The Case of the Canned Lawyer

Janet Malcolm
Janet Malcolm; drawing by David Levine

“Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness.”

—Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman

“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.”

—Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

Just as The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) was a provocative, and provoking, meditation upon the ambiguous ethical role of the journalist vis-à-vis his subject, and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995) was an equally original meditation upon the complicated art of biography (“the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world”), so Janet Malcolm’s seventh book, The Crime of Sheila McGough, is both a highly detailed portrait of a woman lawyer and the court case with which she is involved, and an intensely personal and critical examination of law in contemporary America.

Malcolm is gifted with, if not accursed by, the allegorist’s imagination, to which nothing merely is, but can be interpreted in broad, ethical terms. She has the passion of a natural reformer, a messianic zeal strangely, yet often brilliantly, channeled into language. Her prevailing theme throughout her career has been a scrutiny of what is by way of the narratives we make of it, in composing the stories (the “narrativizing untruths”) of our lives. The Crime of Sheila McGough, in its radical distillation of the complexities of law, and its strategies of narration, is a book to set beside the very different yet equally provocative Lawyerland (1997) by the lawyer-poet Lawrence Joseph.

In the winter of 1996, a woman lawyer named Sheila McGough wrote to Janet Malcolm after being released from two and a half years in federal prison:

I was a defense lawyer who irritated some federal judges and federal prosecutors in the course of defending a client. The federal prosecutors in my hometown [Alexandria, Virginia] investigated me for four years, and when they failed to turn up anything illegal in what I was doing, they made up some crimes for me and found people to support them with false testimony…. I didn’t commit any of the 14 felonies Iwas convicted of. The U.S. Government office in Alexandria “framed” me.

Though Janet Malcolm comes to the conclusion that Sheila McGough’s summary of her case is accurate, this curious, disturbing tale is presented with such objectivity by Malcolm, with her characteristic penchant for assembling myriad facts and allowing witnesses to speak at length, that the reader may form his or her own conclusions. Malcolm presents McGough as “a woman of almost preternatural honesty and decency” and “an exquisite heroine,” a model of idealism and incorrigible loyalty. At the same time, McGough is “maddeningly tiresome and stubborn.” To master the “incoherent and senseless story of [McGough’s] ruin,” Malcolm…

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