The Essential Janet Malcolm

Every word the famously concise New Yorker staff writer wrote was essential, of course, but here is where to begin.

The media is not a monolith, but it came close last month in its collective mourning of Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker staff writer who died of lung cancer at 86. Malcolm, who at first struggled to learn english when her family escaped from Czechoslovakia to New York just before WWII, became a writer’s writer, and her work has often been described as “delicious,” “literary,” “funny,” and, above all, “precise.”

When The Postscript asked me to compile a list of her essential works for this inaugural column, I struggled. Malcolm is the author of a dozen books and countless articles that all prove her to be an expert on subjects as varied as art and photography, true crime, psychoanalysis, journalistic ethics, and the act of writing itself. Which ones are “essential”? These lists, by definition, can’t be exhaustive (my editor said I should make this “long enough to be maximally useful and interesting but not so long that it’s boring or repetitive”). So where to start?

After much thought, psychoanalysis feels right because, one could argue, this topic is where Malcolm herself began (her father was a psychiatrist, and her first longform “fact piece” for the New Yorker was on family therapy), but also because it’s where I started reading Malcolm, and it helped me to appreciate the thread of penetrating, psychoanalytic insights throughout all of her work.

I. Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession

“The patient leaves the analysis older and wiser about the analysis: it is finally borne in on him that the purpose of analysis is not to make sense of his life but to make nonsense of his neurosis,” Malcolm wrote in a later book, but I think this describes what it’s like to read Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, her portrait of psychoanalytic society in New York City, which began as a two-part New Yorker story in 1980 and was expanded into a book the following year. Malcolm traces the evolution of psychoanalysis, from the time when the Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, repression, the Oedipus complex, transference, and more, coalesced into a theory, and the ways it’s mutated over time — for better, for worse — under his intellectual descendants. At its conclusion, the reader understands the quirks of Freudian psychoanalysis in the context of its past.

Aaron Green, the pseudonymously named, middle-aged, “unswervingly” Freudian psychoanalyst at the center of Malcolm’s work, is infantilized by his field, ceaselessly seeking the approval of his superiors. Another analyst embodies the indefatigable detachment of orthodox psychoanalysis: “You felt that he didn’t sit down to meals but furtively gulped his food, like a stray animal; you fancied that his wife had left him years ago, and that for several days he hadn’t noticed she was gone.”

It’s filled with the kind of apt and ambiguous descriptions — “the exquisitely relaxed analyst, inclining toward his patient’s psyche as a sinuous, long-stemmed plant languorously yields to the law of tropism” — that Malcolm is known for. As Wyatt Mason would later write of her use of language, “all that verbal care delivers news from Malcolm’s well-stocked mind.”

II. The Journalist and the Murderer

Malcolm’s most famous line comes from this, another essay turned book about the boundaries crossed by the writer Joe McGinniss while writing about the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor convicted of killing his wife and young children. I first heard about this book, like many aspiring writers, in journalism school. In the opening line, Malcolm demonstrated both her skepticism of her own trade and her mastery of one of its most important tenets, an attention grabbing lede: “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.”

The book-length version was published in 1990, and it was the first of Malcolm’s many piercing critiques of narrative non-fiction writers that would lead the field to see her as a “remorseless philosopher of journalism.” The New York Times called it a “feisty book ... laced with the jargon of Freudian dogma.” Malcolm, who I think will forgive me for using a block quote here, paints journalists as confidence men, and their subjects as naive patients:

Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common. The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter. The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all noticing, unforgiving father.

Malcolm makes a convincing case that McGinniss deceived the doctor, claiming the book would proclaim his innocence while simultaneously describing to his editor how the narrative would slowly reveal MacDonald to be a psychopathic killer. McGinniss, unsurprisingly, took issue with her charges, noting, fairly or unfairly, depending on who you ask, that Malcolm herself was facing a libel case brought against her by the subject of her 1984 book, In the Freud Archives. The case was the climax of a period in Malcolm’s career that Sarah Nicole Prickett described as a phase when, “she will embody the Bakhtinism of the listener becoming the speaker and enemize men who, when all is said and done, are shocked by what she writes to a degree that suggests they thought she was a Typist.”

III. Janet Malcolm, The Art of Nonfiction No. 4
Katie Roiphe, The Paris Review

Malcolm refused to sit for an interview with The Paris Review until the publication agreed to her demand that it be conducted largely in writing, and, as a result, this 2011 interview is as much a work of Malcolm’s hand as it is of Katie Roiphe, a journalism professor and author whose father was a psychoanalyst and whose work is often devoted to the same kind of messy narratives Malcolm pursued. The writer herself remains largely hidden behind carefully crafted responses, and her insights are applied broadly: On psychoanalysis, Malcolm wrote that “[b]oth the journalist and the psychoanalyst are connoisseurs of the small, unregarded motions of life. Both pan the surface — yes, surface — for the gold of insight”; on her writing style, that “[w]omen who came of age at the time that I did developed aggressive ways to attract the notice of the superior males. The habit of attention getting stays with you”; and on journalism, that “[w]e are certainly not a ‘helping profession.’ If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.”

But perhaps, in the general observations, you learn a little something about the observer. After all, in her 1992 collection of essays called The Purloined Clinic, Malcolm wrote that "it is as if we all need in some way to take possession of whatever passes through our hands, to leave our mark, to show that we have been there.”

Extra Credit

  • Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial — Trial narratives were another common topic for Malcolm, whose mother was a lawyer. Here she examines their role in the murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, who was found guilty of hiring her husband’s cousin to kill her own husband: “In life, no story is told exactly the same way twice. As the damp clay of actuality passes from hand to hand, it assumes different artful shapes. We expect it to. Only in trials is making it pretty equated with making it up.”

  • "Forty-One False Starts" — Malcolm's structure-defying profile of David Salle. To quote E.B. Bartels: “This is no ordinary journalism. This is Janet Malcolm.”

  • Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography — A collection of essays on photography: “If ‘the camera can’t lie,’ neither is it inclined to tell the truth, since it can reflect only the usually ambiguous, and sometimes outright deceitful, surface of reality.”

The Essentials is a recurring column that introduces readers to a subject, concept, or notable individual’s work, with expert recommendations for what to read, watch, and/or listen to. We'll get you up to speed in minutes, but provide resources for taking a deeper dive, when it works for you.

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Remember: Janet Malcolm, a Life

David Graham, staff writer, The Atlantic: “Malcolm’s best work can induce days-long intellectual vertigo — a far different effect than the tinny hangover one gets from reading brilliant but adolescent polemicists in the Christopher Hitchens mold.” —“Janet Malcolm the Magician,” June 20, 2021

Nathan Heller, staff writer, The New Yorker: “No greater feat for a non-fiction writer than to invent a way of seeing and saying that renders a whole constellation of illuminating, not obvious, and previously unrenderable relationships — and to do it in a way that’s utterly distinctive but unoccluded by ego. RIP Janet Malcolm.” —Twitter, June 17, 2021

Fergus McIntosh, Malcolm’s fact checker: “If journalism really is morally indefensible, as she wrote at the start of The Journalist and the Murderer, then fact-checking her pieces could only be absurd. … Checking her was like being shut in with a leopard: she was entrancing, variegated, prone to pounce. I’ll miss that feeling dearly.” —“Janet Malcolm, Remembered by Writers,” June 19, 2021

Helen Garner, Australian author: “To open any one of her books at random is to find myself drawn back into that unmistakable sensibility, that unique tissue of mind, and to grasp how deeply I am indebted to her. … I learned from watching Malcolm in full flight that I could go much further than timidly nibbling at the edges of people’s peculiar behaviour. I saw that I could get a grip on it and dare to interpret it, to coax meaning from it.” —“Helen Garner on Janet Malcolm: ‘Her Writing Turns Us Into Better Readers,’” June 24, 2021

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Kate Wheeling is a freelance journalist based in California covering the environment, climate change, and our relationship to each other and to the natural world. You can find her work in Smithsonian, The Nation, The New Republic, Outside, and others. She is currently pursuing a master’s in clinical psychology at Pepperdine.