The Crime Of Sheila Mcgough

Stephanie Zacharek reviews 'The Crime of Sheila McGough' by Janet Malcolm.

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published February 5, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The question of how journalists can stand to live with themselves -- when it's their job to burrow into their subjects' deepest thoughts and motives and then, possibly, betray them in the service of spinning out a "truthful" narrative -- is one that has taken up squatter's rights at the fore of Janet Malcolm's mind. And as vital as it is, there are times in Malcolm's very short, very interesting "The Crime of Sheila McGough" when you really want to say, Enough already.

Malcolm lays out a confusing, convoluted story with clarity and precision. McGough was a lawyer who so vigorously defended one of her clients -- a con artist named Bob Bailes, who'd masterminded a scam involving the selling of "unregulated" insurance companies -- that federal prosecutors in her hometown of Alexandria, Va., began investigating her as a possible accomplice. They claimed (and were ultimately able to convince a jury) that she had become so closely allied with Bailes that she had collaborated in his fraud. In 1990, a federal jury found McGough guilty of 14 out of 15 counts of felony, and she was sentenced to three years in prison. (She served two and a half.) Shortly after her release in 1996, McGough contacted Malcolm, claiming she'd been framed, and Malcolm, curious about her story, agreed to speak with her.

She also, eventually, grew to like and respect McGough. Malcolm spent more than a year doing interviews and sifting through paperwork and court records before coming to this conclusion: "It seems scarcely possible that in this country someone could go to prison for merely being irritating, but as far as I can make out, this is indeed what happened to Sheila McGough. She is a woman of almost preternatural honesty and decency. She can also be maddeningly tiresome and stubborn ... What nettled the government about Sheila McGough was not her flouting of the law but her driving of it into the ground -- her legal fundamentalism and literalism."

It's a fascinating tale, and Malcolm, with her clear thinking and constant self-questioning, combs neatly through the tangled strands, ruminating here and there on the intricacies and obfuscations of the law and on how they can't always be packaged neatly into a good story. Her complex portrait of McGough is the triumph of the book. McGough, in Malcolm's estimation, was a deeply methodical lawyer with so much integrity that she ended up protecting her client's interests at the expense of her own. She's also a cheerful woman, unmarried, in her early 50s and happily living at home with her parents. Malcolm's admission of how much she likes McGough -- and of how crazy McGough drove her during their time together -- is refreshing.

But "The Crimes of Sheila McGough" could have been even tighter if Malcolm hadn't gone on at such length about her own shortcomings and biases as an observer. In the section detailing her meeting with Mark Hulkower, who prosecuted McGough, she writes: "If Sheila is my heroine, Hulkower has to be my villain. 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. My sneaking liking for Hulkower simply has no place in my story. My assumption that Hulkower is a decent and well-meaning man must be held up to the strictest scrutiny; I must search his words and writings for signs of bad faith." Malcolm is absolutely right, of course. But her need to remind us of her self-doubt and deep desire for unimpeachable scrupulousness is so ever-present that it almost comes off as self-aggrandizing. You want to set her free, to reassure her that it's OK to just tell the story as she sees it, damn it. There are legions of others who couldn't do so half as well or as honorably. They're the ones who should be apologizing.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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