The one that reminded me of serial

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)

It’s Rebecca who put me on track with this book, Rebecca whom I had the pleasure to meet in real life during my holidays! Those who know me know how I love all things Serial (I’m still mildly obsessed and I recently binge-podcasted Undisclosed on the plane) and I love all things Janet Malcolm ever since I read The Silent Woman (again at Rebecca’s recommendation), but I don’t know how I didn’t make the connection between those two. Sometimes, things right under my nose escape me (like that recent example).

The Journalist and the Murderer is basically what happens when a man accused and convicted of having murdered his wife and kids (Jeffrey McDonald) is approached by a journalist (Joe McGinniss) in order to write a book about his story. The accused allows him inside his place, inside his defense team, all with the idea that the journalist’s book will cast a positive light on him as he tries to appeal his sentence. They get very close and apparently friendly. But when the book comes out (in 1983), McDonald discovers that he is described as a psychopath who is surely guilty of the murder. The weirdest part is that the murderer then sues the journalist for breach of trust, saying that he has been misled. A jury has then to decide if it’s morally defensible for a journalist to be friendly with the subject of his investigation in order to get more information.

Needless to say, my first reaction to all this was: only in America!

My second reaction was to compare it point by point to the odd relation that developed during the podcast season between convicted murderer Adnan  Sayed and radio journalist Sarah Koenig. Not that Koenig, as an excellent professional, seemed ever too friendly or misleading with Sayed from what we got to hear. She kept a critical eye, but at times she herself warmed up at the idea that Sayed is such a nice guy that he couldn’t have done it. I don’t really remember how she came to learn about this particular case, but wasn’t she called out by the defense team?

I have enjoyed Serial a lot, not only for the suspense of who really killed Hae min Lee, but also for the quest of trying to establish the truth of a situation and the truth about anything. The deeper into the investigation, the closer Sarah Koenig comes to the realization that you can’t ever know for sure what happened. Even phone towers don’t scientifically tell you for sure where a person was. A phone booth may or may not have been in a supermarket, a butt dial may or may not have been received by a phone. When you move to people and their memory and feelings, things get even blurrier. In the end, like in all noir movies or in a Philip Kerr thriller, you get away slightly shaken by this doomed quest.

As for McGinniss, his intentions weren’t nice, even if he probably didn’t deserve the harsh opinion that the jury got on him (the case was settled out of court as McGinniss paid McDonald a rather huge amount). He desperately needed this book to be successful in order to keep his career afloat, and his book had better be full of dirty revelations (these were the 1980s, but I don’t think it has changed much, or for the better). Malcolm tries to remain neutral while she is herself the journalist investigating McGinniss, but the result is still that McGinniss looks pretty sly (which is better than being a sociopath, I guess). She casts some harsh moral judgment on journalism in general, as being indefensible (no wonder that some journalists rose in fury). The relation between the subject and his writer is that of a confession where the subject tries to make himself as interesting as possible, while having no control over the final result. In principle, I believe she nails it, but some journalists still do a pretty good job at trying to keep a moral clarity.

This made me think about what Sayed might think of Serial’s huge success, to what extent he tried to manipulate Koenig, and to what extent she fell prey to it or was aware of it. Needless to say, the podcast’s success certainly helped pushing his attempts at revision of his conviction (I’m not quite sure where things are right now). But it could have gone both ways, and in fact Koenig concluded herself that she couldn’t be sure of Sayed’s innocence, admitting that there was a chance that he was indeed guilty.

Like every time I read Malcolm, there was much to think about, and I look forward to reading another of her books! Any recommendations?

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3 thoughts on “The one that reminded me of serial

  1. I love Janet Malcolm the best when she’s doing literary biography, so The Silent Woman and Two Lives (which is about Gertrude Stein) are my two favorites of hers. If you get a collection of her essays that would also be totally good — Forty-One False Starts is v. enjoyable. Isn’t her prose so lovely and nice and clean?

    Also, apparently Janet Malcolm got in legal trouble after this book came out, so there were additional legal hijinks to follow. There’s a book out about the whole set of nesting-doll trials, apparently, by this guy Errol Morris. A Wilderness of Error. I want to read it.

    • I loved the Silent Woman too! I’ll see if I can get my hands on the titles you mention. Yet I can see why people who are written about may get irked at her cold analytic writing. Not to justify that they’d sue her though (the book about the Freud archive also resulted in a legal dispute.)

  2. Pingback: The One with the Bukharan Murder in Queens | Smithereens

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