Letters to the editor

Author Joe McGinniss says Janet Malcolm's opus is "riddled with errors." Plus: "Freaks and Geeks" is head of the class; should genes be patented?

Published March 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Janet Malcolm


In your mesmerizing
analysis of the career of Janet Malcolm,
you unfortunately
perpetuate a significant factual error
published in "The Journalist and the
Indeed, her "masterpiece," as you call
it, is riddled with errors of fact.
In the 1989 epilogue to "Fatal Vision"
-- still in print and readily
available -- I enumerate a number of
them, but here I shall focus only on the
one that you have chosen to promulgate.

Malcolm did not attend the 1987 trial
of the civil lawsuit in which the
murderer, MacDonald, charged me with
various offenses (though not with having
published anything he deemed untrue).
Her absence placed her at a severe
disadvantage in terms of accurate
reporting, but perhaps, as a "genius,"
considered such mundane tasks unworthy
of her. Nonetheless, it led to
grievous errors in her writings which
you continue to disseminate (albeit in
all probability unknowingly) to this

As you point out, she stated as fact
that the trial ended in a hung jury only
because one of the six jurors (whom you
label as a "crank," based, I assume,
on Malcolm's superficial and malicious
portrait of her) held out against
a verdict in favor of MacDonald.

Almost nothing could be further from the
truth. As deliberations began, the
judge gave to the six jurors 69 pages of
instructions, as well as a
"verdict form" that contained 37
questions. He admonished them to
answer each of the questions in order,
and not to proceed to a new one until
unanimous agreement had been reached on
the last.

As it happened, the first question on
the form had nothing to do with any of
MacDonald's allegations against me.
Rather, it asked whether MacDonald had
"performed all of the obligations and
conditions imposed upon him under the
contract." (The "contract" being, in
fact, a release MacDonald had signed in
which, in return for a minor portion of
the book's proceeds, he agreed not to
bring legal action of any sort against
me, no matter what conclusions I might
reach, or might publish. How this
matter reached the trial stage despite
such a release is another story for
another time.)

On this first question, and on this
question alone, five of the jurors
eventually answered "yes," while the
so-called "crank" said no, on the
grounds that MacDonald had contracted to
tell me the truth about the murders, and
by claiming he had not committed them,
even after having been convicted of
killing his wife and two young
daughters, he was in violation of our

Confused by the wording of the judge's
instructions and by the questions on
the verdict form (and with the judge
himself having departed for Hawaii as
the jury began deliberations) the
jurors were uncertain of how to
proceed. In regard to Question 1 --
whether MacDonald had fulfilled his
contractual obligations to me -- the
forewoman later said to the Los Angeles
Times, "I myself changed my mind twice."
Eventually, however, five agreed to
answer in the affirmative in order that
they might proceed to Question 2 of
the 37. One of the six would
not agree, saying,
"An author must have total freedom to
write the truth." Malcolm so
distorts this episode -- despite being
well aware of the facts -- that to this
day her absolutely false version of jury
deliberation is swallowed whole by
the gullible, who presume that, because
what she wrote appeared in the New
Yorker, it must be true.

To repeat: The only disagreement among
the jurors had nothing to do with my
conduct, ethics or morality, but dealt
solely with MacDonald's.
Nonetheless, Malcolm blithely (and
falsely) wrote, "five of the six
jurors were persuaded that a man who was
serving three consecutive life
sentences for the murder of his wife and
two small children was deserving of
more sympathy than the writer who had
deceived him."

There is no basis in fact for this
conclusion. Indeed, it is contradicted
absolutely by all verifiable fact, the
overwhelming majority of which
Malcolm chose to omit from her
"masterpiece," because it would have
posed a severe impediment to her
ill-considered rush to judgment. It was
only Malcolm -- and not the jurors who
were present at the trial, nor any of
the journalists who attended, as she did
not -- who declared that I had
the murderer.

"There was an enormous assumption that
we were in sympathy with MacDonald and
we were going to give him the Earth,"
the forewoman told a reporter from the
American Lawyer, after a mistrial had
been declared, adding, "It wasn't
true." She further stated, "I would
like to have [said] from the outset that
MacDonald got what he asked for and
McGinniss did what he said he'd do,
but ... we got caught up in a thicket of
legalities." This comment appears
nowhere in Malcolm's "masterpiece."

Much more profoundly important
information was available to Malcolm as
she composed her article in what you
term "cool, considered, perfect prose."
Yet she omitted anything and everything
that would have contradicted her
preconceived notions. Her "masterpiece"
therefore, in my opinion -- and as the
subject of the articles I am better
equipped to point out factual errors,
and distortion through omission than
would be readers such as yourself,
whose sole source of information about
the MacDonald matter is the flagrantly
distorted version Malcolm has purveyed
-- might be more accurately viewed
as an extremely clever but malign and
meretricious piece of fiction.

-- Joe McGinniss

Williamstown, Mass.

Give "Freaks" a chance


Millman has articulated the
feelings of a growing group of people, a
very important demographic that includes
not only writers and critics, but a
whole cross section of viewers who seem
to be ignored by certain decision makers
at NBC. I have heard rave reviews of
"Freaks and Geeks" from the elderly to
the adolescent. This show strikes a
chord that resonates.

-- R.F. Daley

Amen! My sister caught the show
when it first aired, and was
smart enough to tape the episodes.
After a few weeks of coercion (I don't
television. I don't have a
television), I watched the three that I
had missed, and I've managed to find a
television for the episodes that

If NBC boots the show, I think I will
lose all faith in televised

-- Melanie Barker

Simply amazing article about
"Freaks and Geeks." As a former geek
turned freak from high school, the show
acts like therapy for me. I just wish
the audience and network could treat it
better. Oh well, hopefully your article
will help.

-- Steve Fulton

I am utterly confused by Joyce
Millman's taste. Just a day after
championing the intelligently funny
"Freaks and Geeks" she lambastes Fox's
"Family Guy" as "the cruddy animated
series that just won't die." How about
"the hysterical animated show that has
been just as screwed as 'Freaks' in
terms of having any type of regular time
slot and which actually assumes its
audience has both brains and a sense of
How can you watch the show and not laugh
at Brian, the talking, Martini-drinking
dog who chases his tail while drunk on a
My husband and I (and many of our
friends) have been eagerly awaiting this
show's return.

-- Karen Witham Lynch

How do game developers hack


I think it's just plain wrong to
glorify the pain ION Storm has put its
employees through. It is not, and
shouldn't be, a common practice to run
12-hour workdays seven days a week for
two or three years.

For example, the game I'm currently
working on is shipping shortly; our team
has a ratio of "first timers" vs.
"veterans" similar to the Daikatana team
and has only been in crunch mode for two
months out of the total 10 to 11 months
of development time.

You need to look for other reasons for
ION's problems than "Those kids can't
handle the pressure and that's why all
of them suck." The same "kids" happen to
do a wonderful job in other companies.
The problem with Romero's game is much
deeper (or higher up?) than that.

-- Iikka Keranen

level designer

Looking Glass Studios

Who owns your DNA?

The human genome is the
collective patrimony of the entire human
race. That companies have been able to
patent bits and pieces is extremely
disturbing. We have completely lost
sight of the difference between
invention and scientific discovery. To
say that someone who has sequenced a
gene has thereby "invented" it is like
saying that I have written Shakespeare's
plays simply because I have read them.
With that kind of distortion of language
we might as well say that Columbus
invented America.

-- Robert J. Yaes, M.D.

I'm a molecular biologist who is
decidedly against the bombardment-style
patenting of every novel gene scientists
at these companies get their hands on.
They file for patents with little to no
real idea of their function other than
what they can tell directly from the
gene's sequence. The requirements for
patents on biological sequence data
should include detailed knowledge of
structure, function and expression on
the level of patents filed for

That said, an institution like Miami
Children's Hospital that has been
studying Canavan disease for years and
investing large sums of its own time and
money in elucidating its causes has a
clear right to patents on the use of the
genes it has discovered. How Allen can
in the same breath hail the discovery of
these genes and then condemn the
institution whose dedication made this
discovery possible mystifies me.

Sure, in an ideal world we would all
give our discoveries away to better help
mankind. But in this world miracles
have costs in time, money and manpower
that discoverers have a right to recoup.

-- Gregory L. Dyas

Stealth merchandising


With regard to your "Stealth
Merchandising" column by Shoshana
Marchand posted on Feb. 29, we would
like to clarify why Scholastic Book
Clubs has such a wide range of offerings
to children and their parents.

The mission of the book clubs is to
promote literacy, the joy of reading for
all children and to encourage a lifelong
love of reading and book ownership.
Scholastic Book Clubs reach children who
might never have the opportunity or
desire to go to a library or bookstore
and create excitement about owning a
book and reading.

Part of promoting a love of reading is
to encourage children to practice their
reading skills, not only with the
high-quality titles Scholastic offers
through its book clubs, but also with
leisure fun books. Scholastic Book
Clubs offer non-book items in
conjunction with books to pique a
childs interest in reading.
Moreover, Scholastic Book Clubs
encourage a home-school connection
because parents can buy books that
support what their children are learning
in school and that encourage their
childrens independent reading. Parents
are never under any obligation to buy
the books. For teachers, Scholastic
Book Clubs provide a ready-made
recommended reading list to share with
parents at prices lower than any other

Scholastic Inc. recognizes that literacy
is the keystone of every childs
intellectual, personal and cultural
growth and donates millions of books
annually through public, private and
nonprofit organizations.

-- Judy Corman

senior vice president

Communications & Media Relations

Scholastic Inc.

By Letters to the Editor

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Janet Malcolm