Janet Malcolm, reconsidered

Each week, Symposium provides a blogging forum for the week’s featured article. This week’s author is Prof. Andrew Gelman. You can read his blog here as well as his frequent posts on The Monkey Cage.

Today, I’m turning back to journalism again. I’ll call this post “It-gets-me-so-angry-I-can’t-deal-with-it threshold.”

It’s the case of New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, whose 1990 work The Journalist and the Murderer came under fire for distorting what was a very strong case against convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald.

Malcolm’s book told the story of a lawsuit MacDonald filed against another writer, Joe McGinniss, who also wrote about the case and, inadvertently or not, led MacDonald to believe the book would help prove his innocence. In her book, Malcolm famously remarked that she was not considering any tangible evidence against MacDonald: “I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from this material.”

Malcolm’s has tempted controversy again, and in 2010 she wrote about another murder case in which she seemed to be rooting for the defendant (a woman who had hired a hit man to kill her husband) for no apparent reason, and even called up the lawyer herself in an attempt to force a mistrial. I’ve written about that here and here.

My theory: Malcolm is not just writing about this case because there is an interesting twist or some broader message. Rather, she sees herself as such a talented writer that she thinks she can use those skills to help the defendant, just like a great defense attorney can save his client from a sentence of guilt no matter what the evidence is. This is what bothers me more than anything else.

I’m fine if people want to argue Malcolm is the greatest living American essayist. But I don’t think she deserves the kind of free pass that writers keep on giving her, like this piece in Slate by Alice Gregory earlier this year.

For some reason, I can’t over pieces like this. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the genius of artists who do bad things. I can appreciate Picasso’s genius even though he beat his wives, and the examples go on. But for some reason, this Malcolm veneration sticks in my craw. I recognize it is a somewhat irrational attitude on my part, but it’s there nonetheless.

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