Helen Garner, born in Geelong in 1942, is one of Australia's most respected writers. She has been publishing novels, short stories, non-fiction and journalism since 1977 when her first novel, Monkey Grip, became a bestseller. Subsequent works include the short stories Postcards from Surfers and the novel The Children's Bach. Her non-fiction books include the widely-debated and controversial The First Stone; True Stories and The Feel of Steel, collections of her journalism and essays; and Joe Cinque's Consolation, an account of two Canberra murder trials. The Spare Room, a novel, appeared in 2008. Helen lives in Melbourne. Here she writes about Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer.
Helen Garner on The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm is the first book that comes to mind whenever anyone asks me the dreaded question, 'What writers have influenced you?'
It's an essay on the psychopathology of journalism, built around Malcolm's account of a bizarre civil trial in Los Angeles, in 1987. Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor serving a life sentence for having murdered his wife and two small daughters, filed a lawsuit against an author called Joe McGinniss, for fraud and breach of contract. McGinniss had embedded himself with MacDonald's defence team at the murder trial, on the understanding that he planned to write a book in full sympathy with the accused. In the course of the trial, however, McGinniss had gradually lost his belief in MacDonald's innocence.
At the moment of the verdict, and for the four years it took him to write the book that MacDonald fondly supposed would exonerate him, McGinniss kept this crucial change of heart to himself. He even maintained warm epistolary relations with the trusting prisoner. When Fatal Vision finally appeared, MacDonald was stunned and outraged to find it was a true-crime book in which he starred as a psychopathic killer.
Here we have two fabulously meaty characters with a high-American flavour, and Malcolm writes about them with unabashed pleasure, as she does about the minor personages of the story: lawyers, jurors, and psychiatric expert witnesses. But the joy of the book, and its eternal usefulness to writers of any kind of serious reportage, lie less in her account of the legal struggle between MacDonald and McGinniss than in the marvellously sophisticated web of psychological reflection she weaves, as she contemplates the vexed relationship that always forms between journalist and subject - a relationship with more than a passing resemblance to a doomed love affair.
Like the participants in a psychoanalytical encounter, an endeavour to which she makes frequent enlightening reference, she keeps coming at things from the most unexpected angles, undercutting the certainty she has just beguiled you into accepting, and dropping you through the floor into a realm of the most fruitful astonishment.
It's a challenging book, intellectually and morally complex, but it never feels heavy on the page. It's airy, racy, muscular; and mercilessly cut back so that it surges along with what David Rieff calls 'breath-taking rhetorical velocity'. It sparkles with deft character sketches. It bounds back and forth between straight-ahead reporting and the most subtle readings of documents and transcripts. Malcolm is the quintessential writer 'on whom nothing is lost'.
For her whole way of perceiving the world is deeply dyed by the psychoanalytic view of reality. She never theorizes or uses jargon. She simply proceeds on the assumption that (as she puts it in another of her books, The Purloined Clinic) 'life is lived on two levels of thought and act: one in our awareness and the other only inferable, from dreams, slips of the tongue, and inexplicable behaviour'. This approach, coupled with her natural flair for metaphor and image, allows her an almost poetic access to what is meaningful in the way people dress and move, speak or decline to speak - and thus, here, to the questions of trust and betrayal that haunt the relations between journalists and their subjects.
In her afterword, Malcolm adds some thoughts occasioned by a libel suit brought against her by the aggrieved Jeffrey Masson, an analyst she wrote about in In the Freud Archives, who accused her of having fabricated quotes. Eventually Malcolm was able to provide her contemporaneous notebooks and to win the case, but the painful experience of being on the receiving end of legal action inspired, among other things, two lovely pages on a little-remarked-on duty of the writer:
When a journalist undertakes to quote a subject he has interviewed on tape, he owes it to the subject, no less than to the reader, to translate his speech into prose. Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs.
I must have read this book at least 10 times over the years, but still I can open my dog-eared copy at any page and mine a fresh nugget of gold. At 2 a.m., when the non-fiction writer halfway through a project lies awake in a lather of lonely panic and despair, it brings a relief beyond telling to recall the bracing realism of Janet Malcolm's tone when she fronts up to the undeniable: what she calls 'the falseness that is built into the writer-subject relationship, and about which nothing can be done.'