Despite its pulpy title, Janet Malcolm’s 1990 text The Journalist and the Murderer is a serious, intelligent and deeply thought-provoking treatise on ethics, the craft of writing and the meanings and importance of truth in relation to journalistic reportage.
The book’s title refers to the civil suit that is the central “event” of the text. In the early 1970s a young army doctor was found, in a military court, not guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and their two children. This man, Jeffrey MacDonald, used this court case as a springboard to celebrity, and almost as soon as he found himself swapping anecdotes and bad mouthing his army superiors on TV chat shows, the case was reopened by the state. Keen for limelight, confident in a second acquittal and believing himself charming and interesting, MacDonald wanted to have a writer bed-in with his defence team to “tell his story”. He hawked his “access all areas” pitch to several well-known crime writers, until one – the faded but erstwhile best selling Joe McGinniss – agreed to MacDonald’s terms. McGinniss spent a full summer living with the accused and his defence team, even being officially drafted as an employee of the law firm to justify how much access he had. After the trial (MacDonald was – to his surprise – found guilty), McGinniss continued working on Fatal Vision, the text that was to released as a massive – and massive-selling – 1983 book. He didn’t show MacDonald any drafts of his text as it was written, but repeatedly stated in writing (letters sent to prison) his firm belief in MacDonald’s innocence and how important he found the friendship they’d formed during that pre-trial summer.
Unfortunately for MacDonald, this was all bullshit. McGinniss hated him, was certain he had murdered his family, was convinced that MacDonald was a psychopath: he “seemed” normal, but he “wasn’t”, he was riven by narcissistic selfishness and heady lustfulness and murdered his wife when she began to notice his philandering. The kids – as witnesses – had to go too. MacDonald objected to this: the criminal case had labelled him as a man who had committed a cruel murder, but McGinniss’ book portrayed him as the kind of man who was always going to do something like this.
This is where Janet Malcolm comes in. She was one of a number of respected journalists who received a letter in 1987 from McGinniss and his lawyer crying out in rage about the civil case MacDonald brought against him. McGinniss had lied, he had misled and he had tricked and conned MacDonald into revealing things he shouldn’t have done, and then tied scarce evidence into a definitive conclusion that labelled the convicted murderer as an irredeemable villain, when McGinniss had repeatedly – and provably – promised to write a book that would exonerate him.
McGinniss and his team of lawyers and high falutin literary types claimed that this was normal: this was not a con, this is how journalism and interview and research works. McGinniss did what he had to do to get the truth, to find the “essence” of this convicted murderer. MacDonald – who received a sizeable out-of-court settlement following a mistrial – claimed the opposite. He had been lied to and misled. How can the writing of journalists be trusted if journalists themselves cannot? If a journalist writes one idea in a letter but its opposite in a book and claims them both as honest and truthful, then what fucking gives, maaaan?
Malcolm, who is separately embroiled in an unrelated libel case while writing this book (which was serialised in The New Yorker), thinks that the answer lies somewhere in between. Through in-depth analysis of court documents, personal communications and long interviews with lawyers and other writers, she explores the inherent, but two-way, duplicity involved in every writer-subject relationship.
There are long sections where a writer labours the point to Malcolm that a “lie” and an “untruth” are not the same, and there is lots of great observation about the way that public opinion of MacDonald wavers, and how this affects the courtroom and the jury who look into this second case. It’s one thing to say he murdered his wife because she found out he was cheating, it’s another thing to say he murdered his wife because he didn’t feel any empathy. All murder is wrong, right, but some are more wronger than others???
The prose is tight and engaging, the numerous arguments lock together and bounce off each other like the massive concrete slabs that make up a brutalist building. It’s an entertaining and readable book that manages to cover complex, weighty, timeless topics (the ethics of contemporary reportage can quickly be applied to conversations about what it is that makes “history” history). The Journalist and the Murderer is an important read, I’d recommend it heartily and I’ll definitely read some more Janet Malcolm soon.
Particularly of interest to anyone interested in Life Writing, too, and where memoir differs from journalism. There’s an interesting conversation to be had in relation to this book’s topics and the writing I (and many of my peers) produce. If anyone wants to have it with me then please email in at the usual address, firstname.lastname@example.org!
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first (and so far only) book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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