Janet Malcolm the Magician

The late author could be bracingly clear or confidingly sympathetic, but her most consistent modus operandi was to obscure and complicate.

Janet Malcolm
George Nikitin / AP

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

There are two kinds of magicians: Those who purport to be doing something truly supernatural, drawing on the paranormal, and those who are honest with their audiences about fooling them.

Janet Malcolm, who died last week at 86, was of the second type. Her journalism was filled with instances in which she alerted readers that she would be playing with their minds; she then did so effortlessly. Knowing you were being messed with was no protection. For Malcolm’s readers, this was a satisfyingly pyrotechnic storytelling device—I’ve often laughed out loud while reading her work—but it had a point. If you are so easily destabilized, even with ample warning, she seemed to be chiding us, how can you trust any of your instincts? Even the most nuanced journalists, who acknowledge many possible versions of the truth, ultimately seek to clarify and explain. While Malcolm could be bracingly clear or confidingly sympathetic, her most consistent modus operandi was to obscure and complicate.

Consider Malcolm’s 1994 book about the writers Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman, which defies easy generic characterization. On the one hand, Malcolm carefully undermines the entire project of literary biography, cataloging all the ways in which a biographer cannot support the statements she makes. On the other hand, the book is an excellent work of literary biography, and Malcolm blithely draws all the sorts of conclusions she contends can’t be made.

In her most famous work, The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm dissects the relationship between the author Joe McGinniss and the murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. McGinniss had agreed to embed with MacDonald’s defense team to write a book and to share the profits with his subject, but in the course of the trial he concluded that MacDonald was guilty, as did a jury. In his letters, McGinniss nonetheless assured MacDonald that he believed in his innocence and expected exoneration, even as he produced a scathing book. MacDonald, infuriated, sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract.

McGinniss’s duplicity is a central takeaway of Malcolm’s book, though some readers find the lie defensible. But that point was far too easily established for Malcolm to have been especially interested in it. Rather than paint McGinniss as a shameful outlier, she makes him into a proxy for all journalists, who, she says, first seduce a subject, then betray him. The heart of reportorial treachery, she writes, is the need to make real people into characters on a page, and McGinniss’s bind was that he had to turn the otherwise dull MacDonald into a literary figure. She cheerfully acknowledges that she is doing the same thing with McGinniss. Then a few pages later, she reverses herself completely: “The journalist cannot create his subjects any more than the analyst can create his patients … McGinniss betrayed [MacDonald] and devastated him and possibly misjudged him, but he didn’t invent him.”

These contradictions are not the product of sloppiness; Malcolm makes clear that she recognizes them. She dares her readers to draw their own judgments while demonstrating that they shouldn’t trust those judgments very much. Malcolm’s enduring interests included journalism, the justice system, Freudian analysis, and photography: all disciplines that lay a claim on producing a single, clear answer while in fact usually obfuscating as much as they clarify.

Malcolm’s most enthusiastic fans—and her greatest detractors—were other journalists. No wonder: Her most famous sentence, the first in The Journalist and the Murderer, indicts the whole profession: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

But Malcolm would no more have us take that at face value than she would anything else. (Every journalist, including the stupid and conceited ones, knows the value of an attention-grabbing lede.) Reading her work, you have to remind yourself that she was a journalist; you then remember that she knew you would know that, and yet you’re both here, writer and reader. Malcolm had come to reporting relatively late in life—she first published in The New Yorker, her longtime home, as a poet—but she was devoted to the craft, continuing to publish stories well into her 80s. And in the closing sentences of The Journalist and the Murderer—which are finer and more memorable—she turns her vitriol away from journalists and toward their subjects. (Of course she does—how else could such a book end?)

Journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses—the days of the interview—are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.

As I describe it, Malcolm’s method might sound like reflexive skepticism or even nihilism, a cheap rhetorical trick. But her fundamental insights have aged too well to dismiss. Few journalists, and fewer subjects and readers, now question the exploitative nature of journalism, as she humblebragged in 2011: “Today, my critique seems obvious, even banal.” Malcolm’s best work can induce days-long intellectual vertigo—a far different effect than the tinny hangover one gets from reading brilliant but adolescent polemicists in the Christopher Hitchens mold.

If Malcolm’s work is problematic, it is so not because she was a cynic but because so many of her judgments were simply wrong. She was far too soft on Hughes for his treatment of Plath. Her critique of Joe McGinniss was, in the end, unpersuasive: His fault was not that he had to warp MacDonald to write about him, but that he lied. (If MacDonald was so dull, anyway, why has his case attracted such elite storytellers as McGinniss and Malcolm, Errol Morris and Gene Weingarten?) Malcolm declined to take a position on MacDonald’s guilt in the murder of his family (a bad-enough abdication), while appearing to incline toward believing him (even worse). During a libel case against her, Malcolm acknowledged combining quotes from multiple interviews into single statements, a practice that would never fly in modern journalism and that seems clearly misleading to me. (In an act of outrageous chutzpah, she divulged a defamation case, so similar to McGinniss’s, only in the afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer, one last winking manipulation.) She defended the writer Joseph Mitchell’s fabrications on the grounds that, in short, he was Joseph Mitchell and the rest of us were not.

Malcolm might have taken issue with each of these complaints, and I would have flinched before the task of debating her directly; she coolly demolished better minds than mine. (Even as I write, I can hear her smirking at the lapse into first person: The “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention … an overreliable narrator.) But I suspect that she might have been amused too. Wrong? Are you sure? Of course, I cannot be, and in the world she wrote into existence, neither can anyone else.