book is lousy, their publishers will still reassure them that ‘it's column inches that count.’

Thus the interview seems to me a perfectly straightforward, if perhaps rather cynical, transaction. As with any commercial transaction, both sides hope to get slightly more than they give, and one side is bound to be disappointed. If the journalist is disappointed, though, he/she can simply dump the interview—a fact sophisticated subjects are aware of, so they try to give good tape. They try to make themselves interesting but in a way that does not give too much of themselves away. The journalist's task is to get them to give more of themselves away than they would wish.

The ethics of interviewing seem to me perfectly straightforward. Nevertheless it is a fact that many journalists seem to feel uncomfortable doing interviews—men more than women, I suspect, and eminent journalists more than unknown ones. There is a telling passage early in Ms Malcolm's book when she goes to see McGinniss. ‘I had never interviewed a journalist before,’ she writes, ‘and was curious about what would develop between me and a journalistically knowledgeable, rather than naive, subject. Here, clearly there would be none of the moral uneasiness that the naive subject all but forces the journalist to endure as the price of his opportunity to once again point out the frailty of human nature. McGinniss and I would be less like experimenter and subject than like two experimenters strolling home from the lab together after the day's work, companionably thrashing out the problems of the profession.’

Now this is a feeling that every interviewer will recognise. Sometimes you wish it didn't have to be an interview; sometimes you wish it could be a conversation. And most journalists make the mistake of trying it once—usually much earlier in their careers than Ms Malcolm—and find it doesn't work. It never can work, because a conversation is not an interview; it doesn't write up; the journalist's participation seems, to the reader, pathetically vain. (John Mortimer has occasionally brought off the celebrity duologue, but he is the exception.)

But many journalists (including, I suspect, Ms Malcolm) are reluctant to endure the denial of ego that interviewing entails. ‘What about me? Don't you want to hear my views?’ they clamour, wasting good interview time and blowing their whole interview stance, which should be one of studied neutrality. Secretly they often resent the idea that the subject is more interesting than them, and feel that they should be giving the interview. Some interviewers try to console themselves by comparing the interviewer's role to that of the psychoanalyst—a tempting comparison but a false one. The psychoanalyst is paid by and working for the subject. The journalist is not.

The journalist is working for the reader and therein lies, for me, the solution to all these supposed ethical dilemmas. If the aim of my interview with, say, Melvyn Bragg were to please Melvyn Bragg, then I would be a bad interviewer. But it isn't. It is to please the readers, and to convince them that I have reported back truthfully, so that they can feel they have met him themselves. I am amazed when journalists, journalists! say to me: ‘Oo but aren't you embarrassed meeting Melvyn Bragg now at parties?’ The truthful answer is: ‘Yes I am, but so what?’ Journalists should expect a bit of embarrassment in their lives; it shows they are doing their job. It infuriates me that Ms Malcolm has tried to translate this embarrassment—which is only a social embarrassment—into an entirely bogus argument about principles. I suspect she knows it is bogus herself—and that is ‘morally indefensible’.

Michael Hoyt (essay date March-April 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4776

SOURCE: Hoyt, Michael. “Malcolm, Masson, and You.” Columbia Journalism Review 29, no. 6 (March-April 1991): 38-44.

[In the following essay, Hoyt examines the Masson v. Malcolm libel case, and Malcolm's book The Journalist and the Murderer. Hoyt provides background information on both Malcolm and Jeffrey Masson, chronicles the genesis of the trial, and reviews the implications of the verdict.]

“We are all perpetually smoothing and rearranging reality to conform to our wishes. …”

Janet Malcolm, “Trouble in the Archives,” The New Yorker, December 5, 1983

To your list of things to worry about, if there's any room, add the Jeffrey Masson-Janet Malcolm libel suit, which the Supreme Court heard in January and is expected to rule on some time before the middle of the year. Malcolm, journalism's grand inquisitor, is in the odd position of protecting the interests of journalists in a way not all of us are sure we want to be protected. And the Court, in an effort to keep us from doing our worst, could set standards that inhibit us from doing our best.

Like a lot of subjects of unflattering articles, Masson claims he was terribly misquoted [in Malcolm's In the Freud Archives]. Unlike most such subjects, he filed a $10 million libel claim and, despite setbacks in two lower courts, pushed the case to the top of the legal mountain. William Rehnquist and company will soon decide, not whether Masson was libeled, but whether this case deserves to go to a jury. In so doing they are likely to affect the way we do our job.

The Court, in short, is being asked to decide under what circumstances altering a public figure's words is libelous: How much latitude does the First Amendment give journalists in the use of quotes? Masson and his lawyers contend that the standards set by judges in the two lower courts give reporters a veritable license to put false words in people's mouths, and they demand a stricter rule. Malcolm denies any misquote, and her lawyers' worst-case scenario is a rule that presents the chilling prospect of a jury trial whenever somebody claims to have been damaged by a fabricated quote.

It's a slippery case full of Alice in Wonderland disagreements about the meaning of the law, about quotation marks, and about the words we put between them. Let's start with the plaintiff, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a “lively, inquisitive, brash, very talkative” man, as Janet Malcolm described him in the December 1983 New Yorker articles that gave rise to the whole mess. “He gave off a sheen of the intellectual big time,” she wrote, “that even those who disliked him from the start were grudgingly impressed by.”

By the time Malcolm met him, in Berkeley in 1982, Masson (which rhymes with Jason) had experienced a rocket-like rise and fall that had made a lot of noise in the usually hushed and somber world of psychoanalysis. He had decided to switch over to psychoanalysis on his way toward becoming, at thirty-five, a full professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies. Then in 1980, just two years after becoming a psychoanalyst, Masson found himself entering the Freudian holy of holies. He was named projects director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, keeper and researcher of a trove of the great doctor's hitherto unexamined letters and documents.

Masson had reached this position through his friendship with the founder of the archives, Kurt Eissler, a “grand old man of contemporary psychoanalysis,” as Malcolm described him. Once inside the tabernacle, Masson had zeroed in on some startling material that, on the one hand, traced Freud's steps toward developing the basic principles of his theories and, on the other, to Masson's thinking, challenged those principles. He came to believe that Freud had cravenly abandoned his “seduction theory”—the idea that many of his patients' neuroses grew out of early sexual abuse—and had replaced it with the less disturbing theory that these neuroses grew out of sexual fantasies. What the psychoanalytic community regards as the birth of psychoanalyis, Masson came to regard as its abandonment of reality.

Once Masson made his views known publicly, in 1981, he found himself out of work, fired by his mentor, who felt bitterly betrayed. Masson, in turn, sued over his ouster and soon began telling his story to members of the press, eventually including Janet Malcolm. (When she contacted him in October 1982, according to Malcolm, he told her he had had a “premonition” that she would call.)

Malcolm, for her part, likes to write about ways we look for truth—photography (Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography), psychology (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession), and journalism (The Journalist and the Murderer). She's a wonderful writer, but occasionally high-falutin' (she describes Eissler's “startlingly familiar” upper lip this way: “one has seen this mouth in German Expressionist art—on the faces of the writers and intellectuals in the drawings of Pascin, the paintings of Kokoschka, the photographs of Sander”). To many workaday reporters, however, it is that famous opening of The Journalist and the Murderer, her 1989 New Yorker look at writer Joe McGinniss's treatment of convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald in Fatal Vision, that reveals her as a limousine journalist in need of having some excess air let out of her tires. A quick review:

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. …

It continues in that overblown vein, establishing Malcolm as “the bête noirette of journalism,” as Roslyn A. Mazer, one of the lawyers on her side, put it. (For a range of opinion on the article, see “Dangerous Liaisons? Journalists and Their Sources,” CJR, July/August 1989.)

Then there is her apparent disdain for the ordinary working reporter. In The Journalist and the Murderer she mentions a Newsday writer, Bob Keeler, who, after giving up on his own book about the MacDonald case, donates his notes to Malcolm. She doubts that his painstaking work will be of much use: “I felt—to put it bluntly—that Keeler, with his prepared questions and his newspaper-reporter's directness, would not get from his subjects the kind of authentic responses that I try to elicit from mine with a more Japanese technique.” When she finds out differently, the lesson she derives from the experience is not that she might have underestimated Keeler but that subjects “will tell their story to anyone who will listen to it.”

A deeper criticism is that the journalist-subject relationship she explores, the one between McGinniss and MacDonald, was anything but typical. McGinniss had signed a deal with MacDonald guaranteeing him access to MacDonald, convicted in 1970 of brutally murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters, in return for a share in the book's profits. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm presents the writer as feigning friendship to preserve that access while preparing a devastating bestseller that would portray MacDonald as a monster. A shocked MacDonald learned of this turnabout only in the course of an interview with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes; he subsequently sued McGinniss (who eventually settled out of court) for fraud and breach of contract. The court record of these proceedings provided Malcolm with much of her material. McGinniss, in turn, fired back in a twenty-four-page “1989 Epilogue” to a new edition of Fatal Vision, charging her with selective and inaccurate reporting. If the Supreme Court decides to send the Masson case back to a lower court for trial, McGinniss will get another opportunity: Vanity Fair has assigned him to cover it.

Meanwhile, as Masson's suit against Malcolm spiraled its way up through the courts some of Malcolm's critics wondered in print why, in her long indictment of McGinniss, she hadn't mentioned this echo of her famous journalist-subject betrayal theme. She had spent much time with Masson (taping some forty hours of interviews), presumably forming and not disclosing her opinion of him; Masson and his wife had visited socially in her home in New York; but the man to whom she had been so friendly is portrayed in her writing as a sort of satyr turned narcissist, a man without the capacity for self-doubt.

She did mention the suit in 1990, when The Journalist and the Murderer became a book. In a fifteen-page “Afterword” she categorically denies Masson's charge that she ever put invented quotes in his mouth. She then goes on to grapple with an issue that lies near the heart of this case—the limits of precision in how journalists quote people, the meaning and potential abuse of quotation marks.

To understand those limits, it may be helpful to imagine a mostly frozen lake. The thickest ice represents absolute fidelity to a quote; the visible water, absolute and vicious fabrication—the deep end. Between those extremes we find such practices as “cleaning up” quotes for grammar or profanity or even sense, and, in the thin ice close to the water, “improving” or “interpreting” them. Where the ice is somewhat firmer we find all sorts of practices—reconstructing quotes from memory, cutting and pasting and reorganizing them for sense, untangling ambiguities, etc.—things that, for better or worse, go on all the time.

In her “Afterword,” Malcolm skates back and forth on this lake. Sometimes she's safe:

The writer of nonfiction is under contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events or these characters. …

But she cannot seem to help gliding right up to the warning signs.

The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer's most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c'est moi.

Most journalists who work with a tape recorder use the transcripts of interviews merely as an aid to memory—as a sort of second chance at note-taking—rather than as a text for quotation. The transcript is not a finished version, but a kind of rough draft of expression. As everyone knows, we all seem to be extremely reluctant to come right out and say what we mean—thus the bizarre syntax, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, the repetitions, the contradictions, the lacunae in almost every non-sentence we speak. … When a journalist undertakes to quote a subject he has interviewed on tape, he owes it to the subject, no less than to the reader, to translate his speech into prose. Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs. … There are people I have written about whose verbatim speech is so barbarous that every quotation is, perforce, a paraphrase. …

Translate? Rewrite? Are these the thoughts of an honest journalist at the far liberal end of the cut-and-paste debate? Or of someone who sees herself as endowed with the Olympian ability to read minds and substitute for someone's actual words what she perceives them to mean?

With the Rehnquist court frowning down on all of us, Malcolm might have been a little less carefree about where she executed her elegant figure eights. Meanwhile, those who had followed her career may well have wondered if this was the same Janet Malcolm who, in a 1984 letter to The Village Voice, argued that reporters ought to give interview subjects a chance not only to hear what they are being quoted as saying, but also “to reformulate their words or retract the things they feel foolish about having said. The idea of journalism is not to catch people out … but to try to represent their thoughts and feelings accurately and fairly.”

Most libel suits against the media, about nine out of ten, die on the long march toward the courtroom. Some are dropped or settled, others fail to make it over the first hurdle that the media tend to erect—the motion to dismiss. Here the respondent asks a judge to toss out the case for technical reasons or on the merits—for example, the words in question are not defamatory or they are not about the person bringing the suit. Three of four motions to dismiss are successful, according to the Libel Defense Resource Center, and the same kill ratio holds at the media's second line of defense—summary judgment, which can be sought after preliminary evidence has been gathered.

It is in requests for summary judgment that the public-figure libel standard from the seminal 1964 case, Times v. Sullivan, usually first comes into play, the tough standard put in place to give the press the “breathing room” it needs to do its job.

To be libelous under Times v. Sullivan and subsequent cases, there must be “clear and convincing evidence” that the words in question are defamatory, substantially false, and written with actual malice, meaning the writer knew they were false or wrote them with reckless disregard for the truth. In the Masson case, Malcolm and her co-respondents—The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (which published her piece in book form in 1984)—asked for summary judgment, contending that Masson's charges did not meet the Sullivan test. They won at the district court level in 1987, but Masson appealed.

Along the way, some of the reporting about the case got sloppy. “Miss Malcolm conceded the fabrications,” stated The New York Times (March 21, 1989). “Malcolm … admitted inventing quotes attributed to Masson,” said The Nation (November 12, 1990). Malcolm has neither conceded nor admitted any such thing. She insists that she “invented nothing,” and in some cases has notes to back up her claim. (A generally unreported facet of the case is that in early versions of his libel suit, Masson claimed that he did not say several things that Malcolm's tapes prove he did say. Later, after learning that these quotes were on tape, he dropped those charges and added others.)

The press's errors stemmed from a failure to distinguish between proven facts and assumptions made for the sake of argument. Both sides agreed on the authenticity of Malcolm's tapes, but Masson disputed the authenticity of her notes from untaped conversations. And under the rules of summary judgment, the notes were not considered because they were disputed. Thus, for the purpose of deciding if the case should be tossed out on summary judgment, the courts assumed that the only words Masson had spoken were on tape, and that Malcolm had altered them in writing her article.

Even assuming this, both courts ruled for Malcolm, on the ground that the disputed quotes were not different enough in meaning from what Masson did provably say, on tape, to be libelous under the Sullivan standard. In a two-to-one decision, the appeals court held that evidence of deliberately altered quotations does not infer malice if

the fabricated quotations are either “rational interpretations” of ambiguous remarks made by the public figure … or do not “alter the substantive content” of unambiguous remarks actually made by the public figure.

To the dissenting judge, Alex Kozinski, that sounded like a license to put words in people's mouths. Under the majority's approach, he wrote, a quotation

may differ significantly in wording and content from what the speaker actually uttered, so long as the writer can argue with a straight face that it is a rational interpretation of what the speaker said. … What the court is saying, in effect, is that if you make statements that could reasonably be construed as boastful or arrogant … the reporter may attribute to you any other statement reflecting that same trait.

To read the application of these two points of view to the specific disputed Masson quotes, as discussed by all the judges and argued by all the lawyers connected to the case, is to experience a sort of deconstructionist's nightmare. The most famous example, known as the “intellectual gigolo” quote, is part of a tale of sex, lies, and audiotape that begins with Masson's recollection (as recounted by Malcolm) of a comment by a graduate student with whom he had had an affair:

She said, ‘Well, it is very nice sleeping with you in your room, but you're the kind of person who should never leave the room—you're just a social embarrassment anywhere else, though you do fine in your own room.’ And, you know, in their way, if not in so many words, Eissler and Anna Freud told me the same thing. They like me well enough ‘in my own room.’ They loved to hear from me what creeps and dolts analysts are. I was like an intellectual gigolo—you get your pleasure from him but you don't take him out in public.

The italicized portion represents material that was not on Malcolm's tapes. (The words do appear, however, with minor differences, in her typewritten notes—the handwritten originals were destroyed, she says—which were not considered on Malcolm's summary judgment motion. Along with the “intellectual gigolo” quote, these notes go on to have Masson adding, “I was like a very expensive cat—an elegant cat—that was dangerous to let out of the house.”) Masson charged that by putting fictitious words with “commercial sexual overtones” in his mouth, Malcolm had painted him “as someone whose intellect was for sale.”

The appeals court noted that the tapes do contain this quote from Masson:

[Eissler and Anna Freud] felt, in a sense, I was a private asset but a public liability. They like me when I was alone in their living room, and I could talk and chat and tell them the truth about things and they would tell me. But that I was, in a sense, much too junior within the hierarchy of analysis for these important training analysts to be caught dead with me.

The court found that, “while it may be true that Masson did not use the words ‘intellectual gigolo,’ Malcolm's interpretation did not alter the substantive content of Masson's description of himself as a ‘private asset but a public liability’ to Eissler and Anna Freud.” As for sexual overtones, the judges went on to say in a lively footnote that Masson had “repeatedly boasted of his ability to seduce or ‘charm’ the senior analysts,” that he had used sexual metaphors to describe his and other young analysts' relationships with Eissler (e.g., “they're great suckers and it's a question of who can suck the most”), and that such statements tend to prove that he saw his relationship with the pair “at least in part as an intimate, mysterious, and perhaps surreptitious diversion—not unlike that of a ‘gigolo.’”

Further, the appeals court argued that since the quote seemed not to be Masson's self-assessment, but rather his report on Eissler's and Anna Freud's assessment of him, it wasn't defamatory in the first place. (Masson's lawyer would later counter that if the passage is read as the court read it, it still remains damaging to falsely say that such eminences as Eissler and Anna Freud thought his client was an intellectual gigolo.)

To Judge Kozinski, the stretch from “private asset but a public liability” to “intellectual gigolo” was too far. “Fairly read, intellectual gigolo suggests someone who forsakes intellectual integrity in exchange for pecuniary or other gain. … I can see no justification for giving this emotionally loaded term the most innocuous conceivable interpretation.” In another lively footnote, Kozinski argued that the majority's “rational interpretation” test, applied to the “suck” quotes and pulled to its limits, would allow Malcolm to quote Masson as saying, ‘I often had oral sex with Eissler.’”

Much of the court rulings and the long briefs filed by each side is taken up with these comparisons, between disputed quotes that are not on tape and similar material that is.

Meanwhile, there is a corollary debate: Masson's lawyers contend that any damaging quote, if fabricated, rises to the level of libel—falsity and malice—simply by virtue of having been invented. And fabricated quotes, they contend, do more damage than a paraphrase. The words of Robert Coles, in his Boston Globe review of Malcolm's New Yorker piece, have been put forward to support that argument: Masson, he wrote, “emerges gradually, as a grandiose egotist—meanspirited, self-serving, full of braggadocio, impossibly arrogant, and, in the end, a self-destructive fool. But it is not Janet Malcolm who calls him such: his own words reveal this psychological profile.”

Malcolm's side, on the other hand, argues that there should be no special rules for quotes. Both sides, it is interesting to note, claim that their position is the one that maintains the delicate Times v. Sullivan balance between the rights of the press and the rights of the individual.

The battle has been joined by others. Malcolm's amici curiae include Time Inc., the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and print and broadcast professional organizations. The only newspaper that sided with Malcolm, however, was The Point Reyes Light, the little California weekly that became a symbol of libel harassment during the 1970s when it faced more than $1 billion in suits arising from its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Synanon Foundation Church.

Masson has an interesting list as well, with a noticeable tilt to the right. One of his two amicus briefs was filed by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Coors family organization first headed by James Watt; the other comes from an ad hoc group called Journalists and Academics Concerned About Media Integrity which includes two editors—Robert Poole of Reason and R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., of The American Spectator, plus the director of media analysis for Accuracy in Media. Masson's Pulitzer Prize-winner is Clark Mollenhoff, a journalism professor at Washington and Lee University, who feels that journalism has become increasingly sloppy since Watergate and that since reporters and editors can't seem to clean up their act the courts ought to do it for them.

Along with all this artillery both sides can point to smart bombs—historians. Although he is not part of any brief, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal backing Masson and saying that the “green light” the court of appeals gave to fabrication of quotations could “notably reduce the value of journalism for historians—and for citizens.”

On Malcolm's side, as a signatory to an amicus brief, is Edmund Morris, whose The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt won a Pulitzer and who is the authorized biographer of Ronald Reagan. He admires Judge Kozinski's dissent for its “brilliant writing,” but believes it “would make for very bad and very claustrophobic law.” It would inhibit, for example, “the writer who just didn't have a tape recorder” at the critical moment, and it would violate, he says, “the sacred right of honest writers to represent the truth as they heard it.”

There does not seem to be much of a body of libel law about misquotes. One case that both sides of the Malcolm Masson dispute refer to was brought by a New Jersey mayor who in talking about a litterbug problem said that new immigrants had come to his city without certain clean-citizen habits. He was translated in a Spanish-language newspaper as having said that Hispanics are “pigs,” with pigs, or cerdos, in quotes. But the courts saw the translation of litterbugs to pigs, in Spanish, as acceptable, partly because there is no direct translation.

Another case brought up by both sides involves Johnny Carson and a tabloid writer who admitted to having quoted him at length without the benefit of ever having spoken to him. An appellate court frowned on that, reversing summary judgment and sending the case to trial:

In the catalogue of responsibilities of journalists … must be a canon that a journalist does not invent quotations and attribute them to actual persons. If a writer can sit down in the quiet of his cubicle and create conversations as “a logical extension of what must have gone on” and dispense this as news, it is difficult to perceive what First Amendment protection such fiction can claim.

But that case seems a far cry from Masson, with Malcolm's forty hours of taped interviews—not to mention pages of typed notes (which contain, among other disputed quotes, the words “intellectual gigolo”)—that were never taken into account by the courts. Johnny Carson had a mountain of direct evidence, including an admission by the overly creative writer; Masson, it seems to me anyway, has not much more than a molehill of circumstantial evidence. It is basically his word against hers.

In his eloquent dissent, Judge Kozinski notes that this is often the situation in libel—one word against another: “The majority thus seems to create a new rule of libel law: in a swearing contest between reporter and subject, the reporter always wins.” Kozinski's solution appears to be to deny summary judgment and send the case to a jury—a solution that ought to give journalists pause, since trial preparation is horrendously expensive, in terms of time and money. And juries often punish speech they simply don't like, the First Amendment notwithstanding. If the Supreme Court takes the Kozinski line, you might expect more “misquote” lawsuits, more of them to survive summary judgment, and, as a result, fewer profiles in courage among editors and publishers when it comes to hard-hitting stories. You might even get a letter yourself someday, that contains the line “My client did not say those words.”

This is what happened to Malcolm. Reporters who have problems with Janet Malcolm the journalism critic may well sympathize with Janet Malcolm the defendant.

On January 14 the man at the center of the case, Jeffrey Masson, sat in the center of the crowded Supreme Court hearing room looking as handsome and nervous as a movie star on Oscar night. His lawyer, Charles O. Morgan, Jr., seemed cool and collected until some of the justices, rocking above him in their big black chairs, began to whittle away at some of his arguments. The court, in fact, seemed to pare down the most extreme positions of both sides.

Morgan twice pushed his idea that comparing the meanings of alleged misquotes and known actual quotes—such as “intellectual gigolo” versus “private asset but a public liability”—was not even necessary in summary judgment, because a deliberate and damaging misquote by definition met the falsity and malice standards of libel. The justices twice seemed to poke the notion full of holes. Justice John Paul Stevens, for example, asked whether malice could be inferred if the defendant's alleged misquote was less damaging than an uncontested quote. Morgan waffled. “By your rule,” said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, “every misquote would give rise to an inference of malice. The reporter whose tape gets garbled or who relies on memory is at risk.” “At risk, yes; liable, no,” Morgan replied.

Malcolm's lawyer, H. Bartow Farr III, took something of a beating on his argument that a false and damaging quote carried no more throw weight than falsely alleging a damaging fact. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist clearly did not agree. “I don't think your point of view makes enough allowance for the fact that putting words in someone's mouth hits a lot harder” than a false paraphrase. Justice Antonin Scalia, in turn, questioned Farr's proposition that deliberately changing someone's words was legally meaningless unless there is evidence that the alteration changed the “gist.” It may not mean enough to send a case to trial, Scalia said, appearing to think out loud, “but it means something.” Farr tried to put some distance between journalism standards and legal standards, and attempted to drive home to the justices the danger of sending a case to trial merely because somebody charged that he had been misquoted.

He dramatized the point by citing one of the quotations Masson had originally claimed he had never said, but had then dropped after learning that the quote was on tape. But for that tape, Farr said, Masson would still be arguing that he had a right to take that example to a jury.

Farr's point was one that might have sent a slight chill down the spines of the reporters in the room, although you couldn't tell. They were leaning forward to listen as the justices hopped from subject to subject—malice to falsity, gigolo to gist. No taping is allowed in the courtroom, and they scribbled in various-sized notebooks, using partial quotes and homemade shorthand, trying to get every word right.

Gertrude Himmelfarb (essay date April 1991)

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SOURCE: Himmelfarb, Gertrude. “The Right to Misquote.” Commentary 91, no. 4 (April 1991): 31-4.

[In the following essay, Himmelfarb examines the Masson v. Malcolm lawsuit and its legal ramifications, referring to In the Freud Archives and written summaries about the case. Himmelfarb asserts that Malcolm's misuse of direct quotes is dishonest and unprofessional.]

It is not often that the Supreme Court is presented with a case in which the evidence consists of such titillating remarks, allegedly made by the plaintiff, as his likening himself to “an intellectual gigolo,” desiring to convert Anna Freud's house, the repository of the Freud Archives, into “a place of sex, women, fun,” and anticipating being acclaimed “the greatest analyst who ever lived”—after Freud, to be sure.

These are among the quotations attributed to Jeffrey Masson by Janet Malcolm in two articles in the New Yorker in December 1983 and in her book In the Freud Archives published by Knopf the following year. Masson denies having made these statements and charges that they are malicious and libelous. Malcolm claims that he did make them although they do not appear on her tapes, and in any event that they are neither malicious nor libelous because they accurately reflect other comments by Masson that do appear on the tapes. (The other defendants in the suit are the New Yorker and Knopf.)

The Court will, of course, address itself primarily to the legal issue of libel, but it cannot avoid raising other matters of concern to historians and biographers as well as journalists, and to the public as well as the professional and commercial interests—publishers, editors, writers, broadcasters—who have an obvious stake in this case (and who have filed amicus briefs in support of the defendants). One intriguing issue, which loomed large in the oral argument before the Supreme Court (as it did in the earlier decision of the Court of Appeals), involves the distinctive character of a quotation and the propriety of altering or inventing a quotation, however similar it might seem to views expressed in other words.

To the Court the question is one of legal propriety. Does the altered or invented quotation give rise to the charge of malice and thus libel? To the public the question is one of moral propriety. Do writers have the right to alter or invent quotations, thus not only misrepresenting their subjects but deceiving their readers? And beyond this moral issue is the still larger “metaphysical” issue, as the New York Times called it, of “the nature of truth itself.” Is there any essential difference between quotation and interpretation (as conveyed by means of paraphrase), or between a quotation denoting the literal truth of what was actually said and one connoting a “higher,” “deeper,” or more “essential” truth of what was presumably meant?

If the case has ramifications that go well beyond the legal issue, it also has intriguing personal elements that the public, if not the Justices of the Court, may find relevant. (Since some of these personal details are contained in the briefs themselves, the Justices may choose to disregard them but cannot be ignorant of them.) There is, for example, Masson's account (which appears on tape and is cited in the Petition for Certiorari) of how he first became interested in psychoanalysis. He had an unusual career, first as a professor of Sanskrit, then as a psychoanalyst and a director of the Freud Archives, and finally as a prominent critic of Freudianism. But long before, while still a student at Harvard, he had realized that he was “very neurotic,” having a compulsion to sleep “with every woman I could meet.” It was to cure that “total promiscuity,” he told Malcolm, that he entered therapy and thus became acquainted with psychoanalysis. He also told her that he had slept with “close to a thousand” women, something “between 700 and 1,300.” It is not clear how much of this number was reached before he entered therapy, but he evidently remained something of a womanizer throughout his career—which may have a bearing on the “intellectual gigolo” quote, as well as on his subsequent disaffection with psychoanalysis (assuming that psychoanalysis failed to cure his own neurosis).

Malcolm's history is equally curious, and has an even more curious bearing on this case (although this does not emerge in the briefs). Five years after the publication of her book on Masson, and about the time that the Court of Appeals was hearing the case, Malcolm wrote another two-part series of articles in the New Yorker which was also later published as a book, The Journalist and the Murderer. This is a scathing critique of another journalist, Joe McGinniss, who had written a book about another doctor, Jeffrey MacDonald, who had been convicted of murdering his wife and two children. McGinniss, Malcolm claimed, had deliberately and duplicitously gained the confidence of MacDonald by giving him the impression that he believed in his innocence, only to portray him as guilty in his book. McGinniss's Fatal Vision was published several months before Malcolm's In the Freud Archives; MacDonald brought suit against McGinniss, as Masson did against Malcolm. The notable difference between the two was that the suit against Masson was decided in Malcolm's favor, whereas that against McGinniss ended in a hung jury; it was settled afterward by a $325,000 payment to MacDonald (although McGinniss conceded no wrong).

Malcolm's book on McGinniss opens with a powerful indictment not so much of McGinniss as of the entire journalistic profession—her profession as well as his. “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.” It does not take a trained psychoanalyst to interpret this passage (and the book as a whole) as a form of self-confession and self-accusation, since this precisely describes Malcolm's own relationship with Masson. In an afterword to the book, Malcolm denies this; but again it does not take a psychoanalyst to interpret that denial in psychoanalytic terms, a denial of reality that is a covert admission of the reality. (The whole of Malcolm's book, including the afterword, is heavily psychoanalytic, so that she can hardly object—although she does—to being psychoanalyzed in turn.)1

If the McGinniss book reveals, as Malcolm pretentiously puts it, “the canker that lies at the heart of the rose of journalism,” Malcolm's book on Masson may reveal a far more lethal canker. For it raises the issue not only of the misrepresentation involved in gaining the confidence of the subject, thus inducing him to say more than he would otherwise have said, but the misrepresentation in attributing quotations to the subject, thus making him appear to say more than he did say. Malcolm accuses McGinniss of betraying his subject. But if she herself, as Masson charges, significantly altered or invented quotations, she betrayed her subject twice over. (The key word is “significantly”; no one is questioning the propriety of correcting a grammatical lapse or deleting the “ahems” and “ers.”) And if she did do that, she betrayed her readers as well, conning them into thinking that the quotations they were reading represented the actual words of the subject.

It is Malcolm herself, speaking of the “morally indefensible” behavior of journalists, the self-induced “state of moral anarchy” in which they work, who invites us to consider the moral aspect of her own case. And the appeals court decision suggests the grounds for such a consideration. In upholding the original decision against Masson, the court explained that it based its ruling on the assumption (which Malcolm herself does not concede) that the challenged quotations were “deliberately altered,” but found that they were not libelous because they were a “rational interpretation” and “substantive equivalent” of comments made by him as recorded on the tape.

The “intellectual gigolo” remark, for example, appears in the account of Masson's relations with the other directors of the Freud Archive, Kurt Eissler and Anna Freud, and his sense of how they regarded him. Malcolm quotes him as saying: “I was like an intellectual gigolo—you get your pleasure from him, but you don't take him out in public.” This, the court argued, is substantively equivalent to Masson's actual words recorded on tape:

They felt, in a sense, I was a private asset but a public liability. They liked me when I was alone in their living room, and I could talk and chat and tell them the truth about things and they would tell me. But that I was, in a sense, much too junior within the hierarchy of analysis, for these important training analysts to be caught dead with me.

The court also found evidence of the sexual connotation of the gigolo metaphor in other of Masson's comments, such as his claim to having “charmed” Eissler and Anna Freud.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Alex Kozinski denied that the substantive content of the taped remarks is equivalent to the “intellectual gigolo” quotation. The latter connotes “someone who forsakes intellectual integrity in exchange for pecuniary or other gain”; but nothing on the tapes suggests this. Nor is the sexual implication of gigolo borne out in Masson's description of his relations with Eissler and Anna Freud. (It might also be said that a gigolo, so far from being “a private asset but a public liability,” is quite the reverse—an escort hired for public occasions but not a personal friend or intimate.) The more fundamental issue, however, Kozinski insisted, is “the meaning of quotations.” Quotation marks are meant to signify the actual words of the speaker, not the interpretation, however “rational,” of the commentator. The latter is normally conveyed by paraphrase, which alerts the reader to the possibility of bias. Quotations, on the other hand, have an “immediacy and resulting credibility” lacking in a paraphrase, which is why reviewers of Malcolm's book (quoted by Kozinski) made a point of saying that it was not Malcolm but Masson who, by “his own words,” convicted himself of vanity, arrogance, egotism, and the other disagreeable qualities that emerged from her account. Judge Kozinski concluded that there is nothing in the First Amendment to support the premise of the majority decision: “the right to deliberately alter quotations.”

Kozinski's argument was echoed in the hearing before the Supreme Court. A direct quotation, Chief Justice Rehnquist observed, “can hit a lot harder” than a paraphrase. Justice Scalia agreed: by taking his own “byline” off the statement, by taking himself “out of the picture,” the author prevents his readers from making allowance for a possibly “erroneous judgment” on his part. The difference between direct quotation and paraphrase, Justice Kennedy remarked, is the difference between someone saying, “I am a racist,” and a third person saying, “He is a racist.” The lawyer for the defense tried to return the discussion to the subject of malice as the only pertinent issue before the Court. Yet the larger issue—the moral propriety of rendering interpretation as quotation—lingers over the case.

That issue is prominent in the amicus briefs submitted in support of Masson. To legitimize misquotation, they argue, would do a disservice not only to the individuals who are misquoted but to the very principle of free speech, because it would undermine the credibility of the media and increase the already considerable degree of public skepticism. It would also have a chilling effect upon the press by discouraging public figures from speaking to journalists, knowing that anything they say might be distorted while being attributed to them as a direct quotation. The “breathing space” required for free speech is sufficiently provided by paraphrase and indirect quotation. Thus the fabrication of direct quotations, so far from encouraging the free and open discussion that is the purpose of the First Amendment, actually inhibits and thwarts that freedom.

The briefs in support of the defendants naturally emphasize the legal issue of malice and libel; the business of the courts, one brief forcibly maintains, is not the imposing of ethical standards on journalists but only the enforcement of the laws of libel. Yet their arguments sometimes carry them beyond that. One claims that a great latitude in quotation (or misquotation) is required, lest freedom of speech be brought to “a grinding halt.” Another worries that a strict standard of verbatim quotation would “strike at the core of the docudrama genre”; by that standard neither Plato's Apology nor Shakespeare's Henry VI would be permissible.

If the Apology and Henry VI can be invoked in support of All the President's Men, one need not be surprised to find Barbara Tuchman cited on behalf of Janet Malcolm. One brief quotes Tuchman on the unsatisfactory evidence produced by tape recorders (there is just too much of it, and too much of it is trivia), and on the awkwardness in the use of a tape recorder, especially for a woman accustomed to a more personal approach. The brief also cites a guide to the writing of nonfiction by the historian William Zinsser, who reminds writers that they have a duty to their readers as well as their subjects. While they must not misrepresent the view of their subjects, neither must they bore their readers. “Play with the ‘quotes’ by all means—selecting, rejecting, thinning, transposing their order, saving a good one for the end. Just make sure that the play is fair. Don't change any words or let the cutting of a sentence distort the proper context of what remains.” But if Zinsser's “quotes,” in quotation marks, suggests a lax view of quotations, such as might support Malcolm's case, the injunction, “Don't change any words,” might tell against her.

Among the amici joining in this brief—together with Time Inc., various associations of writers, editors, publishers, broadcasters, and the American Civil Liberties Union—are two highly regarded historians: Edmund Morris, author of a biography of Theodore Roosevelt and a forthcoming authorized biography of Ronald Reagan; and David McCullough, author of several works in recent American history and of a forthcoming biography of Harry Truman. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on January 13, 1991 (the day before the case was argued before the Supreme Court), Morris carried the issue still further—beyond the legal question of malice and the constitutional question of freedom of speech, beyond the practical exigencies of conducting interviews and keeping the reader's interest, to the high ground of truth, thus warranting the New York Times's remark that this case was about the “metaphysical” nature of “truth itself.”

A scholar, Morris concedes, might well deplore Malcolm's decision to put “unspoken words in quotation marks.” But there are occasions when even a scholar can and should engage in “honest distortion”—not only (as Zinsser argued) to avoid dullness and redundancy, but “to make the truth more clear.” “Spoken words,” as transcribed from tape recorder or shorthand notes, are themselves only an “approximation of the truth,” Morris explains, for they do not convey the “meaning beyond their meaning.” “Honest distortion” may capture that meaning as literal rendition may not. Like the artist who deliberately curves a line to make it appear straighter than a straight line, so the biographer has to use interpretation to elicit the truth. The biographer, Morris quotes Descartes, is an “artist on oath.” “Our private covenant,” Morris continues, “unenforceable by law—but easily cramped by law—is to interpret the truth as we hear it and to be answerable in our interpretation to the only judges the Constitution allows to punish us: our readers.”

Since no one has challenged the “interpretation” that appears in the form of paraphrase, the use of the term here can only refer to the interpretation involved in altering quotations so that they are more meaningful, closer to the “truth,” than a literal transcription from tape recorders or shorthand notes. And since “private covenant,” as Morris says later in the article, does not mean either a covenant with the subject of the book or with the buyer, it evidently means the author's convenant with himself. The “ultimate test” of a writer's success, Morris concludes, is “saying something—or quoting something—that a majority of readers ‘can't help but believe.’” This (echoing the famous dictum of Oliver Wendell Holmes) “is about the nearest we'll ever get to the essence of things.”

If we have come close to “the essence of things,” we have also come a long way from normal discourse, where “interpretation” is distinguished from “quotation,” where “distortion,” however “honest,” is differentiated from “truth,” and where the “scholar” does not claim the liberties of the “creative artist.” It must also be said, however, that if all this is far from normal discourse, it is not far from current academic discourse. If fact, it bears a striking resemblance to the theory and practice of deconstruction.

It is deconstruction (in some institutions past its prime but in others only now coming into prominence) that taught a generation of literary critics that there is no “text” apart from interpretation, that the author has no more “authority” than the critic, that there is no objective reality, only an “invented” or “imagined” reality. Historians, eager to be on the “cutting edge” of their discipline, soon discovered that history too could be deconstructed, that the “events” of the past have no objective reality, that they are no more than texts to be interpreted, invented, or imagined by the historian. And as with literature and history, so with the law; if events and texts have no reality or authority, then statutes, precedents, and constitutional principles are equally indeterminate. In one discipline after another, the deconstructionists promise to do what the Marxists before them had tried to do: to “demystify” received truth and to liberate us from the tyranny of “facticity.”

One is not surprised to find this mode of thought expressed in the pages of academic journals; indeed, it is all too banal there. It comes as something of a shock, however, to find echoes of it in a case before the Supreme Court—all the more so because one suspects that those arguing in this manner are not aware of just how fashionable, how sophisticated, how “academic” their arguments are.

Perhaps it is just as well. The Court has enough to do without passing judgment, as it were, upon deconstruction. And the language of the law is sufficiently obscure without being further obfuscated by the notoriously opaque language of deconstruction. One can imagine a discussion in the inner sanctum of the Court on the subject of “mystification.” Who is “mystifying” or “demystifying” what? If the effect of the defense argument is to demystify quotations by making them equivalent to interpretations, thus depriving the quotations of any “privileged” authority, was not Malcolm herself originally guilty of “mystification” by putting quotation marks around what were, at best, paraphrases, thus giving them the privileged status of quotations? And what would the Court make of this usage of “privilege”—an invidious term in the deconstructionist vocabulary, suggesting an illegitimate authority—in view of the time-honored constitutional sense of “privilege,” which has been at the heart of so many of its own decisions?

The Court will, happily, be unaware of this aspect of the case and will confine itself to the sufficiently difficult issue of libel. But whatever its decision, the extra-legal implications of the case may prove to be as important as the legal. It is not only the plaintiff and defendants who have a stake in this suit, not only journalists, writers, editors, publishers, historians, and biographers, but also the readers of those newspapers, magazines, and books. Until recently those readers have innocently assumed that direct quotations are indeed direct, unmediated by any interpreter, and that if a work of nonfiction succeeds in its “ultimate test” of saying or quoting something they “can't help but believe,” it is because what is said or quoted is believable—because quotations, with those distinctive squiggles around them, can be believed to be quotations. This used to be not the private covenant of an author with himself, but a covenant between the author and his subject and reader. That covenant, if unenforced by law, was sanctioned by custom. It would be unfortunate if that custom were so widely violated that the law was obliged to step in to protect the rights of both the subject and the reader.


  1. A psychoanalyst can have a field day with these two books, starting with the fact that they both feature Jeffreys, both of whom are doctors, and both of whom are notably charming, articulate and sophisticated—yet incredibly naive in relation to their confessors/exposers.

Pamela Erens (review date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Erens, Pamela. “Flirting with the Past.” New England Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1993): 212-19.

[In the following review, Erens appraises the essays in The Purloined Clinic, noting that Malcolm urges readers to uncover truths by exposing falsehoods.]

Janet Malcolm has a rare talent: She is able to write about psychoanalysis in language that cats and dogs can read, without distorting or diluting its complexity, its mystery or its pleasures. The books she published in the early 1980s, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, both of which first appeared as articles in The New Yorker, plucked psychoanalytic thought from the pages of professional journals and collections of literary theory and returned it to public discourse, reforging its connections with the ordinary stuff of life: desire, memory, morality, mortality.

To Malcolm, psychoanalysis is not simply a body of knowledge or a clinical method. She prefers to use the word in its adjectival form: ideas, truths, and ways of thinking are psychoanalytic or—if less profound—not. Four essays that touch on various aspects of psychoanalytic theory and history make up the first section of Malcolm's new book of writings, The Purloined Clinic, and the conclusions they arrive at are subtly revisited throughout the remainder of the collection, a mix of book reviews, review-essays and longer reported pieces. Despite the seeming diversity of subject matter—from a memoir by a traveler among the cannibals of Peru to Prague after the Velvet Revolution—the pieces are remarkably consistent in their concerns: memory, autobiography, childhood, exile.

As Malcolm explains it, to think psychoanalytically is to view the past not as what “actually” happened (history), nor as what one sees as having happened (narrative, the stories one tells), but as what emerges in scenarios that one plays out with others in the present. A person repeatedly betrays her past in her reactions to others: her tics, entreaties, silences, preoccupations, omissions, errors. As Freud put it in his Dora case (An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria): “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” We mortals are engaged in this acting-out of our past with friends and strangers as much as with our analysts, but only the analyst is trained help us become aware of the clues. Psychoanalytic truth, I take Malcolm to mean, is not a thing but a dynamic: it lies between human beings.

The notion that the past is known only through the present cripples two popular and related ideas with one blow: the first, that unearthing memories or telling one's life story creates psychological healing; the second, that the goal of “talking therapies” is to construct a more complete narrative about one's life, to fill in the gaps of repressed memory. Malcolm notes that as early as the Rat Man case (1909), Freud was drawing a distinction between remembering and therapeutic payoff. It was not memories of the past that cured the Rat Man of his obsessional neurosis but the step-by-step recognition of his current fantasies and desires that Freud forced on him by repeatedly pointing out the way he behaved during the psychoanalytic hour. In the essay “Six Roses or Cirrhose,” Malcolm writes:

Far from presenting the patient with a well-made story, analysis seeks to destroy the story that the patient has for a long time believed to be the story of his life. Like a police investigator bent on breaking down the alibi of a stubborn suspect, the analyst doggedly whittles away at the patient's story through the evidence that the patient unwittingly provides. Nor does analysis replace the old story with a new one. It emboldens the patient to live without a story.

(italics mine)

For Malcolm, psychoanalytic theory implies more about what narratives cannot do than what they can. In a review of Ved Mehta's School of the Blind, a memoir of his brutal early years in an orphanage for blind children in Bombay (he was sent there by well-off parents blind in their own way), Malcolm points out the paradox of autobiography: There are always two narrators, the adult “I” and the child “I.” “What really happened?” she writes. “This is the question that impels every autobiographer and that gives autobiography its special epistemological interest.” It is also the question that impels many analysands, though a good analysis will show them that “the retrieval of childhood experience is one of the most mysteriously unpropitious of human endeavors; memory is the most feckless and epistemologically useless of our psychic faculties. … Neither of the two “I”s through which the story of a childhood is told is trustworthy: the testimony of the child, who was there, is lacking in understanding; the testimony of the adult, who is omniscient, is lacking in authenticity.” The puzzle of autobiography comes up again and again in this collection, in discussions of a Bloomsbury memoir by Angelica Bell; Louis Begley's semi-autobiographical Wartime Lies; Tobias Schneebaum's travel writings; Václav Havel's letters to his wife from prison; and, most personally, in “The Window Washer,” the report on post-revolution Prague that closes this collection. Most of Malcolm's autobiographers are exiles of one sort or another; many of them are also children. In Wartime Lies, Maciek, the young Jewish protagonist, is an exile in his own land: He and his aunt survive the Holocaust by passing as Aryans. The Macieks and the Bells and the Mehtas are ejected from childhood only earlier and more cruelly than most; all human beings, Malcolm implies, are in exile from their early past, which can be glimpsed only in the present-day traces that analysis reveals.

Malcolm's attitude toward “story” most likely accounts for her method as both a critic and a reporter. If there is no such thing as a complete tale, the most the critic/reporter can do is to look for what is not being told or what doesn't add up: for the symptoms in the text, the places where, in Freud's words, it “chatters” and “oozes.” Malcolm's approach is to choose one such symptom and construct her meditation around it. As a result, one can come away from one of her book reviews with very little feel for the book as a whole—its atmosphere, heft, breadth. There are no plot summaries or menus of characters; there is little historical or critical context. (Malcolm, in her brief preface, says that several years ago she realized that she was a deconstructionist of sorts, but I don't believe she is. She likes to create rather than dismantle meaning, and she cares deeply about the human subject.)

In “The Quarterly Affair,” one of the longer essays, Malcolm homes in on what she calls a “hole in the narrative” of a biography of Edmund Gosse by Ann Thwaite: Thwaite's failure to analyze Gosse's tendency to muddle his dates and details, which eventually led to a skirmish over the publication of his From Shakespeare to Pope: An Inquiry into the Causes and Phenomena of the Rise of Classical Poetry in England. Gosse perpetrated so many untruths in this “scholarly” book that he was publicly flayed in a review by a former friend of his. Malcolm insists of Gosse that “what may look like mere sloppiness is in (unconscious) fact a studied assertion of personality.”

What Gosse was asserting, she suggests, had something to do with his childhood, which he wrote about in his best-known book, Father and Son. Gosse was the son of exceedingly strict Calvinists—his father was a minister—who forbade entertainment of any kind in the household; this included a ban against fiction. In Father and Son Gosse recounted that his mother considered her deepest sin to be her “longing to invent stories.” In the same book Gosse also described a childhood incident in which he mistook a novel for a factual record of events; he did not know what fiction was. Malcolm does not spell out her conclusions, but the implication is that Gosse's “genius for inaccuracy” was part rebellion against his father, part sympathetic identification with his mother, part psychic reparation for his gloomy, fantasy-deprived childhood.

This is psychoanalytic criticism that expands rather than constrains our reading, that opens up fresh questions about the nature of fiction and fact and the impetus behind storytelling. Malcolm's analyses always emerge convincingly from the evidence; she knows when she does not have enough material to make an interpretation. In both her criticism and her reporting the writerly persona she assumes is an analyst: rigorously absent, self-denying, breaking in only at carefully chosen moments to forward the reader's understanding, reveal other characters, or move the action ahead. Much of Malcolm's writing is concerned with the id—childhood, fantasy, emotional excess—but her voice on the page is utter ego. An anthology of feminist-deconstructive criticism of Freud's Dora case gets neither the usual obeisance nor the usual outrage—rather, Malcolm nods at some of its insights and reminds us that critics have a way of latching onto the Dora case “because it proves that Freud, who told us such unpleasant truths about ourselves, was himself just another pitiful, deluded, dirty-minded neurotic.” She is resolutely fair: The three reported pieces that close this collection, “The Window Washer,” “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (on then Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy) and “The One-Way Mirror” (on a Philadelphia family therapy clinic) are models of moral shading.

Of course, a writer who so clearly describes the instruments of psychoanalytic thinking tempts a reader to try a little surgery herself. The title essay is one of Malcolm's own mysteries. It is clear that she has a special affinity for this piece, a review of a book on the painter Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane by art critic Michael Fried. In her preface, she writes that she used The Purloined Clinic for her book title because she sees Fried as a “sort of double”; it was he who convinced her she had been “thinking like a deconstructionist for a long time without knowing it, like Molière's M. Jourdain, who discovered that he had been speaking in prose all his life.” But “The Purloined Clinic” is one of the few weak essays in the collection, and also one of the least enjoyable to read, lacking as it does the usual quotient of Malcolmian wit and epigrammatic insight.

Malcolm's reviews and portraits are normally quite generous, even when they are of books and people she doesn't particularly admire. Yet she savages Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane, a book she purports to praise, and Michael Fried, her “twin.” After explaining Fried's notion of the “theatrical” and “anti-theatrical” art work—the first constructs a kind of proscenium arch between the viewer and the object, thereby creating the illusion of a self-sufficient reality; the second, which Fried champions, acknowledges its artificiality—Malcolm attacks his incessant use of the word “I.” At various points she calls Fried or his ideas or his book “wild,” “farfetched,” “grotesque,” “monstrous”; she refers to his “faults of character” and his “unbounded conceit and arrogance.” “At every turn,” Malcolm writes, “Fried brings himself into the discourse,” and she goes so far as to devote nearly a page of the essay to listing examples. Only then does she attempt to rescue her subject from demolition by arguing—unpersuasively, to my mind—that Fried's egotism is actually a conscious strategy meant to “elucidate the character of the critical enterprise,” in other words, to make the reader aware of the “theatrical” and seductive nature of most criticism, in which the persona of the critic is hidden away and her opinions take on the disembodied authority of omniscience. Malcolm ends the essay by relabeling everything she has so far described as farfetched and wild as “radical.” “By disfiguring the work of art almost beyond recognition,” she writes, “Fried forces us to imagine it anew—not a bad achievement for a critic.”

And not a very convincing statement from a critic whose work so painstakingly rescues reason from careless disfigurements. How does Malcolm come to see such an intrusive and immoderate critic as a double? And if he is a double, what motivates her publicly to draw and quarter him? My only guess: Malcolm is ambivalent about her own narrative method, well aware that the impersonality of the critic, like that of the analyst, is a rigged thing, that criticism, hers included, teems with countertransference. But the passion with which she attacks/rescues Fried indicates that something more personal is going on, that Malcolm might like nothing more sometimes than to break out into the most florid symptomology, to write out of her fantasies and not her intellect and steadfast common sense. Most likely, though, she doesn't believe for a moment that wildness and excess are the critic's calling.

In recent years Malcolm has had cause to both question and defend the rigor of her critic-narrator. Since 1984 she has been embroiled in a $10 million lawsuit over In the Freud Archives, which described the rise and fall of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a winning young analyst who became keeper of Freud's private papers in the Library of Congress, then claimed they revealed that the founder of psychoanalysis had disavowed some of his early clinical findings. Masson insisted that the letters threw the entire theoretical foundation of psychoanalysis into question. He was naturally speedily ostracized by the analytic community (which he has since continued to aggravate with books such as The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory). Malcolm, who has an impeccable reputation, is accused by Masson of fabricating six of his quotes, including “They [the analysts] will want me back, they will say that Masson is a great scholar, a major analyst—after Freud, he's the greatest analyst who ever lived” and (of his plans for Anna Freud's home after she died) “Maresfield Gardens would have been a center of scholarship, but it would also have been a place of sex, women, fun.” Though Malcolm taped most of her interviews with Masson, the six quotes in question appear only in typed notes; she claims to have lost the hand-written originals.

Since the lawsuit began, Malcolm's work has wrestled with the question of journalistic ethics: In 1987, the same year she wrote “The Purloined Clinic,” The New Yorker ran her brilliant two-part piece (later published in book form as The Journalist and the Murderer) on the lawsuit brought by convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald against writer Joe McGuiness. In it, MacDonald charged that McGuiness had pretended to believe in MacDonald's innocence (he even became a member of the accused's legal defense team) so as to get material he used to tell MacDonald's story in the big-seller Fatal Vision. Malcolm's piece began: “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.” In “The Window Washer,” Malcolm compares foreign correspondants to spies; “The Quarterly Affair,” with its musings on errors and fabrications, was also written post-Masson. In every one of these pieces Malcolm asks invaluable questions about the role of critic or journalist, but the frequency with which she revisits the issue makes one wonder if the uncharacteristic vituperativeness of “The Purloined Clinic” doesn't have its source in some kind of self-rebuke for the sin—real or feared—of having brought a personal bias to the Masson piece, of having fudged or misheard a few quotes, of having brought her critical “I” destructively into the writing process.

In “The Window Washer,” one of the most recent pieces in this collection (1990), Malcolm seems to be experimenting with acknowledging the critical/narrating “I” more than she has in her past work. It is not only a report on post-revolution Prague but a work of autobiography as well, for Malcolm was born in Prague and spent the first five years of her life there, before her Jewish family fled the Nazis in 1939. In writing of her search for the lost time of her early childhood, Malcolm pulls together all of her primary themes.

As always, she chooses one character as a prism through which to view the bigger situation. This time it is Daniel Kumermann, a man in his late 30s who signed the human rights declaration Charter 77 in 1978. This act resulted in his dismissal from his work as a computer programmer; he became a window washer (which, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being notwithstanding, appears to have been a dreadful job) for the next twelve years. Kumermann is surly, aloof, a difficult interview subject (during their very first meeting, he brutally reprimands Malcolm for arriving late). Malcolm spends much of her time trying to get into his good graces—she seems to need him to like her. She brings him chewing-gum packets and comic books from America because he collects them (his response: “he glanced at each item expressionlessly and then thrust the lot into his knapsack”) and records his frequent snubs, as well as the rare moments when he shines his good graces on her by, for example, helping her on with her coat.

There are clues why Malcolm makes an issue of Kumermann's approachability or lack of it: Half Jewish by birth, her subject actively embraced Judaism as an adult, somewhat to the consternation of his assimilated Jewish father, who spent the Second World War in Palestine (“It's not safe. In every generation there is some problem with being Jewish.”) Malcolm apparently identifies with Kumermann, like herself a skeptical and uncompromising sort of person, a child of Holocaust refugees whose Jewish past was buried (we learn that Malcolm's parents, too, always played down the family's Jewishness). The battle to win him over seems to be a battle to win over her recalcitrant past, to regain the “I” left behind in the family's desperate flight. While “The Czech part of my identity,” according to Malcolm, “had always lain below the surface of my ‘real life’ as an American child and American adult,” her Jewishness, she writes, “was something else—a different order of influence, occupying a darker, less accessible region of my psyche.”

In between interviews with Kumermann, therefore, Malcolm visits the apartment where she spent her first years and eats Prague ice cream in a mostly unsuccessful quest for a Madeleine-type return of her Jewish-Czech childhood. But the streets have changed, the ice cream is “simply bad” and the apartment where she was born is now a suite of offices that “evoked no memories.” Toward the end of the piece the interviews with Kumerman become elaborate and painful flirtations in which something other (or at least much more than) sex is at stake. She wants to discuss with him the emotional resonances of her first language, to show him a nesting swan that seems to represent to her the incursions of the present on the purity of the past. But Kumermann remains indifferent or elusive. The psychoanalytic truth, it seems—and Malcolm appears to be very aware of it—is that she is still in a dance with her past, with the lost “I” of childhood.

“The Window Washer,” “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” and “The One-Way Mirror,” like all of Malcolm's reporting pieces, are many-layered, textured, metaphorically nuanced works that bear rereading like a good novel. Reportage is the form in which Malcolm's talents most fully emerge, in which she can fuse criticism and intellectual history with her gift for scene and character portraiture. There is so much background in these pieces—“The One-Way Mirror,” which tracks the pseudonymous Braun family through their treatment with family therapist Salvador Minuchin, contains a 20-page disquisition on the development of family therapy—that the background becomes the foreground. (As Malcolm's psychoanalytic education has taught her, the background usually is the foreground, and vice versa). At the same time, her dramatic gifts tend toward compression: She is a master of the poetic detail and can create full-bodied characters in a few brief passages of dialogue and description. One of the most brilliant sketches in The Purloined Clinic occurs in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist.” Malcolm is watching Ingrid Sischy chop tomatoes:

She took a small paring knife and, in the most inefficient manner imaginable, with agonizing slowness, proceeded to fill a bowl, tiny piece by tiny piece, with chopped tomatoes. Obviously, no one had ever taught her the technique of chopping vegetables, but this had in no way deterred her from doing it in whatever way she could or prevented her from arriving at her goal.

Malcolm uses character as a way of exploring the ethical dilemmas that so intrigue her, leaving the reader great latitude to decide whether her subjects represent purity or corruption. Her narratives frequently invoke both of these poles, while suggesting that it is only the distortions of transference—in lay terms, the fact that our buttons get pushed—that make certain people or social developments seem wholly one or the other. Is young, inexperienced Ingrid Sischy, the new editor of the influential Artforum, an agent of opportunism and shoddy scholarship, or the muse of a new, unpretentious and engaged, art criticism? Is the flamboyant Salvador Minuchin a healer or a charlatan? Malcolm's judicious account of family therapy convinces one that perhaps traditional psychoanalytic therapy does have its blind spots. As Minuchin argues: “Psychoanalysis is a nineteenth-century concept. It's a product of the romantic idea of the hero and his struggle against society; it is about man out of context,” while family therapy recognizes the interrelatedness of human beings. On the other hand, Minuchin's tyrannical treatment of patients and his claim to cure 86 percent of the cases of anorexia he sees (anorexia is a notoriously stubborn illness) give one pause. The last scene of the piece, in which Malcolm visits the Brauns one month after the end of their treatment with Minuchin, is chillingly ambiguous: Yvonne, the troubled daughter, seems cured of her most disturbing symptoms, but rage and despair seep from every surface of the Brauns' scrubbed middle-class home. The father boasts of the electric guitar he bought Yvonne for her birthday; she reveals that “It was not the one I wanted. … I wanted the gray-and-white one, and you got me the black-and-white one.” The father's bewildered “I thought that was the one she wanted” closes the piece.

“I thought that was the one she wanted”: Psychoanalysis is essentially about desire, about the fact that the satisfactions we get never match the wants we have. Malcolm's comparison of the foreign correspondant to a spy in “The Window Washer” holds true for the pyschoanalytic-minded critic and journalist as well: “The direct questions he asks are only a facade, behind which the operation of covert watching and listening is mounted; his work—like the work of all spies—is tied to contingency and marked by melancholy.” Truth is in the details, says Malcolm—in the tiny dramas we play out during even the most innocuous encounters with others—and we are shaped forever by the accident of our lost early years, against which the arsenal of our explanations, our critical strategems, and our therapies is limited.

Phoebe Pettingell (review date 14-28 March 1994)

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SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Plath and the Perils of Biography.” New Leader 77, no. 3 (14-28 March 1994): 14-15.

[In the following review, Pettingell praises The Silent Woman, contending Malcolm provides an adept treatment of Sylvia Plath's death, her relationship with husband Ted Hughes, and the biographies written about Plath's life.]

Janet Malcolm has created a literary niche for herself as a chronicler of quarrels. Ten years ago, In the Freud Archives gave us a blow-by-blow account of orthodox Freudians duking it out with their master's detractors. In 1990, The Journalist and the Murderer depicted the feud between an Army doctor convicted of killing his family and a friendly writer with whom he cooperated in hopes of exoneration, but whose book ultimately concurred with the court. Not one to pull her own punches, Malcolm lets us see how people talk to a reporter, how in seeking to control a story they usually reveal the very information they later regret having mentioned. Her tales are gripping precisely because she zeroes in on the essence of a personality. Without being disengaged—her own opinions do emerge, and tend to be strong—she fashions portraits that, favorable or not, retain the feel of authenticity.

Now, in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Malcolm explores the conflicts inherent in accurately describing the life of a dead contemporary author. For her model she has chosen one of the most fierce and public battles ever fought between a literary estate and aspiring biographers. Since Malcolm's style depends on startling metaphors, it comes as no surprise that she sees those biographers as players in a gothic poker game, taking place “in a room so dark and gloomy that one has a hard time seeing one's hand; one is apt to make mistakes.” In the next room lies “an open coffin surrounded by candles. A small old woman sits in a straight-backed chair reading a manual of stenography.” A tall, graying man, all in black, enters where the players are gathered, followed by a tall woman who glares malevolently at them. Will these rather menacing characters help or hinder the game? Nothing becomes clear until the bidding starts.

The main figures in this allegory are Plath's survivors. The old woman is her mother, Aurelia, with whom Sylvia had a close but difficult relationship. Ted Hughes, now England's Poet Laureate, is the tall man, the husband whose desertion inspired Plath's most powerful and angry verse. Because she left no will when she killed herself in 1963, her writings and other properties automatically passed to him. The tall woman is his sister, Olwyn Hughes, a literary agent who administered the estate until her retirement in 1991. Her overriding concern was, and remains, to defend her brother from the “libbers” she imagines to be Sylvia's champions and his adversaries. Many Plath scholars, identifying strongly with the rage and hurt their heroine expressed against her husband during her last months, cannot forgive him—even 30 years later—for censoring parts of her Journals or for controlling their freedom to quote from her in print. Malcolm shows how the situation is both oppressive and tantalizing for Plath's would-be biographers: Each hopes to be the one to illuminate what actually happened and voice the feelings of the “silent woman” in the casket, whose poetry still speaks so loudly.

Plath is considered a “confessional” poet. Thus it is commonly assumed that by studying her personality and the events of her life, readers can better understand the desperation of what Emily Dickinson would have called her “letter to the world.” Yet of the five biographies to date (Silent Woman does not properly belong to the genre), Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame alone confronts the enigma at the heart of Plath's work. Her writings, public and private, indicate that she deliberately discarded the image of “a nice person” in favor of a grittier truth. She was obviously driven by private demons we cannot fully fathom. Malcolm rightly points out that “The taut surrealism of the late poems and the slack, girl's book realism of her life (as recorded by biographers and by her own biographical writings) are grotesquely incongruous.” In short, “she doesn't add up.” But how does one go about filling in the lacunae in one's knowledge of a dead person? Witnesses prove contradictory, so one ends up trying to collate the paper trail of a lifetime. Family keepers of that material, however, will frequently turn hostile if their vision of the deceased is not accepted.

From the time of his wife's death, Ted Hughes has been what Malcolm terms “Plath's greatest critic, elucidator, and (you could almost say) impresario.” His enemies, recalling her best-known poem, “Daddy,” crudely mark him as the “man in black with a Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw,” persecuting her defenders to hide his own moral complicity in her death. This view does not jibe with reality. If Hughes had wanted to escape blame, he might better have suppressed the furious poems of the Ariel manuscript altogether. Had he done so, Plath probably would never have come to public notice. He has instead faithfully kept her flame burning bright before literary audiences. Nevertheless, he insists on his right to preserve an undistorted portrait of Plath for their two children—infants at the time she died—whom he and Olwyn raised. With good reason, if unrealistically, he also resents having his own life hashed over. When Hughes bitterly protests the way “writers move onto the living because they can no longer feel the difference between [them] and the dead,” and charges that they ransack their subjects' “psyches and reinvent them however they please,” readers of recent biographies know exactly what he is talking about.

Malcolm's research uncovered clumsy errors in the handling of Plath's estate, but no self-serving omissions by Hughes. In fact, she clarifies how a serious tactical misstep he made set in motion a chain of events that had quite the opposite effect. In 1970 Hughes wanted money to buy a new house, so he decided to reprint Plath's autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Aurelia Plath was understandably upset, for the book contained highly unflattering portraits of her family and friends, as well as an account of Sylvia's first suicide attempt while in college. Previously it had been published under a pseudonym and only in England, to avoid inflicting pain on its American subjects. Hughes was within his legal rights. The friction the novel's appearance caused, though, soon escalated into a war between husband and mother over the poet's image. Both sides started releasing private letters and journals to support their contrasting impressions of “the real Sylvia.” Malcolm notes that the eventual result was something neither anticipated nor wanted: Public attention began to focus on the details of Plath's life more than on her poetry.

In one of her most memorable passages Malcolm writes: “The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a benefactor … sacrificing years of his life to his task … and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people's mail.” A number of individual lives have been reshaped—usually for the worse—by getting caught up in the thicket surrounding Plath. Malcolm, observing that there have been countless similar exploitations of the survivors of a biographer's dead subject, cites the case of George Orwell's widow, Sonia, and his authorized biographer, Bernard Crick.

After two accounts of Plath's life were published—both fairly innocuous to an outsider's eye, yet hurtful to those who figured in her history—the estate made another unfortunate move. Hughes decided to “cooperate,” through his sister, with Anne Stevenson in order to correct what he and Olwyn agreed were the failings of the earlier books. An American poet about Plath's age, Stevenson too had moved to England. Her approach seems sensible and balanced to an impartial reader. All the same, it drew fire from every side. Reviewers accused her of “selling out” to the estate and assuming an advocate's role for the Hugheses. The notoriously difficult Olwyn, meanwhile, felt Stevenson had not listened to the family enough and never forgave her for it. In Malcolm's view, Bitter Fame is “the most intelligent and only esthetically satisfying” life of Plath thus far. She takes up cudgels against those who, reacting to its connection with the estate, have written it off as an attack on a heroine unable to respond. Mostly, she suggests, these are the people eager “to wrest from Hughes the power over [Plath's] literary remains which he acquired when she died.” They insist that no one may criticize the deceased, although living members of the family are fair game.

Malcolm confesses to appreciating Anne Stevenson's predicament because she herself has “written an unpopular book … and been attacked in the press.” The allusion is to In the Freud Archives. Malcolm had claimed that one of its subjects, a Freudian apostate, used his position in that august institution to hunt for documents that might discredit the founder of psychoanalysis. He sued her for defamation and she was widely presumed to have intruded her own Freudian bias into her tale. At her trial she countered (with little success) that such a charge distorts both the offending portrait and her purpose. On one level, The Silent Woman is a continuation of her defense.

All writers wear “the blinders of narrative,” she argues, since any attempt to tell a coherent story necessitates editing the material. Inevitably, some issues get left out and others are magnified. As she did the interviews for this work, Malcolm tells us, she paid particular attention to the way each person molded “the Plath legend.” Some made it a melodrama between the good girl and the bad guy. A postmodernist critic who had done a study that saw everything Plath wrote as dreamlike, allowing infinite speculation, confided that an outraged letter from Hughes over her reading of one poem as a bisexual fantasy caused her to feel physically threatened. In Malcolm's own complicated interpretation, Hughes emerges a compelling and sympathetic figure. Doubtless many will charge her again with being grossly biased. But that would miss her fundamental point. Her thoughtful book proclaims that too many contemporary biographies do violence to reality by treating it merely as a form of literature, complete with black-or-white characters, a tidy plot and a Hollywood moral.

Elaine Showalter (review date 12 May 1994)

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SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “Going Underground.” London Review of Books 16, no. 9 (12 May 1994): 3, 5.

[In the following review, Showalter describes The Silent Woman as nonfiction, yet notices that the story contains elements of mystery, romance, and melodrama pertaining not only to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's lives but also to the drama surrounding the five earlier biographies about Plath.]

Ours is not an age in which literary events get much attention, but the publication in the New Yorker last August of Janet Malcolm's study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was an exception. Brilliantly packaged with reprints of the Plath poems which the New Yorker had originally published, the issue was a sell-out on both sides of the Atlantic, and for weeks no dinner party from Hampstead to the Hamptons was complete without a discussion of it. Now published as a book, The Silent Woman is ostensibly a scathing denunciation of the ethics of literary biography in general and a defence of Hughes and his formidable sister Olwyn in particular. Malcolm takes arms against the hordes of biographers, journalists, feminists and sensation-seekers who have mercilessly raked over the ashes of Plath's life, often blaming Hughes for his infidelity during Plath's life and his iron control of her copyrights since her death. ‘The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one,’ she writes witheringly of their motives, ‘but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.’ Since Malcolm herself, however, has been involved in a notorious case about libel and invasion of privacy brought by the modest and reclusive Jeffrey Masson, the topical ironies of the book have attracted a great deal of attention in the United States. In the New York Times Book Review, Caryn James observed that ‘while the English fuss about poets’ graves, Americans gossip about litigation and celebrity journalists.’

Malcolm sees biographers and readers allied in a transgressive and titillating conspiracy against the dead. She writes that ‘the biographer at work … is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and the money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.’ For their part, readers of literary biography are driven by ‘voyeurism and busybodyism’, pretending that they are having ‘an elevating literary experience’, when they are actually ‘listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people's mail’. Journalists are the cruellest of all, trading in ‘sadism and reductionism’; and even the subject's relatives, ‘the biographer's natural enemies’, can be sucked into hapless collusion. Among the seven deadly sins of literary biography, Malcolm warns, greed, too, plays a leading role.

So why is this woman sneaking around Ted Hughes's garden? And why does she publish big chunks of previously unpublished correspondence between Ted Hughes, Olwyn Hughes, Anne Stevenson and Al Alvarez? While she so vehemently condemns the motives of those who rifle the drawers of the dead, Malcolm is herself impelled to do the same, and it is this pull between its overt and covert narratives that makes The Silent Woman such a tour de force. The book is compulsively readable, the best thing Malcolm has ever done. Disguised as a journalistic detective story, it is actually a Jamesian quest, a sort of epistolary novel about American innocence and European corruption, told by a narrator split between the private and professional selves.

This narrator, aptly described by Caryn James as an ‘idealised version’ of Malcolm's ‘journalistic self’, sometimes refers to her own life, but more often distances herself through impersonal observation, generalisation and literary allusion. She introduces the book with a remarkable Jamesian epigraph about ‘the reporter and the reported’ from his 1896 essay on George Sand, in which he looks to a future when ‘the cunning of the inquirer’, exceeding ‘in subtlety and ferocity anything we today conceive’, will be met by ‘the pale forewarned victim, with every track covered, every paper burnt, and every letter unanswered’. Allusions to James—primarily Portrait of a Lady—and other classic novelists structure the text, and Malcolm, an inveterate mythologiser, also compares Plath to Medea and Medusa; Hughes to Adonis and Prometheus; and Olwyn to Cerberus and the Sphinx. Fairy tales get in there too, especially Cinderella.

Malcolm never names her own role in these mythologies, but she is clearly an American Persephone, descending into the wintry underworld of England to bring back the secrets of sex, art and death. The myth of Demeter and Persephone has been paradigmatic for American women writers at least since the 19th century, a parable of the woman artist's rite of passage, her necessary separation from the domestic world of maternity and nurture. In Freudian terms, it is about the psychological violence that accompanies the daughter's transfer of attachment from the mother to the father, and her quest for passion, creativity and independence.

Malcolm nationalises the myth as Plath's passage from safe, maternalistic Fifties America to exile in harsh patriarchal post-war England. The suicide of an expatriate, she observes, produces for some people the ‘fantasy that the foreign place contributed to the death, was even the cause of it’. Clearly Malcolm herself has ambivalent feelings of attraction and repulsion, fantasy and fear, about England. She wants to document Plath's ‘alienation in England’ and yet sees her exile as the key to her artistic maturity. In a sense, England and the image of a feline English literati replace Hughes in Malcolm's narrative of blame for Plath's death. In this story, Plath arrives at Cambridge immaculate, with her gold and white Samsonite luggage, her neat Smith College clothes, her shiny freshly-washed blond hair. And England drags her under, dirties her, releases the true poetic self, which is ‘aggressive, rude … disorderly, sexual’. In death she is ‘the little defeated American girl’, Malcolm writes with self-mocking sentimentality, in the chilly flat far from ‘homely Massachusetts’. And yet, Malcolm believes, Plath ‘did not write—and could not have written—The Bell Jar or Ariel in her native Massachusetts’. She needed to shed her American accent, appearance, identity, to become an artist; ‘like so many women writers, she had to leave the daylight world and go underground to find her voice.’ Not only Plath but the Hughes family, Malcolm writes, have colluded in the myth of Persephone, for they too have ‘eaten the pomegranate seeds that tie them to the underworld’.

Malcolm sees Plath as a paradigmatic figure of ‘the fearful, double-faced Fifties’, the ‘divided self par excellence’, who embodies ‘in a vivid, almost emblematic way the schizoid character of the period’. The Eisenhower Fifties were a period of lies and hypocrisy Malcolm still finds ‘troubling to recall’, a time when ‘there was no feminist movement or feminist theory, and relations between men and women were at a nadir of helpless transferential misprision.’ For intellectual women with literary ambitions, the times were particularly inauspicious; in the years before the sexual revolution (the 19th century in America, Malcolm says, didn't end until the 1960s), women's destinies seemed bounded by their choice of men. And while all writers must struggle against convention and their own resistances, ‘women writers seem to have to take stronger measures, make more peculiar psychic arrangements than men do to activate their imaginations.’ Yet while other women surrendered or failed, Plath resisted the period's compromises and confronted its horrors head-on. In her life, as in her writing, Plath ‘was able—she was elected—to confront what most of the rest of us fearfully shrank from’.

But Plath's life and identity are less at issue in this book than her afterlife. Malcolm is also journeying in pursuit of Anne Stevenson, whose biography Bitter Fame (1989) was ‘pilloried’ because it was ‘seen as being used by Ted and Olwyn Hughes to put forward their version of Ted Hughes's relations with Plath.’ Malcolm tells us that she sided with Stevenson, not only because she too had written a book that was attacked, but also because she had long idealised Stevenson, who was a year ahead of her at the University of Michigan in the Fifties, and who lived out her own adolescent ‘fantasies of nonconformity’. ‘In those days,’ she recalls, ‘I greatly admired artiness, and Anne Stevenson was one of the figures who glowed with a special incandescence in my imagination.’ When Stevenson achieved literary success, Malcolm was not even jealous, she tells us, because it was ‘in a different sphere, a higher, almost sacred place—the stratosphere of poetry’. Moreover, Stevenson had married and moved to England, the Eng Lit 305 (Modern Period) of Malcolm's undergraduate education, made up of Forster, Shaw, Beerbohm, Woolf, Strachey, James, Eliot and Lawrence. When Stevenson published a 50th birthday poem in the TLS, it evoked for Malcolm ‘a society of remarkable people meeting in each other's burnished houses and talking about literature and ideas in their quiet, kind English voices’.

Ironically, Anne Stevenson, we soon learn, had similar expectations: ‘I had read Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Henry James, and I expected England to be the book I always wanted to live in.’ But, Malcolm writes dryly, for Stevenson ‘England turned out to be another book altogether.’ Soon after the publication of Bitter Fame, Malcolm meets her in London at the University Women's Club, in a ‘dour and pinched’ room, with ‘sagging brown armchairs’ and a ‘little, wobbly table’. Anne, sitting ‘in a dejected slump’, is ‘an upset, beset, wound-up woman pouring out her grievances’, a woman still beautiful but drab and severe.

Malcolm reflects, not without satisfaction, one suspects, on ‘the complicity of England in the downward movement’ of Stevenson's life. As the one who stayed home, she hears that the kind, cultivated voices sound ‘clipped’ and ‘Englishy’ and sees that the burnished houses are small and weird. But as it turns out, Anne Stevenson shares this view, and has projected her own experience onto Plath. In a lecture on the writing of Bitter Fame, she recalls her ‘own numb misery in England’ in the Fifties, and her assumption that Plath felt the same: ‘I supposed that Sylvia Plath, while imagining she was at home in British society, had in fact underestimated her own defensive naivety, especially among British intellectuals.’ Stevenson traces ‘Sylvia's bewilderment among the English literati’ to her own confusion at their ‘tone of bitchy, scornful, sophisticated English superiority, decked out with French phrases and trenchant literary allusions’. Writing to Malcolm with fearful candour, Stevenson describes her own checkered history of alcoholism, despair and marital turmoil, down to leaving her children and husband to go off with another poet. To Malcolm, who mercilessly reports all the nasty remarks others make about Stevenson's intellectual capacities and poetic abilities, this history reveals a typically Fifties tendency to endow men with the responsibility for one's own artistic fate. On a later visit to Stevenson's home. Malcolm finds ‘a touchingly eager hostess’, who seems younger and more animated than before. Yet her pleasant house is a confusing maze of little rooms; she messes up the lasagna she is cooking for dinner; and she still seems dependent on men to bail her out.

So after Sister Anne has suffered and Sister Sylvia has perished, Sister Janet takes her own trip to the dark tower. Her quest is punctuated with many moments of discovery and combat. On the anniversary of Plath's death, in February 1991, she has lunch with Olwyn Hughes in a restaurant in Camden Town. The city itself seems deserted: ‘London … had a hushed, emptied-out feeling. The Gulf War had begun a few weeks earlier; terrorism was feared, and travel had halted—my hotel was three-quarters empty.’ Olwyn is a fiercely loyal Cerberus at the entrance to the cave, who warns Malcolm of the ‘awful’ Jacqueline Rose and her forthcoming book, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath; but agrees to show Malcolm the house in which Plath committed suicide. Its very ordinariness brings powerfully to her mind ‘the tension between time and history’—time which heals, history which reopens the wound. Somewhere in the gap between the blankness of the house and its tragic story is the enigma of the Plath legend she has come to solve.

Once over the threshold, Malcolm begins an ‘arduous’ journey into England as she interviews Plath's friends and enemies. It is bitterly cold, as in the winter of 1963 when Plath died, and, as Al Alvarez wrote, ‘the trains froze on the tracks.’ Malcolm too sits for hours in an unheated train because the doors have frozen shut, and the behaviour of her fellow passengers strikes her as maddeningly English: they ‘sat docile and expressionless, incurious about their fate, in a kind of exaltation of uncomplaining discomfort’. In this annoyance she feels a kinship with Plath, in whose essay ‘Snow Blitz’ she finds ‘American impatience with English passivity and its attendant moral superiority’.

Fed up with the slow and ‘sickly trains’ (British Rail plays a major role in this quest), she decides to take a taxi from Cornwall to Milverton in Somerset to see Clarissa Roche. The taxi driver arrives with his wife and child in the back, and for the whole journey, the driver chats to Malcolm, sitting in front, and does not speak a word to his wife. After some futile efforts to bring her into the conversation, Malcolm desists. ‘I felt I was in the presence of a husband-and-wife relationship so archaic, so out of date, that it was almost like standing in front of some extraordinary old ruin. This was the real thing, this was sexism so pure and uninflected that it inspired a kind of awe.’ It is a very Stonehenge of sexism; and abruptly, she tells the driver to detour to Court Green, the house Ted Hughes shared with Plath before their separation, and now inhabits with his third wife. The juxtaposition inevitably stirs metaphoric echoes. On the surface, Malcolm proclaims her sympathy, indeed her ‘feeling of tenderness’ for Hughes, and her ‘shame at my complicity in the chase that has made his life a torment’. On another level, the taxi driver and his silent wife and child become accusing symbols of another story.

At the heart of the book, Malcolm comes face to face with Jacqueline Rose, whose critical book on Plath outraged the Hugheses. A brilliant literary critic, English rather than American, Rose is a formidable antagonist, and Malcolm braces herself for the encounter. Earlier she has told us how Plath had the habit of going to a park in Cambridge to cut a rose or two for her apartment with a pair of silver-plated scissors. Now Malcolm admits that she too is armed: ‘My narrative of Rose has an edge; my silver-plated scissors are ever at the ready to take snips at her.’ But Rose wins Malcolm's grudging admiration. She is impressed by Rose's ‘very handsome flat’ and says twice that Rose herself is ‘attractive’—a cool understatement, but a lot more than she grants most people who let her into their homes. (Wisely, Rose serves her only biscuits and tea. I would sooner cook for Michael Winner.) Having written famously before of the way most people babble like narcissistic fools in front of a reporter, she gives Rose ‘a score of 99’ in conducting oneself with a journalist.

After their meeting, guarded and wary on both sides, Malcolm writes Rose a letter which she does not mail, but prints in the book. In it she speculates about her feeling that they were fighting over ‘some central, unacceptable thing’. She wonders whether the charged, crackling intensity of their encounter involved ‘issues of secrets and forbidden knowledge, as well as of sibling rivalry (the image of two women fighting over something—over a man?)’ Are they somehow rivals for the ‘electrically attractive’ Ted Hughes? In my view, what is ‘unacceptable’ here is that they are actually fighting over a woman, over the seductive tension that reading Plath and identifying with her compels. The encounter is crucially placed, because it is Rose who has offered a sexually androgynous reading of Plath's ‘The Rabbit Catchers’, a reading Hughes finds utterly objectionable and outrageous. For him, Malcolm writes, and ‘perhaps for the whole pre-Freudian English nation’, bisexuality is unacceptable. Yet despite her own Freudian credentials, she does not look very deeply into this confrontation.

Malcolm's journey ends in September 1991 ‘at an ugly modernised station’ in Bedford where ‘a was sun appeared in the gray sky’. In ‘a small house on a silent street of narrow, rather bleak and pinched two-storey brick row houses, the most common form of English domestic architecture’, she meets Trevor Thomas, the last person to see Plath alive. He is a self-obsessed, blinkered eccentric, and his house is a bizarre junkheap, a set for The Caretaker. The house she takes ‘as a kind of monstrous allegory of truth’ and ‘a metaphor for the problem of writing’. How does one choose from the surfeit of material, the welter of details? Ultimately, the journalist, like the novelist, picks a card from the deck, but in the Plath game the room is ‘so dark and gloomy that one has a hard time seeing one's hand; one is apt to make mistakes.’

Malcolm calls her book The Silent Woman in reference to an anecdote she hears from Olwyn Hughes, about a quarrel which ended in Plath's mute glare. This Medusan speechlessness, Malcolm writes, ‘is the deadly, punishing weapon’. It is also a metaphor of suicide: Plath stopped the conversation for ever, and spoke only from beyond the grave with her blazing poems. In their stunning achievement, Malcolm writes, the books and poems are also ‘full of threatening silences … we stand before the Ariel poems as Olwyn stood before the stone-faced Sylvia. ‘But there are silent men in this story, as well as silent women. Malcolm never meets Ted Hughes, although she finds ‘a kind of Chekhovian large-heartedness and melancholy’ in his letters. He has remained silent about Plath out of choice, although he writes in frustration that his silence ‘seems to confirm every accusation and fantasy’. Plath's brother Warren has never spoken to biographers, or written his own memoir; and among Plath's lovers, Richard Sassoon has eluded all the biographers' nets. Such proud silences command our respect.

Yet the silent woman of the title recalls a famous inn sign of a headless woman holding a tray. Is this woman silent or silenced, threateningly mute or deliberately shut up? Are the messages she bears from the underworld still too terrible to hear? Plath's survivors, as Malcolm describes them, are silencers: Olwyn in particular, with her brutally direct letters to Stevenson and others, seems to be the hostile muse, ‘a personification of the force—sometimes called the resistance—that can keep the writer from writing. She is the voice that whispers in your ear and tells you to put down your pen before she knocks it out of your hand. In letter after letter she tells Anne the withering things that writers tell themselves as they try to write.’ Ted Hughes, according to Stevenson, has the authority to compel silence without ever demanding it.

But finally the silent woman in this book is Janet Malcolm herself. Both Olwyn and Ted Hughes have complained about the way literary critics and journalists have treated them like characters in fiction. ‘Of course they do,’ writes Malcolm. ‘The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism's uncontested privileges and the rendering of subjects as if they were characters in bad novels is one of its privileges.’ Cruel, perhaps; but bad novels are not the models she is aiming for. Come out from behind that mask, Ms Malcolm; there's still time.

David Bromwich (review date 6 June 1994)

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SOURCE: Bromwich, David. “The Bell Jar.” New Republic 210, no. 23 (6 June 1994): 34-8.

[In the following review of The Silent Woman, Bromwich compliments Malcolm's determination and journalistic prowess, but questions Malcolm's judgment to make herself an active character within the book.]

The jacket photo on Janet Malcolm's new book [The Silent Woman] shows the author standing relaxed, arms folded, three-quarters turned to the camera, her glasses pushed above her forehead. The pose seems to say: “I may not see you clearly yet, but wait.” Meanwhile, the look is direct and possibly sympathetic: it gives nothing at all away. You would know from this picture what you learn from Malcolm's writings, that she is an attentive listener, the sort who can lead people to blurt out more than they realize. Her published portraits honestly record the signals by which she gets that response. She does it in every journalist's way, by cues of geniality and shared experience. Often the cues are partial. Almost always, the subject talks on. Armed with this skill of tacit coaxing, Malcolm has survived in a bad time for journalism as one of the few living writers who practice the New Yorker profile in the grand manner. She has been able to carry the genre to the length it needs; and she possesses a further and a more unusual distinction. In America she is the only reporter who writes books on culture that show the mark of a participant and not a spectator.

Two methods have long been established for profile journalism. One was Lillian Ross's way: a tape recorder, notations of personal habits and surfaces, an immense process of selection and a story whose aim was to appear to narrate itself. In Picture, Ross's account of the making of John Huston's film The Red Badge of Courage, her method of oblique analysis and deflection produced a masterpiece. But quite another style emerged from the same magazine in the '30s: a style whose irony—the regulated hatred of the journalist for his subject—was plain from the first paragraph to the last. Of this subgenre, Wolcott Gibbs's profiles of Thomas E. Dewey and Alexander Woollcott are the masterpieces; the journalist, without ever saying “I,” made his presence unmistakable with every twist of syntax. Gibbs's subjects may never have met him, but they certainly knew what hit them.

Ross's style, which Malcolm has refined, is a more elusive thing: when it cuts somebody clean through, you are never sure quite how the deed was done. The process becomes more baffling when the author dwells on the privilege of the first-person singular. This, in fact, was Malcolm's advance on Ross: the reporter now frankly solicits attention to the materials of the workshop; she tells you how she got interested in the story, and confesses her bewilderments and anxieties. In the middle of things, you often find her awkwardly questioning herself; the awkwardness is left in, not without a sense of the rewards that belong to candor. Academic critics call this “thematizing subjectivity.” Editors call it putting yourself into the picture. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, Malcolm wrote as someone persuaded of the wisdom of the psychoanalytic profession, yet vulnerably uncertain of her confidence in the bearers of that wisdom. Since then, she has kept looking for examples of the wise and the good, or rather the wise from whom, in spite of their all-too-human faults, we may hope to learn about the good. Apart from psychoanalysts, her main candidates have appeared to be artists, but The Silent Woman is her first attempt to explain why anyone might associate art with wisdom, and the vulgarization of art with the evasion of wisdom.

A journalist, as Malcolm points out, is oddly situated for this task. Her business is to inquire and expose, whereas the way of wisdom is reticence. Whatever her motives for creating this antithesis, Malcolm does consistently press it upon her readers. (Her wise men never talk, or are imagined as never talking, in a loud voice.) Still, in dealing with certain stories a journalist's worldly wisdom may be necessary. Consider the case of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The literary estate of a woman who wrote some good poems, and then some startling poems about suicide and then committed suicide, is presided over by another poet who happens to have been the husband of the first. The second poet is set upon, his probity challenged, his character assailed, his privacy besieged by a horde of culture-gossips. These gossips strongly resemble journalists, but they call themselves biographers. Where shall the surviving poet find an advocate? Where if not in a journalist who understands the spectacle as soon as she sees it? She understands because she could have been one of the gossips. That, in a brief abstract, is the plot of The Silent Woman: a parable of one of the inquisitive who came to sympathize with one of the reticent.

I had better, at this point, confess an interest, which really amounts to a failure of interest. Plath matters to me less than she does to the host of biographers surveyed here. Nor was I ever sure in reading the book how far Malcolm had remained an ironist and how far she herself had become a casualty of the Biographer's Transference: the process by which the pathos of an artist's life, by study and gradual immersion, is made the source of an irresistible appeal on behalf of the artist's work. Plath may typify her generation, as Malcolm once or twice suggests—their illusions, their feelings about America, England, marriage, culture—but to that extent she is representative in a kitsch sense. A lot of what she speaks for is the power of cliché, the illusions that bind a generation in one shock of nonrecognition.

Her poetry has not quite the distinction Malcolm claims for it, limited though that claim is to the later poetry. Even in Ariel, there is an imposing element of sheer costume, of period-drapery of the emotions. The costume is more severe, the effects doubtless more spine-tingling, than had been the case in her earlier work. But who, in the absence of the Plath legend, would agree that the following lines have much interest as poetry?

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

The cuts of the free-verse line are neatly done and there is a dried-out intimacy in the diction. The phrase “like everything else” is false, but it gets by. Where else can you find writing like this? In the '60s, in songs:

She was a day tripper,
One way ticket, yeah.
It took me so long to find
And I found out.

Even cold on the page, I think I prefer Lennon. This sort of writing needs an English voice and in the last months of her life Plath had acquired it.

One of the best criticisms of Plath was written by Elizabeth Hardwick, and it openly addressed the puzzle about voice. Having listened to early and late recordings of the poet reading from her work, Hardwick reported a surprise at the contrast; the young Plath had been ordinary, correct, palpably young and American and rehearsed, but in the later reading

these bitter poems—“Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “The Applicant,” “Fever 103°”—were “beautifully” read, projected in full-throated, plump, diction-perfect, Englishy, mesmerizing cadences, all round and rapid, and paced and spaced. Poor recessive Massachusetts had been erased. “I have done it again!” Clearly, perfectly, staring you down. She seemed to be standing at a banquet like Timon, crying, “Uncover, dogs, and lap!”

The poetry had become a voice with a worldview. Of its kind and of its time, it was as proficient as Byron's (“Fever 103°” is as “beautiful” as Manfred), but the life you have to know to explain it is at once more posed and less interesting. We are speaking in any case—regarding a large part of Byron's work and a larger of Plath's—of poetry that does not survive without a good deal of help from the life.

Two extra-aesthetic apologies have been offered for the poetry: the age-of-atrocity defense and the feminist defense. Regarding the latter, Malcolm is wholly skeptical. She does not care for the ease with which Plath has been made to appear the victim of men, the victim, above all, of her husband, Ted Hughes. Far more credence is given here to the idea of Plath as victim of the age. The poet's own attempts to link her suffering to historical catastrophes—in a poem like “Daddy,” for example, where she is the Jew sent to Dachau and her father the Nazi commandant—are not uniquely crass unless one recruits them to some such dubious entity as “the Literature of the Holocaust”: an appropriation that cannot be blamed on Plath. And yet, simply as poetry, “Daddy” has the same flaw as many of her later poems. In reaction against the opacity of personal pain, the poet associates herself with the public weight of a collective pain. The result is comprehension of neither. But here is Malcolm on Plath as exemplary victim:

Imaginative literature is produced under the pressure of an inner interrogation like Lanzmann's. Poets and novelists and playwrights make themselves, against terrible resistances, give over what the rest of us keep safely locked within our hearts. … To say that Plath did not earn her right to invoke the names of Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen is off the mark. It is we who stand accused, who fall short, who have not accepted the wager of imagining the unimaginable, of cracking Plath's code of atrocity.

I certainly have not cracked the code of the last sentence, though I hear in it echoes of A. Alvarez and George Steiner. What code does finally link the young woman who killed herself with people killed against their will a generation before? The second sentence above implies that the decoding to be performed is psychoanalytic: artists are brave in unlocking secrets of the heart that the rest of us keep under repression. Is the secret then the wish to die?

Whatever one makes of the passage, it seems to me to rest on a wrong understanding of the purposes of art. A work of art does not say: “These agonies are the essence of contemporary reality.” It does not make us want to say or do anything practical, not even to subscribe to a vision of our generation. On the other hand, a faculty for observing freshly does matter in art, and Plath's poems are imitative to an extent unrealized by her admirers. From Lowell she got a middle style, unconceited and close to prose, for putting into poetry a self both matter-of-fact and glamorous—lurid in some of the data it most casually delivers, and grandly unimpressed by its own excess. Roethke was almost as important an influence—for the texture of her naturalistic details, the animistic jolts of pleasure and pain with which she absorbed bits of the landscape and personified its creatures. The animal poems by Hughes that went into his book Lupercal, written during his first years with Plath, were a model for the dry decisiveness of tone she came to favor. Her last poems are resonant, they have a finality of eloquence available at command and they include some of the best-written poetry of the time. But in any imaginative sense, it would be missing the point to call them inventive.

Maybe Malcolm was trapped, by her decision to write this book at all, into the sort of assertion she makes for Plath as a keeper of the “code of atrocity.” Her sense of Plath, of Hughes, of marriage, of many things, cuts her off from sympathy with the feminist story, and yet if some story about the poetry itself did not emerge triumphant, Plath's life in art would turn out to be mainly about the construction of a legend—by biographers, moralists, critics and a husband. Indeed, in spite of the book's appeal for aesthetic justification, Malcolm ends up proving how far Plath was a legend the age demanded and got. The biographers nailed Hughes as the killer and nailed him again as the stinting executor. With every gothic and romantic touch they added to the life, Hughes dwindled while Plath grew larger and stronger and also, curiously, more pathetic. The exception among the biographers is Anne Stevenson; but she was “authorized,” and came to regret her authorization. Every idea she ventured was subject to curatorial probings, and the life she published bore little resemblance to the life she had imagined.

Malcolm seems happiest in this book when writing about Olwyn Hughes, sister and protector of Ted and literary agent for the Plath estate. Olwyn is a sublime monster, “a monster without being a myth,” as was said of Lady Bracknell; she comes out swinging against all comers, suggesting cuts, refusing permissions, resolute in her execution of Hughes-o-centric doctrine on the Life and the Marriage. Olwyn Hughes rebuffs even Malcolm, in style, when an unpleasant piece of suburban castle-combing is gently proposed by the journalist:

“Sylvia died this month,” I said to Olwyn in the Indian restaurant. “On which day was it?”

“It happens to be today,” she said. “I realized it yesterday, when I was dating a letter to you. It's strange.”

“The house on Fitzroy Road where she died is near here, isn't it?” I said. “After lunch, would you walk over there with me?”

“Darling, I don't think I want to do that,” Olwyn said. She lit a cigarette.

There is more in the same vein, and though Olwyn Hughes will not be writing a biography, one would pay a small price for a selection of her letters to the biographers.

With its quest for the personalia of a legend and its portrait of the narrator as detective and voyeur, The Silent Woman, as Malcolm herself observes, partly recalls Henry James's Aspern Papers, the story of a careful listener who is eventually exposed as a “publishing scoundrel.” She omits to mention a nearer Jamesian prototype, “The Birthplace,” which tells of an appointed guide in Stratford-upon-Avon who nurses a vicarious tenderness toward the dubious relics in his keeping. This hero comes to resent the touring public, much as Malcolm resents the reading public the biographers feed: “there was somebody. … But They've killed Him. And, dead as He is, They keep it up, They do it over again. They kill him every day.” If her book's atmosphere stays closer anyway to Trollope than to James, the reason may be that her interest in detection seldom passes from the particular to the general. She is rightly admired for deftness in seeing through pretentions, in proving people to be far from that which they suppose themselves. She is less interested in seeing through status. Whether someone got where he did by fair means or by foul matters a great deal. That he should have got there matters more.

More than most journalists, Malcolm needs a hero; she will take the part if necessary, but prefers to cast someone else—where possible, someone of strong ethical or aesthetic presence to serve as a foil to the pack of the corrupt, the vulgar, the venal and the glib. The Silent Woman finds its hero in Ted Hughes. There can be no doubt that his refusal to grant an interview added to the respect that Malcolm felt for him. But many readers will know him from other contexts. He wrote, in Gaudete, poems of exorbitant externalized violence. That phase came long after the death of Plath, but the pressure toward it was visible in his early work. It is difficult to suppress such knowledge, regarding a gifted artist and a complex man, and difficult to know what to do with the knowledge. Is there a connection worth analyzing between this poet and the poet he married, who wrote about violence against the self and put that violence into practice? Malcolm's solution—to say nothing at all—is honorable but not satisfying. “The facts of imaginative literature,” she believes, “are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist's and the playwright's and the poet's word.” An excellent thing, most critics would reply, if we could be sure what the novelist's or playwright's or poet's word is. But Malcolm is sure. What then is Ted Hughes's word?

By staying behind the scenes, by not participating in the journalist's game, by his repeated opting out of the longer and uglier game of the biographers, Hughes won Malcolm's admiration. She credits him with “a kind of Chekhovian largeheartedness and melancholy”; his letters to the intrusive scholars, defending his privacy and his memories and the lives of his surviving family, move her as they move us. In a well-plotted moment she subjects her sympathy with him to a tentative scrutiny. She has been driven to his house, where she now stands outside looking in, with a feeling of reverence and conscious trespass:

I saw something that suggested the Hugheses were not away, that my intrusion might not be going unmarked. Hanging from one of the trees on the front lawn was a fully stocked bird feeder, around which English robins and sparrows were swarming. I felt a return of my feeling of tenderness toward Hughes—I felt his reality, his aliveness, his stuckness and I felt shame at my complicity in the chase that has made his life a torment; I had now joined the pack of his pursuers. But I continued my inspection of the house.

Hughes was possibly indoors writing a poem about English robins and sparrows being eaten alive by a hawk. But let us look a little further into the tenderness of Malcolm, which comes out elsewhere in a passing touch.

Describing the woman for whom Hughes deserted Plath, and whom he lived with for some time after—who, like Plath, killed herself (taking their child with her)—Malcolm searches for an appropriate emotion of response. She elects to narrate the incident indirectly, as recounted to her by Anne Stevenson:

Anne then told the horrifying story of Assia Wevill's death. Wevill was the preternaturally beautiful and sexually magnetic woman who precipitated the Plath-Hughes breakup. In 1967 she had a child by Hughes, a girl named Shura, and, in 1969, in a bizarre gesture of imitation, she, too, gassed herself—adding the new twist of gassing the little girl as well. Hughes's sufferings may be (or, rather, can hardly be) imagined.

The italics are mine but italics do not seem enough. An effort, at least, to imagine the sufferings of Assia Wevill would have a place among the sympathies of a different kind of reporter. The phrase “adding the new twist” is odd—as if Wevill's killing herself (unlike Plath's) were an artistic contrivance; as if the solemnly imposing idea that “Death's an art” were fated to be merely “bizarre” the second time around. One can appreciate Malcolm's refusal of the opportunity for gloating. At the same time one may be stunned by the way the repetition gives not a moment's pause to her emerging portrait of the largehearted, the melancholy, the Chekhovian Ted Hughes. On the contrary, the second suicide adds to his stature.

Hughes is not and never was Chekhovian. He is, if we need a word, a Gnostic vitalist—a believer in the hidden god of the self, whose potency is directed explosively against the God of creation. In person, when Plath knew him, he seems to have had some of the traits of a guru—attractive especially to women, and an unlucky choice for them. Friends right up to the present remark on his tendency to tell people Please to do something: it is not recorded that anyone who stayed close to him ever failed to do the thing he asked. Somehow Malcolm has misread his strengths as nothing but a decent insistence on personal sincerity. Yet the opposing evidence stares at her in some of the letters she quotes, and in his introduction to Plath's journals, which she discusses in her opening pages. He is always talking of the “real self”—of how, for example, in Plath's final months he could see quite suddenly that “the self I had married, after all … her real self, being the real poet, would now speak for itself.” Watch out for the person who knows exactly who and what your real self is. In a letter to A. Alvarez, where Hughes understandably reproaches this old friend for publishing a confessional account of Plath's last days, he launches again into the deeper-than-friendship dogma about the self: “It's only by seeing how the U.S.-ethos journalist in you rationalized you out of your real heart and your real imagination that I can understand how that piece came to appear, and how what began by being written in a sacred way by one part of you” and so on. In a sacred way, your real heart, your real self, your real imagination: Hughes has the wisdom-voice of a psychoanalyst, and that makes Malcolm doubly trust him.

Yet this way of talking is full of paradox for a consideration of Plath's fame. Hughes's defense of his privacy keeps coming back to the ideas about their mother with which the Hughes-Plath children will now be forced to live. But it is possible to exaggerate that burden: at some point, as anyone eve on the punishing end of public idiocy has found, the pain stops because it has to. Besides, there is a question whether anything more shocking than Plath's last poems could possibly await the discovery of her children—poems that Hughes encouraged and continues to celebrate. It was the publication of her “real self” that gave a high resting place to her contemporary reputation. She disclosed the sort of sacred horrors others may have harbored but kept concealed. The association of the horrors with her personal life gave the poetry its attractive-repulsive charge.

Malcolm cares for Hughes most of all because he guards his privacy. Her sympathy for the best-behaved of Plath scholars, Anne Stevenson, makes as much sense as her residual tenderness for Hughes. Her causerie against the invasive biographers may have seemed the necessary other side of her charity. After all, these people have put themselves in the wrong by making literary killings from the real selves of others. But what range of tactics does that justify Malcolm in using against them? In the last chapter of her book a power of blame reserved until then is allowed its full swing. The effect is most pronounced in her dealings with the latest and cleverest of the biographers, Jacqueline Rose.

Rose's book, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, came out at the time Malcolm was conducting her interviews. Its orientation is feminist, psychoanalytic (on different lines from Malcolm's own), theoretical to the last degree and anti-Hughes (both Olwyn and Ted). It was well-aimed at an academic audience, but written with great fluency, and it enjoyed an immediate success. Malcolm decided to interview Rose and found her, though “an adept of a theory of criticism whose highest values are uncertainty, anxiety and ambiguity,” a person “surrounded by a kind of nimbus of self-possession.” As they talked, Malcolm reports, both were conscious of a rivalry that goes unspoken in most such encounters; in this one it almost reached articulation and did in a way emerge allegorically. Having permitted Malcolm to read a letter by Hughes, the rival biographer regretted having done so: “I think this is an awkward area, ethically.”

There is a comedy here that Malcolm could have made more of. Rose had pilloried Hughes for narrowing the entire achievement of Plath to the high-art poetry of Ariel. Hughes commented in the letter: “Miss Rose thought she was writing a book about a writer dead thirty years and seems to have overlooked, as I say, the plain fact that she has ended up writing a book largely about me.” Rose had author's-interest reasons for not wanting this unpublished sentence to see the light, as Malcolm, with her different thesis, had author's-interest reasons for pressing the same sentence into public view. In retrospect this hesitation between a biographer and a journalist draws from Malcolm an extraordinary effusion—an “unsent letter” to Rose in which her implicit criticisms of the book, for its uneasy mingling of public and private realms, actual and imaginary events, published and unpublished writings, are all made to revolve around Rose's remark about the “awkward area.” The short way of saying what Malcolm's unsent letter says at length is that “post-structuralism”—or whatever generic name you give the approach to poetry and life that asserts experience to have no special relation to the experiencer—is an ideology that cannot be lived. When, says Malcolm to Rose, you spoke up suddenly for modesty and privacy, you showed that you live by a more conventional but a better standard than you espouse in writing.

But here is where the brew gets rich. The accusing “unsent letter” is not only printed in Malcolm's book, when in life it was neither spoken nor sent. It is also allowed to precede the journalistic account of the interview with Rose and thereby to skew the reader's sense of the encounter. The letter is followed by a nervous meditation on the “genre” of unsent letters, a genre that

might reward study. We have all contributed to it. … We are, in effect, saying that our idea is too precious to be entrusted to the gaze of the actual addressee, who may not grasp its worth, so we “send” it to his equivalent in fantasy, on whom we can absolutely count for an understanding and appreciative reading.

“We” and “we all” are acts of inclusion that invite the reader to stand with the author in a new kind of awkward area. I see why she wants company, but am not sure I can join her. I do not recognize my own unsent letters in Malcolm's account of the reasons for writing them. Usually I did it because I was feeling angry and self-righteous.

Even granting the artistic license for which Malcolm asks, the fact remains that she is working with the name and the circumstantial details of an actual person and an actual life. How do her liberties differ from those of the biographers? The unsent letter is not, quite, a violation of privacy. It is, in a way hard to define, a trespass against manners—the more so when placed at the climax of a book whose burden is the tension between the dignity of personal life and the savage publicity that surrounds some lives. At the crucial point, this argument is braced by a piece of moral one-upmanship that plays with a stacked deck.

I read The Silent Woman twice, and found it did not diminish on acquaintance. The details are nicely charged. And yet, because Malcolm does possess the intelligence of a novelist, one wonders at the delicacy with which she has poised herself in the stance of both a reliable and an unreliable narrator. It can be hard on a story when the author becomes one of her own characters. It is twice as hard when she is a character about whom we cannot make up our minds.

The Silent Woman closes with a visit to the flat of Trevor Thomas, Plath's neighbor when she committed suicide and perhaps the last person to see her alive. He lives now in a “magisterial mess” and talks without hesitation of the past. Compulsive, self-absorbed, a particular admirer of The Bell Jar (“I like novels. I like memoirs. Best of all, I like biographies”), he is as much an enigma as Plath, and Malcolm makes his dwelling a symbol of “the disorderly actuality that is a life.” On the way back on the train she reads the Who's Who entry on Thomas that he has given her—an entry that “was long, and listed many jobs in museums and universities, several of only a year's duration, and cited three publications in museum journals.” Why are the data so important? One thing they may be telling her is: stand back. That, too, is something the novelists teach. Ultimately it is no use putting yourself into the picture. You will be in it in any case, in ways you hardly dreamed of.

Bernard Crick (review date 7 October 1994)

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SOURCE: Crick, Bernard. “No End of Blame.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 323 (7 October 1994): 38-9.

[In the following review, Crick wholeheartedly endorses The Silent Woman as an insightful study of the genre of biography and the influences and preconceptions that appear in any biographer's writing.]

I often meditate on the art of blurbs as well as on the art of biography. Learned libraries, unlike public libraries, do us no service to discard the jacket as if not part of “the text” or semiotic package.

This book's [The Silent Woman] blurb is not just a good blurb but one which this reviewer, having read the book three times (first in the New Yorker, then the American edition, now in an almost identical English edition), can for once wholeheartedly endorse. It describes “a brilliant, elegantly reasoned meditation on the art of biography, in which [Janet Malcolm] takes as her example the various biographies of the poet Sylvia Plath … It is not a book about the life of Sylvia Plath, but about her afterlife: how her reputation was forged from the poems she wrote just before her suicide, how her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, as executor of her estate, tries to serve two masters—Plath's art and his own need for privacy.”

Surprisingly, for a book of this importance, the English blurb and jacket-copy are identical and American. I suspect that the author's hand lies heavily on the publishers (good for her), because she must walk through the myths and minefields (legal, moral, aesthetic and psychological) of the turbulent Plath-Hughes territory. Tough cookie though she seems, she must walk like a cat on eggs.

Her The Journalist and the Murderer was a deeply thoughtful exposure of the moral problems of in-depth journalism. But now her own technique of re-interviewing the witnesses of causes célèbres has led to a prolonged libel suit. Did she conflate and touch up, with intent to damage, the interviews for her subsequent The Purloined Clinic? New York, as they say, buzzes with it. And sides have been taken, not always because of the merits of the complex case, but often because of anger that The Silent Woman does not give unqualified support to a local view of Sylvia Plath as a feminist martyr driven to suicide by a cruel Englishman.

This present book contains some of the best thinking I know on both the practical and the philosophical problems of biography, despite Malcolm's grating habit of marking witnesses up or down by irrelevant if often funny details about their dress, furniture or cooking. The main balance of her judgments is admirable, however—even awesome, if one considers “all that background noise”. It's no mean feat to get the five biographers and other witnesses to agree to be interviewed, as well as Olywn Hughes, for so many years her brother's gatekeeper and literary agent for the Plath estate. And Malcolm got permission to quote directly from these interviews, from angry and harrowing letters of Ted Hughes, and from unpublished parts of Plath's journals.

On practical matters, only once does she mention using a tape recorder, though she honestly admits how over-relaxed and incautious people can be in their own homes. She notes that all biography is inherently “transgressive” and “voyeuristic”; but I myself found tapes rarely necessary. They could inhibit private persons and make public figures play up to the mike. Perhaps Malcolm is too keen on verbatim quotes. That is New Yorker style. It gives a fine sense of character, but is not particularly relevant to what I think of as biography: an account of how someone led their life, not necessarily how they present themselves in print or interview. This is the old conflict of authenticity versus truth, reflecting the liberal world-view that everything follows from personality.

So we have “brilliant” portraits or character studies of the Plath biographers and of the pained, clumsy and impulsive gate-keeper. Philosophically, we have acute meditations on bias and motivation together with telling demonstrations of biases. But Plath and Ted Hughes, of course, remain out of range. Plath because she is dead “and has never grown old”, and Ted Hughes because he defends his privacy and will not obey the pert summonses of any biographer, including the meta-biographer Malcolm.

Here only would I apply her own scepticism to her blurb, which claims that “a portrait of Sylvia Plath emerges that gives us a sense of ‘knowing’ this tragic poet in a way we have never known her before”. That is debatable. For Malcolm can only leave many episodes of the life uncharted and, when charted, still enigmatic. She could do a trustworthy full life, but only with Ted Hughes' permission. So, probably, it won't be done in his lifetime. His right to privacy and to his own life must contradict the high-minded right to know, the arrogant demands of academic workshops and sheer vulgar curiosity. This seems to me wholly inescapable.

Our primary concern must be her poems (and his). But it is also reasonable for myths and speculations to be put to rest one day. If he did now authorise a biography, suspicions would attach. Think of poor Anne Stevenson. Olwyn offered her full co-operation and then, when she didn't like the early drafts, bullied and harried her into awful compromises (even if the book is still easily the best of the bunch). Ted Hughes or “the estate” should not (but legally can) destroy any more of the evidence. By destroying the last manuscript volume of her journals, then publishing much of the rest, he got the worst of both worlds.

Malcolm says that her readers will notice that she has taken sides, that of the Hugheses and Anne Stevenson. At times they might find that hard to notice. She is really taking issue with “the pack of Ted Hughes' tormentors and pursuers”, not endorsing all the Hugheses' actions and their “clumsy fierceness” in trying to prevent publications.

When marriages break up with rage and violent recrimination, we all should know how useless it is to take sides rather than offer support if asked. When suicides follow, we can hiss “X drove Y to it” or “that crazy person got their revenge for ever” or speculate that the timing or the dose for another suicide attempt went wrong. We are all totally free to attribute motives to the dead, and often far too free to do so to the living.

To put so much stress on the personalities of the biographers does imply a kind of reductionism, given the terrible event that Plath's great poems were her last poems. If we had all the facts of a writer's life, we would understand how they were written. It's the old argument. But even with honest Orwell (a writer playing on an image); even with tortured Plath, deserted and in deep depression (but a poet using her pain), there is an irreducible gap between imagination and biography. Think of Ezra Pound. Because he was a fascist we should not deny he was a poet; but because he was a poet we should not deny he was a fascist.

In this narrative of Chinese boxes, the reviewer himself pops up. Now he ungratefully reacts by noting the over-psychologising so common both in New York intellectuals and in the New Yorker itself. Malcolm says that I was a “model of biographical rectitude” to insist on an absolute and prior waiver of copyright from Sonia Orwell, but that this insistence was because “he first had to ritually bring Orwell's widow to her knees”. In fact, I was scared stiff of her. To demand such a contract was simply prudence.

However, this book is a provocative work that will dispel forever the innocence with which most of us have approached the reading of any biography. It will be talked about for years to come. Those last two sentences should be in quotes. I agree with the blurb almost unreservedly—and with only a teasing irony. For Malcolm herself shrewdly guards her flank by casting doubt (unnecessarily) on the legitimacy of her own brave enterprise.

Anne Chisholm (review date 12 November 1994)

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SOURCE: Chisholm, Anne. “People Say the Life Is the Thing.” Spectator 273, no. 8679 (12 November 1994): 41-2.

[In the following review, Chisholm judges The Silent Woman as engaging but finds that the book sheds little new light on the Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes relationship or on the art of biography itself.]

In 1989, Janet Malcolm, a New Yorker journalist, read Bitter Fame, a biography of Sylvia Plath, the American poet who committed suicide in 1963, by another American poet, Anne Stevenson. The book, Malcolm tells us, gave a focus to the unease she had felt while reading other biographies; and she was also intrigued because she recalled Anne Stevenson from college as an enviable, romantic literary figure. Predictably, Bitter Fame stirred up trouble, which was not hard to do given the hostility between Plath's supporters and those who wished to protect the man who had been married to her, Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate. Impelled by a mixture of personal and professional curiosity and no doubt the smell of a good story, Malcolm embarked upon an extended piece of reporting that emerged as a highly critical essay on the state of contemporary biography in general and the exceptionally fraught Plath biography saga in particular. First published by the New Yorker in the summer of 1993 and shortly afterwards as a book in America [The Silent Woman], it comes out here after some delay and with a dramatic new afterword.

Malcolm is a smart cookie and she has invented a hybrid form—a mixture of critical reflection, gossip and reporting—that suits her very well. Hitherto, she has taken on the Freud legacy (In the Freud Archives, 1984) and cast her cold eye on a reporter treating a sensational subject (The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990). Contemporary biography makes an excellent target for her, and she clearly enjoys puncturing what she sees as the smug pretensions of the genre:

The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.

Her aim, it appears, is to expose the tangle of wires behind the façade.

As she sets off on her safari into the swampy territory of Plath studies, Malcolm has various advantages. She has, for a start, the maps and trophies brought back by her predecessors—the results of the dull years of research she affects to despise. Of course her book is nothing so plodding as a biography, but it contrives to repeat the most painful details of the Plath-Hughes marriage anyway; Malcolm's approach enables her to deal only with the really dramatic moments, free from the dreary tasks that biographers undertake of providing context and weighing evidence. She is armed, too, with a remarkable sense of her own moral and intellectual superiority. She tries to conceal this trait by sprinkling slighting references to journalism through her book, and implying from time to time that biographers and journalists use a few of the same tricks, but her essential confidence in her own discriminating intelligence and moral judgment shows through.

It appears most clearly in the way she describes the people she goes to talk to during her researches. The book is artfully constructed; she alternates passages of reflection and analysis with sections from her reporter's notebook, describing for instance how she takes trains (she doesn't think much of our rail service) to travel to interviews. None of her subjects comes off too well. Anne Stevenson ‘seemed unnecessarily drab’ and forgot to put the white sauce in the lasagna. Al Alvarez was older than she expected, and though she appreciated his warmth and wit she shows him being indiscreet about the sexuality of Hughes and Plath. Jacqueline Rose kept cool, and is credited with ‘a nimbus of self-possession’; she, perhaps, had some sense of what Malcolm was up to. The formidable Olwyn Hughes was also a match for Malcolm, whom she preferred to meet in half-empty restaurants in Camden Town; she is portrayed as obsessive and a bit dotty, but still powerful. The rest, who were unwise enough to allow Malcolm to visit them at home and usually provided lunch, emerge as a motley bunch of shabby, unreliable eccentrics. Biography may have added a new terror to death, but a visit from Malcolm must now be top of the terror list for survivors.

It is in her attitude to the battered, dignified, long-suffering Ted Hughes that Janet Malcolm gives herself away. He declined to see her, as he usually does; he is credited early in the text with ‘helpless honesty (which an unsympathetic reader could mistake for evasiveness). …’ Further on, Malcolm's scrutiny of Sylvia Plath's mother's correspondence leads her to jump to a conclusion extremely damaging to Hughes: he allowed the re-publication of Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, against her mother's wishes, in order to raise the money to buy a house. With this discovery, Malcolm alters the perception of Hughes in her reader's mind, and not for the better. It now transpires from the ‘note’ tacked onto the end of the British edition that she made a mistake. She tries to defuse the bomb by implying that such are the pitfalls of biographical detective work, but a bomb it remains and it should really blow Janet Malcolm's already wobbly reputation for scrupulous handling of her material out of the water. It probably won't; she has been embroiled in a court case with Jeffrey Mason over alleged misuse of quotation for nine years, during which she has written this book.

The Silent Woman is stylish, always subtly intelligent and stimulating to read, but in the end it says little really new or original about the difficulties of writing honest biography or, for that matter, journalism. Practitioners of both bring to it what they are, and reveal themselves by the way they deal with and portray their subjects.

Rebecca Viney (review date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Viney, Rebecca. Review of The Silent Woman, by Janet Malcolm. Midwest Quarterly 36, no. 2 (winter 1995): 227-28.

[In the following review, Viney contends that The Silent Woman is intelligently written but maintains that Malcolm is one-sided in her adoration of Ted Hughes and less than sympathetic to other biographers who have had dissenting views.]

The Silent Woman, not a biography itself but a book about biographies, offers almost as much information about Sylvia Plath's life and death as a biography would offer. If “the biographer at work … is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house” (9), then Janet Malcolm at work is like a burglar breaking into another burglar's house.

Malcolm examines each of the five Plath biographer's methods to “bring back the goods” (10) on Plath, and each book's worthiness in general. Malcolm praises Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson (1989) as “the most intelligent and the only aesthetically satisfying” (10). However, Malcolm criticizes Stevenson for allowing Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, and his sister, Olwyn Hughes (Plath's literary executor) to strongly influence the final product. The Hugheses are the hostile tribe defending the territory the explorer, Anne Stevenson, must claim (11). Malcolm suggests that “Stevenson apparently had not subdued the natives but had been captured by them and subjected to God knows what tortures” (12).

Malcolm says that Linda Wagner-Martin's Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987) is “blandly unpretentious as a young girl's diary” (24) and that the preface is the most interesting part in which Wagner-Martin tells of her dealings with the Hugheses. Wagner-Martin refused to bend to the Hugheses' wishes to change her manuscript to reflect their point of view and was not given permission to quote Plath's writings at length. Ted Hughes evidently found Wagner-Martin less bland. In a letter to Wagner-Martin's British editor, Hughes says that only Wagner-Martin's insensitivity saved her from “the usual effects of undertaking this particular job” such as “mental breakdown, neurotic collapse, [and] domestic catastrophe” (40).

The other three biographies—Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976) by Edward Butscher; The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1991) by Ronald Hayman; and Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991) by Paul Alexander—bear the brunt of Malcolm's criticism. She calls Butscher's “a big brute of a book—shapeless, uneven, filled with maladroitly handled psychoanalytic language and presumptuous speculations about how people thought and felt” (165). Malcolm likens Hayman's book to “the sport of tearing off [Ted] Hughes's wings” by publishing “above-and-belowstairs gossip about [Hughes's] relations with Assia Wevill before and after Plath's death” (165). Finally, Malcolm declares her “profound dislike of Alexander's book—whose chief aim seems to see how outrageously it can slander Hughes and still somehow stay within the limits of libel law” (167).

Janet Malcolm's book is exhaustively researched and well-written. She can be forgiven for her overuse of simile, metaphor, and allusion but perhaps not for her obvious sympathies with the Hugheses. Malcolm claims that Plath, through quotations, breaks her long silence in Stevenson's Bitter Fame only to mock the biographic genre and to urge the reader to seek the truth in her [Plath's] work instead. One could make the same claim of Malcolm's work. Plath is still silent.

One weakness of the book is its lack of both table of contents and index, but it is a delight to read and will appeal to aficionados of biography and of Sylvia Plath.

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 6 April 1995)

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SOURCE: Dinnage, Rosemary. “Kicking the Myth Habit.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 6 (6 April 1995): 6-8.

[In the following review, Dinnage agrees with Malcolm that myths surrounding Sylvia Plath's life and career have overshadowed actual history. Dinnage judges The Silent Woman as offering a truly unique perspective as a chronicle of the lives of those affected by Plath's suicide.]

Why the “silent woman”? Among the vast number of words generated by the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (which [in The Silent Woman] are hereby being added to) is an account of a scene in Yorkshire in 1960. Olwyn Hughes, sister of Plath's English husband, Ted Hughes, and a crucial figure in the wretched cause célèbre that the girl's death became, called her brother's wife badly behaved, inconsiderate, and rude—the kind of sisterly-in-law remark that can crop up in family gatherings. Sylvia “glared accusingly [and] … kept up her unnerving stare. Olwyn, who immediately regretted she'd said a word, remembers thinking, ‘Why doesn't she say something?’” The glaring, silent woman, as described here by Olwyn Hughes to a biographer, is the Bad Sylvia; the Good Sylvia is the one described by another biographer as “a fragile, lovable creature, in danger of being crushed,” female victim of a cruel male world. And she is a silent woman also because, while everyone else argues and writes, she alone can't “say something”—has not been able to since 1963.

The Bad Sylvia and the Good Sylvia are figures of myth. English readers of Janet Malcolm's book may have seen a parallel with a now inescapable factor in English life, the long-running Royalty farce in English newspapers (Was he a cruel husband? Is she an angel? Can we get a picture of her in a bikini?). Figures who get involved in debased myth—the Royals, relatives of Plath and Hughes—know how it licenses cruelty. Hughes put the point bluntly in a letter:

They can caricature and remake S. P. in the image of their foolish fantasies, and get away with it—and assume, in their brainless way, that it's perfectly OK to give me the same treatment. Apparently forgetting that I'm still here, to check, and that I've no intention of feeding myself to their digestions and submitting myself to their reconstitution, if I can help it.

Religious myth used to be a valuable source of awe and excitement; but with mass-media myth having become an excuse for cruelty, an enjoyable holiday from political correctness, perhaps it is time we began to kick the myth habit.

Malcolm's book is partly about the sins that lead to harmful myth-making—spite, curiosity, laziness, untruth, self-promotion. Her account of the Plath controversies is not another “What Was She Really Like?” (though a picture of Plath, much as revealed by the writer herself in poems such as “In Plaster,” emerges) but is about the relation of biography to life, of fact to literature, of journalism to both. In our era of information overload, in academia just as much as in the gutter press, the book looks for honesty, and poses moral dilemmas: in particular, where criticism and biography should start to defer to personal vulnerabilities. We had an old chestnut of a dilemma to write about when I was at school: If the art gallery was on fire, should we save the masterpiece or the custodian? The Plath poems or the orphans?

As a journalist herself and also (she reveals at one point) someone who has been pursued by the press for writing controversially, Malcolm is prompted by the subject and all its implications to write with special force. This is her best book yet. In her studies of the psychoanalytic profession and its vagaries she was also concerned with truth and fantasy, but here, as both criminal and victim in the moral minefield of journalism, she is even more closely involved with her subject. What seems at first the expected smooth and professional piece of reportage expands and deepens as it goes along. People (a taxidriver) and things (a pile of dirty dishes) that cross her path as she goes about her interviewing are woven by her apparently effortless free-associative style into the argument, and provide metaphors for women's lives, writers' lives, anyone's lives. She takes the barber in Shoah, whom no one who saw that film could forget, as a metaphor for the writer: fighting against terrible resistance to report unbearable things. A file of faded press cuttings about the affaire Plath she sees as petrified poison, a “stalactite” of newspaper stories “that were originally written to satisfy our daily hunger for idle and impersonal Schadenfreude.”

She sees us all, press and public, as equally guilty of idle Schadenfreude. After interviewing friends of Plath's—somewhat tired and elderly now, like all of those involved—she comes away thinking:

What did I know about them? How inadequate and off the mark my account must be! The biographer commits the same offense when he proposes to solve the mystery that is a life with “data” no less meagre (when you consider the monstrous mass that accrues from the moment-by-moment events of life) and interpretations no less crass (when you consider what a fine-tuned, custom-made instrument human motivation is).

But the public's “inviolable right to be diverted,” she believes, always wins out, crushing anyone unfortunate enough to be in its way. Biography is

the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.

An opposing argument—that for our age biography takes the place of essays or sermons, that it can be a medium teaching us seriously interesting things about living—does not get a look-in.

So Malcolm rifles the drawers and gathers the loot, quoting fascinating journals and letters (some previously unpublished) and interviewing people involved in the Plath story—Olwyn Hughes herself (though not her brother, who has always refused publicity), A. Alvarez, who wrote an account of Plath's last period in The Savage God, the neighbor, Trevor Thomas, who was the last to see her alive. Her most extensive interviews are with the writer Anne Stevenson, who was unfortunate enough to be coerced into producing a biography of Plath which brought down on her head a storm of abuse from those who had made Plath a holy image. Malcolm explains her special interest in Stevenson: Plath, Stevenson, and she herself were roughly of the same generation, Stevenson like Plath had come from the US to live in England, Malcolm (playing the crab mouse, the better to burgle) had always been dazzled by Stevenson's panache. That panache, it is clear, was knocked out of her through her involvement in the Plath vortex.

Stevenson described to Janet Malcolm how Olwyn Hughes had taken her under her wing to organize a privileged, insider's biography, lining up interviews for her and offering personal (far from flattering) anecdotes about her sister-in-law. But when Stevenson began to put together her own, independent view of Plath, Olwyn Hughes became the collaborator from hell. Although Malcolm lets drop the remark that The Silent Woman takes the Hughes' side (she certainly does not side against Plath), she need do no more than quote from Olwyn Hughes's letters to Stevenson at this point.

I've often been surprised by your lack of grasp … I've also been disappointed … You have been to a degree resisting your material … almost totally ignored … brush from your mind various cobwebs … fits of antagonism toward me … lack of willingness to let me help you … God knows what version of events you have been telling … your lack of real interest … I've had to fight all the way. …

And so on, and on. Stevenson was reduced to writing that “four years of my life have disappeared in miserable wrangling. My eyesight, my digestion, my joie de vivre, the poems I might have written—all victims of your relentless persecution”; the book had to be issued with the health warning that Olwyn Hughes must be considered more or less co-author; and still Stevenson was bitterly attacked on publication. In fact the biography, Bitter Fame, is not especially derogatory. Plath was neurotic and sometimes difficult? Extraordinary! Other poets—Lowell, Bishop, Sexton—of course never were. Malcolm sees Stevenson's willingness to allow herself to be persecuted by such a collaborator as an emblem of the woman writer's difficulty in overriding criticism and believing in her own work.

Pursuing fact and falsity, honor and dishonor, Malcolm cites other biographers and their subjects. When Bernard Crick took on George Orwell's life he, as Malcolm puts it, “had to ritually bring Orwell's widow to her knees”: complete access to the papers, permission to quote whatever he liked, were the terms, as he wrote in an essay entitled “On the Difficulties of Writing Biography in General and of Orwell's in Particular.” When Sonia Orwell found that Crick in fact had his own, differing views on Orwell and the marriage, she tried to rescind the agreement but could not. Would it have been, as a book, better or worse if she had been able to?

Frances Spalding wrote a well-received biography of Vanessa Bell; but when Bell's daughter Angelica Garnett wrote of her childhood it sounded different and sadder. The desperate attempts of J. D. Salinger to defend himself against his biographer, Ian Hamilton, are well known. Because of Salinger's reclusiveness. Hamilton had planned the book in terms of “the quest for Salinger.” But in the end he amassed a good deal of material: and when the biography approached publication, Salinger sued for unauthorized use of his letters. The book had to be rewritten. There was, I remember, around the time of the lawsuit a press photograph of Salinger resisting the camera, in which he looked like a hunted animal.

Hamilton has been honest about how he felt when he got a letter of entreaty from the author:

Here was this letter, obliging me to face up to the presence of the man himself. He wanted to be left alone. … He had, it would appear, behaved with dignity and forbearance whenever some eager college student had turned up at his door. Didn't he have the same right to his privacy as you and I?

But then … There was a question of money to be earned, a job to be pursued.

Malcolm is strong on the mixed motives of biographers, and the pain of their subjects. She also has provocative things to say about the other side of the Plath coin, the passionate wave of identification with the dead girl and consequent persecution of the Hughes relatives. “We choose the dead because of our tie to them, our identification with them,” she says. “Their helplessness, passivity, vulnerability is our own.” She goes on, extraordinarily, to argue that Thanatos is a strong unadmitted force in our lives:

We all yearn toward the state of inanition, the condition of harmlessness, where we are perforce lovable and fragile. It is only by a great effort that we rouse ourselves to act, to fight, to struggle, to be heard above the wind, to crush flowers as we walk. To behave like live people. … Death always remains interesting, pulls us, draws us.

And she quotes a verse from Ted Hughes's poem about a dying lamb:

It was not
That he could not thrive, he was
With everything but the will—
That can be deformed, just like a
Death was more interesting to
Life could not get his attention.

This would surely have been understood by Sylvia Plath. Life did get her attention: in a cold English winter, heated by one of those little 1950s gas fires, she sewed red corduroy curtains for her family. But because she herself felt that there was a Bad Sylvia (the real) and a Good Sylvia (false) there seems a feverish quality to her vitality, which shows up most clearly in her dreadfully sprightly letters to Mom in the United States, published as Letters Home.

One of the strangest things quoted in The Silent Woman comes from Ted Hughes's foreword to Plath's journals, published in 1982:

Though I spent every day with her for six years, and was rarely separated from her for more than two or three hours at a time, I never saw her show her real self to anybody—except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.

Does he mean that she never even showed it to him? Or just to the outside world? Malcolm implies that the historical period is relevant to Plath's development: 1950s conformism whose icon was the all-American straight-A's college girl (though even then there were bobby-soxers fainting for Frank Sinatra). But the extent of Plath's self-division Malcolm ascribes to the warding-off of a blankness that always lurked dangerously near, and quotes a sentence from her letters: “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing.” The poems of those last three months, Malcolm says,

trace the short trajectory from being close to wanting nothing to wanting nothing. In the final poems, written in the terrible English winter of her death, Plath, like a feverish patient throwing off a blanket, sheds the ragged mantle of her rage and calmly waits for the cold of her desirelessness to achieve its deadly warmth.

Or, in more boring and clinical terms, she ceased to struggle against “existential depression by means of the various manic defenses offered by the romantic imagination.”

In some families—perhaps in Plath's—the whole modus vivendi consists of a false brightness covering over feelings that are dumped, wholesale and unknowingly, into the children. Who are baffled all their lives, and wonder what actually is real. In the time of Freud's case histories the term “real self” had not entered the vocabulary—it was clear that patients with bizarre hysterias needed to get back to a well personality. But since then, the sense that there is something precious in the person that is obscured by layers and layers of inauthenticity has been the preoccupation everywhere. Malcolm's argument that we all yearn for a simple, original, harmless condition means a wish for realness, as well as for the sweet, imaginary death-state. When she was in hospital after an operation Plath wrote:

I didn't want any flowers, I only
To lie with my hands turned up
          and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea
          how free—
The peacefulness is so big it dazes
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a
          few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on,
          finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a
          Communion tablet.

Malcolm calls it a hymn to the death wish. But, earlier, she has said that “in some secret way, Thanatos nourishes Eros as well as opposes it”: so she might agree that this is a simplification of the poem's meaning.

One way for biographers and critics to avoid sinking these shafts into someone's life and death is the deconstructionist mode, as set out in Malcolm's interview with Jacqueline Rose, author of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. For the austere logic of postmodernism, it doesn't matter what Plath was like, what Hughes is like, what really “happened.” There are just the documents, to be subjected to analysis. “I'm not ever interested in what happened between Plath and Hughes.” Rose tells Janet Malcolm. She “rejects the distinction between high and low art, good and bad writing, ‘true’ and ‘false’ selves,” as Malcolm says. But Malcolm clearly feels this stance is not really possible; it reminds her of “those prison scenes in historical movies where aristocrats and beggars, virtuous women and prostitutes, righteous men and thieves have all been thrown into one cell and are being treated by the guard with elaborate democratic sameness.”

Anne Stevenson, muddled and distressed where Rose is clinically competent, seems nearer the mark when she concludes that she can only be certain of finding “truth” in fiction, whether prose or poetry. As Malcolm says, when Henry James reports in The Golden Bowl that the Prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, it is so, with a certainty that biographers and journalists cannot achieve. All the same, she recoils from a smugness in Rose's standpoint. She reports how Rose's analysis of a lesbian content in one of Plath's poems evoked a frantic letter to the Times Literary Supplement from Ted Hughes, about the shocking effect this would have on Plath's children if they read it. People keep getting in the way of theory.

Malcolm closes with a tragi-comic interview with Trevor Thomas, the ground-floor neighbor who was the last to see Plath alive. Tragic because of the fact that when a distraught Plath knocked on his door some hours before her death, he didn't spot impending suicide. Comic because the now aged Thomas, a distinguished academic, is found, after a saga involving a vegetarian pizza, some Heinz salad cream, and a secondhand car, to be living in a house of indescribable squalor. Passageways are lined with sagging cardboard boxes, surfaces are crammed with things filmed by dust, clothes are piled on unmade beds, and every part of the kitchen is stacked with used objects. The house, for Malcolm, is the Aleph of her tale—an overblown allegory of truth, chaotic, random, uncataloguable. The writer or biographer has the sticky task of sifting through it to find what matters, what fits, what needs to be thrown out, and what needs to be kept. It is a hellish business, and in the end, she implies, perhaps an impossible one.

Wendy Kagan (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: Kagan, Wendy. Review of The Silent Woman, by Janet Malcolm. Chicago Review 41, no. 1 (1995): 92-6.

[In the following review, Kagan focuses on Malcolm's protective stance of Ted Hughes in The Silent Woman, and expresses disapproval of Malcolm's negative portrayal of journalists, biographers, and readers of biographies.]

The biographical approach to literature has an antique aura about it these days; certain circles condemn it as unfashionable. Ever since Foucault announced “the death of the author,” custodians of literary history and criticism have taken careful pains to separate the art from the life of the artist. But in the case of Sylvia Plath it would take an extraordinary muscle to pry these two entities apart; here the art and the life entwine to form one indivisible whole. A chain of biographical events—a troubled marriage, separation, and divorce; a feverish period of poetry writing; the suicide in 1963 (Plath was thirty); and the posthumous publication of Ariel two years later—lays the foundation for a grand mythologization of the poet, her life, and her work.

Plath's late poems speak in raw, emotive first-person (“I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets”),1 and many narrate plots of domestic deception (“My ribs show. What have I eaten? / Lies and smiles”).2 Some readers interpret the tragic heroine pose of Ariel as a “confessional” conduit for autobiographical exhibition. Yet, as if the poems do not reveal enough, biographers and critics extend and elaborate the poet's story. Not only is Plath's art a kind of cultural property, but her life is too; no less than five biographies line library shelves, alongside countless memoirs and semi-biographical critical essays. The narratives grow increasingly detailed as competing researchers dig through the past for tidbits that will embellish and enliven their narratives. We now have at our fingertips play-by-play accounts of Plath's discovery of the infidelity of her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes. Reams of published text describe the separation and the divorce, the trials of single motherhood, the bouts of depression coupled with bursts of manic intensity and artistic productivity. We even know the minute details of Plath's most intimate gesture, her suicide. We see the plate of bread and mugs of milk placed by her sleeping children's bedsides, their bedroom doors shut and sealed, the poet's head laid on the rack of an oven, the gas taps opened.

Among biographers and other legend-makers, two antithetical camps emerge: the champions of the poet, many of whom look to Plath's life as an allegory of feminist unrest and the transforming status of women in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the defenders of Ted Hughes, who maintain that the Plath myth demonizes the former husband, reduces him to the role of adulterous oppressor, and infringes upon his right to privacy. Until recently, the supporters of Plath have been far more vocal than the defenders of Hughes. Nevertheless, participants in the debate take opposing sides; hardly any straddles the barbed fence that separates the two groups. Plath scholarship has become a team sport; loyalties are fierce, and tensions run thick.

In The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm declares herself a contender. Through a fanciful metaphor, Malcolm describes the Plath biographical enterprise as a high-stakes card game: “Like all the other players at the table, I have felt anxious and oppressed by the game. It is being played in a room so dark and gloomy that one has a hard time seeing one's hand; one is apt to make mistakes. The windows are grimy and jammed shut. The old servant's hands shake as he brings watery drinks” (41-2). Throughout Silent Woman, Malcolm distributes these allegorical vignettes like gifts. Such rhetorical effects are integral to the project of her book; she intends to present the Plath myth as an analogue for the problems of biography as a genre. According to Malcolm, all biography hinges upon an obsession with intimate and sensational detail. All biography boils down to team rivalry. The Plath myth is a kind of case study. It showcases the symptoms of a classic literary malady.

As a “player” in the game, Malcolm must choose a position at the table, and she does so accordingly. She claims a space for herself among Ted Hughes's defenders. She sympathizes with Plath's former husband, comparing him to Prometheus, “whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged”; for years Hughes “has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers, and newspaper journalists” (8). Malcolm campaigns admirably for the media-weary Hughes, whose story, like Plath's, is one of victimization. In the public imagination (particularly in the minds of Plath's supporters), the poet remains “young and in a rage over Hughes's unfaithfulness” (7). Hughes stands condemned. But when Malcolm begins her book with a retelling of the marital separation, she includes an element that most biographers omit—forgiveness. Imagine that Plath had not died at the peak of her Medean fury. Over the years, she would have moved peacefully toward compassion and understanding. Doesn't Hughes deserve these healing balms?

With large-hearted prose, Malcolm softens the popular image of Plath's former husband. When others have demonized him, she humanizes him. In the grave, the heroine poet lies unscathed, but Hughes remains living and vulnerable to biographers' blows. Throughout the narrative, the author's voice remains protective and forgiving. Yet Malcolm's representation of the man is realistic, not idealistic. While she pardons Hughes for his reckless love life, she does not exonerate him on all counts. She questions his contradictory behavior as editor of Plath's posthumous publications, particularly her journals. Why does he omit certain intimate details yet include others? What are the motivations behind his editorial decisions? These queries never rise to the pitch of interrogation; they remain soft-spoken, gentle probings. After all, Malcolm declares herself an ally.

Although she comes down firmly on the side of Hughes, Malcolm resists an offensive stance against Plath. Her feelings toward the poet are ambivalent, not hostile. She tends to shrink from certain aspects of Plath's strong personality (stubbornness, impertinence, impetuosity), but she celebrates the poet's creative gifts. In fact, Malcolm gives “the silent woman” a voice in her book: she quotes liberally from Plath's poems, journals, and letters. While she acknowledges Plath's tendency to be “not nice,” she recognizes that this moody, intemperate passion contributes to the force of the poetry. Malcolm's subjects are not superhuman, nor are they subhuman; the foibles and faults of Plath and Hughes confirm their humanness.

Yet Silent Woman is not a biography. Rather, it is a work of meta-biography, a study of the genre. It is also a manifesto—a firm statement against traditional biography writing. Malcolm offers her vision of Plath and Hughes as a corrective, an antidote to certain slanderous volumes that masquerade as literary history. According to Malcolm, only one of the five previous biographies of Plath merits approval: Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, a fellow “player” on the Hughes defense. When it appeared in 1989, critics and Plathites slammed the book for its acidic bias against the poet. But Malcolm reads Stevenson's tone as ambivalent, not biased; clearly, she sympathizes with a sister writer whose sensibility mirrors her own. The story behind Bitter Fame fills a chapter in Silent Woman. Ultimately, Malcolm shields Stevenson under her protective wing, alongside Hughes.

Compassion for the casualties of biography and journalism extends from a veteran of similar battles. In a brief, almost incidental passage that does not appear until midway through the book, Malcolm alludes to the personal hardships that inspire her defenses of Hughes and Stevenson: “I, too, had been attacked in the press. I had been there—on the helpless side of the journalist-subject equation. Now my journalist's ‘objectivity’ was impaired” (70-1). The “attack” came in the wake of a recent, widely publicized lawsuit in which the charges brought against her challenged her own credibility as a writer. Jeffrey Masson, the subject of an article Malcolm wrote for The New Yorker in 1983, accused her of misquotation and misrepresentation. (A Federal jury ruled in Mr. Masson's favor but deadlocked over damages.) The muffled subtext of Silent Woman is, perhaps, the writer's own psychological journey through troubled, vulnerable times. While she investigates the ethical problems introduced by writing she also, with quiet indirection, combs through the tangle of her own internal conflicts.

When she inverts these moral standards and uses them for the purpose of her own self-exploration as a writer, one can only applaud her. Yet Malcolm goes too far when she imposes upon all other writers and readers her own fierce code of values. More often than not she exercises morality of a finger-pointing, gavel-grinding kind. She condemns the writers of biography as a corrupt species of voyeurs, gossip-mongerers, even burglars: “The biographer at work … is like the professional burglar, breaking into the house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away” (9). The more passionate her judiciary broadcasts became as I read them, the more I resented being made to feel as if I had committed some petty crime. For in Malcolm's eyes, both readers and writers are accomplices in the “voyeurism and busybodyism” of biography. Moralism can function as a rhetorical ruse; it takes verbal cunning to translate one's chosen viewpoint into ethical imperative. But I could only recoil from the neo-Victorianism of Malcolm's tone when she sermonized about the ill effects of gossip and rumor.

The suasive, oftentimes transgressive, power of gossip threatens Hughes and his team of defenders, but for Plath's admirers it sustains a huge and unshakable cultural myth. In theory, Malcolm considers herself a deconstructionist; she actively deconstructs the genre of biography when she maintains that there is not one irreducible “truth” about the life of a subject. But she does not recognize that gossip exemplifies her own philosophy. Gossip is deconstruction in motion; it is multivalent, spontaneous, and it defies the notion of authentic, originary authorship. From her moral pedestal, Malcolm regards gossip as a lower form of communication. It may prove useful, however, to investigate the power of gossip surrounding the Plath myth. How does rumor and scandal come to articulate social anxieties, hopes, and fears about the changing status of women in the latter half of the twentieth century? Why do the tenacious tales continue to proliferate? What cultural fantasies do they produce or reflect?

If Malcolm prefers moralizing to analyzing, she nevertheless produces penetrating insights about the creative process while she ponders the ethics of writing. She is at her best when she explores the agonies and pleasures of her own art; in these passages, she spins out eloquent, tapestry-like conceits. Her description of the cluttered home of Trevor Thomas (a professor who lived in the apartment beneath Plath's the winter of her death and who was, perhaps, the last person to see the poet alive) as “a metaphor for the problem of writing” arrives elegantly at epiphany: “Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with the confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart” (204). Throughout Silent Woman, Malcolm addresses a dilemma of writing which Plath herself at first struggled against and eventually used to her advantage: the inescapable subjectivity of the author. As she chronicles her encounters with various “players” of the Plath biographical enterprise, Malcolm demonstrates that writers of biography (and, indeed, of all genres) rarely, if ever, pass beyond the perimeters of their “own vastly overfilled mind(s)” (204).

The colossal egoism of writing finds perhaps no better example than the figure of Plath herself. It is within a hyperbolic and aggrandizing lyric “I” that the Ariel poet gains her creative power. Plath exploits the tensions produced by this enormous sense of selfhood, which works alternately as a stigma and a boon. Perhaps Malcolm and Stevenson regard the poet with ambivalence because she represents an exaggerated version of themselves as writers. The will to write requires a degree of narcissism and self-promotion; when amplified, these qualities can become disturbing or off-putting. Nevertheless, both sides of the biographical debate remain riveted to the story of the poet's startling transformation in the last years of her life from domesticity to intense, prolific creativity. This tale of a woman's metamorphosis, clouded over but never entirely obscured by gossip, rumor, and fantasy, remains at the center of the Plath myth.


  1. Sylvia Plath, “Elm,” in Ariel (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 15.

  2. Sylvia Plath, “The Jailer,” in The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 226.

Amanda Mitchison (review date 26 April 1996)

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SOURCE: Mitchison, Amanda. “Open Secrets.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 400 (26 April 1996): 31.

[In the following review, Mitchison feels that at times the essays in The Purloined Clinic are verbose and stray off track, but when Malcolm is focused, her writing is honest, direct, and stimulating.]

The New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm is the daughter of a Czech psychoanalyst. Her great breadth of knowledge spans literature, psychoanalytic writing and the fine arts—all of which are covered in this selection of reviews and essays [The Purloined Clinic]. She also carries her erudition lightly and with poise. This book, for example, gained its title via a most tortuous route. It is named after an essay about a book about a painting which she thinks resembles an essay about a detective story—but in her accomplished, urbane prose, this train of thought seems quite effortless.

The story in question, which also bears on Malcolm's previous more substantial works, is The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's detective Dupin is called on by the prefect of the Paris police to help find a vital letter stolen from the royal bedchamber by a government minister. The police have already secretly searched every possible hiding place in the minister's home—probing cushions with needles, unscrewing table legs—but to no avail. Dupin takes a different approach.

He visits the minister at home and finds, as he expects, that the letter has been left in a most obvious and, therefore, unthinkable of places. Dirtied and crumpled, it is lying in a card rack dangling from a ribbon in the middle of the fireplace. Dupin duly filches the letter from under the minister's nose.

For Malcolm this story, which Jacques Lacan in a famous essay interpreted as a parable of the psychoanalytic process, is deeply instructive. It shows us how “the secrets of human nature and of works of art lie on the surface and in the margins”. It is also a paradigm of how she works as a reviewer and writer—looking for the truth not in the presented facts and the provided explanations but among the nuances, the omissions, the evasions, the hesitations, the unexpected asides.

Even for writers without Malcolm's psychoanalytic baggage, some of this is common sense. Many journalists will tell you that what an interviewee says before the tape recorder is turned on—how he speaks to his dog, or his spouse, everything he assumes is outside the interview—will be of more interest than what he says when he thinks he will be quoted.

But in Malcolm's work this conviction that the truth will reveal itself by some tangential or circuitous means goes much further. Where others would stay for two hours, Malcolm will linger all night, or return time and time again. And—always with that coolest narrative voice—she will chronicle her own feelings and falterings. Rarely has a journalist-writer been so alive to the moral ambivalence of her position.

This lingering gaze opens the world to surprising observations—but it is a high-risk policy, and does not always pay off. Not that Malcolm lapses into either pretentiousness or silliness, which is quite an achievement for someone so concerned with the workings of the unconscious. However, she can be both long-winded and curiously inconclusive: 80 pages are taken up with a portrait of the New York art world. Every art writer and artist, with his or her loft space and quarrels, seems to be described in the dense interminable length so reminiscent of the old pre-Tina Brown New Yorker.

Most of the time, Malcolm does pull it off. The last piece—an extended essay about post-velvet revolution Czechoslovakia—is one of her best and most moving works. She looks into the unacknowledged problems of being a dissident returning to normal life and ruminates on the nature of memory, as she is drawn back into the Czechoslovakia of her childhood. And some of her reviews—on the pros and cons of the Lacanian short-analysis session, on why Vanessa Bell's daughter was almost destined to write a bad book about her mother, or why Edmund Gosse (with his Christian fundamentalist childhood in which all fiction was prohibited) should have become such an inventively inaccurate scholar—are so masterfully written, so well argued, so resoundingly true that you have to pity the poor authors who have troubled to write entire books when Malcolm can dispose of their material—and them—so definitively in a fraction of the space.

Robin Tolmach Lakoff and Mandy Aftel (essay date 16 December 1996)

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SOURCE: Lakoff, Robin Tolmach, and Mandy Aftel. “In the Malcolm Archives.” Nation 263, no. 20 (16 December 1996): 32-5.

[In the following essay, Lakoff and Aftel describe the techniques Malcolm employs in her writing to persuade readers, disapproving of her subtle guidance, and asserting that nonfiction should be written from a completely objective stance.]

Janet Malcolm covers the trendiest topics of current intellectual discourse: psychoanalysis, its powers and its decline; crime and punishment; the nature of creativity and the price it exacts. Sometimes she subjects herself and her work to pitiless critique: Biography is ghoulish; journalism is a scam. Thus she wins our trust along with our admiration.

Malcolm's style is as worthy of admiration as her content: lucid yet artful, complex but not turgid. We appreciate her skill in playing postmodern games: genre-crossing (is The Journalist and the Murderer a whodunit, a metawhodunit examining the rules of crime reportage or a critique of journalism itself even as it is a piece of journalism: text and metatext at once?) and indeterminacy (in In the Freud Archives, Jeffrey Masson is at once an intrepid, brilliant gadfly and an empty-headed, sex-obsessed egomaniac). She switches perspective at dizzying speed: from Sylvia Plath's world view to Ted Hughes's to Hughes's sister Olwyn's, in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

Appearances would identify Malcolm as a liberal, socially and intellectually: her indeterminacy and self-critical stance; her concern that the under- and unrepresented get their day in court. But when we see whom we are drawn, by her representations, to identify with and whose narratives compel belief, a different picture emerges: Malcolm as conservative or even reactionary, foreclosing any questioning of the status quo. Her approval is reserved for those who are working to restore a simpler world where patriarchs kept control of families by maintaining secrecy about what went on in them.

So Malcolm's continuing acclaim is due to the repackaging of old, familiar socio-cultural homilies in the glittering new wrappers of provocative postmodern discourse, especially in the form of intellectual gossip. Gossip, far from being simply frivolous, is an important means of social control, and we delight in it in part because it satisfies our longing for social stability. Gossip serves as a warning; it is instructive, even didactic, not just idle dirt. It tells us: Do this, don't do that—or risk the same kind of treatment our subject is getting. And why is the subject getting it? Because he or she strayed from conventional, conservative behavior. Gossip, like a good ghost story, spreads fear: Do they know about me? Is that anything like what I did? Am I next?

In The Silent Woman, Malcolm represents the biographer as the ultimate gossip—a voyeur and a busybody, in a ghoulish profession. The biographer “is supposed to go out and bring back the goods—the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries.”

Consider her depiction of Sylvia Plath and her five biographers scrapping over control of the narrative—with Ted and Olwyn and with each other. The Silent Woman moves imperceptibly from a narrative about the life and death of Sylvia Plath to a justification of the right of Ted and Olwyn Hughes to make their meaning of Plath's life and death, to control her narrative. Malcolm's narrative represents the Hughes-Plath competition from inside the mind of Hughes. “It is Hughes's bitter fate to be perpetually struggling with Plath over the ownership of his life, trying to wrest it back from her. … Hughes has never been able to drive the stake through Plath's heart and free himself from her hold.” Malcolm moves the reader to Hughes's side by viewing the struggle as one over his rights: Why should not an “electrically attractive” man have exclusive narrative rights to his family's history? Why must he be eternally circumscribed by an ungainly and demanding wraith? Framed in this way, the story shifts covertly from Plath's autobiography to Hughes's apologia pro vita sua.

Malcolm never tells us that Hughes is believable and the others are not, but instead carefully crafts vignettes that force readers to draw that conclusion themselves. She appears to present both sides with open-mindedness and healthy ambivalence but in fact she makes only one alternative plausible—morally right and intellectually compelling.

Jeffrey Masson in In the Freud Archives and Angelica Garnett in “A House of One's Own,” a 1995 New Yorker article, are subjected to similar narrative strategies of contempt and ridicule by Malcolm. Both Garnett and Masson told family secrets to the world. Garnett revealed the dark secrets and compromises in her family of origin and its protective superstructure, Bloomsbury. Masson was chosen to head the Freud Archives by Kurt Eissler, but when he brought to public notice Freud's suppression of evidence proving the existence of child sexual abuse among his well-connected patients, he was fired by Eissler. What links these two narratives is an interest in the ways in which the powerful, in families and larger institutions, hurt, betray and destroy the weaker members, typically women and children.

Malcolm resorts to tricky tactics to diminish Masson's credibility. She subtly reinterprets a trait of character that a reader might consider a sign of honesty as a sign of weakness and a reason to withhold sympathy: “The question of why Masson queered his chances with the Archives—why he all but forced Eissler to see what Eissler had been carefully trying to not see during the decade of their acquaintance, and why he acted as he did when he could have quietly bided his time until he actually had power in hand—has been asked by many observers of the events of the summer and fall of 1981, and is almost invariably answered in terms of some need of Masson's for self-destruction.” In a book dedicated to rehabilitating orthodox psychoanalysis, the technique of that passage is especially noteworthy. By diagnosing Masson's motives as neurotic, Malcolm accomplishes three things:

(1) She represents Masson as sick and therefore unreliable, and not a person the reader will want to identify with.

(2) She identifies herself (as the interpreter of his neurosis) with Eissler and the other psychoanalysts. Thus, their institutional authority becomes hers; her authorial voice is commingled with their professional voices. She and the “superior and admirable” Eissler become difficult to separate.

(3) As the interpreter-analyst, Malcolm acquires authority and superiority over the neurotic patient, Masson. She is in a position to tell us with certainty what he is up to. Malcolm guides the reader to see the drama through the eyes of her chosen protagonist, Eissler.

In “A House of One's Own,” Malcolm deplores the portrait Angelica Garnett, in her autobiographical Deceived with Kindness, paints of her mother (Vanessa Bell) and her mother's lover (Duncan Grant). Because Garnett dared to reveal her family's secrets, Malcolm ridicules her evaluation of her mother's sufferings.

The relationship of Duncan and Vanessa—regarded by Spalding and other Bloomsbury aficionados as a testament to Vanessa's magisterial free-spiritedness and as an extraordinarily fruitful artistic union—is regarded by Angelica simply as disreputable and pathological. (“There must have been a strong element of masochism in her love for him, which induced her to accept a situation which did permanent harm to her self-respect. … She gained companionship with a man she loved on terms unworthy of her whole self.”)

Malcolm assigns little importance to that rejection, even though she allows readers a glimpse of Bell's relationship with Grant at its worst:

Although Duncan was passionately in love with [his male lover] Bunny, he sometimes graciously consented to sleep with Vanessa when Bunny was away. Frances Spalding, in her biography of Vanessa … quotes a rather awful entry in Duncan's diary of 1918 written during a five-day absence of Bunny's: “I copulated on Saturday with her with great satisfaction to myself physically. It is a convenient way, the females, of letting off one's spunk. … That's one for you Bunny!”

“Rather awful”? How about out-and-out vile?

In The Journalist and the Murderer, the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor and an Army officer, personifies the powerful male. Malcolm sees MacDonald as strikingly attractive, competent and successful: “My first sight of MacDonald … was of a tall, well-built man in a light-blue cotton jumpsuit negotiating a feat of poise. … Meeting a visitor under these circumstances [at Terminal Island] would not seem to offer much scope for a soigné entrance, but MacDonald somehow managed to get through the humiliating ritual as if he were an actor swiftly shedding his costume.” Later, Malcolm is overwhelmed with admiration for MacDonald's dexterity in eating doughnuts: “Once again I was struck by the physical grace of the man. He handled the doughnuts—breaking off pieces and unaccountably keeping the powdered sugar under control—with the delicate dexterity of a veterinarian fixing a broken wing.” His expertise in food-handling is thus inextricably linked with physicianly tenderness and compassion—not traits one would normally find in someone who could messily murder his wife and children.

All these cases leave us in a quandary: To sympathize with the outsider, the weaker party, might be natural. But to do so would make one the object of Malcolm's ridicule. A reader must be resolute to tolerate that. Malcolm's heroes are the ones who strive to keep the secrets and maintain the power imbalance. Her villains are pitiable “weaklings” who try to expose the secrets and are ruthlessly punished—twice: once by their own families or institutions, and again by Malcolm. What rational reader would want to be part of this hapless contingent?

Malcolm's plan is to tell us, cogently and stylishly, what those with power and influence want to hear. What she gains is entree into the circles of power. And because she's saying what many readers want to hear, there is no impetus for them to see through her. She achieves all the more acclaim because she is speaking as an outsider, a woman, for the insiders.

Her techniques succeed, too, because they are the tools of the powerful: In using them, she implicitly allies herself with those people who many of us would like to be, or at least to be approved by. Show, don't tell works best when it is used to support what is already conventional belief, since so much must be left for the reader to fill in. Her favorite techniques—ridicule, sarcasm and irony—are most feasible when used by the powerful against weaker targets. And we think (as we read): God, I don't want to be in the despised “out” group. I'd better keep my nose clean and be careful whom I associate with. But Malcolm hasn't had to tell us that. We figure it out by ourselves, because most of us have been socialized to share many of the values of the powerful.

Those values, reinforced by literature, religion and myth, need not be explicitly mentioned. To assert the benevolence of power is to seem neutral; to question it is to take a political stance that requires defense, which in turn is subject to questioning and disproof. Malcolm's work constitutes a new genre: intellectual propaganda, designed to appeal to those too smart and literate to be taken in by the ordinary kind. But like all good propaganda its message is comforting: We are right. She assuages our fears of a world changing too fast, a millennium coming before its time. And even as she reassures us that our new conservative stance is really quite respectable, our ability to appreciate her achievement burnishes our intellectual, liberal credentials.

Robert Coles (review date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Coles, Robert. Review of Diana & Nikon, by Janet Malcolm. Wilson Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1998): 106.

[In the following review, Coles alleges that in Diana & Nikon Malcolm attempts to emphasize the vagueness of photography, both in terms of artistic intent and interpretation.]

The adage has it that a picture is worth a thousand words, but [in Diana & Nikon] the essayist Janet Malcolm manages deftly to reverse that assertion—indeed, to make the reader in some instances quite wary of a given photographer's intentions and work. For many years in the pages of the New Yorker, Malcolm has displayed a talent for getting to the bare bones of the matter, and, not rarely, a brusque impatience with the received pieties that go unexamined. In a sense, photography itself has become one of those pieties, its supposed “truths” an easy bromide, gladly accepted as a means of avoiding life's complexities, not to mention our own inclination to protect ourselves from recognizing those complexities by seeing only what suits our (psychological, social, economic) convenience. As in our dreams (those nightly visual productions that hint at meaning rather than directly express it), the photographer has intentions, assumptions, that inform his or her work, but they are not necessarily out on the table—hence an indirection that can be misleading, if beguiling, in a medium popularly regarded as not only a place of artistry but a repository of the real.

It is that tension between the aesthetic and the documentary that preoccupies Malcolm. She moves knowingly from one photographer to another, so that we meet, through her eyes, at once appreciative and skeptical, the work of well-known masters such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, Robert Frank and Walker Evans. She asks us to look at others, more controversial—Diane Arbus, inevitably, as well as Richard Avedon, William Eggleston, and Sally Mann. She does so with language, naturally, but she also presents picture after picture so that we can follow her line of reasoning against the evidence of what William Carlos Williams called “the thing itself.” That phrase, a statement of a poet's hard search for a rock-bottom truth, gets at what Malcolm is trying to indicate and illustrate—the ambiguous nature of photographs, with their claim of objectivity pulling against the photographer's desire to summon metaphors and assert ideas, propositions, ideologies.

Like Susan Sontag, Malcolm emphasizes this appropriative or manipulative side of photography, even as she, like Sontag, fails to acknowledge a similar aspect of her own kind of work. Perhaps she assumes that the reader knows of such an inevitability in writing, whereas she worries that in the case of the photograph many of us are unwittingly seduced by the easy availability of an image that seemingly begs only for a nod of recognition. We enjoy all those “tricks” momentarily (photographers are everywhere in this modern bourgeois life), but our hearts are untouched, and we are lonelier for the nature of the experience. Finally, a callousness comes with exposure to endless passing fancies.

The best part of this book—ironically, revealingly—is Malcolm's writing about literature. When she analyzes Henry James's story “The Real Thing” (1893), she tells us more about illusions and our constant reliance on them than she does in her many earnest, serious-minded efforts to figure out what particular photographic images intend for us to feel, notice, or think. In that regard, she keeps reminding us that photography itself is hard to describe, or define, no matter its singular reliance on a technological gadget with picture-making properties. More so perhaps than a novel or a work of demanding criticism such as this book, the meaning of a photograph varies with the viewer, confirming Nietzsche's observation that “it takes two to make a truth.”

Anne Chisholm (review date 17 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Chisholm, Anne. “The Flash of the Knife.” Spectator 281, no. 8880 (17 October 1998): 39.

[In the following review, Chisholm underscores the predatory aspects of journalism and notes that, in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm raises interesting questions about the ethics of journalism.]

It is not easy for other journalists and biographers to know what to make of Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker reporter and critic who for some years now has made it her business to put all of us on the spot. Her intelligence and subtlety of mind cannot be denied; she writes exceptionally well; her perceptions are often striking and original. The questions she raises, about the nature of the relationship between writers and the people they write about, need to be asked. The dilemma pond in which she dangles her hook is murky and insufficiently plumbed. There is much to admire in what she does, but it has nevertheless become increasingly clear that Malcolm's own performance is as deeply flawed as, and perhaps even more self-serving than, the work of those she takes to pieces with such relish.

This book [The Journalist and the Murderer] began as a series for the New Yorker, like most of her writing, and was first published in 1990. It is an investigation in the form of an extended essay—Malcolm's preferred form, which allows her to take short cuts with narrative and chronology and to be highly selective with her material—into the dealings between a writer, Joe McGinniss, and an army doctor, Jeffrey Macdonald, who was first cleared and then convicted of killing his wife and children in 1970. McGinniss became close to Macdonald while writing a book about the case, based at the outset on his stated belief in his subject's innocence. Many conversations were taped and letters were exchanged; until the book came out in 1984, Macdonald believed McGinniss's account would vindicate him. In fact, during his five years of research McGinniss came to believe that his subject was guilty, and his book said as much. When Macdonald realised the extent, to use Janet Malcolm's idiom, of his ‘seduction and betrayal’ by the man he had thought his ally and friend, he took him to court for fraud and breach of contract and secured a financial settlement.

This tangled web of deceit, greed (the profits of the book were to be shared) and the bending of the commonly accepted rules of the journalistic profession is meat and drink to Janet Malcolm. As is her wont, she skilfully pre-empts criticism of her own role by acknowledging that she herself is just another journalist in pursuit of a good story, while conveying between the lines that of course she is cleverer and more morally scrupulous than most. At first, it seemed that Joe McGinniss would collaborate with her, but after one interview some residual sense of self-preservation caused him to change his mind. The subjects of Malcolm's interviews seldom come out well. In this book, lawyers, psychiatrists and a garrulous woman juror allow her to talk to them and are duly shown to be obtuse, selfish, defensive, vain or dotty. Macdonald himself, convicted, imprisoned, still obsessed with maintaining his innocence, was a sitting duck, although she soon began to find his relentlessness and verbosity a bore. In any case, it was not what he had or had not done to his victims that really interested her. There is something worrying and distasteful about the displacement of a real, ghastly human tragedy by the comparatively marginal topic of journalistic ethics. Malcolm knows this perfectly well, but she does it anyway.

Since her account of McGinniss's troubles first appeared, Janet Malcolm has experienced difficulties of her own with subjects who have tried to fight back. The renegade Freudian analyst Jeffrey Masson sued her for making up quotes from him; he lost, but her practice of ‘compressing and compacting’ remarks was shown to be questionable. The English edition of The Silent Woman, her much admired book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, was held up after Hughes complained that a crucial quotation from a letter showing him in a bad light was inaccurate. Malcolm had to concede that he was right, although she managed to do so without apologising for her mistake.

Nevertheless, in spite of—or perhaps because of—her own fallibility, Janet Malcolm is compulsive reading for any author or subject interested in the difficulties and dangers of the writing game. In a characteristically brilliant analogy at the end of this book she compares journalistic subjects to the sacrificial victims of the Aztecs, who were feted and spoiled while awaiting the day when their hearts were to be cut out in public. ‘And still they say yes when a journalist calls,’ she writes, ‘and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.’

Jo Ann Citron (review date March 1999)

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SOURCE: Citron, Jo Ann. “Good Intentions.” Women's Review of Books 16, no. 6 (March 1999): 8.

[In the following review of The Crime of Sheila McGough, Citron expresses amazement at the glaring mistakes committed by McGough in her relationship with client Bob Bailes. Citron is taken aback by McGough's lack of judgment and her professional improprieties.]

I remember sitting in an uncomfortable seat on the first day of law school, listening to interminable welcome messages, when the dean himself walked into the well of the lecture hall. Without greeting or preliminaries of any kind, he leaned into the microphone and solemnly intoned three words: “Don't commingle funds.” And then in case he hadn't made himself clear, he repeated the incantation: “Don't commingle funds. If you forget everything else you learn here, never forget that.” Sheila McGough should have been there.

McGough was an attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, who in 1986 supposedly conspired with one of her clients to defraud investors. The federal indictment, which ran to fifteen counts, charged her with various forms of fraud, conspiracy, receiving stolen money, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation and perjury. In the fall of 1990. McGough was found guilty of most of it and eventually went to prison for two and a half years. In 1996, about a year after being paroled, she wrote to Janet Malcolm complaining that she had been “framed” by the US Attorney in Virginia, a man conveniently named Hulkower.

Janet Malcolm is herself no stranger to the legal system. In 1984 she was sued for libel by Jeffrey Masson in connection with her New Yorker articles about him, published that year by Knopf as In the Freud Archives. The case generated two jury trials and several appellate opinions, including one from the US Supreme Court. Malcolm was eventually vindicated, but the acrimonious litigation lasted some twelve years. Whether for this or other reasons, Malcolm found McGough's letter intriguing and undertook a journalist's investigation of the case—one not bound by rules of evidence or hampered by the limited time and resources that are the lawyer's lot. The Crime of Sheila McGough is the uncertain result.

I mean “uncertain” in various ways. One uncertainty is the nature of the legal violation announced in the book's title. Just what was the Crime of Sheila McGough? According to Hulkower, McGough ran afoul of the law by distributing from her lawyer's trust account funds that were allegedly to have been held there in escrow. McGough's version of her transgression, as she described it in her initial letter to Malcolm, is that she “irritated some federal judges and federal prosecutors in the course of defending a client,” as a result of which the US Attorney's office “made up some crimes for [her] and found people to support them with false testimony.” In Malcolm's narrative, the crime that McGough was prosecuted for “was the crime of not letting go, of not accepting the unwritten law of closure.” Incredible as it may seem, Malcolm argues, this woman of “preternatural honesty and decency” went to prison for two and a half years just for being irritating.

Whether one views the protagonist as a criminal, a martyr, a scapegoat, a dupe, or a dope (Malcolm herself can't decide between Antigone and Creon, for example) depends on which plot the reader assembles from the various possibilities Malcolm offers. The tale I read with my lawyer's eye goes something like this. One day, Sheila McGough received a collect call from the Fairfax County jail. The call came from someone named Bob Bailes who was being held on a warrant from North Carolina and was looking for legal help. McGough, an inexperienced criminal defense lawyer, obliged. She immediately went to the jail and, utterly charmed by her new client, signed the bail bond herself.

It is not surprising that Bailes would have charmed the naïve McGough, for he was a con man of considerable talent and ingenuity. But it is startling that an attorney—no matter how naïve and inexperienced—would play bail bondsman for any client, let alone one she had just met and about whom she knew nothing. This is something that attorneys never do, as McGough herself acknowledges to Malcolm.

Thus began an association during which the lawyer defended her client on various state and federal charges. In one case, she defended Bailes against various bank fraud charges arising from his supplying false information to three different banks in order to secure a loan. She lost at trial and on appeal she attacked “nearly every piece of the government's evidence.” The court rejected what it termed her “creative but meritless arguments” and affirmed Bailes' conviction.

While McGough was working on her client's defense, her client, out on bail, was running his cons from her office. Bailes helped himself to McGough's telephone, copier, typewriter—and lawyer's trust account. The con that landed both of them in jail went like this: Bailes claimed to own certain insurance companies that had been chartered before insurance became regulated. These charters—if one were to believe Bailes—allowed the companies to sell insurance without setting aside reserves to pay out claims, a virtual license to print money, as one observer put it. He advertised the companies for sale in the Wall Street Journal (Malcolm learned that at one time the FBI assigned a full-time agent to monitor the classifieds in the Wall Street Journal), and when he had hooked a sucker, he had the $75,000 down payment wired to McGough's lawyer's trust account.

And now welcome to what the law calls the gravamen of the charges against her. Preoccupied with preparing her client's defense and not paying attention to much else, McGough followed Bailes' instructions to withdraw the money from the trust account, to keep $5,000 as payment for services rendered, and to turn the remainder over to him. When the scam fell through, the mark wanted returned to him the money he had deposited, as he claimed, in escrow. An escrow fund is used to hold “in-between” money, funds that the buyer gives up some control over but that don't yet belong to the seller. A tenant with no heat might put her rent into an escrow account until the landlord fixes the furnace; she meets her legal obligation to pay rent but makes sure that the landlord can't get the benefit of it until he meets his legal obligation to provide heat. Money held in escrow is understood to be under the control of a disinterested third party. In this case, Bailes' buyer decided that the deal smelled bad and that he would pull his money out. But McGough had already withdrawn the money, in accordance with instructions from her client, and had handed $70,000 over to Bailes.

What is wrong with this picture? To begin with, a lawyer's trust account is just that—a trust, not an operations account. It is intended to hold money that doesn't belong to the lawyer (even if the lawyer will eventually claim a portion of it as her fee), nor even, in many examples, to her client. And, of course, a lawyer's trust account is controlled by the lawyer, not by a client who has no business camping out in her office in the first place. It is unthinkable that an attorney would disburse from her trust account funds whose origin was obscure and whose purpose was unknown to her. And it is unbelievable that such a withdrawal and disbursement would occur without the attorney's writing letters to everyone in sight documenting what she was doing and why. McGough did everything wrong. But Malcolm is persuaded—and she persuades us—that none of it was done dishonestly.

Privately, McGough denied that she had ever agreed to be an escrow agent or that the investor was entitled to back out of the deal without penalty; however, she refused to assert this defense at trial. To do so would have meant testifying, undergoing cross-examination, and being forced to answer questions about Bailes' affairs. Rather than betray client confidences, the criminal defense attorney presented no defense at all.

Now, while the profession takes client confidentiality very seriously and attorneys can be severely disciplined for breaches, a few situations will release attorneys from their obligations to remain silent. Not surprisingly, establishing a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim is one of them. But McGough thought that being innocent was a sufficient defense. She declined to offer any evidence that might raise a reasonable doubt in the mind of a juror. This was sheer folly. As a criminal defense lawyer herself, McGough should have known that innocence, alas, is nothing and that a reasonable doubt in the mind of a single juror is everything.

There is, I suppose, a certain nobility to McGough's protecting the confidences of a sociopath whose imagination and skill with Xerox machines and white-out have put her in the way of a fifteen-count federal indictment. Or there would be if she held to the position consistently. But she had no reservations about discussing Bailes with Janet Malcolm. The difference, the lawyer explained to the journalist, was that Bailes had recently died in prison (he'd received a 25-year sentence on the insurance scam) and nothing that McGough said could harm him.

Malcolm never questions McGough's reasoning, but this failure on the part of the attorney to understand basic principles of client confidentiality is breathtaking. The attorney-client privilege does not belong to the lawyer to assert or waive as she thinks fit. It belongs to the client; and it doesn't cease with the client's death. While it is perfectly appropriate to breach confidentiality in offering a truth that will save one from prison, it is never appropriate to breach confidentiality simply because the client is dead.

Or consider this episode from the civil trial that preceded the criminal one (for McGough was sued in a civil action by the owner of the disappearing $75,000). McGough visited a defense witness the night before he was to testify for her in the civil trial. The visit was made to his hotel room and McGough went alone. When the witness subsequently claimed that at that visit she had improperly asked him to notarize old signatures, she had no recourse but an uncorroborated denial. An attorney who is a defendant in an ongoing case should know better than to meet with a witness without her attorney present. Even if the witness lied (as he almost certainly did), even if Malcolm is right that the truth is messy and can't overcome a good story, what on earth was McGough doing there?

Richard Lamb (review date 5 April 1999)

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SOURCE: Lamb, Richard. “The Journalist and the Bore.” New Leader 82, no. 4 (5 April 1999): 17-18.

[In the following review, Lamb asserts that Malcolm fails to make McGough's innocence convincing in The Crime of Sheila McGough.]

As a writer, Janet Malcolm is chiefly interested in betrayal, and in the stories we tell ourselves and others to facilitate it. Her taste is that of a connoisseur, so while seduction or garden variety fraud might intrigue her, she prefers the sort of apostasy that somehow reflects the state of an entire profession, that can compromise careers. Thus her fascination, in her books, with watching Jeffrey Masson flamboyantly fail the litmus test on Freud's seduction theory and wilt professionally (he had been set to take over the Freud Archives). Or with watching the small, hurtful deceptions of a marriage explode into large irremediable acts coloring Ted Hughes' reputation as a poet as well as that of his wife, Sylvia Plath.

Fascinating, too, from a reader's perspective, is Malcolm's take on her own profession. After having been accused of fabricating quotes (she was later found guilty), she began The Journalist and the Murderer:

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

That sent up a hue and cry. One journalist of stature, the late Anthony Lukas, writing in Washington Monthly, drummed her out of what is, after all, not exactly a priesthood, accusing her of writing from “well outside the journalistic tradition.” “She never,” he noted, “went through the apprenticeship—general assignments off a city desk—that has shaped the work habits of so many American reporters of my generation.”

In this book [The Crime of Sheila McGough] her seventh, Malcolm examines the legal system and its own special form of betrayal, miscarriage of justice. The victim is Sheila McGough, a spinsterish lawyer who in her late 30s left a good office job to go to George Mason University's newly opened law school. Unable even to get interviews with major Washington firms upon graduation, she becomes a private court-appointed lawyer.

McGough, in classic terms, is a bore. She is the sort of long-winded individual who, in telling a story—and this becomes a central fact for Malcolm—leaves in too many details to get her point across. Never having worked with another attorney, she also doesn't seem to know what the boundaries of a lawyer-client relationship should be. Once she goes so far as to bail out a man she has been appointed to represent. Ultimately, her innocence and isolation lead to her being found guilty of 14 felony counts in Federal court and serving two and a half years in prison.

The root of McGough's troubles was a real con artist, one Bob Bailes. Most of the sort of brilliant conceits that mark Malcolm's best work crop up in her description of him: “Con men are not businessmen manqués. They are not businessmen at all. … They are called con artists precisely in recognition of the qualities they share with regular artists. …” She goes on to say: “The clientele for con art has never been large.” It consists of “people for whom the fantasy of getting something for nothing … is so powerful that it frees them from the constraints of common sense. Common sense is the enemy of art, as we all know.” Bailes is “a kind of con man's con man,” we are told, whose scheme is “a sort of Duchampian meditation on con art itself.”

But Bailes' scheme does not have Duchamp's dexterous sterility. It is romantic, harkening to a turn-of-the-century capitalist Eden, before Theodore Roosevelt's trust busting, or income tax. Bailes advertises in the classified section of the Wall Street Journal that he possesses several insurance companies chartered before the era of state regulation and grandfathered to allow their owners to do business in grand Robber Baron style. They are for sale.

Malcolm reports that the FBI has an agent whose “beat” is to patrol the Journal's classifieds. Bailes inevitably falls afoul of the law. In the process of representing him, McGough allows him to direct some of his ill-gotten gains to the bank account she maintains as an attorney. If we are to believe Malcolm, this was simply another example of McGough's unprofessional habit of going out of her way for a client. The government saw it as evidence that the two were in cahoots.

“I happen to believe that Sheila's weak story is true and that [the government's] strong story is off the mark,” Malcolm writes. “What Sheila's case illustrates with special vividness is something all attorneys know, which is that truth is a nuisance in trial work. The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd. … For truth to prevail at trial, it must be laboriously transformed into a kind of travesty of itself.”

Sheila's case could indeed illustrate this with special vividness—if her story is true. The problem is, Malcolm never dispels the suspicion that the government's theory—of McGough falling in love with and abetting the con man—is correct. She tries to dismiss the issue with a broad generalization: “Over time, some trace of eros finds its way into most lawyer-client relationships (as it does into most teacher-student and therapist-patient and journalist-subject relationships).”

Yet McGough, asked for a denial of any involvement, answers: “I didn't take my clothes off with Bobby. I wasn't naked with him. We didn't have sexual intercourse.” Malcolm, who accepts this tortured statement as a “no,” rationalizes: “The answer was typical of her overtruthful, undercommunicative responses.” There is an unspoken “but” fairly screaming at the end of it, however. But what? We never learn. Still, Malcolm's thesis that the legal system is really a kind of contest, in which the competing sides painstakingly shape narratives bearing little resemblance to the truth, with the sleekest and most convincing winning, is not far-fetched.

The author's real problem, rather, is writing about what is to her almost an alien culture. The phenomenon of the urbane New Yorker writer venturing into the heartland to produce a book had already reached a low point with Jean Stafford's 1966 A Mother in History, on Lee Harvey Oswald's mom and her reminiscences about her son. That tale of a hard-scrabble life is punctuated by Stafford's allusions to her trips to the symphony and gourmandizing with husband A. J. Liebling.

Malcolm makes a titanic effort to top this. Speaking of a steakhouse frequented by the McGough family, she writes: “But those for whom the first meal of the day is imaginatively fused with the idea of promise and hope and things before they were spoiled will understand the réclame of the Western Sizzlin' restaurant on Lee Highway outside Alexandria.” And when she praises the McGough family's tuna casserole as “incomparable” the reader may suspect with some justice that Malcolm has had no equivalently mundane gustatory experience.

Her tone deafness to Middle-Americanism extends to her decision to do the book. Malcolm came to her topic, characteristically, through the kind of letter most journalists habitually ignore: a cri de coeur from the wrongly convicted. McGough claimed to have been “‘framed.’” By her own description, Malcolm took the quotation marks to mean she had discovered a like-minded soul attuned to the slipperiness of narrative, a fellow lay postmodernist. In fact, the marks look far more like those of shopkeepers who proclaim not a sale, but a “sale,” even though they do not mean to imply that sales as such are slippery, relative things.

Nevertheless, Malcolm—pace Washington Monthly—is a consummate journalist. One of her talents is the ability to talk about complicated matters in a paradoxical tone at once multilayered and commonsensical. Her earlier books, like In the Freud Archives, have had a certain grandeur that allies itself well with the sly clarity of her style. Their characters—braggarts; conceited, convincing men—lent themselves both to her particular interest and to her quiet parody. Sheila McGough, by contrast, is both dull and hard to dislike. Her trials inspire sympathy but not belief, making Malcolm seem not only wrong, but mean.

Joyce Carol Oates (review date 8 April 1999)

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SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Case of the Canned Lawyer.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 6 (8 April 1999): 14-17.

[In the following review, Oates asserts that The Crime of Sheila McGough is not one of Malcolm's stronger works. Oates feels journalistic strengths are evident in the book, but with McGough as subject matter, the story becomes bland and weighed down.]

“Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness.”

—Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman

“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.”

—Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

Just as The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) was a provocative, and provoking, meditation upon the ambiguous ethical role of the journalist vis-à-vis his subject, and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995) was an equally original meditation upon the complicated art of biography (“the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world”), so Janet Malcolm's seventh book, The Crime of Sheila McGough, is both a highly detailed portrait of a woman lawyer and the court case with which she is involved, and an intensely personal and critical examination of law in contemporary America.

Malcolm is gifted with, if not accursed by, the allegorist's imagination, to which nothing merely is, but can be interpreted in broad, ethical terms. She has the passion of a natural reformer, a messianic zeal strangely, yet often brilliantly, channeled into language. Her prevailing theme throughout her career has been a scrutiny of what is by way of the narratives we make of it, in composing the stories (the “narrativizing untruths”) of our lives. The Crime of Sheila McGough in its radical distillation of the complexities of law, and its strategies of narration, is a book to set beside the very different yet equally provocative Lawyerland (1997) by the lawyer-poet Lawrence Joseph.

In the winter of 1996, a woman lawyer named Sheila McGough wrote to Janet Malcolm after being released from two and a half years in federal prison:

I was a defense lawyer who irritated some federal judges and federal prosecutors in the course of defending a client. The federal prosecutors in my hometown [Alexandria, Virginia] investigated me for four years, and when they failed to turn up anything illegal in what I was doing, they made up some crimes for me and found people to support them with false testimony. … I didn't commit any of the 14 felonies I was convicted of. The U.S. Government office in Alexandria “framed” me.

Though Janet Malcolm comes to the conclusion that Sheila McGough's summary of her case is accurate, this curious, disturbing tale is presented with such objectivity by Malcolm, with her characteristic penchant for assembling myriad facts and allowing witnesses to speak at length, that the reader may form his or her own conclusions. Malcolm presents McGough as “a woman of almost preternatural honesty and decency” and “an exquisite heroine,” a model of idealism and incorrigible loyalty. At the same time, McGough is “maddeningly tiresome and stubborn.” To master the “incoherent and senseless story of [McGough's] ruin,” Malcolm had to grit her teeth to deal with a journalist's nightmare: an utterly boring, banal, non-self-dramatizing subject unlike any other she had ever professionally encountered.

The journalistic subject is normally someone with a story to tell; you might even say to sell. Sheila's refusal (or inability) to tell a story obviated the usual journalistic task of dismantling a well-made story. With Sheila the task, on the contrary, was to try to coax a story from the morass of her guileless and incontinent speech.

In other words, Sheila McGough is an aberration: one for whom the “narrativizing untruths” of normal life do not apply. McGough presents, for the journalist Malcolm, who is doggedly on her side through a year of frustrating investigation, both an exceptional opportunity and a liability: she refuses to become a “character” in Malcolm's narrative. As McGough defeated her own lawyers' attempts to save her from a criminal conviction and the ruin of her professional life, so McGough defeats Janet Malcolm's enormous effort at making of her something she is not. And in the end, Malcolm must concede that she hasn't saved her subject by exposing the circumstances of her criminal conviction: “I know that she still lies drowning in dark, weedy water—and that I must come up for air.”

Because The Crime of Sheila McGough is a reflection on the meaning of journalism as well as a work of journalism, and far more interesting as a reflection on journalism than as journalism, Malcolm's strategy is that of continual analysis and self-scrutiny. Essentially, this is the identical approach Malcolm has taken to previous subjects, with generally illuminating results. Malcolm's highly regarded but perhaps rather partisan Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981) discusses in detail the theoretical phenomenon of “transference” (“how we all invent each other according to early blueprints”) and suggests in passing that the psychoanalyst is prey to a double vision of the patient:

He must invent the patient as well as investigate him; he must invest him with the magic of myth and romance as well as reduce him to the pitiful bits and pieces of science and psychopathology. Only thus can the analyst sustain his obsessive interest in another—the fixation of a lover or a criminal investigator. …

Or, one might add, a journalist or writer. Yet more boldly, one might say brashly, in The Journalist and the Murderer (an investigation of the lawsuit of the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against Joe McGinniss, the author of Fatal Vision, a book about the crime that presents MacDonald as a psychopathic killer), Malcolm speaks of the mutual anxiety of writer and subject:

Even as [the writer] is worriedly striving to keep the subject talking, the subject is worriedly striving to keep the writer listening. The subject is Scheherazade. He lives in fear of being found uninteresting, and many of the strange things that subjects say to writers—things of almost suicidal rashness—they say out of their desperate need to keep the writer's attention riveted. … The majority of stories told to journalists fail of their object. The writer ultimately tires of the subject's self-serving story, and substitutes a story of his own.

This is a brilliant insight, though surely exaggerated, and unfair. Just as Malcolm's much-noted charge that the journalist is “morally indefensible” in exploiting his subject is something of an exaggeration; most journalism, as we know from perusing the daily papers, is a forced effort to inflate the subject and to invest it with value it doesn't possess.

Malcolm's most engaging book, The Silent Woman, makes of the journalist's quest a kind of detective story and the journalist a detective, investigating the “transgressive nature of biography,” in which, in the case of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, “deep pathologies of biography and of journalism … fuse, and … engender virulent new strains of the bacillis of bad faith.” The predicament of biographers of Plath, confronted with a morass of ill-will and misinformation to which they in turn are tempted to contribute, strikes Malcolm as “a kind of allegory of the problems of biography in general.” To what extent is the biographer/journalist always inventing his or her subject, taking over the role of Scheherazade in the hope of keeping the reader listening? Is bad faith inevitably involved, or can there be a disinterested, “desireless” examination of a complex subject? (Malcolm says no. No writing is without “desire” or bias. Fairmindedness is only a “pose” and an attitude of detachment can never be more than a “rhetorical ruse.” Yet by her own acknowledgment of whose side she is on in the Plath/Hughes debate, which is the side of Hughes, Malcolm allows the reader to form conclusions that may be quite different from those she herself argues. She is that good a writer.)

The Silent Woman is Malcolm's most successful book not so much for its provocative insights and ideas—all her books abound with these—as for the generous specificity of its English settings, the bed-sitters, flats, and houses of Plath's aging survivors, and the gallery of “characters” she interviews. The detective-writer's sharp eye and ear allow us not only to hear about her adventures, but to participate in them. By contrast, books in which Malcolm is less passionately engaged, among them Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and The Crime of Sheila McGough, have comparatively sketchy of perfunctory settings; if more detailed, like the small suburban home of Sheila McGough's elderly parents, or one or another law office (“The room had the obligatory vertical wood paneling and was in a state of comfortable disorder. … The conference table was an old, rather beat-up, glass-top model, with an agreeable mess of papers and objects on it. There was a bookcase of law-books …”), they are of little intrinsic interest, seeming rather desperately worked up from notes.

Malcolm argues that a journalist's subjects are mostly “invented,” yet The Silent Woman is a memorable book primarily because its major subjects, Plath and Hughes, are larger than life as well as gifted poets, and even its minor characters (Hughes's rebarbative sister Olwyn, the beleaguered biographer Anne Stevenson, and the memoirist A. Alvarez) are of uncommon interest. By contrast, the New York psychoanalyst “Aaron Green” and the luckless Sheila McGough are extremely limited; they strike a single note, and strike and strike that note; there is no seductive Scheherazade in their stories except the intrepid Malcolm, who can only quote her subjects' monologues selectively, and write elegant prose around them. At times, Malcolm is disarmingly frank about the constraints, as she sees them, of her genre:

If Sheila is my heroine, Hulkower [a prosecutor] has to be my villain. A journalistic narrative is a kind of lumbering prehistoric beast that knocks over everything in its path as it makes its way through the ancient forest of basic plots. My sneaking liking for Hulkower simply has no place in my story. My assumption that Hulkower is a decent and well-meaning man must be held up to the strictest scrutiny; I must search his words and writings for signs of bad faith.

Yet Malcolm's predicament in The Crime of Sheila McGough isn't owing to the genre, for nonfiction can exhibit the ambiguity and irresolution of serious literature; it's the static obsessive nature of Sheila McGough. Malcolm's talent for portraiture is, thwarted by her. It is as if Vladimir Horowitz were compelled to play only “Chopsticks,” with numerous repeats. The artist may be Horowitz, but the tone is still “Chopsticks.”

What was the crime for which Sheila McGough was charged and what was the “crime” for which she seems to have been convicted? Where Janet Malcolm sees McGough's conviction as a consequence of “the crime of not letting go, of not accepting the unwritten law of closure,” in continuing to defend an obviously guilty client years after his conviction, and so irritating her (mostly male) opponents in a Virginia federal court, the reader is likely to see the conviction as inevitable, given McGough's involvement in her client's “business affairs” (in fact, an escrow scam) and her stubborn and protracted refusal to defend or even explain herself to prosecutors. The most naive of lawyers, McGough seems to have thought that a lawyer must remain loyal to her client at all costs, must believe her client's stories no matter how implausible, and must allow herself to be imprisoned rather than testify against him: “To save herself at her client's expense was unthinkable.”

Malcolm's “heroine” winds up spending two and a half years in prison and destroys her professional career as a consequence of not only her refusal to acknowledge her smooth-talking client's guilt but her own poor judgment or stupidity, in refusing to see how her client has manipulated her. As a federal judge summed it up: “The court cannot help but feel that Bailes [the client] just ruined this woman's life.” In a society in which lawyer jokes abound, some of the nastiest (and funniest) told by lawyers themselves, a society in which lawyers are feared, admired, envied, loathed, and ceaselessly discussed in the media, it's something of a novelty to learn that some lawyers, at least the naive and inexperienced like Sheila McGough are victimized by their criminal clients.

The literal crime for which Sheila McGough was convicted was her apparent involvement in her client Bailes's escrow scam, in which he tried to sell stock in nonexistent insurance companies. Unwisely, though knowing that Bailes had been indicted for various other frauds, she allowed him to move into her law office and to use her office facilities for his “business affairs.” Yet more unwisely, and, as her prosecutors would charge, criminally, she received from one of Bailes's victims $75,000, which was deposited in her attorney trust account, then withdrawn by her (minus an incriminating $5,000 fee to herself), and turned over to Bailes. As a prosecutor would argue.

[McGough's] role in the scam … was to use the dignity of her office to lull the investors into a false sense of security. She had assured them that their $75,000 would be held in escrow … but then, on the very day that they wired the money to her attorney trust account, she removed it and gave it to Bailes, keeping $5,000 for herself. And when the deal collapsed under the weight of its improbability, the down payment was nowhere to be found.

There are further involvements that to the eye of a neutral observer, or a federal court judge or jury, would naturally seem suspicious, as well as highly unprofessional. “Sheila's story is not a good one,” Malcolm concedes. Yet,

It has taken me over a year to grasp that Sheila, [Bailes's] partner in the crime of getting things hopelessly balled up, stands, in her strange and pitiful way, for something rather magnificent. Her inability to see what was staring everybody else in the face about Bailes, her refusal to label him a con man and write him off, … are the signs not of naiveté, as some observers have believed them to be, but of a bracing idealism.

Readers may be puzzled by Malcolm's insistence upon the heroism of a victimized and deluded woman who, years after her conviction, and Bailes's death, continues to defend him and to attack the federal prosecutors who “harassed” him and her. The true subject of The Crime of Sheila McGough is the psychological mystery we call “denial”—the refusal of a victim to concede her victim status, and her consequent collusion in her own degradation. If the victims at Jonestown or Waco could return from the dead to give testimony, no doubt many of them would continue to defend the cult leaders who led them into death; yet we would not applaud their loyalty or idealism, nor would we designate them as heroic. So, too, Sheila McGough seems to have been thoroughly brainwashed by an immensely charming “con man's con man.”

Malcolm's slender book might have been strengthened, and infused with more zest, if the writer had focused a bit more on the elusive Bailes, whom clearly she admires, in the way that writers admire any rogue who sets a plot in action: “Chaos was the medium in which he could breathe; order suffocated him.” Of con men like Bailes, Malcolm remarks:

Con men are not businessmen manqués. They are not businessmen at all. They are in an entirely different line of work. They are not called con artists for nothing; they are called con artists precisely in recognition of the qualities they share with regular artists, which are: (1) love of solitude; (2) love of freedom; (3) dislike of authority; and (4) extraordinary powers of daydreaming.

Bailes was such a charmer, even a (female) Justice Department lawyer who prosecuted him remembers him with a smile: “He probably could have sold you a pair of dirty socks and you would have been happy.” Unfortunately, this paragon of seduction has departed the scene, having died in prison while serving a twenty-five-year sentence for fraud, and only Sheila McGough remains on stage, fifty-four years old, looking and sounding like “one of the blandly wholesome heroines of fifties movies” despite her prison ordeal and her unremitting sense of outrage at the injustices committed upon her and her client. Even as a lawyer, McGough isn't representative: she was middle-aged when she entered law school, took a degree from the newly accredited (and undistinguished) George Mason Law School, and became a public defender for the state of Virginia with no office or colleagues—a solo practitioner, as a sympathetic witness observed, in the “cesspool of the criminal defense world.” She was simply not smart enough to recognize her attractive client's duplicity, though he had a prison record and was currently involved in a transparently fraudulent scheme (the nonexistent insurance companies he tried to sell were allegedly chartered in the 1890s, before state insurance regulations were made into law). Once she became involved in his “business,” and in the affairs of the dupes (who hoped to defraud the government, too), she was lost. As another lawyer observed,

[Sheila] was a midget among giants in that crowd. These guys were professionals. They were a bunch of sharks. I wouldn't trust a single one of them. You count your fingers after you shake their hands.

As a “character” in a narrative, McGough disappoints because she shows no growth, no change, no self-awareness.

The case of Sheila McGough will seem to many readers merely one of those unfortunate but perhaps not uncommon cases in which a defendant refuses to testify on her own behalf in a trial, deluded into thinking that she must not betray another (who has in fact betrayed her). It is unreasonable to expect judges, or any officers of the court, to take responsibility for such defendants, even if they are “innocent”; for by their collusion with the guilty, they are in fact sabotaging the possibility of justice. Yet Malcolm seems to hold these officers of the court responsible, even as she absolves McGough of blame. To demonstrate the very real dangers of adversarial law, Malcolm might have chosen to write about one of those unconscionable capital cases in which an innocent defendant (often an African-American male) is found guilty and sentenced to death, though the prosecution is in possession of exculpatory evidence that might have freed him. The Sheila McGough case is simply too slight and unrepresentative to merit such passion and to support Malcolm's not entirely original charge that adversarial law has little to do with truth or justice but only with convincing a judge or a jury that one side is “being untruthful in aid of the truth” and not in the aid of untruth.

In one of Malcolm's quests for something worthwhile to write about in this frustrating adventure, like a down-at-the-heels private eye she finds herself in Garden City, Long Island, “impelled by the notion that places can speak of what happened in them.” She hopes to visit the office in which much of the business that led to McGough's conviction took place, but discovers only a vacated suite of rooms.

Then I found it: the vacant rooms were themselves the treasure I sought. They gave me my metaphor for the narratives of the law—the stories told by lawyers—with which I had been trying to come to terms and which had filled me with the kind of boredom and alienation I now felt. Law stories are empty stories. They take the reader to a world entirely constructed of tendentious argument, and utterly devoid of the truth of the real world. …

Some law stories are “empty stories,” but surely not all.

Compare the more inspired ending of The Silent Woman, which brings the detective writer to the home of an elderly Englishman who lived below Sylvia Plath at the time of her suicide, and whose comically self-absorbed testimony she has politely transcribed. An articulate crank, Trevor Thomas lives in a rat's nest of a flat, so filled with debris that there are only narrow pathways along which one can walk. Malcolm is both appalled and fascinated, as somehow we knew she would be:

Later, as I thought about Thomas's house (which I often did: one does not easily forget such a place), it appeared to me as a kind of monstrous allegory of truth. This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas's house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meager and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life. The house also stirred my imagination as a metaphor for the problem of writing. Each [writer] faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it. … The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that a reader will want to linger awhile among them, rather than to flee, as I wanted to flee from Thomas's house.

The Crime of Sheila McGough ends with a rather forced passage of nature lyricism, as Malcolm, still in pursuit of an appropriate setting, visits a hillside vaguely associated with one of Bailes's failed schemes. She notes a “pretty dappled glade where purple asters and goldenrod grew amidst spent jewel-weed and joe-pye weed”; we are meant to conclude that the law is a matter of empty rooms, while nature abides. The Crime of Sheila McGough will not have the distinction of being among Janet Malcolm's major works, but it exhibits many of the writerly strengths for which this gifted (and controversial) cultural critic is deservedly known.

Richard A. Posner (review date 19 April 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4833

SOURCE: Posner, Richard A. “In the Fraud Archives.” New Republic 220, no. 16 (19 April 1999): 29-34.

[In the following review, Posner, a U.S. Chief Justice, outlines what he perceives as flaws in The Crime of Sheila McGough. Posner disapproves of Malcolm's lenient attitude toward McGough's complicity in the crimes carried out with Bob Bailes.]

In 1990, a federal jury convicted Sheila McGough, a criminal defense lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia, of fraud, perjury, witness intimidation, and related crimes. She was sentenced to three years in prison. Her conviction and her sentence were affirmed, and her subsequent motion for a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence was denied, and that denial was also affirmed. After her release from prison, she wrote to the journalist Janet Malcolm, claiming that she had been framed because her pertinacious efforts to defend her clients had irritated federal prosecutors and judges. Malcolm investigated the matter and concluded that McGough had indeed been unjustly convicted. “It seems scarcely possible that in this country someone could go to prison for merely being irritating, but as far as I can make out, this is indeed what happened to Sheila McGough”—though Malcolm does not believe that the judges and prosecutors “framed” McGough in the sense of deliberately fabricating a case against a person whom they believed to be innocent. Malcolm has written up her findings in a short, entertaining, beautifully written, and deeply irresponsible book [The Crime of Sheila McGough].

The book straddles two genres. The first is the kind of revisionist legal history in which a historian or journalist tries to show that a particular trial of a historical figure—Dreyfus, Sacco and Vanzetti, Hiss—produced a miscarriage of justice. The second is more literary and philosophical. It uses a real or fictional legal proceeding to raise deep questions about the law's capacity to find truth and to do justice, as in Billy Budd or The Stranger. Malcolm wants to show that the legal system failed to do justice in the case of Sheila McGough, but she also wants to show that it cannot do justice in any case, owing to its epistemological and ethical inadequacies.

Revisionists usually pick a well-known case to revise, and so there is a public record that can be consulted to evaluate their claims. Malcolm has picked an obscure case. While there is a public record in the technical sense—a trial transcript, briefs, and other documents that are available for public inspection in a government archive—it is not published, and it is not readily available to people outside the federal judiciary. Thus most of Malcolm's readers will find it impossible to evaluate her claims. They will remain unaware that her use of the record is selective and misleading. For the case against Sheila McGough was much stronger than Janet Malcolm lets on. I shall summarize the evidence presented at McGough's trial and then discuss how Malcolm tries to exonerate her “exquisite heroine,” as she calls McGough, from all legal and moral responsibility.

In 1986, a con artist named Bob Bailes (this was only one of his names) retained McGough to defend him against a federal prosecution for bank fraud and for using a false Social Security identification number. McGough knew about the multiple names. She also knew that Bailes had a criminal record and was currently being investigated by the FBI for selling fraudulent insurance charters. Bailes touted these forged charters as authorizing the purchaser to engage in the insurance business anywhere in the United States without complying with pesky state-law restrictions. Eventually Bailes was convicted of this fraud, too, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, having by this time accumulated an extremely long criminal record. He has since died.

While McGough was preparing Bailes's defense in the bank fraud case, he used her law office to conduct his insurance scam. Responding to an advertisement for the charters that he had placed in The Wall Street Journal, two men, Manfredi and Boccagna, represented by a lawyer named Morris, began negotiating with Bailes to buy two of the charters. Bailes demanded a deposit of $75,000, which Morris and his clients insisted be placed in McGough's attorney trust account and refunded to them if the deal fell through. All three testified that McGough repeatedly assured them that the deposit would remain in the account until the deal closed. As soon as the deposit was made, however, she checked out all but $5,000 of it to Bailes, who told her to keep the rest for herself, which she did. Shortly afterward she received a letter from Morris confirming that the money for the deposit would remain in her account; she neither answered the letter nor returned the $75,000 to the account.

The money had been put up by an investment banker named MacDonald (Morris's clients had been in effect brokers for the deal), and as MacDonald began looking into the charters that he had agreed to buy, he became suspicious. His lawyer, Blazzard, asked McGough whether the $75,000 was still in her trust account. She told him it was—though she had disbursed it to Bailes and herself almost two weeks before. McGough told MacDonald that some of the insurance companies authorized by the charters were up and running. None were.

MacDonald soon realized that he had been had. He demanded that McGough return his $75,000. When she refused, he sued her for the money. In her deposition in his suit, McGough denied that she had represented Bailes in connection with the sale of the insurance charters. This was a lie. On the eve of trial, her lawyer submitted to the court two documents entitled “Superseding Contracts.” They purported to be signed by Manfredi (one of Morris's clients, remember) and to make the $75,000 deposit non-refundable. But Manfredi's signature had been forged, almost certainly by Bailes, from whom McGough had obtained the documents. McGough tried unsuccessfully to get Manfredi's forged signature notarized by a friend of Bailes named Cain. The day after this effort failed, she settled MacDonald's suit for the full $75,000.

Back in 1986, during the negotiations with Morris's clients, another prospective purchaser of the phony charters had appeared, a man named Johnson. He met with Bailes and McGough in her office. Bailes demanded a non-refundable deposit of $25,000. Johnson insisted that it be refundable and that it be retained in McGough's trust account until the deal closed. Bailes and McGough agreed to these conditions. The money was duly wired to her trust account—and she immediately checked it out to Bailes, all but $7,200, which she kept. Johnson later wired another $12,500 to the trust account, and this, too, was promptly divided between Bailes and McGough.

Unlike the deal with MacDonald, the deal with Johnson actually closed, with McGough signing for Bailes because he was in prison. McGough and Bailes had agreed to give Johnson documents proving that the charter he had purchased was indeed usable in all fifty states. The documents were not forthcoming, and when Johnson complained about this to McGough, she said the reason for the delay was that Bailes was “on the road.” He was not on the road; he was in jail.

There was also a third such transaction, involving partners named Irwin and Sali. McGough denied that she had ever received the $25,000 deposit that they had made. In fact, Irwin had wired it to her trust account and she had promptly disbursed it to Bailes. When Sali (Irwin having died) demanded the deposit back, McGough threatened to sue him and to have him arrested.

Bailes devised a fantastic scheme for getting released from prison into the custody of McGough. She executed the scheme. It began with filing petitions for bankruptcy on behalf of several assetless corporations owned by Bailes. Other shell corporations owned by Bailes then filed claims against the bankrupts, at the same time pleading for the release of Bailes into his lawyer's (McGough's) custody on the ground that only if he were out of prison could he take the necessary steps to see that the creditors of the bankrupt corporations were repaid. McGough not only prepared numerous pleadings and motions in these fraudulent proceedings, but also procured and paid lawyers to represent the sham creditors.

By this time, a grand jury was investigating McGough. Shortly after she learned the identity of three witnesses whom the government was planning to call before the grand jury, Bailes brought a $50 million suit against each of them. McGough took the complaint to the federal court in which the suit was to be filed, but she refused to pay the filing fee. As a result, the suit was not accepted for filing, though each defendant was served with a copy of the complaint. There was other evidence of fraud, witness intimidation, and related crimes as well. McGough did not take the stand in her own defense.

The case that I have outlined struck the trial judge, the jury, and the appellate judges as open and shut. The only puzzle was Sheila McGough's motivation. It does not appear to have been financial. The deposit moneys that she appropriated from her trust account were minute in relation to the time that she spent representing Bailes, and during most of that time she received no compensation at all; and yet she abandoned all her other clients. It is possible that she was romantically involved with Bailes—she was a never-married woman in her forties during the period in which she represented him—but it is more likely that she was simply “taken in” by him. By all accounts he was charming and plausible: a true con artist. She believed in him, which was dumb but not criminal. Worse, she would stop at nothing—including crime—to advance his interests and rescue him from the clutches of the law.

So how does Malcolm attempt to refute the case against McGough? One of her methods is to quibble over evidentiary details. Almost every legal case is replete with loose ends, unreliable testimony, questionable witnesses, and bits of evidence that don't fit. A defense lawyer will often try to use these impurities to raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors. Thus Manfredi testified that he had been present when Morris read to McGough over the phone the letter that he sent her telling her to hold his clients' $75,000 deposit in her trust account—but the telephone company's records show that the call lasted only a minute, which is probably too short a time for him to have read the letter, although it is less than a page in length. Yet there is no question that the deposits—not only the deposit that Morris's clients made on behalf of MacDonald, but also the Johnson deposit and the Irwin-Sali deposit—were made directly to McGough's trust account. The only purpose could have been to make sure that the deposit money was not disbursed before the deal closed, so that if the deal fell through the depositors could get their money back.

McGough's claim “that it was a no-free-look-deal and that she was not an escrow agent,” though convincing to Malcolm, is incredible. Had that been the nature of the deal, the deposits would have been made to Bailes's bank account—and he did have a bank account, contrary to what McGough told Malcolm. Put differently, McGough had no reason of her own to want deposit money placed in her trust account; it could only have been the depositors' idea, and their only motivation could have been to keep the money out of Bailes's hands until the deal closed. McGough's “no-free-look” claim is further undermined by her failure to reply to Morris's letter. The letter made clear that the deposit was to be held by McGough and refunded if the depositors decided not to go through with the deal.

Malcolm makes much of the fact that Morris was disbarred and later sent to prison for fraud, though these things occurred after McGough's trial and were unrelated to it. And it is true that Manfredi was a disreputable character (as was Zinke, another man involved in the brokering of the sale to MacDonald). Manfredi was a disbarred lawyer, just like Morris, and was in prison for larceny when Malcolm interviewed him. But MacDonald and his lawyer Blazzard have never been accused of wrong-doing. And the shadiness of Morris and some of his clients is consistent with their having wanted the deposit retained in a lawyer's trust account until the deal with Bailes closed. Shady characters are more rather than less suspicious than the average person of the people with whom they do business. They would thus be particularly avid for the protection that a trust account affords, though in the end they managed to avoid putting up any of the deposit money. It all came from MacDonald.

With regard to McGough's effort to get the phony “Superseding Contracts” that she dropped into MacDonald's suit notarized, Malcolm argues that since “copies of the contracts were already part of the court record of the case [McGough's lawyer having already filed them], it was out of the question that she would have” asked Cain to notarize Manfredi's signature. Not at all. A notarized signature would have tended to rebut the inference of forgery that MacDonald's lawyer would have asked the jury to draw had the case gone to trial. While it is true that Cain himself was shady and that McGough's lawyer in the MacDonald suit gave testimony at her criminal trial that contradicted some of Cain's testimony, the lawyer admitted not having attended the meeting in Cain's hotel room at which, according to Cain's testimony, McGough asked him to notarize the documents. And Cain, a friend of Bailes, had no incentive to give false testimony against Bailes's accomplice.

Malcolm claims that Johnson's lawyer lied when he said that McGough had said that Bailes was “on the road” when Johnson closed the deal for the charter. The lawyer was indeed mistaken. The statement had been made later, when Johnson became impatient for the documentation that he needed in order to launch the insurance company in all fifty states. But the confusion of dates is irrelevant to the fraudulent character of the statement. It is another example of the loose ends found in all cases.

Malcolm's most credulous tactic in defense of McGough is simply to believe her denials. Those denials were not made under oath and they were not subject to cross-examination, for McGough did not testify at her criminal trial, where false testimony would have exposed her to a sentencing enhancement for committing perjury at the trial (as distinct from the perjury that she committed earlier, at her deposition in MacDonald's suit against her). The denials were made to Malcolm years after the trial. Malcolm takes them all on faith, oblivious to the possibility that she could be conned by a con artist's lawyer. Perhaps Malcolm thinks that you can tell whether a person is telling the truth by the sincerity of the person's manner; but that delusion is the very premise of successful con artistry. Malcolm has a condescending attitude toward McGough, who reminds her of “a corporate wife from Scarsdale, in town for a matinee.” It does not occur to Malcolm that McGough could deceive her. And so, in crediting McGough's avowal of utter naïveté about Bailes's business dealings, Malcolm fails to register the significance of McGough's boast to her that in her career as an executive of a foundation (before she went to law school in her late thirties), she had “had the responsibility of negotiating contracts for” her employer. Malcolm also fails to note the incongruity of McGough's admitting to her that Bailes forged a document yet claiming that the government had framed him.

Malcolm exhibits almost comical credulity when, catching McGough in a lie, she remarks: “Her confession to me that she had misled Quarles [another person who had answered Bailes's advertisement] was only further evidence of her honesty. She could have fudged or equivocated, but she had chosen to tell the shameful truth about herself.” But she did fudge. Quarles had testified that McGough had not told him that Bailes had been convicted. What she told Malcolm was that she had told Quarles only “that nothing was final, that things were on appeal.” But beyond condescension, beyond credulity, Malcolm must credit McGough for a deeper reason: to validate her own pessimism about the ability of a trial to discover the truth.

Malcolm resorts to a dubious device to cast doubt on McGough's guilt: she ignores much of the damaging evidence presented at the trial. Given the inaccessibility of the trial record to most of Malcolm's readership, this tactic of suppression echoes the fraud of which she seeks to exonerate her “exquisite heroine.” Malcolm does not mention McGough's appropriation of Johnson's $25,000 deposit. She does not mention McGough's dealings with Irwin and Sali at all, which included not only the appropriation of another $25,000 deposit but also the threat to have Sali arrested. She does not mention the multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the grand jury witnesses. It is not to be believed that Bailes conceived and prepared these suits all by himself—that McGough was merely his messenger girl in bringing the papers to the courthouse. The defendants were witnesses against her, not against him.

Malcolm does report the accusation that McGough participated in Bailes's sham bankruptcies. By not discussing whether the accusation was true or false, however, she makes it seem unrelated to McGough's prosecution. She implies that its only significance was to set the stage for a further accusation, which she denies on the basis of a long letter by McGough, that McGough had deliberately misled a federal judge with respect to Bailes's custody. Deliberate or not, it was less culpable conduct than the numerous frauds that McGough committed with respect to the fraudulent bankruptcies. And here Malcolm misses the most important point in McGough's letter, the statement that she had sought Bailes's release “so he could work with attorneys on a Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] case.” That case was a sham in which McGough was deeply implicated.

Malcolm does not mention the unimpeached testimony of lawyer Blazzard concerning his conversations with McGough. Blazzard's name does not appear in the book. She does not mention that McGough, the “woman of almost preternatural honesty,” as Malcolm characterizes her, committed perjury in her deposition in the MacDonald case when she claimed not to have represented Bailes in connection with the insurance charters. That perjury was one of the fourteen felonies of which McGough was convicted.

Why does Malcolm ignore all this evidence? Surely not out of laziness: she claims to have read and re-read the transcript of McGough's criminal trial. It is more likely that she ignores all this evidence because it would spoil the story that she is determined to tell. For the evidence taken as a whole leaves little doubt of McGough's guilt. But readers of Malcolm's book who have not looked at the trial record will not realize this. Or reviewers: none of the reviews of Malcolm's book that I have seen raises a question about its accuracy.

Malcolm seeks to undermine confidence in McGough's guilt in other ways, too. One way is by asking the reader to imagine malevolent motives on the part of federal prosecutors and federal judges angered by McGough's efforts on behalf of her clients before she met Bailes; but this possibility is reduced to the vanishing point by the fact that McGough did not practice law in the federal courts before she became involved with Bailes. His prosecution for bank fraud was the first federal case that McGough handled.

Malcolm also invites the reader to consider the alarming possibility that the American legal system is incapable of determining guilt and innocence. She is correct that the system is far from infallible, though she neglects to add that a guilty defendant is far more likely to be acquitted than an innocent one is likely to be convicted. But she is wildly incorrect that, “in a sense, everyone who is brought to trial, criminal or civil, is framed” because “the deck is stacked against the accused,” or that “the prosecutor prosecuting an innocent person or the defense lawyer defending a guilty client actually have an easier task than their opposite numbers.” The basis for this claim is that “truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd,” and thus “a nuisance in trial work,” so it can prevail at trial only if it is “laboriously transformed into a kind of travesty of itself.” It is “impossible” for the defense in a criminal trial to “clear the accused”; it can only “attack the accusers.”

This is fearfully overstated. But Malcolm does not stop here. She contends that McGough was convicted because she is incapable of lying (“almost preternatural honesty”); that McGough's habit of compulsive truth-telling condemned her to being disbelieved. “Law stories,” Malcolm explains, referring to the charges and defenses made in litigation, “are empty stories. They take the reader to a world entirely constructed of tendentious argument, and utterly devoid of the truth of the real world, where things are allowed to fall as they may.” What is this “real world” of which she is speaking? Can Malcolm really think that law is nothing but tendentious argument, that it has no truth value whatever? She is flirting with postmodernist skepticism. She does not quite say that truth is unknowable, as that would fatally undermine her claim to have established McGough's innocence. But if legal proceedings, which aim at truth—though not unerringly, and not to the exclusion of other values—are as incapable of hitting the mark as Malcolm believes, then we can have little confidence in the other methods of truth-seeking, such as investigative journalism.

To those readers unshakably convinced that McGough was Bailes's partner in crime, Malcolm's pitch is to depreciate the gravity of his crimes. She does this by romanticizing con artists and ridiculing their victims. They are called “con artists,” she explains, “precisely in recognition of the qualities they share with regular artists,” such as “love of freedom.” The same could be said of most criminals. All of them are irked by the restraints that the law tries to place on their freedom of action. What is true of con artists—what is their stock in trade—is that they are charming; and this enables them to tap the vein of admiration in American culture (as in the earlier English culture that produced such works as Moll Flanders and The Beggar's Opera) for romantic outlawry.

A part of the appeal of con artists lies in the fact that they often prey on greedy, credulous, and sometimes crooked people—at best “born suckers” and at worst fellow con artists. But Bailes was not just a con artist. The bank fraud of which he was convicted in the case in which McGough first represented him was a straightforward case of obtaining a loan by making false representations (backed by forged documents) concerning the borrower's assets. He had earlier been convicted for a similar bank fraud.

Malcolm is also wrong that Bailes's criminal career consisted merely of “the various petty chicaneries he committed in order to eat and to pay for gas.” In the course of a long criminal career, he stole many hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of dollars. (The insurance scam alone got him at least $250,000.) He also imposed enormous costs on the legal system and public-records offices with his incessant filings of forged documents and frivolous claims, lawsuits, and bankruptcy petitions. The burdens that white-collar criminals impose on the legal and administrative systems are not trivial. Malcolm is unduly dismissive of one registrar's complaint of having to spend more than 100 hours “trying to sort out the mess that Mr. Bailes had caused.” She calls this “one among the many moans and whimpers that echo through the chronicles of Bailes's passage through the courts.” What she should have said is that Bailes's victims included not only the people and institutions that he defrauded, but also the taxpayers who support the legal and administrative services that he abused.

Not all victims of con artists, moreover, deserve to be defrauded. Many are simply financially unsophisticated and desperate; and their ruination by con artists is not pretty. Not all prey are also predators. One would have to be an extreme Social Darwinist to believe that con artistry should be condoned because it winnows the commercial and consumer flocks of their weaker members. Whether any of Bailes's victims over the course of his long career were lambs is unclear; but Malcolm is wrong to suggest that all of them were his “spiritual colleagues.” The banks that Bailes defrauded were not. And Malcolm herself calls MacDonald “the patsy”—only “a patsy without a patsy's philosophical bent,” who rather than “sadly stumble away in the direction of his next disaster,” which Malcolm thinks (this is a very Darwinian touch) is how a con artist's victim should react when he discovers he has been duped, tried to get his money back and to get McGough prosecuted into the bargain, being “a harsh and punitive man.” Malcolm is here blaming the victim with a vengeance: not only for being victimized in the first place, but for trying to get the victimizer punished.

Malcolm thinks that Bailes was really convicted just for gumming up the bureaucracy's record-keeping. “[T]he mess Bailes created in the registrar's office was not the crime he was indicted for. But it was the crime he was convicted of.” One is reminded of Camus's intimation in The Stranger that Meursault, charged with murder, really was convicted because he had not cried at his mother's funeral—that is, because he was a nonconformist in a stifling bourgeois milieu. Malcolm believes that Bailes received a long sentence in the bank fraud case because when he was arrested he was apparently living in his car, which was filled with dirty clothes and dirty dishes. “Dirty clothing and dirty dishes are no federal crime; but federal judges no less than juries form their impressions and act on them.” Another Camusian touch, but a meaner one, is Malcolm's claim that the jury deliberated for only six hours before convicting McGough because it was the day before Thanksgiving and the jury “evidently need[ed] the afternoon hours for shopping.” There is no basis for this slur on the jury's conscientiousness.

It is an embarrassment to Malcolm's account that McGough, this compulsive truth-teller, this martyr to truth, exercised her constitutional right not to testify at her trial. Malcolm accepts McGough's explanation that she was afraid that if she testified she would be bound to say things that would harm Bailes. Had McGough testified, Malcolm believes, she would have been acquitted. Her decision to sacrifice herself for her client raises McGough, in Malcolm's eyes, to heroic stature. McGough's “refusal to label [Bailes] a con man and write him off” stands for “something rather magnificent … a bracing idealism.”

Everyone charged with a crime is entitled to the loyalty of his lawyer. But there are limits. The lawyer is not to commit crimes on the client's behalf. No legal system could tolerate such behavior. Breaking the law to spring one's client may be morally justified if the legal system is fundamentally unjust, or perhaps even if, within the framework of a basically just system, the defendant is indeed being “framed” and there is no lawful way to rescue him. But Bailes was just a crook, as Malcolm in her soberer moments acknowledges—and, indeed, reminds McGough. The suggestion that he would have been acquitted of bank fraud, or not charged at all, had he not caused extra work for government clerks is absurd. McGough was not fulfilling “a lawyer's obligations to his client … to the letter.” Those obligations do not include perjury, bankruptcy fraud, breach of fiduciary obligation, obstruction of justice, and the other crimes that this bracingly idealistic heroine committed.

Malcolm's book disserves the public by making light of crimes that involve “merely” fraud rather than drug dealing or violence, and by undermining confidence in the criminal justice system. Bailes, the career criminal, almost a one-man crime wave, is recast by Malcolm as a lovable nonconformist, a modern-day Huck Finn. The system of criminal justice is redescribed as an engine of oppression. By the end of the book, Bailes is Robin Hood and McGough is Joan of Arc—which may be how McGough came to think of the pair of them.

One of Janet Malcolm's anti-law cracks—that “trials are won by attorneys whose stories fit, and lost by those whose stories are like the shapeless housecoat that truth, in her disdain for appearances, has chosen as her uniform”—describes her own technique better than it does the law. I don't blame her for being unwilling to don a shapeless housecoat. I wish only that she had changed the names of the characters in her story and presented it to the public as the fiction that it largely is.

Stephan Landsman (essay date May 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9260

SOURCE: Landsman, Stephan. “The Perils of Courtroom Stories.” Michigan Law Review 98, no. 6 (May 2000): 2154-75.

[In the following essay, Landsman attempts to analyze Malcolm's intent in writing The Crimes of Sheila McGough. Landsman believes Malcolm's views reflect her growing repugnance for the legal system and contends that her single-minded defense of McGough's actions are misplaced and irresponsibly lead the reader to improper conclusions.]


As Janet Malcolm1 tells it [in The Crime of Sheila McGough], Sheila McGough was a middle-aged single woman living at home with her parents and working as an editor and administrator in the publications department of the Carnegie Institute when she decided to switch careers and go to law school. She applied and was admitted to the then recently accredited law school at George Mason University. After graduation, she began a solo practice in northern Virginia that involved a significant amount of state-appointed criminal defense work.

In 1986, approximately four years after her graduation from law school, McGough received a call requesting assistance from an incarcerated arrestee named Bob Bailes. From the very start, McGough's assistance to Bailes was unorthodox. Immediately upon meeting him at the Fairfax County, Virginia, lockup, she decided that his apparent poor health warranted her taking the unusual step of personally signing as guarantor for his bail. McGough said of this decision:

What I did was something lawyers never, never do. I didn't go out of my way to tell anybody I had done that. It was just so unprofessional. … I would not have committed crimes for my clients. But anything that was just risking my time and my money—if I had it—I would not hesitate to do.

(p. 34)

McGough thereafter began preparing to represent Bailes at his upcoming federal court trial2 on charges that he had provided false information to secure a bank loan and used a false social security number in that transaction.

While Bailes was awaiting trial, he conducted a number of business transactions out of McGough's office. These involved negotiations to sell certain allegedly still valid nineteenth-century insurance company charters that were claimed to excuse the holder from the constraints of state regulation or review.3 On June 18, 1986, two men named Frank Manfredi and Francis Boccagna agreed, through their attorney, Alan Morris, to buy two of the charters for $900,000 each with a down payment of $75,000 for both. They were not really the principals in this deal but were “brokers”4 for an investment banker named Kirkpatrick MacDonald. The down payment was wired into Sheila McGough's attorney trust account. McGough immediately drew the funds out of that account, transferring $70,000 to Bailes and keeping $5,000 for herself. Although Malcolm does not explore the matter in detail, other transactions involving the sale of charters also took place at around the same time.

In the late summer of 1986, Bailes, represented by McGough, went on trial in the bank fraud case. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison.5 The story, however, was far from over. McGough redoubled her efforts on Bailes's behalf. She sought his release from prison by a variety of means. These included what one federal district judge found to be a frivolous attack on the sentence imposed upon Bailes6 as well as the instigation of a bankruptcy proceeding. In the bankruptcy action, one set of corporations owned by Bailes sought bankruptcy protection while another set of his shell companies requested that the court release him from prison so he could facilitate the payment of their alleged claims. Although it would appear these claims were nothing but shams, McGough worked tirelessly to effectuate the scheme.

Bankruptcy Court Judge George Benson eventually consented to Bailes's release. This, however, could only be accomplished if a federal district court judge would agree to enter an order setting the defendant at liberty. The first judge McGough approached, Judge Charles Richey, agreed to the release on condition that the United States Attorney's office assent. The United States Attorney was then preparing a second, much more serious case against Bailes7 and apparently would have opposed freeing the prisoner. Rather than accept this decision or enter negotiations with the United States Attorney's office, McGough approached a second federal district court judge, Stanley Harris, concerning the matter. McGough did not inform Judge Harris of Judge Richey's prior ruling, and Harris issued an order releasing Bailes into McGough's custody. Judge Harris rescinded this order as soon as he learned of the prior, undisclosed Richey ruling. Judge Harris was so disturbed by McGough's behavior that he sought to have her disciplined by the District of Columbia Bar for her conduct.

In 1988, Bailes was tried in a North Carolina federal court for his efforts to sell insurance company charters.8 The government's case proved so strong and Bailes's defense so weak that in midstream he shifted to an insanity plea. That claim was rejected by the jury, and, upon conviction, Bailes was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. In the meantime, a number of those either injured or affronted by McGough's behavior during her efforts on Bailes's behalf began civil proceedings against her. The first to proceed was the investment banker, MacDonald, who had lost $75,000 in the escrow deposit incident in June 1986. He brought suit against McGough in 1987 to recover his lost funds. Included as a defendant in this action was the insurer that had provided McGough with Errors and Omissions insurance. Shortly before trial, in the fall of 1988, MacDonald settled with the insurance company, receiving $75,000. One remarkable event in the civil action was the proffer of apparently forged documents by the defense immediately before the case was to go to trial. Who had forged the documents never became clear, but the most likely candidate was Bailes. Later disclosures, however, suggested that McGough may have been involved, at least insofar as seeking to get the forgeries notarized long after their alleged execution date.

In October of 1988, MacDonald took the next step in his campaign against McGough by seeking her disbarment in Virginia. Other bar-related complaints were then being processed, including that made by Judge Harris. The United States Attorney's office in Alexandria, Virginia, responded to all this by initiating a grand jury inquiry into McGough's conduct. The grand jury proceedings resulted in McGough's being indicted on fifteen felony charges.

McGough's criminal trial took place in 1990, and addressed charges related to the withdrawal of funds from her escrow account, her behavior in the bankruptcy proceedings, and a number of other matters.9 The federal prosecutor, Mark Hulkower, subpoenaed more than fifty witnesses for the case (although not all were called to testify). Among those who gave evidence against McGough were four judges, including federal district court judges Richey and Harris, who had been entangled in the bankruptcy scheme.

At the heart of the case against McGough was the withdrawal of the $75,000 MacDonald deposit from her trust account. The “brokers” Manfredi and Boccagna, as well as their attorney, Morris, all testified that this withdrawal was in direct violation of their understanding with McGough that the funds would be held in escrow until the two $900,000 deals were consummated. The credibility of these three witnesses was open to question since each was serving or had served time in prison, and two (Manfredi and Morris) were disbarred attorneys. Moreover, as Malcolm notes, but as McGough's defense counsel failed to observe, the key telephone conversation concerning the escrow arrangement lasted but one minute—a suspiciously short time to conduct all the business the government witnesses claimed was handled. MacDonald appeared for the government and reiterated many of his charges against McGough. These were amplified upon by Michael Wyatt, MacDonald's lawyer in the 1987 civil action involving McGough and her Errors and Omissions insurer. Wyatt described the events surrounding the proffer of the forged documents on the eve of the civil trial.

Prosecutor Hulkower's overarching theory was that Sheila McGough had joined Bailes in a series of illegal scams designed to benefit both the attorney and her erstwhile client. In the government's case, however, the motive for McGough's choosing to forsake the role of honest attorney and join forces with her con man client was never made entirely clear. There was some evidence (albeit thin) of a romantic attraction as well as the more prosaic suggestion that the motive might have been greed.

The defense strategy was to attack the credibility of the prosecution's key witnesses and to argue that McGough had done no more than act as a zealous lawyer on behalf of her client, Bailes. This may not have been a particularly effective defense, but counsel were impeded from any other choice by McGough's refusal to take the stand in her own defense or sanction any sustained attack on Bailes. Her justification for these choices was an assertion that she owed Bailes a continuing duty of loyalty and confidentiality.10 The defense called a series of lawyers to testify in an effort to demonstrate that McGough had acted appropriately in her dealings with Bailes. Among those who testified was McGough's attorney in the 1987 civil proceedings, Kenneth Labowitz. He believed that his client had acted honestly. However, after McGough's criminal conviction, he emphatically asserted that McGough had shown extremely poor judgment in her relations with Bailes, a con man who Labowitz thought had taken advantage of her lack of legal experience, training, and supervision. Three lawyers who had dealings with Bailes also appeared but were not asked whether Bailes had ever tried to swindle them or use their offices and trust accounts for his schemes. (Several would later tell Malcolm that Bailes had done so.)

The jury did not buy the defense's arguments and on November 21, 1990, one day before Thanksgiving, convicted McGough on fourteen of the fifteen felony charges. Of the jury's deliberations Malcolm said: “[T]he jury, evidently needing the afternoon hours for shopping for cranberries and canned pumpkin, reached its verdict by lunchtime after six hours of deliberation” (p. 6). Malcolm says that she, after arduous investigation, came to share a number of McGough's views regarding her conviction. McGough set these out in a letter which stated:

I was a defense lawyer who irritated some federal judges and federal prosecutors in the course of defending a client. The federal prosecutors in my hometown [Alexandria, Virginia] investigated me for four years, and when they failed to turn up anything illegal in what I was doing, they made up some crimes for me and found people to support them with false testimony. … I didn't commit any of the 14 felonies I was convicted of. The U.S. Government office in Alexandria “framed” me.

(p. 6)

Malcolm also has harsh words for McGough's defense counsel and the legal system:

Her lawyers had evidently not been up to the task. To win their case, they needed to tell a story at least as compelling as the prosecution's—the story, as Hulkower [the prosecutor] neatly summarized it in his opening statement, “of what happens when an attorney violates the first rule of criminal defense and crosses the line from representation of the criminal to participation in his crimes.” But no powerful counterstory was ever told by Kohlman and Rochon [defense counsel]. With their hands tied by the double bonds of the rules of evidence and the stubborn silence of their client, they could do little more than rush around putting out little fires in wastebaskets as the entire building burned to the ground.

(pp. 11-12)

In the end, Malcolm concluded that McGough was an “exquisite heroine” (p. 161), “a woman of almost preternatural honesty and decency” (p. 6), who through “the heedless selflessness that propelled her downfall has thrown into relief the radicalism of her vision of defense law as a calling for the incorrigibly loyal” (p. 161).


There are a number of reasons not to accept Janet Malcolm's reconstruction and interpretation of Sheila McGough's story. Some are contained within the story itself while others are highlighted in Judge Richard Posner's assessment of Malcolm's book in a review published in The New Republic in April of last year.11 The most serious charge leveled by Malcolm is that the government “framed” Sheila McGough. It is not exactly clear what this means, but Malcolm herself appears to reject the charge by declaring:

Sheila has never been able to demonstrate to me that Hulkower and his boss, Henry Hudson, knew she was innocent and prosecuted her all the same. “I can't prove it yet,” she wrote in 1996, and she hasn't proved it two years later. While it seems clear to me that Morris and Manfredi and Boccagna testified falsely when they said that Sheila told them she would hold the money in escrow, it isn't at all clear that Hulkower knew this and was cynically supporting a theory he didn't believe in. I think he believed Sheila was Bailes's gun moll and had lied and cheated on his behalf. He had never met Sheila—he didn't know what I know about her character. He professed to find my defense of her pitiful.

(p. 110)

With that charge out of the way, two assertions remain: first, that McGough was “almost preternaturally honest”; and second, that the explanation for her conduct was her selfless loyalty to her client.

As to the claim about McGough's honesty, the record Malcolm sets out is not completely convincing. Although Malcolm is fully satisfied on the point, she does discuss at least one instance which draws McGough's candor into question. That incident involved a man named Fred Quarles, who had made inquiries about purchasing one of Bailes's infamous insurance company charters. Quarles had pursued the matter for some time and, as part of his inquiries, eventually asked McGough where Bailes was. The question came shortly after Bailes had been imprisoned pursuant to the 1986 Virginia bank fraud conviction. Apparently to protect the prospects of a deal and/or the reputation of a client, McGough lied about Bailes's situation. As she put it when Malcolm confronted her about the matter:

“Quarles told the truth. I did mislead him,” Sheila said.

“What did you say!”

“Yes, I told Quarles that nothing was final, that things were on appeal. That wasn't truthful. I did try to mislead him. All I can say in my defense is that I didn't want to give out damaging information about a client without his permission. A more experienced attorney would have found a better way of doing this. I didn't do it well. He took me by surprise, and instead of a generic, lawyerlike answer like, ‘Oh, I don't ever give out information about a client,’ I misled him. I wasn't under oath. It wasn't illegal. But I should have done it differently.”

(p. 129)

This anecdote suggests that truth was no real obstacle when Bailes's (and perhaps McGough's) interests were at stake. Despite this evidence, Malcolm chose to cling tenaciously to her belief that McGough was extraordinarily honest. Her spin on the Quarles matter is revealing, if unpersuasive. Malcolm says of the incident: “Her confession to me that she had misled Quarles was only further evidence of her honesty. She could have fudged or equivocated, but she had chosen to tell the shameful truth about herself” (p. 130). Confession may be good for the soul, but it is not proof of thoroughgoing honesty. This seems a weak defense and one that is strained beyond the breaking point when reconsidered in light of Judge Posner's disclosures, to be considered below.

What remains of Malcolm's claims is the assertion that McGough was guided in her actions by a selfless loyalty to her client, Bob Bailes. It is true that McGough seems, in Malcolm's telling of the story, extraordinarily, even self-sacrificingly, loyal. Yet much of what Malcolm describes as noble loyalty may equally well be described as muddle-headedness or downright stupidity. McGough took every opportunity to help her client sell his plainly suspect insurance charters, manipulate the system to escape confinement, and achieve a number of other self-serving ends. She let him pursue his dubious business out of her office and use her trust account without constraint or review. She told misleading stories on his behalf and did whatever seemed necessary to get the bankruptcy scheme to work. At a minimum, her conduct was careless and irresponsible. Even Malcolm is forced to concede: “It seems unbelievable that someone who had a law degree could be so credulous and so careless” (p. 25). Indeed, it does seem unbelievable.

None of the numerous attorneys Malcolm questioned thought McGough had acted sensibly. Labowitz, her civil counsel, said McGough's “judgment appeared to be flawed. It is inexplicable to me what she was hoping to accomplish when she took some of the actions she took on behalf of Mr. Bailes” (p. 73). He concluded that the escrow transaction, in particular, was handled in a thoroughly unprofessional way. One of her criminal defense lawyers, Gary Kohlman, thought that McGough had performed services for her client “that started stretching the boundaries—or perhaps went beyond the boundaries” (p. 112). Her other criminal counsel, Mark Rochon, said: “What did she do? She simply followed the directions of that idiot [Bailes]. She lacked common sense. She was brand-new out of law school, with no supporting network of lawyers to temper her judgment” (p. 123). William Sheffield, an attorney whom Bailes had tried to manipulate in precisely the same way as he did McGough, barred Bailes from wiring funds into his trust account and confronted Bailes when he disregarded Sheffield's instructions.

Sheila McGough's failure to control Bailes and her advocacy on his behalf seem far more like gullible naïveté than noble self-sacrifice. It harmed not only McGough, but a number of others who had dealings with Bailes. The record Malcolm advances fairly shouts this conclusion. Moreover, when anyone other than McGough is single-mindedly or dogmatically devoted to an objective, Malcolm is immediately suspicious. This was certainly the case with respect to Malcolm's assessment of the investment banker MacDonald. His long and unrelenting pursuit of McGough is presented as questionable, and he is, throughout Malcolm's book cast in an unflattering light. His passion for revenge or justice (depending on how one looks at it) seems far less objectionable and dangerous than McGough's zeal on Bailes's behalf.

Malcolm, perhaps inadvertently, provides a number of alternatives rather than noble zeal, to explain McGough's actions. One of the most intriguing is that McGough undertook her efforts on Bailes's behalf out of a sense of guilt at having botched his defense in the Virginia bank fraud case. As McGough herself put it:

“Where I blundered was to take on legal matters I wasn't prepared for,” she said. “I should have just said no. It was an error of pride. I was flattered by Bobby's trust in me. But I didn't have the proper experience, and I didn't represent him adequately.”

(p. 40)

Another possibility is that McGough, because of her naïveté and inexperience, was conned again and again by the artful Bailes. All of her counsel, both civil and criminal, appeared to subscribe to this notion, and it is amply supported by the reports of lawyers who, through bitter experience, were acquainted with Bob Bailes's modus operandi. Alternatively, or in addition, McGough seemed to be experiencing severe mental distress during this period.12 Her civil counsel, Kenneth Labowitz, said of his client during the run up to the 1987 civil trial: “She was coming apart at the time of the civil case. I mean, emotionally. It was unpleasant to watch” (p. 73). There is good reason to suspect that her choices in relation to Bailes's affairs were the product of emotional pressures that deprived her of sound judgment.

Judge Richard Posner has written a lengthy review of The Crime of Sheila McGough.13 As a part of his assessment of the book, he undertook an independent examination of the record in McGough's case. What he reports having found in that record raises additional questions about McGough's honesty and Janet Malcolm's interpretation of the case. Posner concludes that “the evidence taken as a whole leaves little doubt of McGough's guilt,”14 and that Malcolm's description of it should, most fairly, be described as “fiction” rather than reportage.15

Posner notes a substantial number of instances of McGough's untruthfulness or fraud—instances not reported by Malcolm. Among these is the fact that MacDonald's lawyer in the original charter deal, a man named Blazzard, testified at McGough's trial that two weeks after the $75,000 was wired into McGough's trust account, he spoke with her and she assured him that the money was still being held in escrow in the account.16 Blazzard's testimony appears to provide independent evidence, by a credible source, of McGough's dishonesty regarding the escrow arrangement. Charges of dishonesty are reinforced, according to Posner, by McGough's denial during pretrial depositions in the MacDonald civil suit “that she had represented Bailes in connection with the sale of the insurance charters.”17 Posner also notes that MacDonald's $75,000 was not the only deposit removed by McGough from her trust account and divvied up with Bailes during the course of the insurance charter scam. Two $25,000 deposits, one paid by a man named Johnson, and the other by two investors named Irwin and Sali, were both removed from the account and shared out between McGough and Bailes. In both cases the depositors said they had been assured that the funds would be held in escrow until various charter deals were concluded. When Sali sought return of his deposit, “McGough threatened to sue him and to have him arrested.”18

Posner also focuses on McGough's exceedingly troubling behavior during what he calls the “fantastic scheme”19 to free Bailes by means of a bankruptcy proceeding. As he puts it: “McGough not only prepared numerous pleadings and motions in these fraudulent proceedings, but also procured and paid lawyers to represent the sham creditors.”20 Judge Posner's assessment of the record raises profound questions about whether we should accept Malcolm's description of the matter. It seems far more likely than not that the prosecution and jury got the case right.


Malcolm sees McGough21 as a paradigmatic case—one that can yield an enormous number of lessons. Malcolm's central concern is with the impact of narrative on courtroom adjudication. What courts and juries do, according to Malcolm, is hear and weigh competing narratives. The most convincing story is the one that wins. Malcolm sees this as profoundly dangerous because the best narrative is not necessarily the truth. The problem starts with language itself, “which proscribes unregulated truth-telling and requires that our utterances tell coherent, and thus never merely true, stories” (p. 4). While in most situations “the line between narration and lying is a pretty clear one” (p. 4), that is not necessarily the case in trials. The rules of evidence and the manipulations of adversarial lawyers blur the factual outline, inhibit the flow of information, and leave the decisionmaker vulnerable to the lure of too neat a tale. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that virtually every witness suffers those small lapses of memory and takes those verbal shortcuts that will make him or her vulnerable to a lawyer's cross-examination and accusations of untruthfulness.

The reconstruction that takes place in the courtroom is more “like ruins than proper buildings; there is never enough solid building material and always too much dust” (p. 19). Malcolm's sense is that lawyers see truth as “a nuisance” (p. 26). This is particularly the case because “truth does not make a good story” (p. 26), and lawyers are constantly striving to fabricate the “good story,” one that will win the case. In the end, what helps is used and what is problematic is discarded. Out of this winnowing process, the lawyers shape and fashion their narratives: “Trials are won by attorneys whose stories fit, and lost by those whose stories are like the shapeless housecoat that truth, in her disdain of appearances, has chosen as her uniform” (p. 67). For Malcolm, McGough's case is an archetypical example of all this—the prosecution's story fit. The tale of a renegade lawyer who crossed the line was more attractive than the defense's hobbled contentions about loyalty, although Malcolm was convinced that the latter was indeed true.

The implications, according to Malcolm, are dire: “Law stories are empty stories. They take the reader to a world entirely constructed of tendentious argument, and utterly devoid of the truth of the real world, where things are allowed to fall as they may” (pp. 78-79; emphases added). In this view, biased argument rules over the facts. There is no chance for factually based assessment, and the lawyers' reconstructions blot out the underlying reality. The jury is left guessing. One would think that these conclusions damn the system beyond any hope of redemption, yet Malcolm is, at least slightly, more circumspect:

The method of adversarial law is to pit two trained palterers against each other. The jury is asked to guess not which side is telling the truth—it knows that neither is—but which side is being untruthful in aid of the truth. No one has thought of a better system, but everyone who has participated in it—whether as defendant, defense lawyer, plaintiff, plaintiff's lawyer, prosecutor, judge, or juror—has gained a sense of its cynicism and absurdism.

(p. 79)

These are weighty charges. It is hard to know what to make of the caveat “no one has thought of a better system,” but implicit in Malcolm's argument would seem to be the suggestion that any procedure which leaves participants with a sense that the process is a cynical hoax and essentially absurd cannot be one that is likely to endure.

Malcolm draws several further lessons from her examination of McGough's case. She sees in McGough's story a set of insights about lawyers. The key to legal success is the ability to tell a good story, and those who can best manipulate the evidence triumph. Such is the case with McGough's prosecutor, Mark Hulkower. When faced with factual inconsistencies, he simply designed an effective cover story: “[I]n [his] capable hands … the narrative beautifully held. Hulkower simply wouldn't allow the inconsistencies to impede the progress of his story” (p. 24). The silver-tongued advocate, something of a stock character, triumphs and dooms his less talented opponents to defeat. In this world, the merits are of little importance, and the lawyer's cunning is all that really counts—a cynical insight, indeed!

Lawyers are not only amoral mouthpieces, they are self-serving as well. Lawyers “will do almost anything to stay in [judges'] favor” (p. 112). One sees this most clearly, according to Malcolm, at side-bar conferences. In remarks apparently adapted from her own brief essay in a book based on a Yale Law School symposium,22 Malcolm says that at sidebars “lawyers drop their masks of antagonism and behave like schoolboys in front of the teacher, vying … to impress her” (p. 113). This sycophancy signals a deep disloyalty to or, as Malcolm puts it, betrayal of the client. For most lawyers, unlike McGough, self-preservation and advancement are placed far ahead of loyalty to or zeal on behalf of a client. All of McGough's lawyers are accused of betrayal. Labowitz, her civil lawyer, takes Malcolm “aback by the coldness” of his remarks about his client (p. 72). Malcolm says: “I had expected the posture of loyalty to hold a bit better than this” (p. 72). Kohlman and Rochon, McGough's criminal defense counsel, fare no better. Kohlman suggests to Malcolm that McGough may have transgressed the boundary of propriety in her efforts on Bailes's behalf. In this suggestion, Malcolm sees Kohlman straying “across the line, separating loyalty tempered by honesty from careless betrayal” (p. 112). Rochon, too, “subtly undermined Sheila” in his remarks to Malcolm and, hence, joined Kohlman in the ranks of betrayers. As Malcolm sees it, in a system dedicated to dissembling narratives, it is not surprising to find lawyers who pay no more than lip service to their clients.

Malcolm's third major target is the jury. McGough's jury is depicted as shamefully uninterested in getting at the truth in the case before them. After six hours of deliberations, at least part of which were held on the day before Thanksgiving, they decided to convict on fourteen of the fifteen charges. Malcolm suggests (without any cited evidence) that their motivation for deciding was a desire to get on with holiday grocery shopping. She later suggests that the same jurors (again without any articulated proof) disregarded the testimony of a particular black defense witness because they were an “all-white Alexandria [Virginia] jury” and that similar “testimony might have impressed a New York jury” (p. 36). All of this is consistent with Malcolm's vision of the jury system in general. Late in her book, she writes:

The jury system is posited on the idea that people are capable of suspending their normal state of having a fixed opinion about everything and allowing new ideas to penetrate the defenses of their old ones. But this is like believing people capable of suspending the peristaltic motion of their stomachs. It is like imagining a ballpark filled with placidly neutral spectators. Every juror listens to the testimony through the filter of his preconceptions and as a (conscious or unconscious) rooter for one side or the other. The recognition of this actuality is what gives jury selection its tense atmosphere and has, in our culture of store-bought horse sense, created an industry of experts on jury selection, to whom each side now runs for help whenever it can afford to do so.

(p. 131)

In the end, Malcolm constructs, out of her reading of McGough's case, a devastating portrait of the justice system: beguiled by stories, misled by lawyers, and in the hands of dogmatically closed-minded jurors.


Malcolm's work does touch a nerve. Ours is a time seemingly preoccupied with the idea of narrative. The importance of stories to cases has even been remarked on by the United States Supreme Court. In the 1997 decision, Old Chief v. United States,23 Justice Souter, writing for a closely divided court, emphasized the importance of judicial recognition “of the offering party's need for evidentiary richness and narrative integrity in presenting a case.”24 The lawyers on each side of a criminal case are, according to the Court, entitled to tell their stories, more or less, in their own way. Their evidentiary offerings are to be treated as having a “force beyond any linear scheme of reasoning.”25 The natural and appropriate result of each lawyer's storytelling is that “as its pieces come together, a narrative gains momentum, with power not only to support conclusions but to sustain the willingness of jurors to draw the inferences … necessary to reach an honest verdict.”26 The prosecution's obligation in criminal cases transcends a syllogistic presentation to encompass the telling of “a story of guiltiness.”27

All of this seems to verify Malcolm's charge that the law cares more for stories than for truth. Yet, Old Chief is not a case empowering lawyers as storytellers, but one imposing limits on the scope of storytelling. The Court bars the prosecution's introduction of a somewhat detailed description of the defendant's prior conviction and insists on the use of a defense-proffered stipulation in its place.28 This was done to avoid prejudice and discourage jurors from formulating too potent a story regarding the defendant's past.

Malcolm uses the story of Sheila McGough to indict storytelling in the courtroom. In the burgeoning literature on storytelling, there has been a robust debate about the merits of attacking the legal system by means of stories.29 One needs to search no further than the dispute about the story of Stella Liebeck's injury after dousing herself with an extremely hot cup of coffee purchased at McDonald's,30 to glimpse the nature of the problem. The story of Liebeck's suit and the jury's award of $2.9 million has been used as “exhibit A” by tort reformers seeking to revamp personal injury law.31 Careful examination of the case, however, suggests that the matter is far from simple. It would appear that McDonald's may have handled the problem of coffee burns in a high-handed manner, disregarded a substantial risk to its customers, and been particularly unpleasant in its dealings with the 81-year-old, badly burned Liebeck.32 In the end, the Liebeck story does not shed an enormous amount of light on the question of tort reform although it generated a considerable amount of heat.

Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry have been particularly trenchant in their criticism of the use of narratives as a method of attacking the flaws in the legal system.33 They have concluded “that stories can distort legal debate, particularly if those stories are atypical, inaccurate, or incomplete.”34 Malcolm's chosen story seems to pose all these problems. As Judge Posner has pointed out, there are substantial questions about the accuracy and completeness of Malcolm's description. These are critically important in determining whether McGough has anything at all to teach us. Assuming that Malcolm's tale may be relied upon, it remains to be seen whether it is at all typical or representative. If it is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, it has very little didactic value. A single idiosyncratic anecdote is not proof of anything. Unfortunately, Malcolm makes no effort to place McGough in any sort of context or demonstrate its general applicability. It seems as if she is asking readers to condemn the entire justice system on the strength of a single court proceeding that has (if we accept Malcolm's analysis) gone awry. Malcolm provides no proof that McGough is typical of anything.

Argument by anecdote poses other risks as well. Anecdotes do not provide a sound basis for understanding: “[S]uch evidence permits only the loosest and weakest of inferences about matters a field is trying to understand. Anecdotes do not permit one to determine either the frequency of occurrence of something or its causes and effects.”35 Stories concerning legal misadventure, without more, do not tell us anything about why things happened the way they did. To assume that the system is at fault—or, in the McGough case, to conclude that narrativity and evidence rules did an “exquisite heroine” in—is not justified. Moreover, anecdotes like McGough tend to cut off discourse. They do not develop rational or detailed proof but a prepackaged story. Such stories are hard to challenge, especially because of their sympathetic nature and emotional appeal. Affecting stories tend to hide the complexity of events and clothe important questions in distracting emotional garb.36 The lamentable image of McGough languishing in prison tends to obscure the harder questions raised by Malcolm's book.

These criticisms of Malcolm's anecdotalization of the McGough trial might be read to suggest that when the legal system itself places reliance on stories, narratives, or anecdotes at trial, it courts disaster. The answer to this argument requires an assessment of precisely how adjudicators use narratives and how narratives interact with the underlying facts of a case. Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie argue that jurors decide the complex questions posed in lawsuits by fashioning narratives.37 According to this theory, jurors construct a “casual model,” or narrative, to explain the available proof. This model is then matched with the decision options made available through legal instructions. The best match forms the basis for decision. It is important to note, however, that the causal model, or narrative, is not fabricated independently of the proof but, rather, premised upon it. The process of narrative formulation is not the product of the lawyers' efforts but a construction undertaken by each juror. The construction is a synthetical process that has regard for the evidence and legal rules as well as for prior juror experience. Once each juror has fashioned a narrative, he or she is required to harmonize it with the similar efforts of all the other jurors. No individual's story dictates the outcome.

The question remains whether jurors pay adequate attention to the facts presented to them. While there is no surefire way to answer this question, Harry Kalven and Hans Zeisel, in their seminal work The American Jury, concluded that “the jury by and large does understand the case and get it straight, and … the evidence itself is a major determinant of the decision.”38 Moreover, in almost four cases out of every five studied, judge and jury independently came to the same verdict—a rate of agreement superior to that of professionals facing a range of other decisional tasks.39 Based on these findings, as well as on subsequent research, a number of prominent social scientists have concluded that the weight and directionality of evidence are the preponderant determinants of jury verdicts. As Richard Lempert puts it: “A considerable body of research indicates that even when aspects of a case might appeal to the prejudices of jurors, unless the case is otherwise close on the facts, the evidence dominates.”40 Lempert cites a study by Christie Visher supporting this proposition.41 Visher, in turn, cites several more to the same effect.42 These conclusions are reiterated by Michael Saks who states: “Studies that have pitted trial evidence and arguments against what jurors bring with them to court usually find that the trial information carries far more weight.”43 Similarly, Shari Diamond concludes: “In studies that have measured the contributions of juror characteristics and trial testimony to jury verdicts, the trial testimony dominates.”44 In the end, the empirical research suggests that evidence is key and that narrative construction is driven by it. While it is a leap from these observations to concluding that jurors find the truth, we have solid evidence for joining with Aristotle in arguing: “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.”45

Several of Malcolm's charges remain to be considered, including two against lawyers: first, that they are silver-tongued tricksters who, by twisting the evidence get their way; and second, that they generally betray their clients. As to the first, the above-cited social science materials indicate very serious limits on the power of lawyers to affect outcomes. This question was one that Kalven and Zeisel attempted to assess. Their key findings are that counsel have only an extremely modest impact on decisions and that lawyers are evenly matched more than three-quarters of the time.46 In light of these findings, Malcolm's attribution of particular persuasive power to the prosecutor with a brilliant narrative approach must be treated with a good deal of skepticism, at least as an indictment of the entire justice system.

The accusation regarding betrayal is far harder to deal with as it is intimately bound up with our reactions to Sheila McGough's story. If McGough is a shining paragon of loyalty, then her story stands as a serious accusation against a legal profession that cannot recognize nobility or abide devotion. If, on the other hand, McGough is little more than an emotionally troubled and inexperienced lawyer who made grievous mistakes in attempting to help a conniving client, then there is little need to defend McGough's lawyers or the system of which they are a part. The betrayal/loyalty question, however, has a larger dimension.

Modern criminal defense lawyers confront the dilemma of loyalty on a regular basis. Defense counsel are expected to act with warm zeal on behalf of their clients,47 to render them loyal service,48 and to guard client confidences.49 Yet, the criminal law regarding accessories “forbids a lawyer from intentionally assisting a client in committing a crime.”50 What this restriction means is a hotly disputed question. Some take it to mean that criminal liability can be triggered if a lawyer ignores her suspicions or consciously seeks to avoid the truth about a client.51 Others challenge this view as too restrictive.52 Even if one embraces a less restrictive interpretation of the law on accessories, the lawyer's representation, counseling, and drafting can all result in criminal charges if undertaken with the goal of advancing a criminal objective. Charges of this nature have been made by the government in a series of high profile cases including those of several Miami lawyers defending members of the Cali drug cartel53 and of a New York lawyer working on behalf of a prominent member of the Gambino crime family.54 There are no easy answers in this area. Wisdom counsels restraint before the criminal law is used to discipline lawyers for what they perceive as zealous representation, but lawyers are not free to ride roughshod. There are limits beyond which loyalty may not be pressed. Respect for those limits is not a matter of betrayal but of necessity in any system premised upon the rule of law rather than individual whim.


It is not easy to determine why Malcolm interpreted McGough's case as she did. One might begin by noting that McGough, like Malcolm, was a middle-aged woman struggling to make her way in a sometimes hostile profession. This similarity of situation was likely to have generated some sympathy on Malcolm's part for her subject. Of potentially greater importance are two significant events in Malcolm's life that may have colored her reaction to McGough's story when she became aware of it in the winter of 1996. The first of these was the resolution in that year, after more than a decade of litigation, of a libel suit filed by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson against Malcolm and her employer, The New Yorker magazine. The other was Malcolm's participation in February 1995 in a Yale Law School symposium entitled “Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law.”55

The Masson lawsuit was a bitter and protracted affair that arose out of The New Yorker's publication in December 1983 of a two-part article entitled “In the Freud Archives.”56 This piece presented a scathing portrait of Jeffrey Masson, a man who had meteorically risen to the prominent position of Projects Director of the Freud Archives only to be ousted when he advanced the claim that Freud's work was fatally flawed because of the master's cowardly abandonment of the “seduction theory,” which hypothesized that many psychiatric patients were the victims of childhood sexual abuse.57 Masson had been extensively interviewed by Malcolm in preparation for the writing of the article. These interviews had generated more than 1,000 pages of transcript and notes.58 Masson sued after the publication of the piece, claiming that it “falsely portrayed him as egotistical, vain, and lacking in personal honesty and moral integrity.”59 After a good deal of preliminary legal skirmishing, Judge Lynch of the federal district court for the Northern District of California granted Malcolm's motion for summary judgment in August of 1987.60 The judge did so despite finding that Malcolm had been involved in the “fictionalization or dramatization of conversations”61 presented as direct quotations in The New Yorker article.

Masson appealed this ruling to the Ninth Circuit which, in 1989, affirmed the district court's summary judgment by a two-to-one vote.62 The majority noted that quotes had been fabricated or altered but concluded that “[a]n author may … under certain circumstances, fictionalize quotations ‘to some extent.’”63 In a sharply worded and lengthy dissent, Circuit Judge Kozinski challenged the assertion that material presented in quotation marks can be freely fabricated. “As I see it,” opined Kozinski, “when a writer uses quotation marks in reporting what someone else has said, she is representing that those are the speaker's own words or something very close to them.”64 According to Judge Kozinski, quotations are not fair game for fictionalization or alteration. Such manipulation breaches oft-repeated journalistic principles. In support of his argument, Kozinski referred to a 1984 scandal in which a writer for The New Yorker, Alistair Reed, had admitted that he “regularly used composite characters, nonexistent settings, and invented dialogue in what were purported to be nonfiction articles.”65 This admission set off a firestorm of criticism from some of journalism's leading practitioners, including The New York Times, the Atlantic magazine, Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and a host of others.66 The outcry eventually led the long-time editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, to backtrack from his support for Reed and declare:

We do not permit composites.
We do not rearrange events.
We do not create conversations.(67)

By tying Malcolm to this embarrassing episode and to another involving a reporter named Janet Cooke, whose fabrications led her to have to surrender a Pulitzer Prize,68 Kozinski had delivered several stinging blows. He underscored them by observing, “[t]he circumstantial evidence that defendant Janet Malcolm acted with malice, deliberately or recklessly altering Masson's statements, is very strong indeed.”69

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and, in June 1991, reversed the decision of the two lower courts.70 Justice Kennedy, writing for a seven-member majority,71 embraced Judge Kozinski's analysis. The Court held that quotation marks are not to be trifled with, and that evidence presented by Masson regarding a half dozen article passages suggested the possibility that Malcolm had libelously falsified the plaintiff's words. This ruling made front page headlines and exposed both Malcolm and The New Yorker to further humiliating public criticism. The case was returned to the district court where, in May 1993, a jury found that Malcolm had libeled Masson but could not agree on an appropriate damage award.72 Judge Lynch granted Malcolm's motion for a new trial, which was held in October of 1994. At the second trial a new jury exonerated Malcolm. The second jury verdict was appealed to the Ninth Circuit which affirmed the jury's decision in June 1996, thus ending the case.73

This prolonged legal battle must have been both embarrassing and wearing for Malcolm. The only real hero, from Malcolm's point of view, would have been the stalwart district court judge who, through more than a decade, steered the case to the result he had early on concluded was warranted on the merits. Both appellate judges and juries must have appeared fickle from Malcolm's perspective. In light of this grueling and all-too-public experience, it would not be surprising if Malcolm were attracted to a version of McGough's story that emphasized jury incompetence, lawyer perfidy, legal ineptitude, and the cynical conclusion that the litigation process is absurd. The only “hero” in Malcolm's case was Judge Lynch, and it is remarkable how gently Malcolm treats virtually every trial judge connected to the McGough story, even those who testified against her at her criminal trial. Malcolm's experience may help explain why she saw the McGough case the way she did.

The one remaining piece of Malcolm's work that seems to call for explanation is its particular emphasis on the baleful effect of narrative. At least some of this may be traced to Malcolm's participation in the 1995 Yale conference. The papers presented at that meeting were edited into a book entitled Law's Stories,74 which was published by the Yale University Press in 1996. Of that book, the seemingly ubiquitous Judge Posner has written:

Remarkably, considering that the book is intended to showcase this new movement that I am calling legal narratology, the overall tone of Law's Stories is skeptical and critical, even defensive. Criticisms and expressions of doubt outweigh praise and claims of insight, and the criticisms are more convincing than the praise.75

It should come as no surprise that out of this critical assessment of narrative, Malcolm might have formulated a rather jaundiced view of courtroom storytelling. When the McGough case came along, it may have seemed custom-made to challenge legal narrative because of the prosecution's smooth presentation and the defendant's refusal to allow a neat story to be told on her behalf.

In a brief essay in Law's Stories, Malcolm set out to analyze side-bar conferences. As in her book on McGough, she notes a feeling of “betrayal” as each lawyer's “mask suddenly dropped”76 during the side-bar. Curiously, however, her overarching view of the system appears more benign in the Yale piece. She praises the side-bar declaring:

But in relegating to a private place the trial antagonists' negotiations over the limits of storytelling—over the containment of hating and blaming within crisp rules of procedure (the rules of fair play)—the law restores something of what it has taken. By so clearly denoting what is backstage and what is onstage, by keeping the illusion-destroying activities of backstage firmly hidden, the law, with a kind of moving clumsiness, signals its acknowledgment of a possibly higher power than its own: the power of the imagination.77

By the time Malcolm reached the end of her work on Sheila McGough's case, she appears to have lost her respect for trials, narratives, and “the power of imagination.” Her disillusionment is to be regretted. Its basis is somewhat mysterious. Its consequence, however, is the prejudicing of a canny observer who has, in the past, helped us scrutinize with the greatest care the way we have told stories about poets, murderers, journalists, and psychoanalysts.


  1. Janet Malcolm is a Czech-born American journalist whose parents fled their homeland when she was four, in 1939. She has, for many years, been one of the leading writers on the staff of The New Yorker magazine. A series of her articles have been turned into provocative and high-profile books. These have included her volume about Freudian psychiatry and the iconoclastic psychiatrist, Jeffrey Masson, entitled In The Freud Archives (1984); her sharply critical assessment of the work of journalist Joe McGinniss regarding the case of convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, entitled The Journalist and the Murderer (1990): and her biography of the marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, entitled The Silent Woman (1995).

  2. The trial was to be held in the late summer of 1986.

  3. A lawyer who represented McGough, later described these charters to Malcolm in the following terms: “These guys were buying insurance charters that gave them the right to sell insurance without reserves. That's like printing money. What are they talking about?” P. 72.

  4. This is the term used by Judge Richard Posner to describe Manfredi and Boccagna in his review of Malcolm's book. See Richard Posner, In the Fraud Archives, THE NEW REPUBLIC, Apr. 19, 1999, at 29.

  5. See United States v. Bales, 813 F.2d 1289 (4th Cir. 1987) (noting that the defendant used several aliases, including “Bob Bailes”—the name Malcolm uses throughout her book).

  6. The federal judge who heard this challenge to the sentence, Judge James Turk, was so incensed by its frivolity that he threatened McGough with sanctions for pressing it. Pp. 29-33.

  7. This is the case that would be tried in a North Carolina federal court in 1988.

  8. See United States v. Bailes, Nos. 88-5172, 88-5674, 1991 U.S. App. LEXIS 12199, at *1-2 (4th Cir. June 14, 1991).

  9. See United States v. McGough, No. 91-5511, 1991 U.S. App. LEXIS 28977, at *2 (4th Cir. Dec. 12, 1991) (charges enumerated by the court of appeals included conspiracy to defraud, wire and mail fraud, receiving stolen monies and securities, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, and perjury).

  10. Bailes died in 1995. This led McGough to decide, or at least so she told Malcolm, that she had been freed from the obligation of confidentiality.

  11. See Posner, supra note 4.

  12. I would like to thank my wife, Janice Toran, for bringing this point to my attention.

  13. See Posner, supra note 4.

  14. Id. at 32.

  15. Id. at 34.

  16. See id. at 29-30.

  17. Id. at 30.

  18. Id.

  19. Id.

  20. Id.

  21. See United States v. McGough, No. 91-5511, 1991 U.S. App. LEXIS 28977, at *2 (4th Cir. Dec. 12, 1991).

  22. See Janet Malcolm, The Side-Bar Conference, in LAW'S STORIES: NARRATIVE AND RHETORIC IN THE LAW 106 (Peter Brooks & Paul Gewirtz eds., 1996) [hereinafter LAW'S STORIES].

  23. 519 U.S. 172 (1997).

  24. Old Chief, 519 U.S. at 183.

  25. Id. at 187.

  26. Id.

  27. Id. at 188.

  28. See id. at 190-92.

  29. For discussion of the dangers of this sort of storytelling, see, for example, STEPHEN DANIELS & JOANNE MARTIN, CIVIL JURIES AND THE POLITICS OF REFORM 37-46 (1995), and Daniel A. Farber & Suzanna Sherry, Telling Stories out of School: An Essay on Legal Narratives, 45 Stan. L. Rev. 807 (1993).

  30. See Andrea Gerlin, How a Jury Decided That a Coffee Spill Is Worth $2.9 Million, Wall St. J., Sept. 1, 1994, at A1.

  31. See, for example, the remarks of Representative Ron Packer in support of proposed tort reform legislation, in Cong. Rec. E548 (Mar. 8, 1995).

  32. See Gerlin, supra note 30.

  33. See Farber & Sherry, supra note 29; Daniel Farber & Suzanna Sherry, Legal Storytelling and Constitutional Law: The Medium and the Message, in LAW'S STORIES, supra note 22, at 37 [hereinafter Farber & Sherry, Legal Storytelling].

  34. Farber & Sherry, Legal Storytelling, supra note 33, at 38.

  35. Michael Saks, Do We Really Know Anything about the Behavior of the Tort Litigation System—and Why Not?, 140 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1147, 1159 (1992).

  36. For an analysis of the same problem in a slightly different setting, see Anne M. Coughlin, Regulating the Self: Autobiographical Performances in Outsider Scholarship, 81 Va. L. Rev. 1229 (1995).

  37. The remainder of this paragraph is based upon Nancy Pennington & Reid Hastie, A Cognitive Theory of Juror Decision Making: The Story Model, 13 Cardozo L. Rev. 519 (1991).

  38. Harry Kalven, Jr. & Hans Zeisel, The American Jury 162 (1966).

  39. See Shari S. Diamond, Order in the Court: Consistency in Criminal-Court Decisions, in The Master Lecture Series, Volume II: Psychology and the Law 123, 125 tbl. 1 (C. T. Scheiner & B. L. Hammonds, eds. 1983).

  40. Richard Lempert, Civil Juries and Complex Cases: Taking Stock after Twelve Years, in Verdict 181, 218 (Robert E. Litan ed., 1993).

  41. See Christie A. Visher, Juror Decision Making: The Importance of Evidence, 11 Law & Hum. Behav. 1 (1987).

  42. See id. at 5-6.

  43. Michael Saks, What Do Jury Experiments Tell Us About How Juries (Should) Make Decisions?, 6 S. Cal. Interdisc. L.J. 1, 18 (1997).

  44. Shari S. Diamond, Scientific Jury Selection: What Social Scientists Know and Do Not Know, 73 Judicature 178, 182 (1990).

  45. Aristotle, Rhetoric I.1.1355a22-35, in The Complete Works of Aristotle (rev. Oxford trans. Jonathan Barnes ed., 1984), quoted in Jane B. Baron & Julia Epstein, Is Law Narrative?, 45 Buff. L. Rev. 141, 146 (1997).

  46. See Kalven & Zeisel, supra note 38, at 354-55.

  47. See Model Code of Professional Responsibility Canon 7 (1980) (“[A] lawyer should represent a client zealously within the bounds of the law.”); Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.3 (1983) (“A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”).

  48. See Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.7 cmt. 1 (1983) (“Loyalty is an essential element in the lawyer's relationship to a client.”).

  49. See Model Code of Professional Responsibility DR 4-101 (1980); Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.6(a) (1983) (“A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client. …”).

  50. Bruce A. Green, The Criminal Regulation of Lawyers, 67 Fordham L. Rev. 327, 355 (1998). The argument in the remainder of this paragraph is based primarily on Green's persuasive analysis.

  51. See, e.g., United States v. Wilson, 134 F.3d 855, 868 (7th Cir. 1998).

  52. See generally Green, supra note 50.

  53. See Mireya Navarro, Lawyers Weigh Effect of Conviction of Missing Colleague, N.Y. Times, Aug. 9, 1998, § 1, at 24, cited in Green, supra note 50.

  54. See United States v. Locascio, 6 F.3d 924, 932-33 (2d Cir. 1993) (charge that lawyer was criminal co-conspirator used to disqualify him as counsel).

  55. See Law's Stories, supra note 22, at vii.

  56. The basic facts of the commencement and early stages of the lawsuit are recited in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 686 F. Supp. 1396, 1397 (N.D. Cal. 1987).

  57. For discussion of the seduction theory issue, see Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 895 F.2d 1535, 1536 (9th Cir. 1989).

  58. See Masson, 686 F. Supp. at 1397.

  59. Id.

  60. See generally Masson, 686 F. Supp. 1396 (N.D. Cal. 1987).

  61. Id. at 1398.

  62. See Masson, 895 F.2d 1535 (9th Cir. 1989).

  63. Id. at 1539 (citations omitted).

  64. Id. at 1548 (Kozinski, J., dissenting).

  65. Id. at 1560 (Kozinski, J., dissenting).

  66. See id.

  67. Id. at 1561 (Kozinski, J., dissenting, emphasis in original).

  68. See id. at 1561 n.15 (Kozinski, J., dissenting).

  69. Id. at 1566 (Kozinski, J., dissenting).

  70. See Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 501 U.S. 496 (1991).

  71. Justices White and Scalia concurred in part and dissented in part, calling for an even stricter standard with respect to the use of quotations. See Masson, 501 U.S. at 525-28.

  72. The history of the case subsequent to the Supreme Court's ruling is set forth in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 85 F.3d 1394 (9th Cir. 1996).

  73. See id.

  74. See Malcolm, supra note 22.

  75. Richard Posner, Legal Narratology, 64 U. Chi. L. Rev. 737, 742 (1997).

  76. See Malcolm, supra note 22, at 108.

  77. Id. at 109.

John Bayley (review date 29 November 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2589

SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Fresh Oysters.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 19 (29 November 2001): 18-20.

[In the following excerpt, Bayley states that in Reading Chekhov, Malcolm masterfully blends personal insight with literary evaluation and social commentary about the life and works of Anton Chekhov.]

In her thoughtful and sensitive study Reading Chekhov, which she describes in a subtitle as a “Critical Journey,” Janet Malcolm writes of seeing a dreary production of Carmen in St. Petersburg—just the kind of boring evening that Chekhov might have featured in a story—in the course of which her own boredom was relieved by recalling that moment in “The Lady with the Little Dog” when two schoolboys, illicitly smoking in the cheap seats, see, with their own kind of boredom, Gurov, the “hero” of the tale, kissing the face and hands of Anna, with whom he has fallen deeply in love. Janet Malcolm also notices—has nobody done so before?—that Chekhov's details are like that, so unemphatic yet so unobtrusively effective, as with the moment when Gurov tells Anna “that he had taken his degree in Arts, but had a post in a bank; that he had trained as an opera singer, but given it up.”

“But had given it up”—what a telling phrase! As Janet Malcolm says, the reader assumes, if he notices the point at all, that Gurov gave it up because he wasn't good enough. Will he eventually have to give up Anna for whatever mysterious reason of inadequacy that life will find out in him—perhaps in Anna too? In Chekhov's memorable and haunting ending, perhaps the most haunting in any of his tales, the lovers are still sure that some golden solution to their problems may yet present itself; and although the tale ends there the reader can be sure, too, that they will go on hoping this for a long time, perhaps for the rest of their lives. It is the same motif which will haunt the action, or rather the inaction, of Chekhov's play Three Sisters.

Chekhov, who suffered no rejection from editors or the public throughout his writing life, knew very well nonetheless what failure and disappointment mean, and can mean for those who vainly struggle to realize an artistic gift which they do not possess. His own brother Alexander was a case in point. As Janet Malcolm points out, Alexander's self-pity and feeling of having been cheated by life “was understandable … even fitting, in the light of his incurable talentlessness.” Many of Chekhov's characters, like Ekaterina in “Ionitch” and Katya in “A Dreary Story,” are failures who have tried too hard to become an actress or a pianist, and who pay the penalty of having rejected an offer of human love in order to pursue the chimera of their ambitions. Nina in The Seagull is the exception who succeeds, finally becoming an artist because she really does possess the talent for it. Both Nina in The Seagull and Katya in “A Dreary Story” are believed by Janet Malcolm, and she is no doubt right, to be based on Lydia Mizinova, a woman on whom Chekhov practiced his usual policy of mingled affection and evasion, and whose ambitions to become a singer and a great performer never began to be realized.

For these ladies he expresses in print the kind of sympathy and understanding that we would expect: whether or not the real Lydia Mizinova was comforted by such sympathy we have no way of knowing, although we can be fairly sure that Chekhov was as adroit in cheering his ladies up as he was in escaping from any final commitment to them. His most severe portrait of the ambitious but untalented, who usually get sympathy from him rather than censure, occurs in “The Grasshopper,” in which a vain little would-be artist, married to an admirably hard-working and respected doctor, neglects him in her pursuit of celebrities in the art world whom she hopes will help advance her own career. Her husband contracts diphtheria from a patient, of which he dies; and while he is dying his wife, Olga—“a goose rather than a snake,” as Janet Malcolm felicitously terms her—sees at last what her behavior has been like, and how much she should have cared for a good man she has neglected in the selfish pursuit of her own fantasy of fame. She seems horrible to herself, and “she had a dull, despondent feeling and a conviction that her life was spoilt, and that there was no setting it right. …” In his own unemphatic way Chekhov is a relentless moralist, though at the same time he writes about the quiet remorseless tragedies of life in the same spirit of neutral and sympathetic inquiry with which, when young, he would have written the tale of an ashtray.

Chekhov developed the theme of misconceived ambition early, in a tale fairly long by his youthful standards which he published in 1882 in the magazine Light and Shadows. In his excellent collection of Chekhov's early stories, Peter Sekirin translates it particularly well, bringing out the mastery of detail and the banal which was already Chekhov's trademark. Chekhov called it simply “Skvernaya Istoria,” “Bad Story,” subtitling it “From a Novel.” It concerns a wholly untalented young painter who hopes to get on in society by dressing appropriately, by being as his dilettante friends say “one of us,” and by making up to a well-off young woman who thinks he is going to propose to her. His idea is only to use her as a model, which he feels will enhance his prestige. Somehow he will produce a great portrait, worthy of “Raffle,” simply by making use of the right sort of person, which in his book is what artistic creation must be all about. Here is the would-be artist at a party:

Mr. Nogtev was about 24, with black hair, passionate Georgian eyes, beautiful small moustache, and pale cheeks. He did not paint anything, but he was known as a painter. He had long hair and a long scarf. He wore a small painter's palette on a golden chain in his vest, his cuffs were also tiny palettes, and he wore long gloves, and very tall heels. He was a kind man, but a stupid one. He had a noble father, the same kind of mother, and a rich grandmother. He was not married.

Nogtev shook Lelya's hand in a very humble way, sat down next to her, very humbly, and, as he sat, started devouring Lelya with his huge eyes. He started talking only after some time, also in a very humble manner.

Actually, it was Lelya who did the talking; he just inserted brief remarks like “well,” “yes,” “you know,” “well-well.” He spoke very quietly, hardly breathing, scratching his left eye in embarrassment. Lelya applauded his embarrassment. She decided that the artist had fallen in love with her, and that he was trapped.

By subtitling “Bad Story” “From a Novel” Chekhov raises an interesting question. Could he, might he, have written such a novel, instead of continuing to work at the short story form? In spite of their success he never felt that writing plays was his proper métier, but “Bad Story” could easily have become the sort of novel that talented contemporaries like Garshin and Korolenko were beginning to write. And yet such a possibility would be out of the question in the case of a later masterpiece like “The Lady with the Little Dog,” the perfection of whose form could only have found expression in a story. A great novel need not be “perfect,” in the sense in which a good story has to be.

Chekhov had not reached middle age when he succumbed to a long-standing tuberculosis in a German spa town where he, a doctor himself, had gone to consult a German specialist. His wife, Olga Knipper, was with him. Unkind persons said that like one of his characters she had married him to further her stage career, and get a part in The Cherry Orchard and his other successful plays. She had talent, but like so many of his “artistic” characters rather less than she had hoped. Janet Malcolm tells the story, never really authenticated, of his return to Russia in a refrigerated railway car labeled “Fresh Oysters.” Maxim Gorky, when he heard it, was indignant at this treatment of one of Russia's great writers, whom Tolstoy himself had so highly praised in his own selection of the stories. But Janet Malcolm is surely right to say that Chekhov himself would have been much amused—it might even have given him a new idea for a story, at least for the idea of one, although the kind of irony involved, an irony that might have appealed to Kipling or Maupassant, is not at all in the Chekhov line.

It is striking how possessive the old Tolstoy was about the younger writer—possessive as well as admiring. His essay on Chekhov's story “The Darling” has a special interest, because it shows how far apart the two writers were in their aims and in their ideas about art, although we should remember that Tolstoy had become more and more dogmatic about such matters as he grew older. The heroine of “The Darling” is a woman whom today's feminists would utterly despise. She identifies herself wholly with the interests of the man with whom she is living, and devotes herself to looking after him. When, as a result of accident, desertion, or other misfortune, she loses one man after another she devotes herself no less wholeheartedly to the interests of the next one. She is another goose, though a lovable goose, and the story is both funny and touching in Chekhov's unemphatic and impersonal way. But Tolstoy will not leave matters there. He will have it that Chekhov sets out to make the Darling a figure of fun, but by directing the attention of “a true artist and poet” upon her he beatifies her, and shows her angelic nature for what it is. In a sense Tolstoy is right, but for quite the wrong reason. He ignores the way in which Chekhov mingles the farcical and the absurd, for the Darling, however kind and good, is nonetheless a ridiculous figure, yet with a certain imponderable, even mysterious, element in her nature that Chekhov's undogmatic genius brings to every human being who interests him.

A great part of the charm and the skill of Janet Malcolm's book lies in the very Chekhovian way she mingles personal with critical comment, taking us not only through Chekhov's stories but through the removals and journeys of his life and her own travels in quest of his Russian haunts. She takes issue obliquely with Tolstoy over “The Lady with the Little Dog,” revealing in the process an important truth both about Chekhov's art and about the general nature of fiction, and the way in which great fictions teach us to understand life, even to benefit from what Tolstoy came to call fiction's own essential dishonesty. “The story has a close, hermetic atmosphere,” she says about Chekhov's account of Gurov and Anna's love for each other:

No one knows of the affair, or suspects its existence. It is as if it were taking place in a sealed box made of dark glass that the lovers can see out of, but no one can see into. … The beauty of Gurov and Anna's secret love—and of interior life—is precisely its hiddenness. Chekhov often said that he hated lies more than anything. “The Lady with the Dog” plays with the paradox that a lie—a husband deceiving a wife or a wife deceiving a husband—can be the fulcrum of truth of feeling, a vehicle of authenticity. (Tolstoy would argue that this is the kind of self-deception adulterers classically indulge in, and that a lie is a lie.) But the story's most interesting and complicated paradox lies in the inversion of the inner-outer formula by which imaginative literature is perforce propelled. Even as Gurov hugs his secret to himself, we know all about it. If privacy is life's most precious possession, it is fiction's least considered one. A fictional character is a being who has no privacy, who stands before the reader with his “real, most interesting life” nakedly exposed. We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories, and plays.

Although Chekhov had a mildly sardonic view of critical theory and ideas, as he had of the Tolstoyan brand of literary-moral dogma, he would certainly have enjoyed Janet Malcolm's book. After traveling and exploring in Russia she is able to mix her experiences with those of Chekhov and his characters, and with her progress in understanding him and his art. She describes her journey, following in Chekhov's footsteps to Yalta and to Moscow in a way that is moving as well as illuminating and funny. Her guide Nina sounds very like a Chekhov character with a veneer of Soviet priggishness, as shown by the incident of the seat belts:

Driving back to Yalta from Oreanda, I suggest to Nina, sitting beside me in the rear seat—as I had suggested to Sonia in Moscow—that she buckle her seat belt. Sonia's response had been to inform me icily that only people in front were required to use seat belts. (Vladimir drove without one, buckling up only when he was about to pass a police checkpoint.) I asked Sonia if she thought the rear seat belts were there for decoration. She looked at my strapped-in middle contemptuously. “It is not necessary for you to do that,” she said. The ever-agreeable Nina, however, puts on her seat belt, like a good child consenting to try a new food. She translates my von Korenesque lecture on the foolhardiness of driving without a seat belt to the unbelted Yevgeny, who laughs heartily and tells the following anecdote, which he says came from a doctor at a sanitarium where he once worked: “When there is an automobile accident, the person who wasn't wearing a seat belt is found with a leg here, an arm there, the head there. The person who was wearing a seat belt is found in his seat completely intact—and dead.

Chekhov's own journey across Siberia to the convict settlement on the island of Sakhalin, undertaken to report on conditions there and try to improve them, undoubtedly aggravated his TB and hastened his death; but he himself wrote about it with undaunted humor, commenting on how much he detests his fellow travelers and longs for solitude, yet finds himself equally unhappy when traveling alone.

The modesty and amusement with which Chekhov looked at himself undoubtedly impressed Thomas Mann when he praised those qualities—which struck the German writer all the more because he was so far from being an example of them himself. “Life is only given us once,” says the consumptive narrator of “An Anonymous Story,” “and one wants to live it boldly, with full consciousness and beauty.” Chekhov would never have uttered those fine sentiments about himself, but they are profoundly true of him nonetheless. Chekhov was only forty-four when he died, and was well aware that he would never be old. As Janet Malcolm well says at the conclusion of one of her chapters, “Those of us who do not live under such a distinctly stated sentence of death cannot know what it is like. Chekhov's masterpieces are always obliquely telling us.”

Albert Bermel (review date November-December 2001)

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SOURCE: Bermel, Albert. “Master of the Monologue.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 45-6.

[In the following review, Bermel contends that, although Malcolm's black-and-white opinions on various Chekhov plays and characters are detrimental to understanding his message, Reading Chekhov is an enjoyable study of the playwright's works.]

In her exploration of Anton Chekhov's writings, life and reputation [Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey], Janet Malcolm includes the contemporary testimony of such critics and artists as Dmitri Grigorovich, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky along with her own appreciations and occasional disparagements. She generally likes the works that enjoy public esteem and frowns on those that have been superseded by rewrites (like The Wood Demon, which became Uncle Vanya) or have passed into neglect. The journey of the book's subtitle takes her on a pilgrimage to places Chekhov lived or stayed in and captured memorably in print, from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Yalta and provincial settings.

Nowadays the full-length, full-strength plays lead secure lives. It is hard to believe that the first unveiling of The Seagull was a failure at St. Petersburg's Alexandrinsky Theater in 1896, after the author drastically reworked it before opening night—and after The Wood Demon similarly foundered. Within two years, though, the Moscow Art Theater took hold of the play and turned it into a triumph that established the company as a world-class troupe. Over the past century The Seagull's renown has not dimmed. In Central Park this summer, Mike Nichols' direction divvied it up into an exercise in star turns.

At the time of the ill-fated St. Petersburg production Chekhov was 26. He had already attracted wide attention as the author of one-act farces—many of them, like The Bear,The Proposal, and A Tragedian against His Will, still popular today—plus a pair of longer plays: Ivanov, in four acts, and Platonov, also called Don Juan in the Russian Manner by a British translator. (The last, according to Desmond MacCarthy, “Chekhov left in an unfinished, not to say chaotic, condition.”) As the main source of his family's finances, he could not help being concerned about the possible consequences of unfavorable theater reviews on his growing fame. Malcolm reports that at a youthful 32, Chekhov said he once “wrote serenely, just the way I eat pancakes.” But “now I'm afraid when I write.”

Early on Chekhov turned out a prodigious number of short stories. He had over 300 published in a five-year period while he was studying full time for his medical degree. Some of his later fiction, notably Three Years and My Life—published, respectively, shortly before and between those first two stagings of The Seagull—ran the length of novellas. The bulk of the short stories were each written in one day and were under 20 pages.

Avrahm Yarmolinsky, who edited a fine selection of 500 Chekhov letters, mentions that in 1944 when the Council of the People's Commissars issued the complete writings, correspondence alone, “nearly 4,200 items,” filled eight volumes. Yarmolinsky revels in Chekhov's candor, telling us that the handwritten letters, business as well as personal, display “no reticence … no euphemisms … he wrote in unbuttoned ease.” The stories and plays came to another 12 volumes. And all that despite his battling tuberculosis for some 20 years before dying in 1904 at the age of 44. The Cherry Orchard, his final play, was then resoundingly alive on the Moscow Art Theater's boards; like Uncle Vanya,Three Sisters and The Seagull, it would become the object of unceasing devotion and experiment.

Malcolm serves up assorted quotations from the Chekhov palette and from reported conversations that feature him as artist, brother, husband, friend, friendly stranger (to inquiring readers), and, not infrequently, prophetic social commentator. A chronic self-deprecator, he would never dream of seeking esteem with his pronouncements. Asked to provide biographical information for a journal called Sever, he responded jokingly, saying in part: “I have been translated into all languages, with the exception of the foreign ones. … the French also relate to me: I grasped the secrets of love at the age of 13.” He ends:

This is all rubbish. Write what you want. If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical.

Malcolm pays tribute to the criticism of Robert Louis Jackson, Julie de Sherbinin and Michael Finke, who have pointed out, she says, “repeated [positive] references to religion” in Chekhov. Yet she seems cautious in her support for their view, and I think rightly so. Chekhov does reveal a commanding knowledge of Russian church ritual and decorum. But more than likely this familiarity arises from mundane roots: Anton and his siblings were forced to attend choir practice and services by their father as a disciplinary measure, rather than out of any sacred impulse. From what we learn from friends and relatives, Chekhov senior was a drunk who beat his children and wife and gave up working, but believed fervently in religious orthodoxy.

Unfavorable religious allusions (or memories?) in Chekhov crop up in unexpected sentences and phrases. Thus in the story “Karelin's Dream” we read: “When I feel cold, I always dream of my teacher of scripture, a learned priest of imposing appearance, who insulted my mother when I was a little boy.” In “The Bishop” we encounter the portrait of a saintly man dying of typhus:

And now that he was unwell, he was struck by the emptiness, the triviality of everything which [certain congregants] asked and for which they wept; he was vexed at their ignorance, their timidity; and all this useless, petty business oppressed him by the mass of it, and it seemed to him that now he understood the diocesan bishop who had once in his young days written on “The Doctrines of the Freedom of the Will” … and now seemed to have forgotten everything, and to have no thoughts of religion.

The “he” throughout is the bishop. In this late story Chekhov proves that he is the master of the monologue as an art form. Some of the monologues in his plays run forward enchantingly into comedy, fantasy or farce. When an actor with acute sensitivity to pathos models the same material, though, he may well convert it into tragedy. He may slide the speech into confessions of heartbreaking letdowns and betrayals, attacks on himself for his inadequacies. Using the identical words, he can turn the role into an expression of disappointment with himself.

Malcolm does not appear to have taken account of this distinctively Chekhovian gift; she sees the speeches as firm packages that will probably not change from one actor to the next—or from one act to the next. She imposes direct, single meanings on dialogue that is gloriously flexible and at times equivocal. Such rigidity can become a serious handicap in judging theater. Even in his apprenticeship plays, like Ivanov or the short farces, Chekhov had a playwright's sure instinct for altering, for broadening roles. He pushed them into becoming, rather than simply being, so that they grew—not always in wisdom or understanding.

It is characteristic of Chekhov's pliable speeches that we find amusing lines scattered amid deadly serious ones: that bragging and assurances of happiness abound—until all of a sudden the lines change course or breakdown or, more accurately, break away from the actor and make him look as if he is telling glossed-over untruths. In an opposing vein, a speech relaying sad news may reveal a character making life seem harder than it has any right to be—and then falling into farcical self-ridicule, as in the monologue “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.”

Malcolm also makes the not infrequent mistake of taking a personal like or dislike to a Chekhov character. She expresses a strong distaste for two of the figures in Three Sisters: the peasant girl Natasha, who marries the sisters' brother and takes over their home; and Solyony, a duelist who will kill the only man in the play who befriends him. Malcolm finds Natasha “unbearable,” as if she were a living person, instead of an artificial construct.

Notice how conscientiously Chekhov introduces and develops Natasha's part. Badmouthed before by one of the sisters, she enters the play as a shy girl embarrassed at having to meet their standards of dress and behavior. But she cannot help seeing that if they and their disorganized brother, now her husband, take over the home and estate, they won't know how to manage. By Act IV she has turned into a kvetch who gripes about such earth-shattering matters as servants who misplace tableware. But since we don't live under her sway, we can laugh at Natasha and still feel the discomfort of the other poor souls in that household, who are unable to resist her tyranny.

In his final years Chekhov persuaded Olga Knipper, a star of the Moscow Art Theater, to become his wife. He lived in a warm climate far away from her as she continued to play the leading role in The Cherry Orchard with the company. He felt, he said, “as lonely as a comet.”

Janet Malcolm has reprinted Chekhov's death scene as Olga recorded it in her memoirs. A string of writers from David Magarshack, Princess Toumanova and Henri Troyat to V. S. Pritchett, Raymond Carver and Philip Callow have dipped into it for fact. Olga's original, however, remains the most beautiful version, and Malcolm deserves thanks for providing it. And for offering, overall, a readable introduction to an author with a wise, astoundingly good-natured personality.

Sebastian Smee (review date 8 February 2003)

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SOURCE: Smee, Sebastian. “Stopping Short of Omniscience.” Spectator 291, no. 9105 (8 February 2003): 29-30.

[In the following review, Smee examines Reading Chekhov and discusses Malcolm's analytic look at realism within Chekhov's works.]

Although Janet Malcolm has written in depth about an extraordinary range of subjects, from psychoanalysis and photography through to literary criticism, the art world, journalism, biography and the law, in thematic terms she has actually been one of the most consistent non-fiction writers of our time. Certainly, she is one of the most brilliant. I never feel such a keen sense of anticipation—the kind of adrenalised mental anticipation that feels almost luxurious to indulge—as when I start out on a new piece of writing by Malcolm.

For some, her thematic doggedness has been a problem: launching into a book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (The Silent Woman), Plath groupies and gossip-mongers have been disappointed to find themselves reading what amounts to a reflection on the nature of biography, or, even more broadly, on having one's story told by others, rather than something passing itself off as the last word on its subject.

Similarly, some readers have been miffed to begin a book with the promising title The Journalist and the Murderer only to find themselves embroiled in a meditation on the relationship between journalists and their subjects (the word ‘meditation’, admittedly, feels false, since the effect of this book, Malcolm's masterpiece, is electrifying).

Malcolm is a thorough and resourceful journalist, so the results of her enquiries always feel grounded in observation; they are never pointlessly abstract. Her willingness to crack open hard-set clichés, and her merciless dissection of motives, make her work consistently surprising.

All Malcolm's books have wrestled with the capacity for self-sabotage, or at least, unwitting self-revelation, that inheres in the stories we tell—not only to journalists, but to analysts, to mentors, to courts of law, and even pictorially, via the camera. They are close, unforgiving studies of what happens when we shape and edit reality—as we all do, all the time, even just by looking around us. The truth, Malcolm wrote in her last book, The Crime of Sheila McGough, is ‘messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd. The truth does not make a good story. That's why we have art.’

Which leads us to the subject of Malcolm's latest book—one of her artistic heroes, Anton Chekhov. Although it is neither a biography nor a piece of conventional literary criticism, Reading Chekhov must surely rate as one of the best things ever written on its subject. Malcolm weaves insights stemming from Chekhov's stories and life around journalistic observations of her own made during a recent research trip to Russia. Her Russian guides and translators come in for special treatment, providing some comic relief amid a generous spread of marvellously subtle observations about Chekhov's fiction.

Chekhov has always been considered a realist. But Malcolm demonstrates that his ‘realism’ involved unusually radical simplifications of truth's native unruliness—even to the point of reducing the structure of his stories to the level of Biblical parable (in which Chekhov, although an atheist, was extremely well-versed).

The reality of characters in fiction—and of their cousins in journalism—derives precisely from the bold, almost childlike strokes with which they are drawn. Tolstoy … confines [Anna Karenina's] thoughts and actions to a range of possibility that no person in life is confined by. Chekhov's realism … is of a different order; his economy is even more stringent, his strokes even blunter.

The best fiction writers today tend to believe they are uniquely qualified to provide the kind of penetrating, almost omniscient insight into psychology and motive that the cant and self-exposure of our media culture do so much to obscure. But is deep psychological penetration always the hallmark of great fiction?

‘It does not occur to us,’ writes Malcolm

that the privacy rights we are so nervously anxious to safeguard for ourselves should be extended to fictional characters. But, interestingly, it does occur to Chekhov. If he cannot draw the mantle of reticence over his characters that he draws over himself—and still call himself a fiction writer—he can stop short of fully exercising his fiction writer's privilege of omniscience. He can hold back, he can leave his characters a little blurred, their motives a little mysterious.

This is wonderfully observed. Again, it comes down to how we ‘edit’ ourselves and each other. How writers edit their characters is not so different from how lovers ‘edit’ their loved ones, or lawyers ‘edit’ their clients. In each case, it is only the motives that are different.

Doris L. Eder (essay date October 2004)

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SOURCE: Eder, Doris L. “Janet Malcolm's Difficult Pursuit of Truth.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.

[In the following essay, specially commissioned for Contemporary Literary Criticism, Eder discusses Malcolm's work and career.]

Janet Malcolm was born in Prague in 1925, one of two daughters of a psychiatrist. Her ancestors were secular Jews who immigrated to the United States in 1939 and settled in New York City. Malcolm was educated at Manhattan's High School of Music and Art and then at the University of Michigan. Both she and her sister became writers. Malcolm's career in journalism has been tied to The New Yorker, for which she first began writing about interior design and decoration and photography. Later she became well known for her profiles. She was married to Donald Malcolm, who also wrote for The New Yorker and died in 1975; she then married Gardner Botsford, a New Yorker editor.


A journalist's list of publications rarely attains the same semblance of coherence as a novelist's because a journalist writes principally for money and must, to some extent, “follow the news.” So, at first glance, Malcolm's bibliography has an “occasional” look. This is misleading, however, for there is a constant thread running through her work. This thread focuses on the search for truth and the difficulty of arriving at it through the medium of nonfiction—or, indeed, of language itself.

Malcolm's The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999) opens with the following paradoxical statement:

The law's demand that witnesses speak “nothing but the truth” is a demand no witness can fulfill … even with God's help. It runs counter to the law of language, which proscribes unrecognized truth-telling and requires that our utterances tell coherent, and thus never merely true, stories. This law—with its servants ellipsis, condensation, presupposition, syllogism—makes human communication possible. … In the discourse of real life—life outside the courtroom—the line between narrative and lying is a pretty clear one. As we talk to each other, we constantly make little adjustments to the cut of truth in order to comply with our listeners' expectations that we will guide them to the point of what we are saying. If we spoke the whole truth, which has no point—which is … shiningly innocent of point—we would quickly lose our listeners' attention.1

Here is a serious journalist engaged in a quest for truth who is convinced truth will always escape the attempt to capture it in words, yet knows we must continue to try to capture it in thought and word.


What marks Malcolm as a brilliant journalist is style, which she wields like a scalpel. Perhaps the salient characteristic of her complex, sinuous style is its extraordinary use of metaphor, which may be as humorous—even outrageous—as it is apt. For example, Malcolm presents members of the learned profession of psychoanalysis at a convention in In the Freud Archives (1984) as ballroom dancers and wallflowers.2 Later, she pictures two of her characters sizing each other up “like two dogs sniffing at each other.”3 In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981), a concise account of the profession, its practice, and its politics, Malcolm forcefully presents Freud's discoveries as having the impact of a bomb that has “detonated throughout the intellectual, social, artistic and ordinary life of our century as no cultural force has … since Christianity.”4

This journalist is also capable of coming up with commanding or governing metaphors that serve to focus or crystallize long, meditative essays. In “The Window Washer”—Malcolm's account of her return to her native city and country after fifty years—she glimpses one evening on the banks of the Vltava a swan on its nest being harried by rodents. This becomes for her an image of this small, vulnerable nation—“small, hemmed-in countries like Czechoslovakia, whose geography is their destiny, and whose condition is one of chronic stuckness,”5 unable to fend off marauders.

Or there is Malcolm's indictment of biography, expressed and exemplified in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994), a work depicting the life-and-death struggles between the surviving family of Sylvia Plath (her husband and children and the Plath estate), on the one side and, on the other, Plath's biographers. For Malcolm (who is one, after all), biographers figure as burglars.

Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work … is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of blandness and solidity. … The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography's status as a popular genre. The reader's amazing tolerance … makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.6


It is no surprise that Malcolm writes at length about psychoanalysis, in which she appears to be steeped, nor that her portraits of individuals are insightful and nuanced. Her penetrating psychological portraits set antithetical types against one another. In the Freud Archives opposes Dr. K. R. Eissler, the doyen of New York analysts, and his protégé, Jeffrey M. Masson, a researcher and former professor of Sanskrit. When these two converge it is like the iceberg colliding with the Titanic. It may well have been the worst decision of Eissler's life to entrust the Freud archives, instituted to preserve the documentation of Sigmund Freud's life, to Jeffrey Masson, who, on being sacked, sued Eissler, the archives, and the director of the New-Land Foundation for thirteen million dollars. (The case was settled out of court for $150,000.) In an interesting postscript, the litigious Masson subsequently sued Janet Malcolm for allegedly fabricating quotes in her interviews with him that recounted his story. This suit, which dragged on for a decade, marred the journalist's career although Malcolm was cleared of the charge of libel.

Malcolm's paired subjects sometimes contrast a purist, or a member of the unco guid, with a more dubious, complex type, or con artist. Such are her portrayals of Eissler and Masson or of the abrasive Kumermann and the urbane Valenta in “The Window Washer.” More specifically, Malcolm is concerned with unraveling the complex relationship between journalistic subject and object. Malcolm's paired personae sometimes present paired narratives or alternate versions of the truth. The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) compares and contrasts journalist/author Joe McGinniss with murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, the subject of McGinniss's book Fatal Vision. The two men had agreed to share the proceeds of this work, which McGinniss based on interviews with MacDonald conducted over several years. But when the Green Beret, who had been convicted of having murdered his wife and two children, discovered the journalist had portrayed him as a psychopath, he sued him for fraud and breach of contract. Malcolm sympathizes with both of them; she also condemns them both. Her “secret sharer” complicity with her subjects is one of the most compelling aspects of Malcolm's profiles. The interplay of empathy and judgment is largely responsible for propelling one on to the end of the story.

In choosing to write about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Malcolm focuses on a larger-than-life archetypal duo. The travails of author Anne Stevenson, whose biography of Plath entitled Bitter Fame was published in 1989, are the fulcrum on which Malcolm's study turns. Malcolm remarks that, in approaching the subject of Plath and Hughes, one is forced to take sides, that one of the “necessary conditions of writing about Sylvia Plath is a hardening of the heart about Ted Hughes.”7 Like Stevenson (a classmate of Malcolm's at the University of Michigan), Malcolm proves unusual in championing Hughes against Plath. (Now that Hughes is dead, this point of view may become more common.) Anne Stevenson's dilemma was complicated, however. She received unprecedented help from Ted Hughes's sister, Olwyn, the most active executor of the Plath estate. When Stevenson's research led the writer to modify her view of Plath so that she took a kindlier view of the dead poet, she wanted to revise her work. But at this juncture, Olwyn Hughes threatened Stevenson with withholding permission to quote unpublished material. Stevenson was constrained to hedge her bets and, although hers is one of the superior Plath biographies, the author was never satisfied with Bitter Fame, believing that perhaps she ought to have withheld it from publication.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Malcolm's Silent Woman is her survey of the biographies of Plath extant at the time her own book was published. (Those of Paul Alexander, Edward Butscher, Ronald Hayman, Jacqueline Rose, and Linda Wagner-Martin are all incisively reviewed.) What Malcolm adds to the literature is an acute sense of how Plath's bipolar personality fitted the Zeitgeist of the “double-faced” fifties. She finds the poet embodying “in an almost emblematic way the schizoid character of the period. She is the divided self par excellence. The taut surrealism of the late poems and the slack, girls'-book realism of her life (as rendered by Plath's biographers and her own biographical writings) are grotesquely incongruous.”8 It is the frightening disparity between the beautiful blonde and “Old Yellow” to which Sylvia Plath herself drew attention.

Malcolm offers other brilliant insights on Plath, believing that her utter self-centeredness and self-absorption probably resulted from Plath's “feeling the chill of the void with such unnerving intensity” that she had to interpose “so many layers of heated self-absorption between herself and what lay outside.”9 And, gazing through the prism of Alvarez's astounding memoir of Sylvia in The Savage God, Malcolm underlines how Plath's and Hughes's relationship was alternately dominant-recessive, so that first one, then the other was constrained to dominate.

Malcolm points to the sort of chain reaction of posthumous publications that took place after Plath's suicide. The mordant The Bell Jar and the incomparable Ariel poems prompted Plath's mother, Aurelia, to publish her bland, goody-two-shoes volume Letters Home because she could not accept her daughter's Lady Lazarus version, or vision, of herself. “It seems simply never to have occurred to Mrs. Plath that the persona of Ariel and The Bell Jar was the persona by which Plath wished to be represented and remembered,” observes Malcolm.10 Ted Hughes subsequently felt called upon to publish Plath's Journals as an antidote to Letters Home. Eventually, Hughes would publish his own antidote to lives written by the “peanut-crunching crowd”—the poems of Birthday Letters.

Before this could happen, however, the world was awash in Plath biographies, most of them written by ardent feminists. Malcolm traces the source of this flood, which she likens to a blackening oil spill, back to Aurelia's portrayal of her dead daughter and to Alvarez's elevation of Plath to an icon.

Now the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularized realism: period clothing, furniture and kitchen appliances; real food; a cast of characters headed by a Doris Dayish Plath … and a Laurence Olivier-Heathcliffish Hughes. In exposing her daughter's letters to the world's scrutiny, Mrs. Plath not only violated Plath's writer's privacy but also handed Plath herself over to the world as an object to be passed from hand to hand.11

This was what initiated the public, as opposed to the private, ordeal of Ted Hughes. Indeed, he and Alvarez were estranged for many years as a result of that critic's memorial essay about Sylvia Plath. Agonized and appalled by this, Hughes asked Alvarez, “How can you call it a tribute to her—to make a public spectacle of the one thing she ought to be allowed to keep to herself … her infinitely humiliating private killing of herself …”12

Malcolm testifies to the power of Ted Hughes's as yet unpublished letters. In fact, the case she makes for him may be considered as trenchant as the one she files against him. She presents Hughes as hero and victim. One might well agree with Craig Seligman that Hughes and his sister Olwyn “made life as miserable for the dead poet's biographers as the biographers made it for them.”13 And yet Malcolm makes us feel for Ted Hughes, whose life, for at least a decade after his first (and second) wife's suicide, must have been sheer hell. (Hughes's second wife, Assia, not only killed herself as Plath did, but also her daughter by him.) Malcolm enlists our sympathy by quoting from Hughes's letters. She asks herself often why, if he so cherished privacy, Hughes left so much of himself in the public record. She concludes that the poet was conflicted by trying to serve two masters. This is the way she expresses it: “His effort to disentangle his life from the Plath legend while tending its flame is a kind of grotesque allegory of the of the effort of every artist to salvage … normal life for himself from the disaster of his calling.”14 His silence Ted Hughes explained to Anne Stevenson thus: “I have never attempted to give my account of Sylvia because I saw quite clearly from the first day that I am the only person in this business who cannot be believed by all who need to find me guilty.” Nevertheless, Ted Hughes's scorn and loathing of “being dragged out into the bull-ring and teased and pricked and goaded into vomiting up every detail of my life with Sylvia for the higher entertainment of the hundred thousand Eng Lit profs and graduates who … feel very little … beyond curiosity of quite a low order, the … popular bloodsport kind” is palpable. What he longed for, he said, was “to recapture for myself, if I can, the privacy of my own feelings … about Sylvia and to remove them from contamination by anyone else's …”15 This is what he achieved in the poems of Birthday Letters, published in 1998.


Reading a Malcolm profile means viewing a subject from many different angles yet, as she acknowledges, the journalist or writer—however seemingly detached or dispassionate—must have a point of view. Without that, the entire journalistic or literary enterprise would lack all point.

Malcolm is determined to get at the truth, but finds language by its very nature to be radically at odds with truth. She recognizes imagination as the surest way of arriving at truth, and regards fiction as inherently superior to nonfiction. This is a paradox revealed as this journalist uncovers “the epistemological insecurity by which the reader of biography and autobiography (and history and journalism) is … dogged. In a work of nonfiction we almost never know what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. … The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked.”16


Much of Malcolm's work may be read as meta-journalism, or journalism about journalism. Just as Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (1980) is a reflection on photography and In the Freud Archives and Psychology: The Impossible Profession probe psychoanalysis, The Journalist and the Murderer is an inquiry into the true nature of journalism, The Silent Woman, a meditation on biography, and The Crime of Sheila McGough, a disquisition on the law. The Journalist and the Murderer caused a furor with its provocative opening salvo: “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.”17 Malcolm's fellow journalists denied this charge violently and naively. As Craig Seligman points out, they missed the point.18 Though Malcolm was assailed, while writing about McGinniss and MacDonald, by the unhealthy nature of the relationship between journalist and subject (the case was a reprise of her own experience with Jeffrey Masson), she sensed that “the tension between the subject's blind self-absorption and the journalist's skepticism” was what gives journalism its zing, its “authenticity and vitality.”19 Similarly, though Malcolm denigrates biography as voyeurism and theft of privacy, she also knows there is no substitute for it. As for the law, Malcolm never doubts the necessity of the legal system, though regarding it especially nowadays as less concerned with “discovering truth” than with comparing “competing narratives” that summarize or edit truth so as to win “the prize of the jury's vote.”20 Malcolm's indictments of journalism, biography, and the law are honest probings of their inner nature, not attempts to demolish them. It is time for a revaluation of her work.


  1. (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), p. 3.

  2. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 3.

  3. Ibid., p. 101.

  4. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), p. 22.

  5. The essay appears in The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings by Janet Malcolm (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 363.

  6. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 8-9.

  7. Ibid., p. 40.

  8. Ibid., p. 16.

  9. Ibid., p. 100.

  10. Ibid., p. 34.

  11. Ibid., p. 35.

  12. Ibid., p. 128

  13. See “Janet Malcolm,” www.salon.com/people/bec/2000/02/29/malcolm, p. 8.

  14. The Silent Woman, p. 156.

  15. Ibid., pp. 141-42.

  16. Ibid., p. 154.

  17. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 3.

  18. www.salon.com/people/bc/2000/02/29/malcolm, p. 7.

  19. Ibid.

  20. The Crime of Sheila McGough (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 3.

Janet Malcolm Bibliography

Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (Boston: Godine, 1980; New York: Aperture, 1997)

Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1981; Vintage Books 1982)

In the Freud Archives (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984)

The Journalist and the Murderer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)

The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992; Vintage Books, 1993)

Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker, ed. David Remnick (New York: Random House, 2000)

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)

Reading Chekhov (New York: Random House, 2001)

The Crime of Sheila McGough (New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Vintage Books, 1999)


Principal Works


Further Reading