"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The public pillorying of Janet Malcolm is one of the scandals of American letters. The world of journalism teems with hacks who will go to their graves never having written one sparkling or honest or incisive sentence; why is it Malcolm, a virtuoso stylist and a subtle, exciting thinker, who drives critics into a rage? What journalist of her caliber is as widely disliked or as often accused of bad faith? And why did so few of her colleagues stand up for her during the circus of a libel trial that scarred her career? In the animus toward her there is something almost personal.
Yet I can’t deny that she brings some of it on herself, with the harshness — the mellifluous harshness — of her work. Malcolm is hard on her subjects. As she sees it, being hard on them is her job; “putting a person’s feelings above a text’s necessities” is, in her arid and damning formulation, a “journalistic solecism.” Like Sylvia Plath, whose not-niceness she has laid open with surgical skill, she discovered her vocation in not-niceness. Dryden famously noted the “vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place.” Malcolm’s blade gleams with a razor edge. Her critics tend to go after her with broken bottles.
Not that she relishes shredding her subjects in the service of truth. It troubles her — she has confessed to the “journalistic solecism” herself — and that discomfort is what led to “The Journalist and the Murderer,” the masterpiece in which she permanently tied the noose around her neck. This lucid and levelheaded essay, with its truculent opening allegation (doubtless headed for Bartlett’s) that “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,” is one of those remarkable works that trusts the reader to meet it with all the sly intelligence that has gone into its composition.
That’s what you get for trusting the reader.
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Malcolm was born in prewar Prague, one of two daughters (the other is the writer Marie Winn) of secular Jews; the family got out of Europe just in time, in 1939. Her father was, not surprisingly, a psychiatrist. She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan (she is one of the last heirs of the Partisan Review seriousness of New York in the 1940s), then the University of Michigan; there she met her first husband, Donald Malcolm, a writer who contributed theater and book criticism to the New Yorker from the late ’50s until his early death in 1975, and from whom she eventually separated. In the 1960s she began writing for the magazine herself, mainly on interior decoration and design; in the mid-’70s she married her editor at the magazine, Gardner Botsford, a well-to-do member of the family that had funded Harold Ross’ original New Yorker.
By then she was writing about photography for the magazine, and she had found her mature voice, a strange and delicious combination of aesthetic passion, intellectual dispassion, cold candor and exuberant, extravagant metaphor. (“Innocently opening the book ‘Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait,’ by Alfred Stieglitz … is like taking a little drive in the country and suddenly coming upon Stonehenge.”) Malcolm’s often protracted flights of metaphor are always enchanting, and the element of fun they contribute to her somewhat dry and serious prose almost single-handedly raises it from the flatlands of knotty meditation to the high plains of literature.
In the light of her later work, her comments on two photographers are of special interest. She devotes two of the 12 articles collected in her first book, “Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography” (1980), to Richard Avedon’s startlingly frank portraits. “Avedon does not try to make people look bad,” she writes; “he simply doesn’t do anything to make them look good … Avedon’s pictures of men without props present an unpalatable truth. They show us that we are ugly creatures.” If that passage weren’t dated 1975 — several years before Malcolm began her own series of great, cruel portraits — she might have been writing about herself.
Stieglitz, the pioneering American photographer and gallery owner, also gets two essays; what excites her about him is his hardness. She savors a 1931 letter in which Stieglitz’s obdurate purism leads him to refuse a publisher permission to reprint his work: “In the reproduction, it would become extinct — dead. My interest is in the living.”
Malcolm loves purists. Her heroes, Freud not least among them, rigidly refuse compromise, sometimes badly to their own detriment. Her fascination with psychoanalysis centers on the weirdly immaculate analyst-patient relationship, with “its purposeful renunciation of the niceties and decencies of ordinary human intercourse, its awesome abnormality, contradictoriness, and strain.”
The hero of her 1981 “Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession,” Aaron Green, was such a purist regarding analytic neutrality that he still blamed himself for having apologized once when he showed up late for a session — “I put my own interests,” he fretted, “before those of the patient.” (After calling Green a “remarkable and lovable man” in her acknowledgements, Malcolm then painted him as so ambitious, narcissistic, gossipy and even venal that I’ve always wondered if he wanted to throttle her when he saw his portrait. Since “Aaron Green” was a pseudonym, I’ll never know.)
The book sounds the major themes of Malcolm’s work: the elusiveness of truth; the paucity of the means (therapeutic, journalistic, etc.) we pursue it with; and the unreliability of narrative — the stories we tell to pin it down, which are always incomplete and (consciously or otherwise) self-serving. From Green she also learned the surprising information that the analyst’s behavior doesn’t ultimately matter. “In the popular imagination,” he told her, “the analyst is an authoritarian, dominating figure who has rigid control over a malleable, vulnerable patient. [But] it is the patient who controls what is happening, and the analyst who is a puny, weak figure. Patients go where the hell they please.”
This is a key insight: that people rehash their stories with an Ancient Mariner obsessiveness no matter who is listening. There’s a wonderful episode in “The Journalist and the Murderer” in which Malcolm plays the boob to underline this point. She has visited a newspaper reporter named Bob Keeler, who covered the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case in which both she and their fellow journalist Joe McGinniss have taken an interest. As she leaves, Keeler offers her his blue interview notebook, which she accepts unenthusiastically, because (she confesses to us) she regards it as an
affront to my pride. An interview, after all, is only as good as the journalist who conducts it, and I felt — to put it bluntly — that Keeler, with his prepared questions and his newspaper-reporter’s directness, would not get from his subjects the kind of authentic responses that I try to elicit from mine with a more Japanese technique. When I finally read Keeler’s transcripts, however, I was in for a surprise and an illumination. MacDonald and McGinniss had said exactly the same things to the unsubtle Keeler that they had said to me. It hadn’t made the slightest difference that Keeler had read from a list of prepared questions and I had acted as if I were passing the time of day. From Keeler’s blue book I learned the same truth about subjects that the analyst learns about patients: they will tell their story to anyone who will listen to it, and the story will not be affected by the behavior or personality of the listener; just as (“good enough”) analysts are interchangeable, so are journalists. My McGinniss and Keeler’s McGinniss were the same person, and so were my MacDonald and Keeler’s MacDonald and McGinniss’s MacDonald. The subject, like the patient, dominates the relationship and calls the shots. The journalist cannot create his subjects any more than the analyst can create his patients.
This rich and characteristic observation also has to be read as a defensive one, because by the time Malcolm wrote these words she had been accused of exactly that — creating her subject — by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the unfortunate former psychoanalyst she eviscerated in a pair of 1983 New Yorker articles that were published between hard covers the following year under the unassuming title (titles are not her strong point) “In the Freud Archives.”
Psychoanalysts rival early Christians in their mania for rifts, and while Malcolm may be a fundamentalist herself, she’s too adventurous a thinker not to admire a talented apostate and too inveterate a satirist not to savor the stuffiness of the mother church. Masson was a youngish analyst who had penetrated the sanctum sanctorum: With the blessings of Kurt Eissler, who was something like the pontiff of the Freudians, he had been placed in charge of the archives in the Freud house in London, where the great analyst’s daughter, Anna Freud, still lived. Access to Freud’s unpublished letters and papers, which Eissler and Anna Freud guarded with flaming swords, was a researcher’s notion of paradise.
Masson immediately started alienating Eissler and his colleagues by attacking their deity. A paper he delivered in New Haven in 1981 was the final straw. Early on Freud had attributed the sexual hysteria of a number of his patients to childhood sexual abuse; he later came to believe that this abuse had been imagined, and in abandoning the so-called seduction theory he opened the door to the theory of the Oedipus complex and to the whole new field of psychoanalysis. Masson accused the master of ignoring cases of actual abuse. Shortly after the New Haven talk, he was ousted from his post at the archives, and when Malcolm met him the following year, he was busily engaged in suing his former benefactors.
Masson spent hours and hours talking to Malcolm. She encouraged his trust, gossiping with him, cooking for him, even putting him and his girlfriend up with her in New York. And then, in writing about him, she unearthed a frightening talent. “In the Freud Archives” is a masterwork of character assassination, all the more devastating because Malcolm, in quoting her talkative subject at length, has him twist the knife himself. It’s all but impossible to read Masson’s long monologues (many of them, it came out in testimony, cobbled together from more than one interview) without thinking, “What an asshole!” When the articles appeared, their flabbergasted victim howled in shock at the betrayal, and his howl took the form of a libel suit.
The case hinged on five quotations that Masson claimed were fabrications and that Malcolm, embarrassingly, couldn’t produce on tape — although, as David Gates pointed out in Newsweek, “what Malcolm does have on tape — only a few lines are in dispute — is more than enough to make Masson look silly.” The suit threaded byzantinely up and down through the courts for years before a jury finally found against Masson in 1994. But for Malcolm the victory was a Pyrrhic one. The public spectacle had been huge and humiliating, her reporting widely criticized and mocked. The lawsuit gained her more notoriety than any of her books ever had; thenceforward everything she wrote would be a target.
But Masson had liberated her, too, by letting her discover the vein of gold in her natural malice. Her next major piece for the New Yorker, a 1986 profile of Ingrid Sischy — then the editor of Artforum, now the editor of Interview — is a textbook demonstration of the way a malicious reporter can pulp her subjects simply by describing their apartments. (Sischy is practically the only art-world figure who walks out of it unflattened.) In “The Window Washer,” a 1990 memoir of a return trip to her native Prague, Malcolm is brutal in her depiction of a professor and his wife who invite her into their home for not one but two meals. The transgression of hospitality — the slap in the face of her hosts — is so disturbing that it threatens to wreck what is overall a touching celebration of the newly liberated city.
Why is she so hard on these people? I think it has something to do with a blurring of the line between reportage and criticism. She nods approvingly, in a review of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” at Milan Kundera’s observation that “none among us is superhuman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.” Yet she has remorseless radar for the kitsch in her subjects’ lives, and she uses it against them. I shudder sometimes at the awful fantasy of Malcolm visiting my house, which I love and have put a lot of thought into making my own, and telling the world, in a few dismissive phrases, what a shabby and affected place it is.
Is it surprising that a reporter so given to mutilating her subjects should focus eventually on the reporter’s relationship to her victim? “Almost from the start,” she recalls in “The Journalist and the Murderer,” “I was struck by the unhealthiness of the journalist-subject relationship, and every piece I wrote only deepened my consciousness of the canker that lies at the heart of the rose of journalism.” This chafing awareness was the sand in the oyster that grew into her finest book. Malcolm states her theme on the first page:
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 … He has to face the fact that the journalist — who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things — never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.
The book’s taking-off point is the lawsuit that Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters, brought against Joe McGinniss, a well-known reporter and nonfiction author, over McGinniss’ 1983 bestseller, “Fatal Vision.” MacDonald had granted McGinniss full access during his 1979 murder trial (the reporter was even allowed in on the defense team’s strategy sessions) and continued talking and writing to him after his conviction, in the full confidence — understandable to anyone who reads McGinniss’ letters to him in prison — that the writer thought he was innocent. (“Total strangers can recognize within five minutes,” McGinniss wrote, “that you did not receive a fair trial.”) When the book finally appeared and MacDonald learned that McGinniss had portrayed him as a vicious psychopath, he let out a wounded howl, and his howl took the form of a suit against the journalist for fraud and breach of contract. The trial ended in a hung jury only, as Malcolm demonstrates, because one of the jurors — “a sort of emblematic figure of the perils of the jury system” — was a crank. The rest of them lined up against McGinniss, who then backed down and settled for $325,000.
“Reflections: The Journalist and the Murderer” appeared in two parts, in the March 13 and March 20, 1989, issues of the New Yorker, and its effect was electrifying. Reading Malcolm’s cool, considered, perfect prose, I knew I was in the presence of genius, and the weeklong wait for the second installment was a torment that only picking up the phone and calling friends who were going through the same thing could relieve. This was not, however, the reaction of Malcolm’s fellow journalists — to put it mildly.
The press response split between puzzled indignation and defensive fury. I’ll get to the fury in a minute. John Taylor encapsulated the indignation in a New York magazine broadside headlined “Holier Than Thou,” in which he objected that “the provocative article … was even more amazing for what it did not contain than for what it did. For while excoriating McGinniss, Malcolm fails to mention even in passing that she herself has been involved in a relationship with a subject that in a remarkable number of ways parallels the relationship between McGinniss and MacDonald.” He then enumerated all the outrages Malcolm had committed against Masson, mostly from the outraged Masson’s point of view.
I happened to be in a good position to know what was going on, because a decade earlier I had worked as a fact checker at the New Yorker (I had even checked some of Malcolm’s photography pieces, though I didn’t, and still don’t, know her socially), and I was well versed in the strange culture of the magazine. Under the editorship of William Shawn, it was a place of elaborate — some would say stultifying — delicacy and tact; hype and self-promotion were frowned on (which isn’t to say that nobody practiced them). By 1989 Shawn had been ejected, but Malcolm was very much a product of his era, and her writing adheres, at least formally, to his notions of reserve. “The Journalist and the Murderer” struck me as a brilliant solution to her obvious impulse toward autobiography: Talking about McGinniss and MacDonald was an oblique and tactful way of talking about Malcolm and Masson. Those in the know would get the message, and the larger, out-of-the-loop public, which didn’t care anyway, wouldn’t miss anything. I was bugged by the failure of Taylor and so many of his colleagues to appreciate her strategy.
Malcolm burst my bubble herself when “The Journalist and the Murderer” came out in book form the following year. In a newly appended afterword, she declared:
The notion that my account of this case is a thinly veiled account of my own experience of being sued by a subject not only is wrong but betrays a curious naoveti about the psychology of journalists. The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timorousness. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous athleticism — which is the novelist’s daily task — of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world. The journalist confines himself to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others. Precisely because MacDonald’s lawsuit had no elements in common with Masson’s did I feel emboldened to write about it (and, incidentally, was I, as a defendant, able to position myself so as to view a plaintiff’s case with sympathy).
A more stupefying specimen of bullshit would be hard to find — though there’s also something reassuring, even endearing, in this demonstration that Malcolm can be just as neurotic and self-deceiving as the rest of us. Her reasoning is bogus on every level. To write anything more than just the facts, ma’am, is to write about oneself. Criticism is widely understood to be a form of autobiography (your tastes define you), but so is Malcolm’s brand of reflective journalism (your perceptions define you). As much as Malcolm may think she hates the spotlight — she almost never gives interviews — on the page she is
helplessly forthcoming, a peculiarity that goes some way toward
explaining why the issue of privacy (“life’s most precious possession,” she
calls it in her recent New Yorker essay on Chekhov) runs through her work
like a nerve. And while I suppose it’s possible (weird, but possible) that Malcolm didn’t think about Masson’s lawsuit as she was writing about MacDonald’s, she of all people — a writer who enjoys roughly the same relationship with Freud that Jerry Lewis has with the Muscular Dystrophy Association — could be expected to know that what you think you’re thinking about is never the whole story. In the New York article, Taylor passed along a hypothesis, too neat by half but still hard to shrug off, that an acquaintance of McGinniss’ had put forward: “She could expiate guilt toward her Jeffrey M. by coming to the aid of another Jeffrey M., who was betrayed by a writer. Freud said nothing is coincidence.”
How could she be so clueless about her own method? In “The Journalist and the Murderer” she points to “the writer’s identification with and affection for the subject,” citing Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould and Truman Capote’s Perry Smith as examples of “the transformation from life to literature that the masters of the nonfiction genre achieve.” In the afterword she goes so far as to paraphrase Flaubert: “Masson, c’est moi.” Malcolm’s later books are works of profound identification with the luckless wretches, not the least of them Joe McGinniss, who are her subjects. Fear of self-exposure? With each of her books she stands more naked before the world.
I also mentioned another reaction of the press: defensive fury. It was a dumb fury based on a misunderstanding of Malcolm’s argument. Shortly after the articles appeared in the New Yorker, an editorial writer at the New York Times took umbrage at Malcolm’s “sweeping indictment of all journalists.” Fred Friendly, the renowned broadcaster, took up this theme the next year in his review of the book. Convinced that Malcolm was trying to put her finger on “what ails journalism,” he complained that her conclusion that “all journalists are guilty” was “distorted by a crabbed vision of the profession and her own place in it.” To counter what he perceived as the affront to his calling, he even listed several big-name reporters who he happened to know had excellent ethics. This defensiveness was part of a widespread misperception; a few years later, a Times reporter covering the libel trial noted that many writers and editors were reluctant to speak up for Malcolm because of the “sweeping indictment” (that formula again) she had leveled against them.
No, no, no, no, no. “The Journalist and the Murderer” is not an attack on the ethics of journalists. True, the worst-case scenario that Malcolm chose to illustrate her argument teetered on the dubious end of the ethical spectrum; its stark colors were what made her choose it. But her point is “the canker that lies at the heart of the rose,” the ethical paradox at the core of all journalism; it doesn’t matter whether the (“good enough”) reporter in question is McGinniss or Malcolm or one of Fred Friendly’s paragons of virtue. The journalist-subject relationship, like the analyst-patient relationship, is fraught with “abnormality, contradictoriness, and strain,” but — in a further paradox — these disquieting qualities are what give it its value. Just as therapeutic progress is predicated on the mutual miseries of the transference, “the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism” is what, in Malcolm’s view, “gives journalism its authenticity and vitality.” And she capped her argument with a zinger: “Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.”
Malcolm went on probing the sore that is the writer and subject’s relationship in her next book, “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes” (1994), a dauntingly elegant reflection on the practice of biography. Plath has been both a gold mine and a minefield for biographers ever since she put her head in an oven and turned the gas on during the dreary London winter of 1963. A gold mine because of the trove of letters and journals she left behind, because of the drama of her shattered marriage to the equally gifted poet Ted Hughes and, not least, because of the stream of astonishing verse — among the finest of the century — that practically poured out of her in the year or so before she killed herself. (One of the pleasures of “The Silent Woman” is Malcolm’s shrewd and sturdy interpretations of these often difficult poems.) A minefield because Hughes, who remained alive until 1998, rose up in fury whenever feminist biographers who had found an icon in Plath tried to demonize him. For years he and his hawk of a sister, Olwyn, who controlled Plath’s literary estate and thus the rights to quote from her writings, made life as miserable for the dead poet’s biographers as the biographers made it for them.
Malcolm’s curiosity was piqued by the critical mauling of a Plath biography — one that, uncharacteristically, defended Hughes — by Anne Stevenson, a talented writer she had known, or at least known of, at the University of Michigan in the 1950s. Malcolm felt for Stevenson, she explains, “because of an experience of my own that paralleled hers. A short time earlier, I, too, had written an unpopular book, and I, too, had been attacked in the press.” (Melodramatic as it is of me, I can never read that melancholy description of “The Journalist and the Murderer” — “an unpopular book” — without thinking of the vicious critical attacks that laid Keats low.) And so, as in her previous book, Malcolm, champion though she is of journalistic cold-bloodedness, throws in her lot with those like her “on the helpless side of the journalist-subject equation.” She has “taken a side,” she asserts baldly — “that of the Hugheses and Anne Stevenson.” And from her own carefully palpated bias she extrapolates the canker at the heart of the biographical rose:
The pose of fair-mindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses; if they were genuine, if the writer actually didn’t care one way or the other how things came out, he would not bestir himself to represent them.
There she goes again! Malcolm seems to be hard-wired to go out on limbs. It’s this audacity that makes her so provocative — and also, unfortunately, so vulnerable. That incendiary passage is the Plath book’s equivalent of the McGinniss book’s line in the sand about the immorality of journalism, and, predictably, it drew shrieks. Michiko Kakutani, writing in the Times, paraphrased it as “don’t bother me with evidence; my mind’s made up” and then went out of her way (even for her) to be insulting: “For Ms. Malcolm to suggest that her own shortcomings are in any way representative of the vocations of journalism or biography-writing in general seems not only solipsistic, but profoundly disingenuous.” James Atlas, the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, declared in the Times Magazine that in her “latest diatribe” Malcolm was arguing that “biography is a spurious art,” and paraphrasing her observation “The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive” as “The biographer’s real intent is to enact revenge,” he finished up on a note of injured high-mindedness: “To recover and bring forth, to preserve against oblivion the documents that give texture to a life, those ‘fossils of feeling’ that Janet Malcolm holds up as the one verifiable artifact of truth — is that such a scurrilous vocation?” (It is if you write like that.)
Malcolm, of course, wasn’t attacking the biographer’s art any more than she had earlier been attacking the journalist’s. What she was doing, in fact, was engaging in it. And despite the confession of tendentiousness that her critics accepted at face value, her book is no valentine to Ted and Olwyn Hughes or to Anne Stevenson, all three of whom hobble out of its pages more bruised than some of their detractors. (Malcolm’s idea of defense is rougher than many biographers’ prosecution.)
Meanwhile, in the course of “The Silent Woman” a more resonant theme emerges. Alluding to Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Aleph,” in which the storyteller goes down into a cellar where he experiences a vision of everything in the world, Malcolm comments, “Writer’s block derives from the mad ambition to enter that cellar; the fluent writer is content to stay in the close attic of partial expression, to say what is ‘running through his mind,’ and to accept that it may not — cannot — be wholly true, to risk that it will be misunderstood.” The problem, she goes on, is narrative itself, for narrative, in being of necessity selective, is always incomplete and thus never wholly true.
This theme, the elusiveness of truth, underlies (as I said earlier) nearly all of Malcolm’s writing. The psychoanalytic books pose the narrativizing consciousness against the Aleph of the unconscious; “The Journalist and the Murderer” and “The Silent Woman” are about conflicting narratives. Having explored the therapeutic, journalistic and biographical avenues by which we try, however futilely, to make our muddled way to truth, in last year’s “The Crime of Sheila McGough” she takes up the even more inadequate legal one. At the very outset she observes that the struggle in a trial “is between two competing narratives,” and later she elaborates: “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.” Truth is not only a harsh mistress but also a “messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd” one. “The truth does not make a good story; that’s why we have art.”
Malcolm’s eponymous heroine is, in her dowdy and unappealing literal-mindedness, the embodiment of this housecoat-wearing truth. Sheila McGough, an attorney in the state of Virginia, served two and a half years in federal prison after being convicted in 1990 on 14 counts of felony stemming from her unusually dogged defense of a con artist named Bob Bailes. Malcolm believes ardently (her emotion in this book is striking) in her subject’s innocence even while conceding that, owing to the necessary simplifications a trial requires, no jury would or probably could have found for her.
But Sheila is a recalcitrant heroine. Unlike Jeffrey Masson, a fountain of eloquence before whom all a journalist needed to do was park herself and turn on the tape, Sheila spoke in the “guileless and incontinent” drone of the bore who has to recount every last detail of an excruciatingly tangled story:
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more irritating subject. I know I have never before behaved so badly to a subject. I have never before interrupted, lost patience with, spoken so unpleasantly to a subject as I have to Sheila — to my shame and vexation afterward. I have never before dreaded calling a subject on the telephone as I have dreaded calling Sheila. To my simplest question she would give an answer of such relentless length and tediousness and uncomprehending irrelevance that I could almost have wept with impatience. I took notes of these phone calls, and among them I have found little cries of despair. One of them was: “Help, help! I’m trapped talking to Sheila. She won’t stop. Save me.”
Yet if Sheila is unbearable she is also, to use Malcolm’s word, exquisite. Elsewhere Malcolm has acknowledged (without irony) the importance of hypocrisy as “the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way.” What she sees when she looks at her heroine is “the impossible purity of her position,” and it makes Sheila “rather magnificent.” At last — an honest woman! A lunatic, granted, but a truthful one.
And not only that. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Malcolm’s affection for Sheila owes a great deal to her identification with a fellow purist who bollixed her career while acting under the delusion that she was sticking to the straight and narrow. Of Sheila’s trial she writes, “It was like one of those nightmares of guilt, where everyone you have ever known has gathered to accuse you of wrongdoing.” Notice the universalizing second person; she might as well have used the first, having suffered this nightmare herself, not just in her humiliating trial but, more bewilderingly, in the press crusade against her that left her in the minds of many, as she wryly phrased it, “a kind of fallen woman of journalism.” This been-there empathy lies behind her bitter observation, in “Sheila McGough,” that
in a sense, everyone who is brought to trial, criminal or civil, is framed. For while the law speaks of a presumption of innocence, it knows full well that the accused is weighed down under a burden extremely difficult to get out from under. The deck is stacked against the accused. An accusation has enormous psychological clout. Once someone is accused of a crime or misdeed, he begins to burn with a kind of radioactivity. The story of wrongdoing that the prosecutor or the plaintiff’s lawyer tells the jury is a fleshing out of the jury’s preconception. The task of the defense is not to clear the accused (that is impossible; it is too late for that) but to attack the accusers — to show that the plaintiff or the government’s witnesses are even worse than the accused.
Judging from the outcome of the libel trial and from their later careers, it seems safe to say (but “safe” is dicey — you have to take account of my own bias, which should be clear by now) that the plaintiff in Masson v. Malcolm came out looking worse than the defendant.
Having earlier offended journalists and biographers, Malcolm now suffered the wrath of the judiciary. In a New Republic assault, federal judge Richard A. Posner rose to the defense of the American system of trial by jury, arguing that Malcolm aimed not only to exonerate Sheila but also to show that the system “cannot do justice in any case, owing to its epistemological and ethical inadequacies.” And going on to suggest that Malcolm had a few ethical inadequacies of her own, he accused her of deleting important facts from her report in order to stack the deck in Sheila’s favor.
Of course, Malcolm wasn’t any more attacking American jurisprudence than earlier she’d been attacking journalism and biography. “No one has ever thought of a better system,” she says (or sighs) explicitly — which doesn’t mean that she’s not fascinated by its paradoxes or blind to its weaknesses. Her failing here, in fact, is actually the opposite of the one Posner charges her with. “The Crime of Sheila McGough” falters, as her other books don’t, because all the ins and outs of the case against Sheila (and of the countless balled-up cases against her fatal client, Bailes) are so hard to follow and ultimately so boring that the narrative bogs down; by the end, I was as confused as most of the jurors. She relates too much, not too little.
But it’s an admirable failure. Anyone after a prize as slippery as truth is swimming against a challenging current. Toward the beginning of “In the Freud Archives,” Malcolm offers an arresting metaphor for psychoanalytic therapy: “To ‘make the unconscious conscious’ … is to pour water through a sieve. The moisture that remains on the surface of the mesh is the benefit of analysis.” That moisture is also about all of value that we can confidently retrieve from the current of factoids, rumors, misunderstandings and flat-out lies through which the truth (whatever that is) tumbles along like specks of silver. Or — to shift to her later, homelier and, I think, lovelier metaphor — Malcolm is “exquisite,” even “rather magnificent” in her efforts to tailor the shapeless housecoat of the truth into an honest and serviceable garment without dolling it up beyond recognition. And if it draws some outraged stares and more than a few catcalls, that’s probably the price you have to pay for going around garbed in anything so out of fashion.
Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.
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Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)