Janet Malcolm, the American journalist who dissected the relationship between the writer and their subject in books including The Journalist and the Murderer, In the Freud Archives and The Silent Woman, has died aged 86.
Her daughter Anne confirmed to the New York Times that the cause was lung cancer.
Malcolm was regarded by many as having established her own form, more precise than the New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, uniquely combining reporting, psychoanalysis and literary criticism to forensically dissect her subjects. Much of her career was focused on what she called the “moral problem” of journalism and “the invented I of journalism”. The Journalist and the Murderer famously opened with: “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.”
Born Jana Wienerová in Czechoslovakia in 1934, Malcolm and her family migrated to the US in 1939, eventually settling in Manhattan. “I wanted to assimilate. I wanted to be American. And didn’t want to be foreign. That was the wish,” she told the Guardian in 2011.
She began writing for student publications while at the University of Michigan, later branching out into book reviews and columns about design, children’s books and shopping. After moving to New York with her husband, Donald Malcolm, she had her first piece published in the New Yorker in 1963, a publication with which she’d have a lifelong relationship.
In 1975, three years after her husband died, Malcolm married her editor at the New Yorker, Gardner Botsford. That same year, she began to develop her trademark writing voice, while attempting to quit smoking; believing she couldn’t write without cigarettes, she distracted herself by working on a long piece on family therapy, titled The One-Way Mirror. By the time she had finished, she could write without smoking – and had found her voice.
She published her first book, Diana and Nikon, an essay collection on photography, in 1980 and followed it a year later with a book-length version of one of her New Yorker articles, titled Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession. But it was in 1984 that she became a name with In the Freud Archives, based on a two-part article she had written about the psychoanalysist Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. When it was published, Masson, the former project director of the archives, filed a $10m libel lawsuit, claiming that Malcolm had fabricated several quotes attributed to him. Though Malcolm was unable to provide proof of the quotes, after a decade of proceedings, a jury finally decided in Malcolm’s favour in 1994. Though Malcolm later claimed she had found a misplaced notebook containing some of the quotes, the case shadowed her for years, with journalists voicing scepticism at her methods.
The Journalist and the Murderer was similarly controversial. Starting out in the New Yorker in 1989 and published as a book in 1990, it explored the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor charged and later convicted for killing his wife and two daughters, who became friendly with a journalist, Joe McGinniss, during his trial. MacDonald tasked McGinniss with writing a sympathetic book about his case, but McGinniss became convinced of his guilt and wrote about that instead. Malcolm held up McGinniss as an example of the inherent duplicitousness of journalists in their work, a categorisation McGinniss disputed for decades. “The moral ambiguity of journalism lies not in its texts but in the relationships out of which they arise – relationships that are invariably and inescapably lopsided,” she wrote.
For years, journalists were split on the book. In the New York Times in 1989, Albert Scardino wrote: “She attacks the ethics of all journalists, including herself, and then fails to disclose just how far she has gone in the past in acting the role of the journalistic confidence man.” In 2011, Tom Junod called her “self-hating” and “utterly full of shit”. But others argued that Malcolm was knowingly implicating herself, with writers including Gore Vidal and Nora Ephron coming out in support of the book. Over subsequent decades, the book would become required reading for journalism students.
“My analysis of journalistic betrayal was seen as betrayal of journalism itself as well as a piece of royal chutzpah,” Malcolm later told the Paris Review. “Today, my critique seems obvious, even banal. No one argues with it, and yes, it has degenerated – as critiques do – into a sort of lame excuse.”
She was similarly harsh on biographers, likening them to “the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away” in her 1994 literary biography The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. This dissection of Plath biographies and the mythology around the poet, was praised by critic James Wood as “one of the deepest, loveliest and most problematic of the things Janet Malcolm has ever written … it is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes. She is the cat who has licked the plate clean.”
In 1999, Malcolm looked at the US legal system in The Crime of Sheila McGough, then delved into her own life a little more in 2001’s Reading Chekhov, which interspersed scenes from the Russian writer’s life with her own travels in Russia. In 2007, she published a book on Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas called Two Lives, and followed it with two last essay collections, Forty-one False Starts and Nobody’s Looking at You. After slowing to once a year, her final piece for the New Yorker was published in 2019.
Over the years, journalists both marvelled at and groaned over her cold analysis of their manner during interviews. In the Paris Review in 2011, Katie Roiphe described her as “slight, with glasses and intense brown eyes, something like Harriet the Spy would look like if she had grown to the venerable age of 76 and the world had showered her with the success she deserves”.
“She takes apart the official line, the accepted story, the court transcript, like a mechanic takes apart a car engine, and shows us how it works; she narrates how the stories we tell ourselves are made from the vanities and jealousies and weaknesses of their players,” Roiphe wrote. “This is her obsession, and no one can do it on her level.”
This article was amended on 18 June 2021, to correct the year Malcolm married Botsford.