Several years ago, when I found myself writing a book for the first time, I made a routine out of constantly reading and re-reading Janet Malcolm’s work. A friend had suggested to me that in order to sustain myself through the production of some hundred and twenty thousand words, it would be helpful to find a lodestar or kindred spirit to accompany me through the project. This lodestar would be another writer, and it wouldn’t matter whether they were dead or alive. The goal would not be imitation but simply to choose someone whose rhythms, vocabulary, and intellectual preoccupations could make a place for themselves in the middle background of my own mind as I wrote—five hundred words each weekday (no excuses), one chapter a month.
I was not looking to enlist Malcolm in this role when I first encountered her work. I was just doing research. My own book was about a moral panic that had taken place in the 1980s, involving false allegations of child sexual abuse by childcare workers. I was reading about the history of psychiatric and feminist thinking on the sexual abuse of children and came across the writing of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a Sanskrit scholar turned psychoanalyst whose contentious interventions into the history of Freudian thought briefly lent him a degree of celebrity: Masson made appearances in the New York Times, appeared on television to debate former mentors he had since renounced, and ingratiated himself with Freud’s daughter, Anna. Masson’s theory was that the young Freud, in the course of his own psychiatric practice, had discovered that the sexual abuse of children was shockingly common, a nearly universal practice among the fathers of Victorian Austria. Masson viewed this early discovery as the correct one: “Freud,” he wrote, “was the first psychiatrist who believed his patients were telling the truth.” But Masson argued that when Freud realized these views were inhibiting his own professional advancement, he revised his theory, claiming instead that his female patients’ memories and dreams of sexual abuse were fantasies, expressions of repressed and transformed desires and longings. This revised view was the foundation on which the whole edifice of psychoanalysis was built, and that meant the bedrock of Freudian psychoanalysis was a misogynist lie.
Masson is the subject of Malcolm’s second book, and so when I read In the Freud Archives for the first time, I understood myself to be looking for facts, dates, quotations—material. The material was there, and like a good nonfiction writer I dutifully underlined and annotated, but I also found that the particulars of the story she told had difficulty competing with the writing she used to tell it. The book opens with Masson’s appearances at various psychoanalytic conferences:
Masson was lively, inquisitive, brash, very talkative, anything but cowed. He was not a psychiatrist but a Sanskritist. He had become a tenured associate professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto at the age of thirty (by thirty-five he was a full professor), and he gave off a sheen of the intellectual big time that even those who disliked him from the start were grudgingly impressed by. He was good-looking in a boyish, dark, mildly Near Eastern way. (The photographs of Masson that were presently to appear in the Times, Newsweek, and Time make him look more exotic than he does in life, and a bit plump and spoiled.)
Malcolm immediately contrasts this charismatic, untrustworthy tyro with K. R. Eissler, “of New York.”
Eissler was then (and remains) one of the grand old men of contemporary psychoanalysis. He is tall, gaunt, and unmistakably European. He speaks with an accent whose dominant tone of Viennese asperity is incongruously coupled with and (one realizes on closer acquaintance) rendered all but pointless by an underlying, insistent, almost pathological kindheartedness. There is a class of people, however, to whom this kindheartedness does not extend. These are the enemies of Sigmund Freud (as Eissler sees them), for whom he has nothing but fierce enmity and a kind of bewildered derision. Eissler has thin gray hair, very thick glasses, and a full mouth, whose flat, downward-curving upper lip is startlingly familiar: 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.
These are not among the most famous of Malcolm’s notorious descriptions, but on their own and especially in contrast with each other, they display her method in some detail. Her sketch of Masson is bright and precise, and it must have been irritating to Masson himself. He is “good-looking” rather than “handsome” or “attractive.” He emanates neither gravity nor accomplishment but only “a sheen of the intellectual big time.” “Big time” is somewhat mean, but not as mean as Malcolm’s contriving to have the newspaper and magazine photographers, rather than herself, be the ones to make Masson look “a bit plump and spoiled,” with its suggestion that Masson cannot competently manage his own self-presentation. Eissler, meanwhile, comes off very well. Though lightly and affectionately ironized for his devotion to Freud, Eissler also enlists Malcolm’s cultural sympathies, calling forth a small parade of Expressionists. “One has seen this mouth” in Pascin, Kokoshka, and Sander. Well, not me; Sander was the only one I’d even heard of the first time I read In the Freud Archives, and I certainly didn’t have the mouths of his photographic subjects floating around in my memory and waiting to be reactivated by an eminent psychoanalyst or anyone else. Malcolm’s inclusion of three Central and Eastern European artists tells us something about K. R. Eissler’s physical appearance, but it tells us more about Malcolm (born in Czechoslovakia) and her own affinities. Masson calls forth a sparkling caricature, a brisk summary of professional achievement, and dry sarcasm. Eissler calls forth a rich atmosphere of culture, art, and literacy.
I admire the elegance and precision of these descriptions, in the drily appreciative way one admires the technical perfection of a kitchen appliance that is unusually satisfying to use. But what draws me to them, what makes me want to have them close, is the way Malcolm’s precision makes palpable, without disclosing explicitly, the stronger and potentially embarrassing emotions that compelled her to write about Masson’s attack on psychoanalysis in the first place. In just two pages, the situation is clear: Malcolm loves the world Eissler represents and defends. She loves its habits of mind, its eccentric formality, its émigré wit and gloom, its obscurity and discipline. She loves that this system of thought and the practices that surround it come from the same part of the world that she does. As a corollary, she hates Masson, less I suspect for his bravado and egotism than for the fact that after charming his way into the profession’s inner sanctum—Eissler had appointed him Projects Director at the Freud Archives—he immediately launched an effort to raze the entire tradition to the ground. These are the kinds of prejudices and devotions that competent magazine editors don’t let their writers articulate in print, but they are also exactly the shades of feeling that allow writers to choose their subjects at all. Malcolm, perhaps more than any of her contemporaries, was sufficiently self-aware and curious to allow these passions to exert real pressure on her sentences, while also being talented enough to guide and shape those pressures into a gratifying unity.
This is why The Journalist and the Murderer is the most representative of her books, the one they’ll keep on syllabi a century from now if university undergraduates turn out to be fascinated by American magazine writing of the second half of the twentieth century. The book is an account of convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald’s libel suit against journalist Joe McGinniss, whose own book about the MacDonald case, Fatal Vision, had been a best-seller. McGinniss, who had secured MacDonald’s cooperation by promising to write a book from the perspective of the defense, sat near MacDonald in court, received nominal payment from the defense team in order to alleviate concerns about attorney-client privilege, and wrote unerringly sympathetic letters to MacDonald after his conviction. When the published text of Fatal Vision revealed that McGinniss had thought MacDonald guilty through much of the time they spent working together, MacDonald sued. What isn’t revealed until The Journalist and the Murderer reaches its Afterword is that before she began reporting on the McGinniss/MacDonald affair, Malcolm herself had been sued for libel by Jeffrey Masson, the subject of her previous book. (He alleged that Malcolm had fabricated quotations, among them Masson’s assertion that he was regarded as “the greatest analyst who ever lived,” except for Freud.) Malcolm’s Afterword is dry, self-deprecating, and funny. She observes that journalists might be “grateful for the mechanism the law provides for transforming the displeased subject’s impulse to kill him into the more civilized aim of extracting large sums of money from him.” She notes the gratifications and pleasures of reading a legal brief written on one’s own behalf. She describes herself being “drawn” to the legal documents pertaining to her own case “as if to a forbidden treat, and which I would peruse like a child reading a favorite fairy story over and over again.” Reflecting on this Afterword last year in the New York Review of Books, Malcolm said she was “full of admiration for its irony and detachment—and appalled by the stupidity of the approach. Of course I should have tried to prove my innocence.”
The rest of The Journalist and the Murderer exhibits a similar lack of instinct for self-preservation. It is a somewhat wild book, a seething exercise in transference, projection, and masochistic fantasizing, in which Malcolm delights in McGinniss’s catastrophic performance on the witness stand and indicts her fellow journalists—a group which, at the time, and as one of its more publicly beleaguered members, she had a significant material interest in defending—as “stupid” and “pompous,” “preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Despite Malcolm’s reputation as a kind of clock-maker or puppeteer, whose literary effects depend on her mastery and control of the journalist-subject relationship, many of the delights of The Journalist and Murderer derive from moments in which her grip seems to loosen. I am very fond of the pages in which Malcolm introduces Jeffrey MacDonald’s lawyer:
Gary Bostwick is a forty-nine-year-old man of unexceptional appearance—he is plump, wears a shaggy mustache, and has small eyes behind wire-frame glasses—who immediately strikes one as a man of exceptional decency, good humor, and quickness of mind. If McGinniss’s chief problem as defendant was his letters to MacDonald, a close second in bad breaks was the drawing of Bostwick as opposing counsel. “I love juries,” Bostwick often says. More to the point, juries love him. Jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character. They miss little.
In stories about courtroom trials, readers and writers alike put themselves in the shoes of the various stock players. What questions would I ask on redirect? Would I overrule or sustain that objection? How would I hold up under cross-examination? Here, Malcolm identifies with the jurors, describing their primary activity as evaluating character immediately after providing her own first-blush character evaluation of Bostwick, who “immediately” (immediately!) conveys an impression of “exceptional decency.” The jurors, and by extension Malcolm herself, “miss little.” It is a minor but obvious moment of self-aggrandizement: good luck getting one over on this bunch, or on me.
A single page later, things have changed. Malcolm is discussing Bostwick’s gentle efforts to persuade the jury to set aside their knowledge of MacDonald’s hideous crimes, without which they will have no hope of being able to see McGinniss’s own wrongdoings as serious enough to merit redress. These efforts were successful, partly thanks to Bostwick’s highlighting, rather than avoiding, the McGinniss team’s endless reminders about MacDonald’s conviction. “But there may be a deeper reason,” Malcolm then writes, “for the jurors’ almost bovine equanimity in the face of MacDonald’s crime,” and suddenly it is difficult to know where we are, or where Malcolm is. So jurors are cattle now? What happened to the acute powers of evaluation we were hearing about a page ago, and what about Malcolm herself? In the passage’s lurching from admiration and identification to contempt, one feels a very common ambivalence toward the trial process as a whole, which can often seem to be both a vital social necessity and an arbitrary exercise in grievance and punishment. And one also feels Malcolm’s own ambivalence: her disdain for McGinniss, the strain of the effort to believe that she did not do to Masson what McGinniss did to MacDonald, alongside the self-annihilating desire to confess that she and McGinniss are the same after all. This ambivalence was never resolved. After the publication of The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm hired Bostwick to represent her. (She won.)
Janet Malcolm was one of the last great psychoanalytic writers in American literature. By this I mean that her writing was founded, to a large extent, on the conviction that the fundamental insights of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic practice are not just useful but true. She made herself into this kind of writer more or less systematically. Her first book, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, reads like a statement of belief. Over the course of many conversations with a pseudonymous analyst called Aaron Green, who discusses the intricacies and challenges of his vocation, Malcolm also talks her readers and herself through the basics of psychoanalytic theory, as though verifying that she has mastered the relevant literature. She summarizes the early development of analytic practice, glosses the Introductory Lectures, reminds herself why patients have to pay for missed sessions, and broods, as Freud did late in life, on the difficulties analysts face in bringing their patients’ treatment to an end. She is fortifying herself with the foundations of the profession because she sees her own literary task as analogous to the analyst’s:
At our next meeting, I confessed to Aaron that I sometimes got tired of hearing him talk—that I rather resented always listening to him and never talking about myself.
“There it is,” Aaron said, with an ironic gesture of his hand.
“Is that how you feel with your patients?” I asked.
With In the Freud Archives, Malcolm took herself out of the analyst’s office but did not quite venture into the wider public arena; she still needed the comforting atmosphere of Freud’s world (the institute, the conference, the archive), and the extent of her own implication was limited. Everything fell into place, however, with The Journalist and the Murderer, as Malcolm mapped the drama of transference and countertransference—the narrative motor of any sustained encounter between an analyst and a patient—onto both a legal dispute and her own role in observing it. From that point on she was fully formed, and she could write about whatever she liked: Chekhov, Plath, art, photography. She remained fascinated by trials, and, even accounting for the fact that everyone remains fascinated by trials, it is not difficult to understand why they hold a special place in her work. A courtroom trial is a kind of consciousness locked in a state of permanent struggle with itself. Of course such a ritual would appeal to a writer who understands individual experience as structured by endless internal conflict, with its admonitions, deceptions, bargains, and desperate struggles toward order.
The kind of writing that Malcolm practiced so beautifully had been disappearing for a long time when she died, and today it is nearly gone. There are wonderful writers (Jacqueline Rose, Adam Phillips, Katherine Angel) whose work would not exist without Freud, but as a discipline and style, psychoanalysis plays almost no part in contemporary intellectual life. Malcolm herself adopted a more gentle register as she aged, partly because she was trying, late in life, to take herself as her subject. This effort failed. In 2010, she published a short piece in the New York Review of Books titled “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography,” complaining that “memory is not a journalist’s tool,” that “the ‘I’ of journalism is unsuited to autobiography,” that she had “failed to make my young self as interesting as the strangers I have written about.” This failure is not surprising, though I’m not sure Malcolm quite articulates its cause. All of her great writing is structured by the encounter between her own self as narrator/author and some other person, the subject, but in autobiography, the narrator and the subject are the same self. The genre could not accommodate Malcolm’s way of thinking and writing. She turned instead to producing, over the last decade of her career at the New Yorker, profiles of Eileen Fisher, whose clothes she loved to wear, the pianist Yuja Wang, whose playing she admired, and Rachel Maddow, whose nightly news broadcast Malcolm judged to be “TV entertainment at its finest” (the last of these, for me, might be the only embarrassing thing she ever wrote). In contrast to the excitingly brutal forensics of her earlier profiles, these were appreciations; one gets the sense that after decades spent interrogating her own unconscious in relation to her journalistic subjects, Malcolm wanted to spend her remaining time writing about the things she liked. She made a final return to memoir in 2018, writing a loving family reminiscence structured around six old photographs.
What I admire most in Malcolm’s writing is her ability to allow the fullness of her emotional life to flood her prose even when that prose is not addressing her emotional life directly. It reminds me that a writer’s personal investment in their work—unless that work is undertaken only for money—has a degree of helplessness about it. Your whole life is involved in everything you write, and that involvement will make itself felt on the page one way or another, whether you like it or not. This is a frightening realization, and that fear makes itself felt on the page, too (that’s why The Journalist and the Murderer still makes people angry: it’s a scary book). I would very much like to make this fear go away, but as my own exasperated therapist has explained to me many times, it’s not possible. The only workable response to this unnerving state of affairs is to accept the violence of your own mind and try to maintain a sense of compassion, both for yourself and for the people you’re writing about, whose lives you will inevitably distort.