Janet Malcolm made her reputation writing about people who didn’t know when to shut up. Most of us like to talk about ourselves, and given the faintest encouragement will say enough to wind up looking like fools when our words appear on the page. The psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson told her about his many achievements, his sex life included, and then sued her for defamation when he discovered what her New Yorker reporting (republished in 1984 as In the Freud Archives) had made of him, claiming he’d been misquoted. He trusted her; he thought he’d found a sympathetic listener. He hadn’t. Nor had he been misquoted, but it took a decade and two trials to see the case off. A few years later the murderer Jeffrey MacDonald thought that he too had found such a listener in the journalist Joe McGinniss, whose contract for Fatal Vision (1983) was predicated on the access he gained by pretending to believe that MacDonald was innocent. When the killer learned what the writer really thought of him, he sued as well, and Malcolm then turned the case into her The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).
That book’s first sentence once made other writers angry. Now it merely seems true, or true at least of the kind of immersive reporting she practiced herself: “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.” The writer needs to keep the subject talking, but at the same time that subject “is worriedly striving to keep the writer listening…. He lives in fear of being found uninteresting” and offers a “childish trust” to any remotely willing ear. Which the journalist then promptly betrays. Malcolm knew that, and did that, even though it troubled her; at times she wrote as though writing itself made her uneasy, as though McGinnis’s practice were but an extreme version of her own. Yet that moral calculus also made her angry, first at those fellow practitioners who refused to recognize their predatory relation to their sources, and then at the credulity of those sources themselves. Don’t these people know that writers are always selling someone out?
That’s one way to see her, anyway, one account of her career. Early Malcolm, let’s call it, though she was almost fifty when her two-part serial about Masson first appeared in The New Yorker. She had been a regular writer there since the early 1960s, covering such conventionally gendered subjects as children’s books and domestic interiors, and then working as the magazine’s photography critic. Her reporting life began in 1978 with “The One-Way Mirror,” a profile of a family therapist named Salvador Minuchin, which she undertook as a way to quit smoking; the necessary interviews kept her away from a desk where every sentence needed its cigarette.
By the time she finished her research the habit was cracked, and yet whatever its origins that profile provides a better guide than the legal fuss to what’s distinctive about her work. The therapists she writes about all know, or know of, each other. Some of them admire Minuchin and others disagree with his methods—professional rivalries that assume the emotional weight of feuds. Add in the arguments between the different members of the families in treatment; add in as well the then-precarious status of family therapy in the eyes of the psychiatric establishment. What it all amounts to is a picture of struggle, a struggle for both legitimacy and authority. Put it another way: in the small, closed world of “The One-Way Mirror,” which of the people she writes about is going to have the last word?
Quarrels like that are in essence family matters, and leave aside the fact that the last word always belongs to the writer herself. Malcolm’s most characteristic material lies in the fight between members of a tightly linked group for control of the narrative that binds them, a fight between people who have come to know each other too well. Not all of her work is about that, and sometimes that group is a gentle one; see, for example, “The Book Refuge” (2014), her lovely and loving account of the three sisters who own New York’s Argosy Bookshop. Yet enough of it is, and her longer pieces especially. There are the books about trials, not just The Journalist and the Murderer but also The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999) and the underrated Iphigenia in Forest Hills (2011). In the Freud Archives isn’t really about Masson but rather the battle over Freud’s legacy, including the control of his papers, with a star chamber of older analysts suddenly turning on their anointed heir. “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (1986) is only in part a profile of Ingrid Sischy, then the editor of Artforum; its real subject is the back-scratching and backstabbing world of contemporary art criticism, with everyone quoted doing their damnedest to appear high-minded. Two Lives (2007) sketches the partnership of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and then follows the mixture of competition and friendship that marks the scholars who work on them, a coterie whose members need one another even while fearing that one of them will find some crucial nugget first. But the most probing of all her books is The Silent Woman (1994), in which the stakes are nothing less than memory itself.
The tombstone set up for Sylvia Plath in the Yorkshire village of Heptonstall bears her legal name at the time of her death, Sylvia Plath Hughes: a name that so enrages some of her admirers that it has repeatedly been defaced, the “Hughes” chiseled out or chalked over. She was, after all, living apart from Ted Hughes when she killed herself, and though no one can know if the split would have been permanent, his adultery and their subsequent separation stand as motivating factors in her suicide. So her fans set to work, obliterating Hughes’s name and by implication the man himself; he would have it restored, and then the game would start all over again.
Malcolm doesn’t mention those repeated defacements in The Silent Woman, but the book is in essence an account of that quarrel as played out in the work of Plath’s many biographers. Who gets to determine how we see her? What obligations do biographers have to their sources, who are also often the survivors? Did Plath’s not-quite-ex-husband have any rights at all in shaping the way her life was told? For whatever his sins he knew her better than anyone, and both her story and her children were also his.
The Silent Woman offers a version of the claim Malcolm makes at the start of The Journalist and the Murderer, only this time framed as a question. She talks with A. Alvarez, whose 1972 study of suicide, The Savage God, provided the first extended account of Plath’s death; Malcolm finds him at once urbane and oddly boorish. There are long, uncomfortable meetings with Hughes’s fiercely protective sister, Olwyn, the agent for Plath’s estate, still angry over what that American girl had done to her younger brother. Most of the biographers fight with her, and Olwyn speaks of them in turn as stupid, even disparaging the work of Anne Stevenson, on whose Bitter Fame (1989) she became a virtual collaborator. But Malcolm then spends a few days listening to Stevenson’s side of the story, hearing how Olwyn had restitched each chapter until it was almost unrecognizable. She moves on to Plath’s surviving friends, each of them curious about the others, and sits over tea with the formidably cagey Jacqueline Rose. Olwyn thinks that Rose’s psychoanalytic account in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991) doesn’t have “one interesting or intelligent thing” in it; Malcolm by contrast finds it “brilliant,” even though she too dislikes the “bracing hostility” with which it puts its case against the Hugheses.
For though Malcolm draws no conclusions about the Plath–Hughes marriage, she does, she says, have a preference in the ethical quarrel at the heart of the book. The biographer is customarily “supposed to go out and bring back the goods,” every last “malevolent secret,” and especially about this one particular treacherous man. Nevertheless her “sympathies are with the Hugheses”: with their claim, however self-serving, that the feelings of the survivors, and even of the guilty, deserve consideration. They need to be protected—protected, in fact, from people like her. The curious thing is that Malcolm knows that her own position is a weak one, and inseparable from her personal “sympathies and antipathies and experiences.” Still, no human statement comes without its bias, its point of view; her position is hers, and in listening to this collage of voices she loses all belief in the ideal of an objective and “unmediated reporting.” The biographer needs in consequence to admit her own uncertainty and ambivalence, and the best way to do that is to make that biographer—that reporter—into an essential part of the work itself. You guard against your own creeping subjectivity by embracing it.
The best New Yorker writers have always known that. How you got the story is the story, whether it’s A.J. Liebling in a D-Day landing craft, Joseph Mitchell exploring an abandoned waterfront hotel, or Malcolm herself as she works through her own conversations with an ever-testier Olwyn Hughes. Though what happens when the reporting I becomes the subject of its own gaze, when the lens of one’s sensibility is turned not outward but inward?
Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts (2013) takes its title from a profile of the painter David Salle, whose character never resolved itself under her questioning. That collection also, however, contains a forty-second false start in the two pages she calls “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography.” Abandoned, she says, because her “efforts to make what I write interesting seem pitiful.” Masson, Sischy, Hughes—her work has always relied on “one brilliant self-inventive collaborator after another, [and] it isn’t easy to suddenly find oneself alone in the room.” She cannot seem to invent herself; it’s as if the portraitist has no character of her own. Then there’s the fact that autobiography is typically an “exercise in self-forgiveness.” The older narrator fondly recalls her younger follies, and sees her sins as necessary steps on the road to becoming the person who tells the story. Yet Malcolm’s lifetime of seeing through other people’s illusions has made it hard to have any of her own: “My journalist’s habits have inhibited my self-love. Not only have I failed to make my young self as interesting as the strangers I have written about, but I have withheld my affection.”
The reader may dissent. Not all autobiographies work that way, and not all writers have these particular scruples, though Malcolm’s scruples are one of the most intriguing things about her. They’re part of what makes her seem so trustworthy, and maybe we like her all the more because she thinks herself dull, dull on the page anyway, a dullness in which the reader does not for a second believe. It’s the one illusion she cannot dispel: a writerly problem to which she nevertheless found a solution, in the years just before her death in 2021, by deflecting both her attention and ours onto a deceptively simple set of everyday objects.
The objects are photographs, the illustrations of this posthumous volume, family photographs, most of them, and distinguished by nothing except the memories they arouse. Still Pictures contains twenty-six autobiographical sketches, some of which first appeared in The New York Review. Most of them are only a few pages long, and almost all of them come headed by a snapshot. The opening piece, “Roses and Peonies,” juxtaposes an Ingres oil portrait of a man in his sixties with a photo of a self-possessed preschooler sitting on a step. They each have their hands on their knees, each drawing unconsciously on humankind’s “repertoire of stereotypical poses.” The child in the snapshot is of course Malcolm herself, in what was then Czechoslovakia, where she was born Jana Wienerová to a nonobservant Jewish family in 1934. “But I don’t think of that child as me,” she writes. “No feeling of identification stirs as I look at her round face and thin arms and her incongruously assertive pose.” The photo predates her conscious memory, but it does produce what is her first memory, a village festival in which other small girls laid down a path of white rose petals, while little Jana, a latecomer, had only a hastily gathered and inferior basket of peonies. Why, she asks, does that memory still trouble her? She has no answer, except to note that even now she prefers roses to peonies.
Many of these sketches work that way. They offer a photograph and then move away from it. “Francine” describes Malcolm’s “bad-girl” school friend in Manhattan’s Yorkville, the Mitteleuropa neighborhood in which her family settled after their emigration in 1939. (In New York “Wiener” became “Winn”; “Malcolm” comes from her first husband.) “I no longer know, if I ever did, what [Francine] got into trouble about,” what gave her a reputation and made Malcolm’s parents disapprove of her. What she does recall is both the pleasure of their after-school milk shakes and one crucial moment of embarrassment; and then once again there’s a question. If she was attracted to Francine’s alleged badness, might the other girl have been drawn to her own “goody-goodyness”? Then the friendship ends, as adolescent friendships do, and “I don’t know what became of her.”
Memory proves inconclusive, trails off, hits a dead end. In “Daddy” the picture offers a bald, roundheaded man in horn-rimmed glasses, dressed for summer in a carefully tucked-in T-shirt, a basket under his arm. Malcolm says he liked mushrooms and possibly that unexplained basket was for foraging. She tries to imagine his childhood and fails; lingers over the family myth of his unmarried life in Prague as a rakish man-about-town, a doctor on whose later career “a history of girl chasing had left no visible trace.” She writes that she has “lovely plotless memories of him” while admitting that the memories that do have a plot are the ones that give autobiography “its vitality” due to their “conflict, resentment, blame, self-justification—and it is wrong, unfair, inexcusable to publish them.” Conflict may be inevitable, resentment and all the rest of it too. They’re what narrative requires, what it’s made from. But describing them here, giving them the weight of a story, would falsify what she sees as the bond between this particular father and child—a bond whose truth she locates instead in that very plotlessness, in memories at once inconsequential and essential. Another way to put that is to say that Malcolm herself always knew when to shut up, and the essay’s final image encapsulates the ordinary relations of a happy family, a note of regret included: “He liked to pick and identify certain small, frail, white wildflowers that it never occurred to me to notice, and that he never forced on my attention.”
A few of these photos speak to Malcolm’s attenuated relation to her Judaism. It wasn’t something her mother and father spoke of, and in New York they sent her and her sister to a Lutheran Sunday school. Then “one of us proudly brought home an anti-Semitic slur learned from a classmate,” and her parents “decided it was time to tell us we were Jewish. It was a bit late.” Rather more of these sketches touch on her Czech origins. Snippets of memory: a quartet of refugee women, their stories half-known at best. Skromnost, the Czech word for modesty, and with a note of being content with what one has; “Does anyone say ‘casserole’ anymore?” Her family became “middle-class Americans” too quickly and completely for her to retain much of the language, though she did develop an interest in Czech politics and culture, and wrote authoritatively in these pages about both Milan Kundera and Václav Havel.* She does remember that her mother was funnier in Czech than in English. But then the whole family delighted in Dadaist absurdity; the book’s last words tell us that she hopes for a spot in what she, in her deliberately antiquated phrasing, calls “the annals of horsing around.”
Many of these essays look slight, and yet the collection gains from its oddly off-centered quality—cantilevered, perhaps, as so many of her books are. The Silent Woman ends with the least consequential person in Plath’s whole story, an elderly hoarder who happened to be living downstairs when she died; he can’t understand why people want to know about her and not him. So Still Pictures lives in memories that go nowhere, and most of them from before Malcolm was twenty, memories that in focusing on the forgotten people around her seem at first to tell us very little. They are, however, what made her; a self emerges from this elegant though fragmentary volume, a self that is at once recognizable and familiar even though the book includes only a few images of her adult life. Still, one sketch does point toward the more conventional autobiography that Malcolm couldn’t or wouldn’t write, and it’s enough to make one wish she had.
“Sam Chwat” is about a speech coach she saw once a week in the spring of 1994, a man whose usual business lay in ensuring that actors in classical roles didn’t “sound as if they came from the Bronx or Akron, Ohio.” But she was there for a different kind of help. Chwat helped prepare her to appear on the witness stand in the second of the trials Masson’s lawsuit had imposed upon her: an appearance that needed to be at odds with everything the closed, self-regarding world of The New Yorker had taught her about the nature of self-presentation. The magazine’s prevailing ethos called for its writers “to be reticent in real life: self-deprecating, and maybe here and there funny, but always keeping a low profile, in contrast to the rather high one of the persona in which we wrote.” In consequence she had treated Masson’s charges as patently false, not worth bothering about; he meanwhile had given hundreds of “accusatory interviews.”
Her silence was in keeping with the magazine’s culture, but it made her look guilty, and Chwat taught her that “reticence, self-deprecation, and wit are the last things a jury wants to see in a witness.” He showed her how to play to that jury as an actor does to a crowd, and part of the secret lay in learning how to dress for court: avoiding the subdued colors she usually wore and giving the jury something to look at instead, like “pastel-colored dresses and…pretty scarves.” It worked. Henry James once wrote that “one’s self—for other people—is one’s expression of one’s self,” and the fact that he gave that line to the odious Madame Merle doesn’t at all diminish its truth. Malcolm’s new manner made the jury willing to listen to her testimony in a way that an earlier jury had not; even, we might say, to entertain it.
One question remains, though, or not a question but a thought. If the “real life” that Malcolm speaks of can be made into a performance, a sustained act of self-presentation, can we still legitimately view it as somehow more authentic than the “rather high…persona” in which we write? Each of them quite literally impersonates a self, and for most of us the words “Janet Malcolm” can only suggest the words on her pages.
Silent Spring, In Cold Blood, Fire in the Lake, Coming into the Country, The Fate of the Earth. The understatement Chwat counseled against may indeed have characterized The New Yorker under William Shawn’s editorship, but another distinctive feature of that era was its serialization of innovative and demanding works of nonfiction, works in which reporting became an act of the imagination. Malcolm was, with John McPhee, the magazine’s last regular practitioner of that form. Her own serials were compact, two tight parts as opposed to Frances FitzGerald’s five, but her books had an unusual degree of continuity from one to the next, a sensibility whose asperity Still Life doesn’t entirely capture. The best of them belong on that list above.
Book excerpts still appear in The New Yorker’s pages, and sometimes a loose group of articles will be stitched into a volume, but its reporting now tends to be more narrowly if understandably focused on political questions, and the writing itself rarely has the same patience or weight. A series of articles only rarely makes a coherent whole, and the reading experience is apt to be disjointed. Malcolm’s books were always wholes, her collections of essays aside, and yet they were also often disorienting. She usually began in medias res, she sometimes played behind her own beat, and her endings rarely closed the circle. She knew her readers, and knew she could trust them to follow. I’m not sure her successors can have that confidence.