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18 June 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 5:37am

The ruthless, self-questioning brilliance of Janet Malcolm

The New Yorker journalist, who has died aged 86, was one of the greatest practitioners of her trade, as well as its most penetrating interrogator.

By Leo Robson

Janet Malcolm, who has died aged 86 of lung cancer, was one of the greatest and deadliest practitioners of what we now call longform journalism, as well as its most tireless interrogator. Her persistent subject was enquiry, the hunger for “truth”, and in pursuing this quest by writing about psychology and journalism, biography and the law, literature and photography, she found it increasingly hard to ignore her own role in a parallel process.

Malcolms first piece of longform reporting, about her observation of a family therapy session, was called “The One-Way Mirror”, but her interest was always in the face-to-face, the intermingling of energies, and the role played by “transference” (“Freud’s most original and radical discovery”) – not just in the relationship between between analyst and analysand, but in the dynamic between photographer and sitter (the “duel” between Diane Arbus and Germaine Greer, for example), mentor and protegé, lawyer and witness, critic and writer (she defends JD Salinger against the attacks of Updike and others), and, in her own case, interviewer and interviewee. She once said that her work had been more or less done for her “by one brilliant self-inventive collaborator after another”.

Although it’s tempting to characterise her intervention, which largely took place during the 1980s, as postmodernist – her 1994 profile of the painter David Salle is presented as 41 potential openings or “false starts” – her idiosyncratic form of meta-journalism originated in reflection on the feedback loop that exists in one-to-one relationships, and on her own experiences with two subjects who claimed she had traduced them: the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the self-mythologising, sex-addicted anti-hero of In the Freud Archives (1984) who sued her for libel and lost, and the wily reporter Joe McGinniss, in The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).

She was born Jana Wienerová into a Jewish family in Prague in 1934, and after escaping Europe on one of the last civilian ships before the outbreak of the Second World War, was raised in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where her father – who changed the family name to Winn – was a psychiatrist. She found her vocation late. During the 1950s, she wrote film criticism and book reviews for the New Republic, then started writing for the New Yorker – where both of her husbands, Donald Malcolm and Gardner Botsford, worked – on children’s books, interior design and photography. But “The One-Way Mirror” didn’t appear until 1978. After that, she proceeded to write a succession of long reported pieces – most notably, the account of the Freud community in which Jeffrey Masson was the divisive boy wonder, her portrayal of Joe McGinniss’s disingenuous treatment of the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, and her history of relations between Ted Hughes and his sister, Olwyn, and the memorialists of Sylvia Plath (all later published as standalone books).

Malcolm is best-known for the first sentence of The Journalist and the Murderer, which prompted outrage among her fellow journalists and remains a topic of debate (though she later dismissed it as “a bit of rhetoric”): “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.” But the key statement in her writing – a passage able to incorporate what she learned from the fall-out from The Journalist and the Murderer – is the opening passage of her book The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), about the competing claims of truth and narrative, in which she reflects that language “proscribes unregulated truth-telling and requires that our utterances tell coherent, and thus never merely true, stories”. In her later writing, collected in Forty-One False Starts (2013) and Nobody’s Looking at You (2019), there is often a moment of arrest, a glimpse behind the curtain in which she reveals something of her own process. In a profile of Rachel Maddow, she offers a digression about one of Maddow’s relatives that she explains is intended as an imitation – a pale failure, by her own admission – of Maddow’s own “forays into left field” during her on-screen monologues.

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“What kind of a genius she was is hard to pin down,” she wrote of Gertrude Stein in Two Lives, her 2007 book on Stein and her partner Alice B Toklas. Malcolm’s own contribution, though hardly straightforward, is obvious enough. At her best, she managed to reconcile anxiety and authority. While her hyper-awareness prevented her from being a certain kind of journalist – the “wisest,” she wrote, know that their best “is still not good enough” – this was not treated as a licence for passivity, or despair, or early retirement: not good enough was better than nothing. She didn’t stop at showing that truths were fictions, that everything is a “narrative”. She remained a describer, an explainer, a writer of dazzling set-pieces. In her books on Stein and Chekhov, she goes straight to the source, bypassing the noise of existing perceptions. She believed that even if we slight the truth with our every word, there are still things that can be meaningfully said, and she proved it.