Janet Malcolm, in my view the greatest American nonfiction writer of at least the past century, died June 16 at the age of 86. In an obituary in the New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg said:
The writer whom Janet Malcolm loved most was Chekhov, and one of her great strokes was to bring his spirit to her reporting—the small, telling gesture that burned a character into the reader’s mind. One thinks, for example, of her description of a revered New York psychoanalyst, who stood out from the others in the fishbowl of a psychoanalytic convention “the way a lady’s slipper leaps out at you in the woods.” These observations, embedded in an unfurling scroll of impeccable facts, explication, analysis, and original ideas, set her journalism apart from every other practitioner of her generation.
I’ve been meaning to write a tribute to Malcolm since she died, but I kept putting it off because her death seriously upset me and it’s something I prefer not to think about. I’m finally writing this today because she is one of my idols and I don’t want to let her death pass without paying tribute to her.
The line Malcolm is best known for, and one of the most famous book openings of all time, comes from The Journalist and the Murderer, one of her many masterpieces and a book I’ve read at least 20 times and hope to read another 20: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
It’s a wonderful line but there are two others, see below, that I prefer. The first is also from The Journalist and the Murderer. The second is from Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, another absolute masterpiece. The two lines make the same brilliant point though it’s one that most people — most of all journalists, who surely rank among the most pitiful, clueless, and unaware creatures on the planet — are incapable of grasping and hence remain utterly blind to their own shortcomings and self-delusions.
We are all perpetually smoothing and arranging reality to conform to our wishes; we lie to others and to ourselves constantly, unthinkingly. When, occasionally – and not by dint of our own efforts but under the pressure of external events – we are forced to see things as they are, we are like naked people in a storm.
We go through life mishearing and mis-seeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up.
In 2014, I wrote a short article for Verso Books with a list of my five favorite works of nonfiction. Iphigenia in Forest Hills and The Journalist and the Murderer were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, in that order, though it could have gone either way. I’m going to liberally self-plagiarize from that article here because there’s no point in reinventing the wheel.
In Iphigenia in Forest Hills Malcolm recounts the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, who was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill her husband, Daniel Malakov. His murder, at a playground in Queens, occurred as the two were engaged in a nasty custody battle over their 4-year-old daughter, Michelle. Borukhova is almost surely guilty. The evidence against her includes nearly 100 phone calls between her and the hit man in the run up to the murder but if you’re not exactly rooting for her you’ll certainly empathize. “She couldn’t have done it, and she must have done it,” Malcolm writes.
The villain of the story isn’t Borukhova’s husband, but Michelle’s court-appointed guardian, David Schnall. (A close second is Judge Robert Hanophy, who furiously pushed to conclude the trial, in a manner hugely prejudicial to the defense, so it wouldn’t interfere with his Caribbean vacation.) Though he never spoke to Michelle, Schnall “seemed to fear and hate Borukhova from the start of his guardianship,” Malcolm writes. Schnall recommended that custody be transferred from her to her estranged husband, even though he hadn’t sought it and Borukhova desperately wanted her daughter to stay with her (and Michelle wanted that too). “And so,” Malcolm writes, “the curtain rose on the tragedy of Daniel Malakov, Michelle Malakov, and Mazoltuv Borukhova.”
The subtext of the book, as often is the case with Malcolm’s work, is that perception is everything and definitive truths are hard to divine.
In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm once again leaves you rooting for the murderer, in this case Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret convicted of killing his wife and two young children in 1970. The journalist is Joe McGinniss, who for years strung along McDonald by telling him he believed in his innocence and then wrote a book, Fatal Vision, which portrayed him as a cold-blooded sociopath. MacDonald sued McGinniss (who died in 2014) for fraud and breach of contract, which is the focus of the book. There was a hung jury — only one juror sided with McGinniss — and the writer settled out of court to avoid a retrial.
The case is still the subject of controversy. MacDonald continues to maintain his innocence; his latest appeal was rejected last year. Malcolm believes he was guilty and that’s apparent, no matter what Errol Morris says. MacDonald’s account to police – that his family was killed by hippie intruders chanting “Acid is Groovy” – is one of the worst alibis of all time. And while his family was butchered MacDonald, who admits he was in the house at the time, somehow received only superficial stab wounds. (His pregnant wife was stabbed repeatedly with a paring knife and an ice pick, and both her arms were broken.) He either was remarkably fortunate or his minor wounds were self-inflicted as part of his cover story.
Malcolm’s insights, about journalism and her subjects, are remarkable. Her interpretation of a visit by McGinnis to the home of William Styron, during which he surreptitiously cooked a can of crab meat that he knew Styron had been carefully guarding for a special occasion, is unforgettable.
As an observer Malcolm misses nothing and as a writer she’s wonderfully ruthless. “Don’t ever eat in front of Janet Malcolm; or show her your apartment; or cut tomatoes while she watches,” Robert Boynton once wrote of her. “Every unflattering gesture and nervous tic will be recorded eventually with devastating precision.”
RIP, Janet Malcolm. You are beloved for all eternity.
(Here’s a collection of remembrances of Malcolm from the New Yorker, where her work was most frequently published. Here’s a collection of her most famous lines.)