Janet Malcolm. 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 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. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns -- when the article or book appears -- his hard lesson. 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" (Journalist, p. 3)
"The fatal attraction of a lawsuit -- as Dickens showed us in Bleak House, with the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce -- is the infinite scope it offers for escape from the real world of ambiguity, obscurity, doubt, disappointment, compromise, and accommodation. The world of the lawsuit is the world of the Platonic ideal, where all is clear, etched, one thing or the other. It is a world -- as Dickens showed with his allegory of obsession -- that we enter at our peril, since it is also the world of madness" (Journalist, pp. 148-49).
"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 equanamity 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. We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain" (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, p. 6).
"(Freud himself preferred to align the psychoanalytic revolution with the revolution of Copernicus and then the revolution of Darwin, saying that the first showed that the earth was not the center of the universe, the second that man was not a unique creation, and the third that man was not even master of his own house.) It was as if a lonely terrorist working in his cellar on a modest explosive device to blow up the local brewery had unaccountably found his way to the hydrogen bomb and blown up half the world. The fallout from this bomb has yet to settle" (Psychoanalysis, pp. 22-23).
"The most dedicated of Freudians do daily battle with the disinclination of the mind to accept the chastening evidence of the fossils of the unconscious (dreams, slips of the tongue, forgettings, accidents) in favor of the more acceptable testimony of the ordinary senses. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the examined life is impossible to live for more than a few moments at a time. To fully accept the idea of unconscious motivation is to cease to be human. The greatest analyst in the world can live his own life only like an ordinary blind and driven human being" (In the Freud Archives, p. 25).
"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 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. It permits him to see that his life is at once more disorderly and risky and interesting and free than he had dared to imagine. Our lives are not like novels" (The Purloined Clinic, pp. 45-46)
"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 biography 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. 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 kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, 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.... 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" (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, pp. 8-9).
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, in the middle of an article on fashion designer Eileen Fisher, Janet Malcolm unexpectedly finds herself "babbling about the ethical dilemmas of journalism, about the risk subjects take when they let journalists into their houses and the pangs journalists feel when they write their betraying narratives" (Sept. 23, 2013, p. 58). None of this makes a whole lot of sense, particularly -- it just seems to come flying in from out of the blue sky, like an engine falling from an unseen airplane, but it's quite clear, since the publication of Malcolm's fascinating account of The Journalist and the Murderer, that the impossible relationship of journalists to their subjects and to the truth has been her life-long preoccupation. One of Modern Library's top 100 non-fiction works of the 20th century, The Journalist is Joe McGinness, author of Fatal Vision, who and which betrayed The Murderer Jeffrey McDonald, resulting in a libel lawsuit against the author. Its opening lines and its premise -- the instability of truth; its larger argument that journalists, lawyers, and biographers alike are obliged to wrest from out of the contradictory bits and pieces of human experience a narrative line, a convincing story; the inevitable impossiblity and thus duplicity of the journalistic enterprise itself-- stung journalists across the country. All of which resonates all the more, when one learns that Malcolm, herself, was sued for libel for her portrait of Jeffrey Masson In the Freud Archives -- a decade-long string of hearings and appeals from out of Dickens that ended in a stalemate. (For a fascinating account of the conflict between the so-called New Journalists or Literary Journalism and "real" journalists, see Kathy Forde's fascinating account of Masson v. Malcolm in Literary Journalism on Trial.) At any rate, whether exploring photography, psychoanalysis, or literary biography -- Two Lives on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; The Silent Woman, on Sylvia Plath; her richly rewarding Reading Chekhov -- the Prague-born Janet Malcolm has continued to explore, in a kind of post-modern vein, our longing for stories that either fail to find the truth or persist in distorting it. Written in The New Yorker tradition of Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling, her investigations are endlessly fascinating, richly detailed, moving accounts of the impossibility of truly knowing one another. Or even ourselves. In the Journalist and the Murderer, there is a fragment of court transcript, in which Bostwick, the prosecuting attorney, grills McGinness, which may seem as pointless a quibble as Malcolm's apology to Eileen Fisher for invading her house. But taking the long view, it's about as effective and memorable a summary of Malcolm's baffled, bemused, intricate, and eloquent pieces of journalism as I know of, so here goes:
Bostwick Q: You don't really know he killed his wife and children, do you?
McGinness A: Well, I know that he's been convicted, and the conviction has been confirmed by every appeals court that's considered it.
Q: That's not what it says in here, though, Mr. McGinniss. That's why I asked you the question in your own words. You don't really know, do you?
A: I know to my own satisfaction, yes, after the four years of intensive investigation I did.
Q: Did you ever talk to anyone who you believe knows that Dr. MacDonald committed the crimes?
A: Well, the victims are dead. Can't talk to them. And I came to believe that MacDonald simply didn't tell the truth.
Q: Have you ever talked to anyone who knows that Dr. MacDonald committed the crimes?
A: Well, I think you're getting into an area of epistemology here, Mr. Bostwick.
Q: That's right. I agree with you.
Q: Did you ever talk to anyone who knows?
A: I couldn't talk to Colette. Couldn't talk to Kimberly.
Q: Did you talk to anyone who knows, Mr. McGinness?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: Who did you talk to?
A: I talked to MacDonald.
Q: You know that he knows?
A: I know in my heart that he knows.
Q: Did he ever tell you that he did?
A: He certainly didn't.