The Journalist and the Murderer

Maggie Nelson referenced this Janet Malcolm book in her talk at the Nourse Theater last week and I scribbled the title down in the dark on my notepad. It was an excellent musing on the relationship between journalist and subject, taking for its example the betrayal of Jeffrey MacDonald  by Joe McGinniss in his book, Fatal Vision, about MacDonald’s murder trial and conviction. Joe pretended to be Jeff’s friend to maintain access even as he became convinced of Jeff’s guilt and wrote a series of letters that reveal his lies to Jeff up until the book came out. This “fraud” was then rehashed in a libel suit that MacDonald pursued against McGinniss, which is when Janet Malcolm got involved and tried to start untangling all the bits.

During this libel trial, the question of whether authors can lie to their subjects in order to get them more comfortable with spilling their story came up repeatedly. A few experts were called, including Joseph Wambaugh who later told Malcolm: “When you talk to a sociopathic criminal, you have to flatter him and curry favor with him by telling him something that isn’t absolutely true… They enjoy it. They’ll say ‘You believe me, don’t you?’ right at a point where you’re convinced they’re lying. If you say no, you could lose everything you’ve gained, including your book, your money, your time if you’re a writer, and your case if you’re a cop. So you cannot tell the truth.” This sheds some light on how the current White House is being run, in my opinion.

Also of tangential interest were Malcolm’s musings on letter writing: “But if we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the chief pleasure of the correspondence lies in its responsive aspect rather than with that of our pen pal; what makes the arrival of a letter a momentous event is the occasion it affords for writing rather than for reading.”

She begins corresponding with MacDonald in prison, receiving his 20 to 30 page letters that “were like sledgehammer strokes in their relentless, repetitive, bombastic self-justification. When a letter came, I would put off reading it—the writing was unrelievedly windy…”