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Janet Malcolm's posthumous not

Jun 26, 2023

“I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist,” Janet Malcolm conceded in an essay titled “Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography.” The line is quoted in her daughter Anne’s afterword to “Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory,” Malcolm’s posthumously published not-quite memoir.

Malcolm didn’t entirely abandon her autobiographical project, but she wasn’t wrong either.

Malcolm, who died in 2021 at 86, was a longtime writer for the New Yorker and perhaps best known for her book “The Journalist and the Murderer,” and its savage opening aphorism: “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.”

That book caused a stir not only for its lurid subject — convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald’s lawsuit against journalist Joe McGinniss for fraud — but for Malcolm’s insistence that at the heart of the journalistic enterprise lies an unavoidable dishonesty. A subject speaks with a reporter thinking the reporter will share that story with the world, but, as Malcolm put it, “the writer ultimately tires of the subject’s self-serving story, and substitutes a story of her own.”

This was not an indictment of the enterprise but an essential ethical compromise Malcolm thought her profession ought to face. She arrived at this view thanks to another of her abiding interests: psychoanalysis. Analyzed herself, Malcolm wrote two books and many articles about the practice’s uses and abuses, its proponents and debates. The fundamental psychoanalytic skepticism of an individual’s self-accounting — its idea that we never quite mean what we say, even when we insist otherwise — informed her approach to other frequent subjects: photography, biography and the law.

It’s a stance that helped Malcolm produce some of the most bracing intellectual journalism of the 20th century. But it sure hamstrings a memoir.

“Autobiography is a misnamed genre; memory speaks only some of its lines,” Malcolm writes in “Still Pictures.” Like biography, she says, it is a “novelistic enterprise.”

The memoirist’s fundamental compromise differs from the journalist’s — you’re telling a story of your life, one that involves necessary narrative distortions — and it’s one that Malcolm refuses to make. She doesn’t trust anyone else’s account of their own life; how can she ask a reader to trust hers?

And so she doesn’t give us an account of her life, she gives us a photo album, with riffs. Most of these short chapters begin with a snapshot. Here’s 4-year-old Janet, with her parents, looking out from a train window as the family flees Europe in 1939. Here’s a picture of those same parents looking dapper in downtown Prague, and another of her father in drag at a “Dadaist ball.” Her parents ran in avant-garde circles in Prague but resigned themselves to life in the middlebrow, middle-class community of Czech emigres in mid-century Manhattan.

There is little in this book about Malcolm’s adult life and career, which is the basis of our interest in her in the first place. She’s much more comfortable offering interesting trivialities about her early life than examining the decisions and contradictions that constituted her remarkable career.

However, a chapter titled “The Apartment” opens with a snapshot of Malcolm and a man outdoors, leaning against some sort of open-top roadster, wind blowing Malcolm’s scarf. The text begins obliquely, focused on an Italian china pattern Malcolm didn’t particularly like. She connects her distaste for that pattern to its presence at her “illicit lunches with G.” That would be Gardner Botsford, her editor at the New Yorker and her second husband.

“Adultery takes one out of one’s usual life, sometimes in unusual ways,” Malcolm writes.

Probably! But we’ll have to take her word for it. Almost as soon as she opens the door to that one-room Midtown apartment, she slams it shut: “The prerogative of cowardly withholding is precious to the most apparently self-revealing of writers. I apologetically exercise it here.”

This is what Freud would call “resistance.” In the face of it we are left to treat Malcolm as the patient on the couch, free-associating at random, while we readers play analyst (cigar optional). It’s up to us to make sense of, say, the fact that her father was a neurologist and psychiatrist (a profession whose members Malcolm glosses as “psychoanalysts manqué”!), and whether that had any bearing (how could it not?) on her interest in Freud.

And despite her insistence elsewhere to the contrary, how could the experience of being sued by Jeffrey Masson, the subject of what is arguably her masterpiece, “In the Freud Archives,” not have informed her decision to then write about another trial in which the subject sues a journalist?

Malcolm’s beat was examining the stories people tell and figuring out what those stories might reveal about the tellers. For pitiless, clear-eyed Malcolmian insight on her life and influences, her career and its contradictions, we’ll have to wait for someone willing to consider what her refusal, or inability, to tell her own story reveals about her.

Sebastian Stockman is a teaching professor in the English department at Northeastern University and the writer of an infrequent newsletter, “A Saturday Letter.”

On Photography and Memory

By Janet Malcolm

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 155 pp. $26

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