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A Second Chance

William A. Clark Collection/Corcoran Collection
Honoré Daumier: Le Défenseur, circa 1862–1865

Once a week in the spring of 1994 I would bicycle over to a brownstone on West 16th Street to see a man named Sam Chwat in his ground-floor office. He called himself a speech coach, and a large part of his business was to train actors who had been cast as Prospero, say, or Creon, so that they did not sound as if they came from the Bronx or Akron, Ohio. But I was not an actor seeking help with a role. I was seeing Sam for something else, something a bit apart from the other speech-related services he offered. A friend who had sought him out for help with public speaking had recommended him to a lawyer who was representing me in a lawsuit. Ten years earlier I had published a two-part article in The New Yorker about a disturbance in an obscure corner of the psychoanalytic world whose chief subject, a man named Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, hadn’t liked his portrayal and claimed that I had libeled him by inventing the quotations on which it was largely based. So he sued me and the magazine and the Knopf publishing company, which had brought out the article as a book called In the Freud Archives.

In an afterword to a subsequent book, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), I wrote about the lawsuit, taking a very high tone. I put myself above the fray; I looked at things from a glacial distance. My aim wasn’t to persuade anyone of my innocence. It was to show off what a good writer I was. Reading the piece now, I am full of admiration for its irony and detachment—and appalled by the stupidity of the approach. Of course I should have tried to prove my innocence. But I was part of the culture of The New Yorker of the old days—the days of William Shawn’s editorship—when the world outside the wonderful academy we happy few inhabited existed only for us to delight and instruct, never to stoop to persuade or influence in our favor. As the Masson case wound its way through the courts—dismissed at first, then reinstated, and eventually brought to trial—the press-watching public became increasingly pleased by the spectacle of the arrogant magazine brought low by the behavior of one of its staff writers. While Masson gave over two hundred accusatory interviews, I—in dogged accord with the magazine’s stance of unrelenting hauteur—said nothing in my defense. Nothing at all. Nothing of course produces nothing, except further confirmation of guilt.

But it was at trial that the influence of The New Yorker proved to be most dire. There was a style of self-presentation cultivated at the magazine that most if not all staff writers had adopted and found congenial. The idea was to be reticent, self-deprecating, and,…

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