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Janet Malcolm and The Power of Doubt 4 min read

Janet Malcolm and The Power of Doubt

By Cary Littlejohn

Janet Malcolm, the literary hero and journalistic villain of The Journalist and the Murderer, died last week. I was listening to The Press Box podcast where hosts Bryan Curtis and David Shoemaker dedicated the top of their show to discussing Malcolm’s impact on the world of journalism. They quipped that hers were books (TJATM, at the very least) that were on everyone’s bookshelves and just how rare that was for someone of a different generation to so fully occupy the consciousness of those younger than she.

I remember reading TJATM. I was living in Mississippi and unhappily practicing law, but reading and listening to so much journalistic content that I was beginning to wonder if maybe I could break into that field myself. I wanted the entire experience, to know as much as possible to go into reading TJATM, so before I did, I began with the massive 900-page paperback version of the Joe McGinnis book that gave way to the lawsuits about which Malcolm wrote when she penned the infamous opening line in the history of opening lines when it comes to journalists.

“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.”

Her style of writing captivated me. Her incisive observations about a salacious murder trial via a gossipy fraud and breach of contract case spoke to my uneasiness with my own profession. I loved the both-sidedness of law school, where the stakes were low and if you found out, mid-argument, that a friend had turned you around on an issue, you could simply yield. But in the real world, not only was that not possible but it was considered unethical and a breach of one’s duty to a client. I hated that feeling. There are those made for crusading and taking up another’s cause as his own, but I was ill-suited for such purposes. I was much more enamored with the thought of commenting on them, as Malcolm did.

David Graham, writing in The Atlantic, described her skill this way:

There are two kinds of magicians: Those who purport to be doing something truly supernatural, drawing on the paranormal, and those who are honest with their audiences about fooling them.

Janet Malcolm, who died last week at 86, was of the second type. Her journalism was filled with instances in which she alerted readers that she would be playing with their minds; she then did so effortlessly. Knowing you were being messed with was no protection. For Malcolm’s readers, this was a satisfyingly pyrotechnic storytelling device—I’ve often laughed out loud while reading her work—but it had a point. If you are so easily destabilized, even with ample warning, she seemed to be chiding us, how can you trust any of your instincts?

I loved her power to do that to a person. I wanted that feeling. More than that, I wanted to be able to replicate that feeling in my own writing; I wanted to be able to easily move into and out of my reader’s head and know that they were following wherever I led them, no matter that they’d prefer not to go down that path. I’d led them there too artfully, too skillfully for them to do anything about it. Of course, my writing falls far, far short of that ideal, but it’s still invigorating to read her work.

In a collection of remembrances from The New Yorker, this one stood out to me:

I grew up in a family where the names of New Yorker writers were tossed around with a proprietary air. “That Ian Frazier,” my mom might say, or “that Janet Malcolm.” The writers were always “very good,” and I assumed that reading their work would be like eating vegetables that made you feel smart afterward. By the time I was in college, I was reading The New Yorker, but only for its poetry and fiction. One day, I phoned home and was apprised of a “very good” article by “that Janet Malcolm.” The piece was called “Iphigenia in Forest Hills.” I looked it up because I liked the title.

In the first few sentences of “Iphigenia,” a defense attorney stuns a courtroom in which a woman is being tried for murder by announcing that his client wishes to testify on her own behalf. The defendant, Mazoltuv Borukhova, is “a small, thin woman of arresting appearance.” She is dressed “in a mannish black jacket and a floor-length black skirt,” and her “long, dark, tightly curled hair” is “bound by a red cord.” No one had warned me that the scene, the language, would be so instantly mesmerizing. Malcolm’s command was absolute; noting the potential energy of the coiled hair, tied by a red string, I remember feeling a sort of panic, as if I’d come to an exam unprepared. She went on. The lead prosecutor was “a short, plump man with a mustache, who walks with the darting movements of a bantam cock.” An essence had been pinned to the page; and yet the representation seemed almost too concisely lifelike to describe a real person. The effect was eerie. Then, as I was wondering just what it was that Malcolm had captured, she suddenly appeared to start wondering the same thing. Observations about the deceptive “spell” of storytelling began to cut through her narration of the trial. The lawyers, she wrote, were spinning ambiguous evidence into “tales of guilt or innocence.” The article itself, I realized, was structured in fragments, as if it were coming apart.

Since then, I’ve equated Malcolm with a mastery so total that it can only start undoing what it has made. The more intimate tributes from Malcolm’s friends and colleagues have been deeply moving. She seems generous, acute, kind. I do, however, want to speak briefly for those of Malcolm’s readers (and I believe there are many of us) whose discovery of her work coincided with our discovery of what nonfiction might be capable of. I’m not sure that Malcolm would wish this discovery to be an entirely happy one. By demonstrating what writing can do, she perhaps demonstrates what people, with their blurred edges and inconsistencies, cannot do. And yet she pulls it off wonderfully; she is, was, very good, but she was also unmatchable. —Katy Waldman

It reminded me that, in the small collection of books I’d hauled across the country with me that now line a shelf, was a copy of Iphigenia in Forest Hills that I’d never cracked open. Something to look forward to.