Is it a curse? Or a benediction?

Writers, public intellectuals, savants can become known for one epigram, one sentence, one paragraph. In Janet Malcolm’s case, it’s the opening lines of her 1990 book, The Journalist and the Murderer:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

For me, though, there is an even more startling passage in that book. I wrote about it in my own book about Jeffrey MacDonald, the murderer in Malcolm’s title. Here’s her passage:

“I have read little of the material [MacDonald] has sent—trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports. A document arrives, I glance at it, see words like ‘bloody syringe,’ ‘blue threads,’ ‘left chest puncture,’ ‘unidentified fingerprints,’ ‘Kimberly’s urine,’ and add it to the pile. I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from this material. It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower—it all depends on how you read the evidence. If you start out with a presumption of his guilt, you read the documents one way, and another way if you presume his innocence. The material does not ‘speak for itself.’”

Green Beret doctor Captain Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of the murder of his wife and two children. None of the many appeals and re-examinations of the case have been enough to overturn his conviction.

You could think of these passages as articulating two central tenets of her work.

1. Journalism is an act of betrayal, the betrayal of a subject by a self-interested journalist.

2. Investigations ultimately devolve into subjective interpretations.

Both are wrong.

Journalism is a complicated affair. Malcolm’s denunciation makes for a great opening. But it’s obviously hyperbole.

I’m more interested in the second tenet. It involves truth. Matters of fact—e.g., whether or not Jeffrey MacDonald killed his wife and two young daughters—are either true or false. Investigations may not be able to discover what actually transpired. But they need not devolve into contests of interpretation. There is a single truth. You have to try to discover it. It does not take a back seat on the bus behind interpretation.

So many of Malcolm’s writings run counter to this philosophy. But does she really believe that investigations necessarily devolve into subjective interpretations? Couldn’t evidence point definitively to just one conclusion?

When it was her own reputation on the line, it could. And did.


I was asked to write a review of Malcolm’s posthumously published book, Still Pictures. It mirrors her first published book, Diana & Nikon (1980), also about photography. But where her first book surveyed the landscape of art photography—Avedon, Weston, and the like—Still Pictures is a personal affair. A series of autobiographical essays, many inspired by Malcolm’s old family photographs. Ultimately, it is about photography and memory. It came about, by her own admission, from her refusal to write a conventional autobiography.

In her posthumously published Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, Malcolm returns to two of her favorite themes: photography and Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

I have a theory about why photography is not just another medium for Malcolm. It is the ideal medium because photography is primarily about interpretation. A photograph is neither true nor false. Truth is about the correspondence between language and the world. There is no language in photography; hence no truth. A photograph is filled with associations without recriminations. We can fantasize about its content without ever having to address whether these fantasies have any basis in reality. It’s only when we add a caption to a photograph that we can consider the whole in terms of truth or falsity. Otherwise, the meaning of a photograph is how we (the viewers) react to it.

Throughout her career, Malcolm wrote about her subjects and their concerns in the same way one might write about a photograph. She is concerned not with what’s true or false, with the reality of what her characters are encountering, but with how people react, how they feel about things. It’s all a matter of interpretation.

Journalism is a complicated affair. Malcolm’s denunciation makes for a great opening. But it’s obviously hyperbole.

Malcolm maintains this arm’s-length distance from her subject even in her new book. “Autobiography is a misnamed genre; memory speaks only some of its lines,” she writes in an essay inspired by photos of her mother’s family and L. P. Hartley’s much-quoted opening line in The Go-Between. “The past is a country that issues no visas. We can only enter it illegally.”

Such detachment is a little off-putting in a memoir, but at least it’s consistent. Ironically, though, the book departs from its picture theme—and from its preference for impressions over reality—in the final chapters, where Malcolm revisits for the umpteenth time how she was sued for libel and won.


Sandwiched in between Diana & Nikon and Still Pictures are a dozen books on literature, psychoanalysis, art, and crime. Malcolm is an enviably good writer. She forces you to think about things. There are so many books and articles I read because she referenced them or wrote about them. My favorite of her books is The Crime of Sheila McGough. (McGough is doomed not because of any wrongs the disbarred lawyer is alleged to have committed. It’s her unpleasant personality that does her in.)

But two of Malcolm’s books, In the Freud Archives (1984) and The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), have always stood out from the rest. I think of them as conjoined evil twins.

What links them is a lawsuit, Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., which arose from In the Freud Archives and which arguably led to The Journalist and the Murderer. The way Malcolm explains the lawsuit in Still Pictures is peculiar:

“I had published a two-part article in The New Yorker about a disturbance in an obscure corner of the psychoanalytic world whose chief subject, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, hadn’t liked his portrayal and claimed that I had libeled him by inventing the quotations on which it was largely based.”

Jeffrey Masson, the former head of the Sigmund Freud Archives, sued Malcolm for libel.

Really? An obscure corner of the psychoanalytic world? Involving Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna; Kurt Eissler, head of the Sigmund Freud Archives; and Eissler’s apparently ill-chosen successor? The nature of the “disturbance,” as Malcolm calls it, went to the very foundations of psychoanalysis.

Masson became head of the Freud Archives through a peculiar set of circumstances. Tired of being a Sanskrit scholar, he decided on a career as a psychoanalyst after reading Ernest Jones’s biography of Freud. He then befriended Eissler, who, with Anna Freud’s blessing, proposed Masson as his successor. The board of the archives had some reservations about Masson and offered him a one-year appointment as projects director. Masson didn’t pass the trial period. The trouble started when he discovered the case of Emma Eckstein while editing a volume of the complete correspondence between Freud and Dr. Wilhelm Fliess.

Let’s back up a little further, to 1896. Sigmund Freud represents almost a lone voice claiming that his hysterical patients had suffered actual (rather than imagined) abuse in childhood. This is his “seduction theory” or “seduction hypothesis.” Most of his fellow practitioners believe their neurotic or hysterical patients are imagining scenes of abuse in childhood, fantasizing about something they wish had happened. He believes there must be some underlying reality to his patients’ stories.

Then, seemingly all of a sudden, Freud abandons these theories. On September 21, 1897, he writes in a letter to Fliess, “I no longer believe in my neurotica”—i.e., his theory of neuroses. In its place, Freud will present a universal grammar of sexual fantasies. This letter from Freud to Fliess is widely regarded as the most important letter in the history of psychoanalysis.

Two of Malcolm’s books, In the Freud Archives (1984) and The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), have always stood out from the rest. I think of them as conjoined evil twins.

Fliess was a Berlin ear-nose-and-throat surgeon and Freud’s closest friend during this period. He shared Freud’s early views about the connection between sexuality and the origins of neuroses. In 1895, when Freud was still investigating his seduction theory, Fliess operated on Freud’s patient Emma Eckstein. Eckstein had complained of painful or irregular menstruation. Both Freud and Fliess believed that Eckstein’s menstrual problems were caused by her habitual masturbation. And they agreed that these problems could be adequately addressed only by the removal of one of the turbinate bones in the nose.

Why? Perhaps there’s a justification that doesn’t beggar belief, but I’m not convinced it’s worth exploring Fliess’s naso-genital theory to discover it. This is a textbook definition of quackery. With an added wrinkle: misogyny.

Eckstein was disfigured and nearly died. Freud wrote a letter to Fliess reporting on a follow-up visit he had with Eckstein. The substance of the letter is appalling, almost too horrid to read.

“I wrote to you that the swelling and the hemorrhages would not stop, and that suddenly a fetid odor set in, and that there was an obstacle upon irrigation.… [Dr.] Rosanes cleaned the area surrounding the opening, removed some sticking blood clots, and suddenly pulled at something like a thread, kept on pulling, and before either of us had time to think, at least half a meter of gauze had been removed from the cavity. The next moment came a flood of blood. The patient turned white, her eyes bulged, and she had no pulse.… At the moment the foreign body came out and everything became clear to me, immediately after which I was confronted by the sight of the patient, I felt sick. After she had been packed, I fled to the next room, drank a bottle of water, and felt miserable. The brave Frau Doctor then brought me a small glass of cognac and I became myself again.… I do not believe it was the blood that overwhelmed me—at that moment affects were welling up in me. So we had done her an injustice; she was not at all abnormal, rather, a piece of iodoform gauze had gotten torn off as you were removing it and stayed in for 14 days, preventing healing; at the end it tore off and provoked the bleeding.”

Sigmund Freud and Dr. Wilhelm Fliess. Their correspondence was published under the title The Origins of Psychoanalysis.

Masson realized that not just this letter but every mention of Emma Eckstein had been omitted from The Origins of Psychoanalysis, the previously published edition of the Freud-Fliess correspondence.

Eckstein’s nosebleeds continued irregularly for a number of months after the surgery. But sometime in the following year, Freud went from thinking he and Fliess had done her “an injustice” to thinking that she had done an injustice to them. He wrote to Fliess in May 1896:

“As for Eckstein … so far I know only that she bled out of longing.... She described a scene, from the age of 15, when she suddenly began to bleed from the nose when she had the wish to be treated by a certain young doctor who was present (and who also appeared in the dream). When she saw how affected I was by her first hemorrhage while she was in the hands of Rosanes [the young doctor looking after Eckstein], she experienced this as the realization of an old wish to be loved in her illness, and in spite of the danger during the succeeding hours she felt happy as never before.”

When Masson presented Anna Freud with some of the letters concerning Eckstein and questioned her as to why they had not been published, she told him that since her father had abandoned the seduction theory it would only confuse readers to present this material. Masson disagreed:

“I, on the other hand, felt that these passages not only were of great historical importance but might well represent the truth. Nobody, it seemed to me, had the right to decide for others, by altering the record, what was truth and what was error.… If I was wrong in my view, surely I would meet with intelligent rebuttal and serious criticisms of my interpretation of the documents. Wherever it lay, the truth had to be faced, and the documents I found had to be brought out into the open.”

Why did the guardians of Freud’s papers feel that Eckstein’s gruesome tale needed to be suppressed? It certainly doesn’t portray Freud in the best light (even Malcolm admits, “Freud does not shine in this story”), but was there something more to it than that?

One might be inclined to think Freud’s notions developed in a linear fashion due to increased knowledge, experience, wisdom—that sort of thing. Masson came to believe that Freud’s volte-face was a cowardly attempt to appease his peers and regain standing in the medical community. Just as Freud’s reversal in regard to Eckstein’s bleeding was, for Masson, an attempt to save face with Fliess.

Masson believed Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory was a disaster, a betrayal, and a failure of courage. To quote from the lecture that precipitated Masson’s dismissal from his post with the Freud Archives:

“By shifting the emphasis from a real world of sadness, misery and cruelty to an internal stage on which actors performed invented dramas for an invisible audience of their own creation, Freud began a trend away from the real world that, it seems to me, has come to a dead halt in the present-day sterility of psychoanalysis throughout the world.”

Masson made these remarks before the Western New England Psychoanalytic Society, in New Haven. They became the focus of a series of articles in The New York Times by Ralph Blumenthal. The articles, perhaps more than the lecture itself, irritated Eissler, Anna Freud, and other members of the board of the archives, who fired Masson. When Anna Freud died, not long after, some people blamed Masson for it.

But Masson refused to retract his arguments. He refused to leave quietly. Actually, he did the other thing—he filed a lawsuit against the Freud Archives and began talking to journalists about his mistreatment.

Re-enter Janet Malcolm.


Masson’s imbroglio was catnip for Malcolm, the daughter of a psychiatrist, and the author of a recent book about psychoanalysis. She wrote about Masson’s experience in a series of articles published by The New Yorker in 1983 and republished as In the Freud Archives in 1984. This in turn led to Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., a 10-year lawsuit litigated and re-litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Malcolm compared it to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House:

“I remember well the pile of documents from the lawsuit that collected in my office, to which I would be drawn as if to a forbidden treat, and which I would peruse like a child reading a favorite fairy story over and over again. Of course, my enraptured reading involved only half the documents in the pile—those that had been written by my lawyers. The other half—written by Masson’s lawyers—were of no interest; I scanned each item as it arrived, always quickly perceived its weakness and pointlessness, and never looked at it again. On his side, I am sure that Masson did the same thing. In life, it is hard enough to see another person’s view of things; in a lawsuit, it is impossible. The fatal attraction of a lawsuit—as Dickens showed us in Bleak House, with the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce—is the infinite scope it offers for escape from the real world of ambiguity, obscurity, doubt, disappointment, compromise, and accommodation.”

Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives (1984) and The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).

The oppressive pile of documents reappears again and again in Malcolm’s journalism. Here, in reference to Jeffrey Masson. In The Journalist and the Murderer, in reference to Jeffrey MacDonald. But isn’t the solution to these mysteries to be found in a pile of documents if it’s to be found anywhere? Malcolm’s attacks on these papers are part of her postmodern argument against truth itself.

Having read In the Freud Archives a number of times, it is pretty clear, at least to me, that Malcolm was out to get Masson. Does it amount to malice, the standard for libel in a court of law? Perhaps not. But clearly, Masson irritated her. It’s a bad idea to boast to a New Yorker writer that you have slept with a thousand women or that you learned fluent German in less than six months.

Malcolm refers to Masson’s “characteristic hyperbole.” That may be something of an understatement. He swaggers, he brags, he exaggerates, he confabulates. Masson is annoying, perhaps super-abundantly annoying. But he has uncovered something factual of historical importance. If the story of the foundations of psychoanalysis hinges on Freud’s interpretation and re-interpretation of the seduction theory, then Masson has made a case for a re-interpretation of the entire Freudian edifice. Ignore it at your peril.

Why did the guardians of Freud’s papers feel that Eckstein’s gruesome tale needed to be suppressed? It certainly doesn’t portray Freud in the best light, but was there something more to it than that?

Malcolm allows Masson to present this argument, but she dismisses as “a travesty of the analytic view” what is for him its most important implication—that because of Freud’s retraction of the seduction theory, analysts act as if there is no reality, only individual experiences of it. Rather than take on this challenge to psychoanalysis, Malcolm opts to investigate the origins of Masson’s “sudden virulent anti-Freudianism.” Where Masson expected “intelligent rebuttal and serious criticisms of [his] interpretation of the documents,” Malcolm would rather explore “the motive for his psychoanalytic volte-face.”


It is in no way surprising that Malcolm’s next book would involve another lawsuit pitting a journalist against an aggrieved subject. But this time, the subject was an accused murderer. Murder raises the stakes. Reality does matter. It has to matter.

Jeffrey MacDonald was accused of killing his wife and two daughters. In order to help cover legal costs associated with the trial, he and his lawyers contracted with a journalist, Joe McGinniss, who agreed to write a book about the case and split the proceeds with MacDonald. MacDonald lost the trial. Somewhere along the way, McGinniss became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, but he continued to pretend otherwise to MacDonald. Then he published a damning and best-selling account of the murders titled Fatal Vision. MacDonald sued him for fraud. MacDonald won a modest settlement from McGinniss. But none of the many appeals and re-examinations of the criminal case against MacDonald—including my own book, A Wilderness of Error—have been enough to overturn his conviction.

Joe McGinniss agreed to write a book about accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. Somewhere along the way, he became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt but continued to pretend otherwise to MacDonald.

Did he do it? It matters in the case of Jeffrey MacDonald. At times, Malcolm seems to acknowledge as much. She asks one of MacDonald’s lawyers, “But in a criminal trial, isn’t there only one truth? Didn’t MacDonald either commit these murders or not commit them?”

At other times, in Malcolm’s hands, reality seems to be no more than a literary contretemps, as if an analysis of companion texts—the various court documents and McGinniss’s book—can yield an answer to all the questions. Of course it can’t. Only an investigation can possibly provide the answers.

But Malcolm isn’t all that interested in the guilt or innocence of MacDonald. She expresses curiosity about how her subjects view the facts. But she doesn’t deign to delve into them herself. One feels postmodernism creeping out of the fog, especially in Malcolm’s afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer:

“Of course, there is no such thing as a work of pure factuality, any more than there is one of pure fictitiousness. As every work of fiction draws on life, so every work of nonfiction draws on art. As the novelist must curb his imagination in order to keep his text grounded in the common experience of man (dreams exemplify the uncurbed imagination—thus their uninterestingness to everyone but their author), so the journalist must temper his literal-mindedness with the narrative devices of imaginative literature.”

Malcolm isn’t all that interested in the guilt or innocence of MacDonald. She expresses curiosity about how her subjects view the facts. But she doesn’t deign to delve into them herself.

Does Malcolm really believe that it’s all interpretation? When it’s about Jeffrey MacDonald, the documents—the evidence—can be interpreted any way you choose: “I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from this material. It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower.... The material does not ‘speak for itself.’”

For Malcolm, MacDonald’s evidence is endlessly colored by a priori assumptions. But when her own honor is at stake, evidence of her journalistic practices, of her integrity, becomes central. This brings us back to Still Pictures—specifically, the final chapters, where Malcolm revisits the story of her battle with Masson:

“In the early months of the (ten-year-long) lawsuit, Masson claimed that he had said almost none of the things he was quoted as saying in the article. When a transcript of my tape-recorded interviews was made, it showed that he had said just about all the things he denied saying. But five quotations remained that were not on tape:

“1. ‘Maresfield Gardens [home of the Freud Archives] would have been a center of scholarship, but it would also have been a place of sex, women, fun.’

“2. ‘I was like an intellectual gigolo—you get your pleasure from him, but you don’t take him out in public.’

“3. ‘[Analysts] will want me back, they will say that Masson is a great scholar, a major analyst—after Freud, he’s the greatest analyst who ever lived.’

“4. ‘That remark about the sterility of psychoanalysis was something I tacked on at the last minute, and it was totally gratuitous. I don’t know why I put it in.’

“5. ‘Well, he had the wrong man.’”

Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., which Malcolm likened to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Malcolm describes losing the first suit against Masson. Why did she lose? Not, according to Malcolm, because she couldn’t produce the disputed quotes. It was her self-presentation before the jury. But a mistrial was declared when the jury couldn’t decide on a sum to award Masson for damages.

There was a second trial. Before it began, Malcolm went to Sam Chwat for help. And who is he? Not just Malcolm’s speech coach, but a trainer of actors and dialect coach to the stars. She will become a thespian. These trials aren’t about truth and falsity—about whether or not Masson made the statements Malcolm attributed to him. They are about whether the jury likes Janet Malcolm:

“The transformation had two parts. The first was the erasure of the New Yorker image of the writer as a person who does not go around showing off how great and special he or she is. No! A trial jury is like an audience at a play that wants to be entertained. Witnesses, like stage actors, have to play to that audience if their performances are to be convincing.

“The idea was to give the jurors the feeling that I wanted to please them, the way you want to please your hosts at a dinner party by dressing up. This would be achieved by a ‘menu,’ as Sam called it, of pastel-colored dresses and suits, silk stockings and high heels, and an array of pretty scarves.”

Though she still cannot produce documents with the disputed quotes, this time, Malcolm wins the suit. Again she believes that it is her performance, her appearance, rather than the evidence that sways the jury and determines the outcome of the trial. (In this, it echoes the arguments in The Crime of Sheila McGough.)

But then the facts are revealed. The “exculpatory notebook” (her phrase) in which she had jotted down “sex, women, fun,” “intellectual gigolo,” and “greatest analyst” turns up at her summer home. Her two-year-old granddaughter, attracted by fate or by a shiny red cover, unearths it from a bookcase where it had been lost. Malcolm, who told a version of the story in a 1996 afterword to In the Freud Archives, tells it again in Still Pictures. She never lets go of this obsession with her own innocence—even though she has already won the suit.

Truth for her, but not for me and you.


When In the Freud Archives first came out, I was completely enamored with it. It was a Freudian kaleidoscope. Big Daddy Freud, the Mother of All Big Daddies, battling with Fliess and with his own conscience. Anna Freud, trying to do battle for her father and the history of psychoanalysis. Kurt Eissler, protecting the Holy of Holies against the depredations of Masson and his ilk. Or maybe it’s better described as a series of intricately carved, nested Chinese boxes. Inside the Freud Archive you find a struggle to cement a legacy; at the heart of that struggle you find the seduction theory; inside the seduction theory you find Emma Eckstein; inside Emma Eckstein you find Freud’s own struggle to develop his ideas and identity. And so on.

But then, a few years later, I became involved with a criminal investigation of my own, a case that I stumbled onto by accident. I became obsessed with understanding the crime and with proving the innocence of Randall Dale Adams, a man who was sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer. I spent close to three years at this and ultimately succeeded. Adams’s conviction was overturned, and he was released from prison. I made a film called The Thin Blue Line. My investigation was difficult and involved, but conclusive.

Afterward, it was hard for me to go back to In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer and not look with disdain at Malcolm’s avoidance of files. If I had followed this injunction, Adams could have been executed. He certainly would never have been released from prison.

I came up with my Parable of the Drowning Man.

A man—say, Jeffrey MacDonald—is drowning. He’s going down for the third time. A journalist—say, Joe McGinniss—who believes wholeheartedly in MacDonald’s guilt, is standing on the shore holding a life preserver. MacDonald calls out, “Help! Help! I’m drowning! Throw me the life preserver!” McGinniss says, “Sorry. I believe you killed your wife and baby daughters. You’re a murderer. Go ahead and drown.”

Another journalist is standing on the shore. Janet Malcolm. MacDonald is still going down for the third time. He calls out, “Help! Help! I’m drowning! Throw me the life preserver!” Malcolm says, “Sorry. There seems to be a terrible misunderstanding. I’m a journalist, but I am primarily interested in the relationship between a journalist and a drowning man. I can record your feelings, but I cannot help you.”

Still Pictures, by Janet Malcolm, is out now

Errol Morris, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL

Joshua Kearney is an editor who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts