Janet Malcolm on the Uncertainty Beat
Turtle Bay, Midtown Manhattan. A Sunday in June, the early 1980s.
Robert Gottlieb comes home from the flea market and wanders into his backyard garden.
The publishing icon finds his family where he expects them, at lunch in the adjoining backyard garden of Janet Malcolm and her husband, New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford. Gottlieb is Malcolm’s editor at Knopf, but is not yet editor of the New Yorker. In Avid Reader, his boldface-name-stuffed-but-not-overly-dishy memoir, we’re informed that the Gottliebs and the Botsford-Malcolms form an extended, neighborly clan—enjoying the free run of each other’s houses, spending Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners together most years. This otherwise unremarkable lazy Sunday lunch earns its place in Gottlieb’s book thanks to the presence of “a man and woman I didn’t know.”
Gottlieb goes on:
Introductions, but I didn’t catch the names. I had some food and left—the man gave off what I felt to be so powerful an aura of narcissism, of overwhelming self-satisfaction, that I literally couldn’t bear to be in his presence. That evening when I called Janet to apologize for leaving so abruptly, I asked who this man was. “Jeffrey Masson,” she said; “the person I mentioned to you whom I’m writing about.” “How can you spend time with someone like that?” Janet just laughed.
For the Malcolm aficionado, Masson’s cameo in someone else’s book is a tantalizing, almost titillating glimpse of a time before the rupture. That time seems remote indeed, almost forty years after publication of In the Freud Archives—the book that would cleave Masson and Malcolm both from and to each other (it resulted in an irreparable split between them even as it entangled them in a decade-long legal battle).
In that book, we have watched Masson putter around his San Francisco apartment, “the sort of nondescript, almost-not-seedy digs typically inhabited by young academics who have not yet risen very far.” Malcolm’s gloss on Masson’s apartment is a quiet register of his descent. An academic who has risen quite far in two separate fields finds himself, at the time of Malcolm’s visit, something close to persona non grata in both of them. To see him elsewhere, in Gottlieb’s book, is to catch a snippet of someone else’s fuzzy-edged, color-saturated home movie from before things went bad.
In the Freud Archives is Malcolm’s reconstruction of what happened when Jeffrey Masson, having grown restless and bored at the University of Toronto—where he was a Sanskritist who’d made full professor by 35—undertook training in psychoanalysis. This young upstart, who “gave off a sheen of the intellectual big time that even those who disliked him were grudgingly impressed by” quickly made his way into the inner circle of the psychoanalytic establishment. After winning the trust of K. R. Eissler, secretary of the Freud Archives, and eventually being named his successor, Masson pursues a line of argument that is intolerable to Eissler, Anna Freud, and other keepers of the Freudian flame.
This slim book about an internecine intellectual feud has no call to be as entertaining as it is. It’s a near-comic, three-character psychodrama in 160 pages. There’s Eissler, the respected and fierce guardian of Freud’s legacy, who has nevertheless found himself taken in by two men who turned out not to have sainted Sigmund’s best interests at heart. In addition to brash Masson, there is the true outsider Peter Swales, a Welsh autodidact who only finished high school. Having left his job as personal assistant to the Rolling Stones, he describes himself as the “punk historian of psychoanalysis.” Swales also cops to being a manipulative hype artist who, upon reading “The Interpretation of Dreams” recognized a fellow bastard, declaring himself “[t]he only person who has ever really understood Freud.”
Both of these men fell from Eisslerian favor when in Swales’s words, they “began to see that Freud was not the virtuous and straightforward man he has been pictured as being.”
Masson’s dissent causes the biggest uproar, because he’s climbed highest in the firmament. In extremely digested form, it goes like this: Masson, with privileged access to a cache of correspondence known as the Freud-Fliess letters, came to believe that Freud had wrongly rejected “seduction theory.” In this early theory, Freud held that each of his hysterical patients was dealing with an early childhood sexual trauma. Freud’s later, more intricate theories held that it didn’t matter what or even whether there had been a trauma. What mattered were the narratives patients crafted out of their understanding of what they thought had happened. As Malcolm put it, Freud’s “gradual and reluctant shift of focus from the miseries of the outer world to the woes, of a different order, of the inner world is what is meant by the ‘discovery of the unconscious.’”
We might expect Malcolm, as the skeptical journalist, to be the person in pursuit of capital-T Truth while casting Masson, the shooting-star academic, as the loosey-goosey postmodernist. But their roles are reversed. Malcolm is in the bag for psychoanalysis, which puts her, quietly, on the side of the analysts described at this cocktail party, at which Masson
said, quite angrily, “Don’t you care what really happened? Isn’t that what is really important?” At which point the group just sort of backed off, and the discussion ended. Because the answer to that, you know, from an analytic point of view is “No, we’re not so concerned with what really happened. We’re concerned with how it got worked into the patient’s inner life.”
This will become Malcolm’s professional preoccupation: not “what really happened” but how and by whom the story of what happened is worked out—whether at trial, in biography, in therapy, or in the practice of journalism itself—and how that story is worked into what we might call the conventional wisdom. Nonfiction writing, for Malcolm, is less an uncovering of the facts than a mediation among competing narratives. This attitude accounts for the austere perch—elevated and just slightly off to the side, wryly watching—she occupied in the landscape of New Journalism. And so what Malcolm wrote of the Masson-Eissler relationship applies equally to the Malcolm-Masson pas de deux: “That things should have ended so badly between them was probably inevitable.”
Janet Malcolm was born Jana Wienerova in 1934, in Prague. In 1939, her parents bribed Nazi officials for exit visas. As the Winns, they eventually settled on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where her father, a psychiatrist and neurologist, became a kind of “village doctor to the Yorkville Czechs.” At the University of Michigan Malcolm met and married Donald Malcolm, also a writer. In 1963, Janet began to contribute features on shopping and children’s books, as well as a column about design, to the New Yorker, where Donald reviewed books and off-Broadway shows. Donald Malcolm died in 1975, after a long, never-quite-diagnosed chronic illness. Janet married Botsford that same year, and remained a fixture at the magazine until her death in June 2021. A friend to old stalwarts like Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, Malcolm was one of the bridges between the magazine’s sepia-toned Shawnian sunset and its Remnickian platinum dawn.
Her first long “Fact” piece—New Yorker lingo for the magazine’s sometimes interminable features—came about, in 1978, partly as the result of her desire to quit smoking. Feeling herself unable to write without cigarettes, she instead spent several months reporting a long article on family therapy.
Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, and sometimes its absence is career-altering. “By the time she finished the long period of reporting,” Katie Roiphe writes in the introduction to her Paris Review interview of Malcolm. “She found she could finally write without smoking, and she had also found her form.”
A form and a field: she’d been tipped off about this new family therapy by her father’s connection to the world of psychiatric inquiry. Having grown up in the “so-called heyday of Freudian theory in America,” she and her sister viewed psychiatrists as “psychoanalysts manqué”—a remarkable thought now, a fifth of the way into the 21st century. At some point, she underwent full Freudian analysis—which we only learn outright from Gottlieb’s book, when he discloses it as an experience they shared and valued. Despite her two books and perhaps a dozen articles with an explicit focus on psychoanalytic practice, theory, and its interminable internal debates, she references her own analysis, and then only obliquely, perhaps twice.
In her Paris Review interview, Malcolm—incredibly—tells Roiphe that “[a]lthough psychoanalysis has influenced personally, it has had curiously little influence on my writing.” We have, via Malcolm, enough Freud to know what this sort of denial means. It’s hogwash. Even after she moves on from psychoanalysis as an explicit subject, Freud rides shotgun on almost all her future investigations, informing her approach, angle, and concerns.
In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, she writes:
The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: we cannot know each other. We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain. A horrible kind of predestination hovers over each new attachment we form. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster proposed. “Only we can’t,” the psychoanalyst knows.
This is one of Malcolm’s fundamental operating assumptions: “We cannot see each other plain.” All we can do instead is sort out our respective narratives, and see whether there’s any common ground.
Malcolm refers to “the feverish rush of discoveries that Freud had made in the eighteen-nineties” and “The Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries” while at the same time she acknowledges that “‘Proof’ of the efficacy of psychoanalytic cure has yet to be established, and no analyst claims it.” But check out those quotation marks, and/or their lack: for Malcolm “proof” is not on the table and would anyway be beside the point, but it’s interesting that her characterization of Freud’s ideas—built on anecdotal observation and impressive leaps of theorizing—as “discoveries” receives no cautionary marking.
In her last meeting with Masson, Malcolm tells us, she pushed back on his complaint that none of his former analyst colleagues had “anything interesting to say.”
“‘Nothing is interesting,’” Malcolm says, the italics hers. “‘We invest certain things with interest.’”
“No. Certain things are objectively interesting, and certain things are not.”
Forget, for a moment, that this is a line uttered by a man who devoted his first twenty years of professional life to the study of Sanskrit. Breathtaking here is Masson’s preposterous certainty. As another former colleague says of him: “To be an analyst and to be certain—they don’t go together. You have to have doubts.”
Uncertainty is Malcolm’s bailiwick. Like the analysts above, she cares less about what really happened than what people make of what they think happened.
Masson sues Malcolm. After she’s able to produce tapes of most of the things he denies having said, the issue comes down to five disputed quotes among some 12,000 of Masson’s quoted words in the text. The suit remains under litigation as she reports, writes, and publishes her next book.
The Journalist and the Murderer is a book about a trial about a book about a trial.
On February 17, 1970, Colette MacDonald was murdered along with her daughters Kimberly and Kristen in their home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Jeffrey MacDonald, their husband and father, served as a doctor in a Green Beret unit. MacDonald was cleared by a military tribunal even though “his story about waking up to the screams of his wife and older daughter and about seeing four intruders—three men holding clubs and knives and a woman with long hair holding a candle and chanting ‘acid is groovy’ and ‘kill the pigs’” sounded like the fishiest Manson pastiche. Unhappy with the outcome of the tribunal, Colette’s stepfather Alfred Kassab spent most of the 1970s lobbying the feds to open an investigation. In 1979, MacDonald stood trial, and it’s where the characters in Malcolm’s book first come together.
The journalist and the murderer of her title are Joe McGinniss and MacDonald, respectively. McGinniss—who’d made his name with The Selling of the President 1968, about the marketing of candidate Richard Nixon—was working as a “guest columnist” at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He met MacDonald when he wrote about a fundraiser for MacDonald’s defense hosted by the Long Beach Police Officers Association. MacDonald invited McGinniss to “embed” with his defense team for the upcoming trial in North Carolina. McGinniss, who had made his first big splash embedded with the Nixon media operation, couldn’t resist. Or, anyway, he didn’t resist. McGinniss entered a business relationship with his subject: MacDonald received a portion of McGinniss’s $300,000 advance and a share of the royalties in return for granting the writer unfettered access to the accused.
But as he hung out with MacDonald and the defense team—in a literal fraternity house, the summer-vacated Kappa Alpha chapter on the North Carolina State campus—McGinniss came to believe that MacDonald was, in fact, guilty. So did the jury; MacDonald was convicted. McGinniss maintains contact with MacDonald over the next four years—in sympathetic letters that will become material evidence at trial—as he writes the book.
In 1983, McGinniss’s book comes out. Much to MacDonald’s surprise, its title is Fatal Vision, and MacDonald is painted as a sociopath. Mike Wallace does one of his classic gotcha interviews on 60 Minutes, reading out lurid passages as the camera records the convicted murderer’s first-time reaction.
Malcolm’s slim book incorporates all of this, but only as background. The occasion of The Journalist and the Murderer is yet another trial. This is the one in which MacDonald sues McGinniss, not for libel, but for fraud, for breach of contract, and for generally misrepresenting his intentions.
Five of the six jurors seem to feel that McGinniss has behaved at least dishonorably, but the proceedings end in a mistrial, thanks to a single holdout. In a wonderfully absurdist set piece, Malcolm interviews this juror, Lucille Dillon, in a hotel room in Los Angeles the afternoon of Thanksgiving 1987. We learn that Dillon just liked McGinniss, that she’s an animal-rights activist (who was put out when the other jurors declined to examine the literature she offered), loves the Constitution (which she has read most of, quitting only after “it got a little tedious”), that she has remarried her second husband after an interregnum of nineteen years (for access to his social security), and that this is the second time she’s been the lone holdout juror in a mistrial.
For Malcolm, this encounter is an object lesson in “the surrealism at the heart of journalism. People tell journalists their stories as characters in dreams deliver their elliptical messages: without warning, without context, without concern for how odd they will sound when the dreamer awakens and repeats them.” She invites us to marvel with her that this odd woman will exist “henceforth … on paper, as a sort of emblematic figure of the perils of the jury system.”
That word there at the end, did you note it? “Perils?” The “perils” of the jury system are that sometimes justice isn’t done. Malcolm is on MacDonald’s side in this lawsuit.
McGinniss and MacDonald eventually settle, but Malcolm doesn’t need a verdict to make her case, whose thesis she spells out in her opening line. That series of words with which she is most closely associated I have resisted quoting until now, but we probably ought to get them on the record, once again: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to know what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Note that in this assertion, the question isn’t whether some journalists do morally indefensible things while others refrain. The practice of journalism itself is morally indefensible; the only question is whether a given journalist has made peace with that fact.
Many of them had not, have not, will not. Malcolm’s attraction to the case, she tells us, grew out of its status as a “[g]rotesquely magnified version of the normal journalistic encounter.” But the morally defenseless journalists were certain of other unstated reasons for her interest. The parallels between MacDonald v. McGinniss and Masson v. Malcolm were only too obvious: a subject sues a journalist, and then that journalist writes a book about a subject who sues a journalist? Come on, Janet!
My suggestion that all journalists feel, or should feel, some compunction about the exploitive character of the journalist-subject relationship was held up as a covert confession of the wrong I had done Jeffrey Masson.
Of these charges Malcolm was sniffily dismissive, admonishing us all in her afterword:
That some readers were nevertheless able to think of the present book [when it first appeared in the New Yorker] as being veiled autobiography (and thus found my text incomplete, even devious, because it did not mention the Masson lawsuit) derives, I have come to think, from a misconception about the identity of the character called “I” in a work of journalism. This character is unlike all the journalist’s other characters in that he forms the exception to the rule that nothing may be invented: the “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention … He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.
But these charges weren’t—or weren’t only—made out of a delighted schadenfreude. In the opening pages of Journalist, as Malcolm frames the situation of the writer-subject relationship, it is difficult to imagine that she’s not referring to Masson: “The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him.”
As she wrote those words, Malcolm found herself on the business end of a subject’s vengefulness, having practiced the very deception she says it is every journalist’s fate to commit. “[S]ome truth,” our committed Freudian wrote elsewhere, “[L]eaks out of every court document, as it does out of everything written or said.”
Malcolm’s haughty, high-minded response to critics mostly did not satisfy. As late as 2011, in a blog post, Esquire’s Tom Junod, on the occasion of that aforementioned Paris Review interview, called Malcolm “full of shit.” (Though we note here that he also—in a possible and appropriately enough, Freudian, slip—misquoted her on journalism as “morally reprehensible”—a significant shift from “indefensible.”)
But it is Malcolm’s journalistic “I” that offers her her unique perch in the New Journalism. Speaking of Esquire, let’s look at two of that magazine’s seminal New Journalistic texts. First up we have Tom Wolfe, who liked to tell the story about himself that he was “totally blocked” with his first Esquire piece, on car customizers in Los Angeles. As Wolfe tells the story:
I suddenly realized I’d never written a magazine article before and I just felt I couldn’t do it. Well, [editor Byron] Dobell somehow shamed me into writing down the notes that I had taken in my reporting … I sat down one night and started writing a memorandum to him as fast as I could, just to get the ordeal over with. … I churned it out all night long, forty typewritten, triple-spaced pages. I turned it in in the morning … and then I went home to sleep. About four that afternoon I got a call from him telling me, Well, we’re knocking the “Dear Byron” off the top of your memo and we’re running the piece …
This mostly self-serving account functions as a tidy origin story but also gets at something of the immediacy Wolfe is after in New Journalism, dispensing with the pretense of objectivity in favor of getting the reader close to a subjective experience of what it was like (or might have been like) to have been there.
Next, type into your favorite search engine “gay talese shirtboard frank sinatra,” and you can easily find another early artifact of New Journalism: the shirtboard on which Gay Talese outlined his classic write-around “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Talese never spoke to Sinatra. The shirtboard is a detailed and even sort of lovely glimpse into a writer’s effort to build a story with nothing at its center.
Grant me, please, a gross oversimplification: on the one hand we have Talese’s modernist edifice, at the center of which is an absent subject, and on the other hand we have Wolfe’s postmodern gee-whiz shrug at his observations’ stubborn refusal to cohere. The common thread is the discernible presence in each piece of the journalist himself.
Malcolm retains that journalist’s presence in her work, that “embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.” Except Malcolm’s “I” isn’t an observer of life, she’s a critic of accounts of life. She’s a critic obsessed with narrative coherence. Or, rather, she is obsessed with our reflexive need for narrative coherence despite reality’s stubborn refusal to provide it. After In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm’s concern with the ways that narrative coherence is (often falsely) achieved becomes her overriding obsession.
As that obsession grows, Malcolm’s disavowal of the influence of psychoanalysis on her work becomes increasingly preposterous. The process of analysis, of sifting through experience to find a narrative we can live with, is deeply informative of her work and thinking. If the writer wasn’t present, what really happened is simply not accessible; we are left only with the differing and disparate accounts of the people who were.
This conundrum leads us, in turn, to the fundamental imbalance in the journalist-subject relationship. “A writer is always selling someone out.” That laconic bon mot belongs to Joan Didion, Malcolm’s exact contemporary, but it was Malcolm who dedicated most of her career to exploring that fact and its implications. In two more books about trials, she came to understand the courtroom not as a forum for fact-finding but a coliseum of competing 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 for appearances, has chosen as her uniform.” And “truth is a nuisance in trial work. The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd.”
Didion again: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Yes and, says Malcolm: “We go through life mishearing and mis-seeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up.” We cannot be honest, even with ourselves, and so any account of our experience—or our experience of others—is hopelessly marred. “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.”
One way Malcolm keeps the reader reassured and at her side while she attempts to assemble the refracted pieces of evidence into something is through the periodic deployment of categorical declarations—as in the opening line of Journalist—the best of which provide the satisfying mental click of the aphorism.
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.
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 the aid of truth.
We have to face the problem that every biographer faces and none can solve; namely that he is standing in quicksand as he writes. There is no floor under his enterprise, no basis for moral certainty.
Malcolm’s aphorisms are temporarily solid icebergs on postmodernism’s endless sea of contingent meaning. It is thrilling, in her discussion of the absolute unreliability of reality when mediated by courts or journalists or biographers or artists—among “on the one hand this and on the other hand that”—to have her stop and boldly assert … something. It’s exciting to have her say, at last, something she thinks she knows for sure.
If we’ve learned anything from Malcolm, isn’t it to distrust certainty?
Yes, but: “Without some ‘false and damaging’ certainty, no writing on any subject is humanly possible,” Malcolm wrote in The Silent Woman, her book on the problem of Sylvia Plath biography. Each of Malcolm’s “biographies”—on Plath, Chekhov, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas—were really about the problem of biography.
Over the years, her disdain for biographers grew while her disdain for trial lawyers waned. Each narrator—lawyer and biographer—builds, out of a mess of contradictory facts, impulses, and opinions (Yeats: “that bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast”), a compelling story. But only biographers try to pass their story off as the story.
In “A Second Chance,” a 2020 piece from the New York Review of Books, Malcolm describes the “coaching” she underwent in 1994 before her second jury trial in the Masson affair, in the hopes of making her seem less like a remote, high-handed New Yorker writer and more like a real person.
It worked; the jury responded well to her coach’s suggestions—direct your answers toward the jurors; wear interesting scarves—but her description of her working methods, which was also convincing: “I talked about the difference between the full and compelling account of his rise and fall in the Freud Archives that Masson gives in the article and his wandering and incomplete speech in the restaurant.”
The “full and compelling account” appears in the book as a 14-page Masson soliloquy at Alice Waters’s not-yet-world-famous Chez Panisse, which Malcolm characterizes, in an aside that nods to the atmosphere of intellectual upheaval, as “itself a member of a revisionist movement: the reaction … against French culinary orthodoxy.” Malcolm tells us that she spoke to Masson over six months (including, presumably, at her home in Turtle Bay). Over those months, she gathers the best of what he said and “I then wrote my monologue. It was like making a collage. It never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong by using scraps that had been acquired at different times.”
“My monologue” is telling. They are Masson’s words, but it’s Malcolm’s monologue. Malcolm frames Masson’s lawyer’s question as hopelessly dull: “He didn’t say that at Chez Panisse, did he?”
(About this trial: there’s a fact that seems relevant, Freudian even, that I feel compelled to include though, as Malcolm might have noted, I can’t find a smooth place to do it in my own narrative of these events. Malcolm’s lawyer in this lawsuit was Gary Bostwick, who comes off in her portrayal as charming indeed—just as he did when he appeared in The Journalist and the Murderer as the lawyer for MacDonald.)
We say things we mean; we say things we don’t mean. Sometimes we say one thing when we mean something else. Sometimes we do this on purpose, sometimes by accident. These are the lessons of psychoanalysis, and these assertions seem true. But when Malcolm takes excruciating, exquisite pains to remind us of the instability of all human knowledge, but then asks us to just trust her (“my monologue”) at Chez Panisse, she comes off as something new indeed: a patrician postmodernist. Her observation about the journalist’s hopeless moral position, though, remains intact.