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Who’s Afraid of Janet Malcolm?

Mirabella, November 1992

Who’s Afraid of Janet Malcolm?

Mirabella, November 1992

Don’t ever eat in front of Janet Malcolm; or show her your apartment; or cut tomatoes while she watches. In fact, it probably isn’t a good idea even to grant her an interview, as your every unflattering gesture and nervous tic will be recorded eventually with devastating precision. You most likely won’t be happy with the results; you may even want to sue.

In The Purloined Clinic, a collection of essays, reviews and profiles published by Knopf this month, Malcolm fortifies her credentials as the most dangerous interviewer in journalism. She is well aware of the power of the interview, which is no doubt why she will not talk about her new book. Offering dazzling epigrammatic comments on everything from reading the vertiginous French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan (“like being trapped in a cave whose entrance is blocked by a huge rock”) to Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution (“Czechoslovakia now had a kind of perfect man as its President…and it is well known that children of perfect parents have a hard time”), Malcolm provokes arguments and shakes things up.

To many, she is best known for her scathing book, The Journalist and the Murderer, originally published in The New Yorker, about the duplicitous dealings between superjournalist Joe McGinniss and convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. McGinniss traded a share of his book royalties to secure MacDonald’s total cooperation, their collaboration resulting in the true-crime blockbuster Fatal Vision—a book that revived McGinniss’s flagging career. Malcolm portrays McGinniss as an unsavory and ambitious hack so desperate to get the story that he pretended to be friends with MacDonald even after becoming convinced of his guilt. While McGinniss’s ethics were certainly questionable–violating if not journalistic norms, then at least the loyalty that exists between friends Malcolm used the case to spin a sprawling morality tale of how all journalists eventually betray their subjects.

The literati talked of little else for the two weeks in March 1989 that Malcolm’s piece ran in The New Yorker–a notable event for a magazine that rarely inspires controversy. “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,” began her j’accuse, which triggered a deluge of psychospeculation about what made Malcolm tick. As it turned out, at the same time as she was playing journalism’s ethics cop, Malcolm was herself being sued for about ten million dollars by Jeffrey Masson, the bitter subject of her book In the Freud Archives. Masson accused her of fabricating damaging quotes (“I was like an intellectual gigolo,” for example) and attributing them to him. After two dismissals, Masson’s case was heard by the United States Supreme Court, which in June sent it back for a jury trial to be held in May 1993.

Attacking journalism’s ethics without revealing her own legal entanglements was, at best, extraordinarily naive. Some critics-Masson among them–suggested darkly that Malcolm was covertly writing about her betrayal of Masson in an unconscious act of atonement.

There were no elements in common between McGinniss’s suit and her own, she countered, which was precisely why she had felt free to write about the lawsuit. McGinniss’s case sprang from his deceitful conduct–the gray zone between personal and legal betrayal-while her suit was based on a grudge over a written text, she explained. For the most part, her words fell on deaf ears. In the afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm concluded ruefully that she would be remembered by some as a “fallen woman of journalism.”

But percolating beneath the reaction of journalists whose pride had been wounded by the class snitch was a much deeper issue having to do with the integrity of journalism itself. Why did Malcolm’s screed get such tremendous attention? Partially it was the immensity of her thesis that every interview is but a deceptive prologue to a grand betrayal. But if one stepped back from the cacophony, it became clear that she and her critics were arguing past each other; the latter citing examples of mundane conflicts from the world of daily journalism while Malcolm defended her practices with the notion that “the literally true may actually be a kind of falsification of reality.” It was as if they were speaking different languages.

And, in a sense, they were. From her rime as The New Yorker’s photography critic in the seventies, Malcolm’s has been a distinctive if somewhat dissonant voice in American journalism. Born to Jewish parents in pre-war Prague, she formed her view of the world in an atmosphere of brooding central European pessimism. In 1939, when she was five, she and her family {her younger sister is the writer and translator Marie Winn) left Czechoslovakia for New York City where she attended the High School of Music and Art and then went on to the University of Michigan. Her first husband was a writer at The New Yorker who died in 1975, and she is currently married to Gardner Botsford, a retired New Yorker editor and a stepson of the magazine’s one-time owner.

Although Malcolm spent her formative years in the United States, her sensibility bears the mark of central Europe’s intellectual standard-bearer, Freud. Like him, she is relentless in her attempts to probe her subject’s psyches, whether they are literary critics, family therapists or art-world bigwigs. Her journalistic method, like Freud’s psychoanalytic one, is at once excruciatingly intimate and coldly impersonal; the end result of both is a profound transformation in how one sees oneself.

In her writing, Malcolm praises those who are courageous enough to stare into the abyss of man’s twisted nature without flinching, and damns those who aren’t. She is suspicious of facile explanations, doubtful of our ability to know ourselves and of our belief that we can easily (or perhaps ever) know each other. In a rare musical moment in her otherwise elegantly spare book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, she writes, “‘Only connect,’ E.M. Forster proposed. ‘Only we can’t,’ the psychoanalyst knows.” For Malcolm, Freud is not the glib sage who instructs journalists to study a subject’s toilet-training for clues to his personality, but the moralist who cautions us that man’s mind is an impenetrable thicket of neurosis and evasion that can never be completely cleared.

If Freud is one source of her worldview, Aristotle is another; the classical right punch following up her modernist left. From Aristotle, Malcolm gets her conviction that character determines one’s actions; that what you do in life flows naturally from who you are. Her profile of a Czech dissident in this latest collection doesn’t so much tell a story as present a series of detailed scenes from which his character slowly emerges. Her focus on character is at odds with the twentieth-century belief that a person is, for the most part, the sum of his actions; an idea that leads us to legally punish someone only for committing a crime, not for being me sort of person who would break the law.

If questions of character guide Malcolm’s method, questions of morality give her writing its intensity. Not content simply to tell her subjects’ stories, she believes it is a writer’s responsibility to judge them. In this, she is the quintessential moralist; a trait that puts her nineteenth-century sensibility at odds with our current discomfort with prescriptive morality. Her most captivating writing revolves around moral dilemmas, whether played out through the figure of a chaste redeemer or some tragic, twisted soul-the self-important sculptor Richard Serra versus the self-effacing editor Ingrid Sischy; the morally shallow Joe McGinniss versus the humble but wise lawyer Gary Bostwick. Rarely tempted by the petty putdown or verbal slight, Malcolm’s moral judgments jar the reader because they are so fundamental; she accuses her unluckiest subjects of being dishonest rather than of merely acting so.

Combining Freud and Aristotle packs quite a wallop, her nuanced understanding of the modern mind bolstering her unshakable focus on character. Malcolm’s profiles are typically composed of a series of finely etched portraits; small, seemingly insignificant scenes described in lavish detail fix a subject’s character with startling vividness. She draws her subjects so well that they often have a presence akin to that of the great figures of literature; like Emma Bovary or Raskolnikov, their decisions seem to be the only ones possible, drawn as these characters are to an ineluctable fare. Quibble about her general thesis {as with Joe McGinniss} or the accuracy of her quotes (as with Jeffrey Masson), but if she has captured your character so that even those who disagree with her recognize its accuracy–and she usually does–there isn’t much you can do. Unlike the typical aggressive who merely stabs his pen at a subject’s jugular, Janet Malcom imprisons his soul in a few deftly composed paragraphs.

Malcolm’s talents come through most vividly in this collection in her 1986 New Yorker profile of Ingrid Sischy, then the insouciant editor of the cutting-edge magazine Art-forum. Titled “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” the profile charts the fault lines of the New York art world as it transformed itself from the staid predictability of the seventies to the frenetic postmodern uncertainty of the eighties.

Rather than straightforwardly telling the story of Artforum, Malcolm crafts a series of be known that way.” profiles to people its world, placing Sischy at its center. It is a curiously indirect piece of writing in which Malcolm meanders around her subject, taking careful notes from every angle the way a young student might study an important sculpture. We hardly see Sischy for the first twenty pages, and when we do she is serenely withstanding a barrage of invective from Richard Serra, and then, a few pages later, innocuously chopping tomatoes with an earnestness and “agonizing slowness” that could only signify purity of heart; a suspicion confirmed when Malcolm likens her to “a work of decommodified art.”

This world is painstakingly recorded with the zeal of an anthropologist who has just discovered a new tribe. Describing the natives almost exclusively through their food and homes, Malcolm crafts glittering, adjective-drunk ethnographic nuggets that could be stripped of their nouns without losing much. Critic Rosalind Krauss’s loft is “beautiful, dark, forceful, willful, severe, disdainfully interesting, mildly begloomed”; while art writer Barbara Rose’s loft is “mirror-filled, soft-gray, curved black, mirror-topped, abstract, Oriental, fur-covered.” If character, in Malcolm’s hands, is destiny, then decor is fate.

Sischy is Malcolm’s moral beacon; among the young editor’s obsessions, we learn, is a “fetishistic concern with questions of ethics.” Like Malcolm, “she sees moral dilemmas everywhere.” In Sischy’s quietly serious persona, Malcolm discovers the antidote to contemporary art’s–and perhaps contemporary culture’s-hype and slick showmanship.

Sischy remembers her interviews with Malcolm fondly. “We met once a week for a year and a half. It was amazing to have somebody to really talk with who cared so deeply about my work. It was the kind of relationship you expect from your analyst,” she says. A living counterexample to Malcolm’s theory of journalistic betrayal, Sischy was more startled than threatened by Malcolm’s extraordinary empathy. Reading the profile, she says, “was like looking at a photograph of myself. It was a bit shocking, but it was the shock of being examined so carefully. It was scary to be known that way.”

Malcolm’s more theoretical writing is also shot through with questions of morality, Although subtitled “Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography,” her 1980 collection Diana & Nikon is as much a study of ethics as it is a book of criticism. Peppered with references to “photographic untruth” and “our common fate,” these essays soon tip off the reader that Malcolm has weightier things on her mind than snapshots. The act of judgment entailed in clicking the shutter gives the photographer a godlike power to reinvent reality, exposing man’s frail psyche to the camera’s democratic gaze. Malcolm is entranced by the “willingness to go to unpleasant places where no one wants to venture, its nasty preference for precisely those facets of our nature that we most wish to disown.” She explores the way photography lies and tells the truth, showing its similarity to journalism and psychoanalysis as a tool for judging reality.

As the daughter of a psychiatrist and someone who has spent many years on the couch herself, it is no surprise that Malcolm’s work is most alive when she writes about analysis. The fifty-minute “hour,” confined to the same office, repeated day after day for years on end, separated from real life by the arcane ritual developed over nearly a century, is finally measured by an unattainable ideal of self-knowledge. But for all its strangeness, analysis, as Malcolm rightly points out, is real life–as much a part of a day’s other twenty-three hours (and ten minutes) as a bizarre intensification of it.

For Malcolm, it is the most noble and complex of human attachments; an empathic, nonmanipulative, insight-seeking quest that other experiences approximate, but none achieve so fully. But all analytic relationships, like most journalistic ones, eventually end in failure and disappointment. Freud knew this and concluded that neurosis was not a, but the, human condition, the origin and terminus of psychoanalysis. The two extremes of Malcolm’s moral universe are psychoanalysis and journalism, her ultimate “good guy” and “bad guy”: one dedicated to relieving man’s neurotic tendencies, the other thriving on them. What her cosmology misses, however, is that betrayal, manipulation and deceit are integral to all relationships, not just journalistic ones. In damning all writers, Malcolm tries to banish this uncomfortable truth to the sphere of print, where it is perhaps most visible, as if such segregation will redeem the rest of life. At the beginning of The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm daydreams that her interviews with McGinniss will “be less like experimenter and subject than like two experimenters strolling home from the lab together after the day’s work.” The fantasy concludes with her hope that “nobody would ‘do’ anything to anyone,” and this surely is Malcolm’s sweetest dream. In analysis, no one “does” anything to anybody precisely because only one person (the free-associating patient) is really doing anything at all. Analysts spend most of their time listening, much like Malcolm with her passive interview technique. The difference is that after the interviews are over the journalist pieces together, rather than files away, her notes and composes something for publication; her artistic responsibility is to make sense of what she hears privately. But this is only where the betrayal is made public, not where it occurs.

If Janet Malcolm were an analyst or scribe, and therefore freed from the responsibility of publishing her findings, she could avoid being an articulate witness to the exquisitely cruel human drama that makes her squirm. But, despite her misgivings about the “canker that lies at the heart of the rose of journalism,” Malcolm is, finally, a writer; and as Joan Didion told us more than thirty years ago, writers are always selling somebody out.”

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