Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
Janet Malcolm's books include "Psychoanalysis, the Impossible Profession" (1981), "In the Freud Archives" (1983), and "The Journalist and the Murderer" (1990). Her latest book, "The Crime of Sheila McGough" (1999), tells the story of Sheila McGough, a lawyer who has been convicted, wrongfully in Malcolm's view, of working with a client in a swindle.
I know I have never before behaved so badly to a subject. I have never before interrupted, lost patience with, spoken so unpleasantly to a subject as I have to Sheila -- to my shame and vexation afterward. I have never before dreaded calling a subject on the telephone as I have dreaded calling Sheila. To my simplest question she would give an answer of such relentless length and tediousness and uncomprehending irrelevance that I could have almost wept with impatience.
"The Crime of Sheila McGough"
JM: Psychoanalysis is about a very close reading of some thought or action. But certainly Freud's case histories and my case histories are quite different. Sheila is not my Dora. But it occur to me, even as we speak, that in some ways you could say that she was my Dora. We had an intense, and from my point of view, a very frustrating relationship.
HB: You're always interested in relationships like interviewer-interviewee, journalist-subject, lawyer-client. These can seem like versions of the patient-therapist relationship.
JM: My second piece of journalism, "Psychoanalysis, the Impossible Profession" (1981) was a book about the psychoanalyst Aaron Green. The central conceit of the book was reversal; it was the analyst who spoke this time, rather than being the one listens. I'm a journalist, I'm coming from the patient class and here I become the listener.
HB: You've written that "The tape recorder has opened up a sort of underwater world of linguistic phenomena whose Cousteaus are as yet unknown to the general public."
JM: In "Psychoanalysis" I wrote about a researcher, Hart Eigdahl, who first alerted me to this phenomena. He was a Freudian analyst who worked with a linguist who had tape recorded an analysis. They analyzed one session for many years just trying to find out was going on in that session. I guess they were trying to find the unconscious. Eigdahl had earlier exposed an analyst's unconscious aggression toward a patient by tape recording them, studying the tape, and then pointing out the kind of language the therapist used toward the patient.
Psychoanalysis, tape recording and photography -- those do happen to be subjects I've written on. People are not aware that we don't talk the way we write, unless they are very self-conscious. People in public life are more careful about how they talk and are always aware of being recorded but the normal person, the normal tape recordee, is not.
HB: What interested you in Sheila McGough enough to write a book about her?
JM: It actually started as an article, but as has happened with other things I've written, it somehow became a book. There just seemed something interesting about the letter she wrote me. When I met her I was surprised by her, and felt I was on the scent of something.
HB: She seems to have remained enigmatic for you.
JM: I wouldn't call it enigmatic. I didn't feel there was something mysterious about her that she was hiding. I think I got her, though she may not have a satisfying character to write a book about. My experience of her wasn't very satisfying, either.
HB: I have my pet theory about Sheila McGough. To my mind, she's a high-functioning autistic. She lacked the ability to make social contact, she lacked common sense. When she finally remembers to serve you lunch one day she dumps sandwiches on the table, still in their plastic wrappers. She's out of synch with the social world.
JM: But I do like her. Autism sounds like a label I wouldn't like about myself. And I feel protective of her. I complain about her but wouldn't want to harm her. On the contrary, maybe I have some fantasy of helping her. I'm more conscious of this than I've been in anything else I've written. Other people I've written about could take very good care of themselves. She too -- after all, she came to me, so it isn't as if I'm writing about somebody who didn't want to be written about. And yet I have this protective feeling. When I read reviews of the book I sometimes feel, well, it's a good review but, gee, would Sheila like it?
HB: You write, about one meeting with her, that: "The currency of friendship is privileged information: confidences, confessions self-revelations. But Sheila doesn't trade in this currency with outsiders, possibly not even with blood kin. By answering my question with a long, dull history of her professional successes, she was telling me (as she had been telling me all along) that she wanted our relationship to remain strictly, dully professional."
You think she's sending a psychological signal about wanting to maintain distance. I'm suggesting the real distance was neurological.
JM: So, as you see it, when I wrote, "she wanted our relationship to remain strictly, dully professional" a better formulation would have been something that didn't have "she wanted". She was telling me that our relationship could only remain distant.
In a way I'm saying both things here. I'm saying she had enacted the phenomenon of distance I was describing. I don't say that she couldn't do otherwise, but I think I really believe that. But there are a lot of traits that are a matter of character, that we don't have much choice over. That doesn't make us something that has a label.
HB: Sheila seems to slip out of every attempt to describe her psychologically.
JM: I don't think of myself as being any kind of psychological explorer. I'm very simple-minded in relationship to writing. I sit down and write sentences. I look at my notes, at my transcribed tape recordings, and I put it together. What's there is there. I don't sit and think about what Sheila is like. I'm not a novelist. If I was a novelist, I'd have to figure her out. I'd have to reinvent her, in some way.
Though there are fiction writers who don't think it's their job to understand everything. The writer who very much comes to mind is Chekov, who was criticized for a story that ended with a line about how we really don't know anything in the world. A critic wrote that the writer's job *is* to understand the characters. Chekov didn't agree. He thought only charlatans pretend to know everything.
HB: You do seem to keep coming back to this business of narrative.
JM: That's because things keep leading back to it. It isn't that I really want to go on with this theme; I'm kind of sick of it. But I sit down and start looking at something and then, well, we're all kind of stuck with what we notice and what we see.
HB: You're interested in power relations, especially where journalism is concerned. You've written that the journalist is "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."
JM: The journalist holds the cards. He's going to take the story and write it. That's why there's an inequality and why it's a problematic relationship.
HB: Does that obtain right now, right here?
JM: Sure. I don't think your goal is to make anybody look foolish but for all I know it could be some kind of a delusion I have that makes me think I'm going to come out sounding smart.
HB: I might be hustling you?
JM: I doubt it actually; why would you be doing it? But you have the power to edit what I say so it fits some program, some idea, some fancy of yours. That's not a sinister power but it's a kind of power.
I don't imagine I'm a very good subject for an interview. I may share some of a quality I thought Sheila had, not having a story about myself to sell. I don't have something I'd like to tell and see in print about which you could then say, no, I'm not going to buy that, I'm going to make my own story. Sheila's predicament was connected to how she didn't have a story for the jury. Her storylessness was her undoing. In this situation, my storylessness might be the undoing of the interview.
HB: You don't like to be interviewed, do you?
JM: No, of course not! The reason I'm doing this interview now is the reason all writers do their interviews: they have a book out and it's part of the ritual and the business of publishing books to get as many people to know about it as possible. That's what I get out of it. That's the only reason I'm doing it.
HB: And you often pass up interviews.
JM: I certainly would not want to do an interview with somebody I thought was dumb. I don't think that even helps sales, right?!
A lot of people are thrilled to give interviews, delighted to appear in a piece of writing because it's their chance to express themselves to the public. A writer expresses himself or herself through the writing. What do I need this for? For saying things I throw out when I'm sitting at my typewriter? I feel what I say at an interview is not very interesting. What makes my writing interesting is that I sit there in that room and over a great length of time hammer out some things that are finally interesting. It takes a long time for something to become interesting.
HB: On the other hand, you like conducting interviews.
JM: Sure. A lot of it is just knowing when to shut up, which is most of the time. You listen to the tape and to the times you thought you said something interesting, and say, Och! Why didn't I just let him or her go on? But you never know how much you need to put in to keep something going. It varies from individual to individual. Some subjects just want to talk and talk and talk. I let it go where it wants to go. I know I'm not going to use most of it anyway. Sometimes I don't even listen to the people I interview. I daydream.
What's great about the tape recorder is it gives you a second chance. Sometimes something will leap out that I had forgotten, or maybe hadn't been listening to. And it's wonderful.
HB: You write about "a journalist's habit of lingering in empty rooms on the off chance that a secret door will give way under accidental pressure."
JM: The empty room image allows me to make a contrast to the the full stuff of nature. When I wrote this book I felt very oppressed by the whole business, being in a world I didn't want to be in, a world of business, of law.
Some readers urged me to end the book properly and not to put in that coda, where I go to Treasure Mountain. They said that had nothing to do with what the book was about. But to me, it was about the scale of the book. "I sat on the grass and wrote in my notebook about the sights I had just seen. The sound of crows broke, and then accentuated, the uncanny stillness one finds on mountains -- even on those as small as Treasure Mountain." Also, it was about relief in being out, outside, in nature, away from the business of what I call the empty stories.
HB: But you often get stuck in a world of law, don't you?
JM: "The Journalist and the Murderer" wasn't about business, it wasn't about white collar crime, and my subject really was journalism rather than law, whereas the subject here was law, and it's endless. The outdoors, obviously, was -- life.
HB: I loved some of the flourishes in the book, for example: "As the familiar, always somewhat jarringly uninteresting vistas of Washington gave way to the more predictable bland landscape of the suburbs . . . "
JM: It pleases me you like that.
HB: The book made me think of something Kafka said about work not being the realm of the ordinary, as is usually assumed, but of the truly weird -- closer "to the supernatural, than to the dull." You go into a seemingly normal world looking for the secret doors, and you find them.
JM: And I love the characters I meet. That's one of the nice things about journalism; you pick up the phone and you meet people. It's just too good to be true, these people who suddenly appear in your writing.
HB: You write a lot about hobbled narratives. What are the narratives hobbled by?
JM: Facts. Lawyers, biographers, journalists can't, like fiction writers, just tell the story the way they want; they've got obligations.
There's an urge we all have to use little untruths to make a story and move it along. Haven't you ever caught yourself telling a little lie to make things smoother, the social lie? And you wonder: why am I doing this, the truth isn't so bad, either. You don't tell someone you're not doing something because it's inconvenient; you say you have to bring a set of dishes to your aunt in New Jersey. It makes a better story but it's not as honest. Well, actually, the one about the aunt is a terrible story. It comes from an article I read twenty or thirty years ago in the New Yorker by somebody who was living with a poor family. The writer had a date to meet someone and that person didn't show up. Later he said, I had to take some dishes to my aunt in New Jersey. A perfect detail. I've always treasured it.