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Post Death of Janet Malcolm, Journalism's Gadfly
Created by John Eipper on 06/29/21 3:47 AM

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Death of Janet Malcolm, Journalism's Gadfly (David Duggan, USA, 06/29/21 3:47 am)

I'm surprised that no WAISer has commented on the June 16th death of Janet Malcolm, certainly one of the most important, if not most infamous journalists of the last quintile of the 20th century.

The daughter of a Prague psychiatrist, the family got out of Dodge when the getting was good and settled in NYC. A proud graduate of the University of Michigan (MGoBloo!), she spent most of her working years writing about psychoanalysis for The New Yorker, even marrying an editor whose family had originally funded the magazine.

Her first book, Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession (1981), a pastiche of articles which had appeared in The New Yorker, is based on her assessment of the psychoanalytical approach of a fictitious analyst who discussed his patients and his dismissal of other analytic techniques. It remains an entry-level text which both unmasks and deals intelligently with the vagaries of a profession that, truth be told, has absolutely no standards.

Her next book, also from New Yorker articles, The Freud Archives (1984), was essentially a hit-job on the guardian of those archives, Jeffrey Masson. A Harvard PhD in Sanskrit (1970), Masson had transitioned (not in the Pride-month sense) to psychoanalysis after having met Anna Freud, Sigmund's daughter. After reviewing those archives, studying the history of psychoanalysis, and using his own reasoning, Masson concluded that Freud had concocted the "seduction theory," in part to hide one of his own indiscretions with a niece while on Italian holiday. Masson sued Malcolm for libel for misquoting him; the case went to the US Supremes which ruled that there were questions of fact for trial. (Malcolm didn't help her case by claiming that she had lost the notes supporting her reporting.) After a decade of proceedings the jury ruled that Masson did not show "actual malice," that is that the misquotes were knowingly false or made with reckless disregard to whether they were false. A year later Malcolm "found" a "lost" note pad that supported her position.

Not chastened by having taken on the psychoanalytic community, Malcolm next turned her sights on journalism, particularly the sort of "you-are-there-with-me" journalism popularized by among others Hunter Thompson and Joe McGinnis. (Actually, there's nothing new about this: Thucydides was an Athenian general in the Peloponnesian wars.) McGinnis, originally a sports guy, had written The Selling of the President 1968 about the Nixon campaign, and followed that up with Fatal Vision, an account of the murder trial of US Army Capt. (and Special Forces member) Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, charged with having killed his two daughters and pregnant wife in a "helter skelter" style murder. He claimed hippies killed them chanting: "Acid is groovy, death to the pigs." McGinnis had inveigled his way into MacDonald's confidence, then used that confidence to undermine his defense once having concluded that MacDonald was guilty. Still professing his innocence, MacDonald remains in the Federal Correction Institute at Cumberland MD. An initial Army investigation had found insufficient evidence against him, but the US Attorney for North Carolina prosecuted (murders occurring on Army property gave him jurisdiction), and the Supremes rejected MacDonald's double jeopardy argument. Jumping into this morass, Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), claiming: "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 premise of course is that by gaining a "source's" confidence, the journalist exploits that for his advantage, to sell newspapers. Moral indefensibility does not equate to legal indefensibility, and I guess Ms. Malcolm didn't understand the benefit she derived from New York Times v. Sullivan which held that journalists have a special privilege to print the news, and can be liable only when they have shown reckless disregard for the facts. Though not a mea culpa, The Journalist and the Murderer remains a J-school classic: the Modern Library ranked it among the top 100 non-fiction books of the 20th century (though near the bottom).

Having been a journalist and spent time on the couch, I can say that Janet Malcolm's work lifted up a lot of bedcovers over two professions that the public depends on but knows too little about. Routine are the accusations that Joe (or Jan) Politician has a "personality disorder," or is a "narcissistic sociopath," or "shows evidence of bipolar depression" all dutifully reported by a media that thrives on the extremes of human behavior. The clamor surrounding "fake news," "false narratives" and "recovered memories" highlights the skepticism about the bona fides of the two professions. It will take another journalist of her stature to sort this out.

Janet Malcolm, RIP.

JE comments:  Excellent summary of Malcolm's groundbreaking work, David.  Possibly her greatest achievement is her attempt to understand the Observer Effect in journalism.  If you cannot observe something without changing it, then writing about these observations in a public forum is doubly "impactful."  It's a huge responsibility for the journalist.

David, did you have the chance to read any of Malcolm's later essays?  In particular, I'm interested in what she might have said about the Internet/"Post Truth" era.

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  • Janet Malcolm, Neighbor and Colleague (Leo Goldberger, USA 06/30/21 3:19 AM)
    My gratitude to David Duggan (June 29th) for his calling attention to the recent death of a wonderful, unique and highly readable journalist and writer--who was indeed associated most of her working life with the New Yorker on a variety of intriguing subjects.

    I came to know Janet Malcolm personally, as we both had second homes and mutual friends in the Berkshires, Massachusetts.  Moreover, back in the early 1980s she consulted me about my views on psychoanalysis in the context of working on her articles and eventual book. (I was a graduate of the so-called "orthodox" Freudian psychoanalytic post-doctoral institute, being one of the few non-MDs admitted in my time--as the promise of my being a research-trained clinical psychologist and an academic doing some empirical research was very much needed.)

    Malcolm was working on her articles following her interviews with Jeffrey Masson. He was at that point in his colorful and ever-changing life and work history--including a rather brief stint as an analyst trained in Toronto and the keeper of the Freud Archives in London under Anna Freud's supervision--not to mention his dozen or so university appointments over these past years. For a variety of reasons, outlined in his book, he emerged from his early Freudian encounters as a staunch anti-Freudian, as reflected in interviews and his own book, The Assault on Truth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984).

    After meeting with Masson myself as I was asked to discuss his book at a meeting organized by his publisher, I quickly withdrew from any further contacts with him for a variety of reasons.  One of these was my disagreement with the tenor of the book, but also, for reasons that might involve the sort of psychologizing that David Duggan would likely frown upon. On that score and on a purely descriptive level, I'd simply say he struck me as a seductive charmer, and an interesting and extremely bright fellow--needless to say of a Harvard-trained Sanskrit scholar--but obviously self-centered to a fault. For example, he'd call me and announced he was planning a new project, a book on the "Rescue of the Danish Jews," and wanted some names of historians in Denmark to consult: would I help him? A bit shocked, I reminded him of my own work on the same subject. His response: "Well, I'll find something new in the historic archives." My reply: "But the Danish Archives are all in Danish," to which his response: "It would take me just two weeks to learn Danish."  In a few other encounters, his arrogance was on the same level of grandiosity!

    One of his anti-Freudian buddies was Peter Swales--a self-established historian and yet another anti-Freudian with the persistent claim of Freud's affair with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays.  (By the way, Swales's claim is that it was she and not his niece as David Duggan would have it, whom Freud presumably impregnated in Rome, followed by an abortion.) While I heard the story by Swales himself at my invitation at an NYU conference (1981) when I was the director there--you may see my response in this article the next day in the NY Times (link below).


    I was a bit put off by David's off-handed dismissal of psychoanalysis as a profession that has "absolutely no standards."  This is far from the truth. What is more to the point is that over the years there have been a wealth of so-called "psychodynamic theories" and sometimes called "psychoanalytic" when, in fact, they might diverge in major or just minor ways from the more traditional Freudian discourse and practice. The latter perspective is quite well disciplined and regulated by the American Psychoanalytic Association.

    And I know for a fact that Janet Malcolm respected her psychoanalyst, also a graduate of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and member of the American association.  I believe her book was a serious and searching exploration of our complex and not too readily explicated profession.

    JE comments:  Leo, this is WAIS content at its "WAISiest"--meaning, obviously, its best.  These personal encounters with history's significant people and events are both intriguing and memorable.  May I ask if you continued to follow the Minna Bernays-Freud liaison thesis?  The "non-smoking gun" to refute the Swales claim lies in their extensive correspondence, which contains no hint of a sexual relationship.

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