The Book Club

Malcolm’s Shapeless Housecoat

Hi Jeff–

How about this as a hypothesis on why we disagree about this book? We are both journalists. But I am “just” a journalist, while you are also a lawyer. Therefore the parts of this book that concern the oddities of legal narration–which I agree are effective and insightful–may matter relatively more to you, whereas the parts that embody the practice of reportage matter proportionately more to me, since that’s all I’ve got to work with.

Or maybe there is some other reason. Because something is still making me see this differently. Let me address directly two of your recent points, and then hazard an embryonic thought of my own.

Lord knows it is not in my interest to do Janet Malcolm an injustice, premeditated or otherwise. But I think my earlier assertion–that Malcolm equates “truth” with a full, Truman Show-style dump of the facts, and then says that journalism, law, etc., are “untruthful” because they’re selective–fairly represents her argument. For instance:

  • “As we talk to each other, we constantly make little adjustments to the cut of the truth, in order to comply with our listeners’ expectation that we will guide them to the point of what we are saying. If we spoke the whole truth, which has no point–which is, in fact, shiningly innocent of a point–we would quickly lose our listeners’ attention.” Or:
  • “The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd. The truth does not make a good story; that’s why we have art.” Or:
  • “Trials are won by attorneys whose stories fit, and lost by those whose stories are like the shapeless housecoat that truth, in her disdain for appearances, has chosen as her uniform.”

The “shapeless housecoat” image is a nice one, and the train of logic it advances (about the strained role of narrative in the law) is the most intriguing and significant part of the book. But the very power of this image depends on the contrast with a “truth” that is formless and undifferentiated.

Why does this bother me? Because in a sense Malcolm tries to have it both ways in the book. She talks about the impossibility of fully capturing truth, about the inevitable distortions of selective narratives, and about Sheila McGough’s suffering because she refused to present her own case in shaped, convincing narrative form. But then she asserts a quite amazingly black-and-white, no-room-for-doubt, unlimited belief in Sheila’s innocence, which is hard to reconcile with any sort of doubt about ultimate truth. For instance:

  • “As nothing will now shake my faith in Sheila, so nothing will convince [her nemesis] that he was wrong to prosecute her.” Or
  • “I told [a lawyer] about my acquaintance with Sheila and my sense of her as someone who could not conceivably be thought of as a criminal.”

“Nothing”? “Not conceivably”? Simply on the tangled merits of the case, as Malcolm presents them in this book, it would be hard for anyone to have absolute certainty about the participants. But while legal antagonists have a structural (and morally ambiguous, as Malcolm points out) need to shape the narrative to their side, why should a journalist–above all, one who emphasizes the haziness of truth–be sounding this way?

That was the first point I was resurrecting from yesterday. Here’s the second: For whatever reason, Malcolm seems to have done less to put the story together in comprehensible fashion than she might have.

I am influenced here by an old newspaper article I vaguely recalled and looked up on the Web two days ago, after we started discussing Malcolm’s book. It was a piece about McGough in the Washington Post magazine in 1991, shortly before McGough went off to prison. The article was by Amanda Spake, who is a friend of mine, so I may be biased in its favor. But when reading it I was impressed by how many basic issues of fact Spake had tried her best to resolve for the reader–yes, with all the limits of imperfect knowledge–that just are left hanging in Malcolm’s book. For instance:

  • Were Bobby Bailes’s insurance charters truly phony? Spake provides a number of telling details strongly suggesting that they were. (For example: They were purportedly signed in the early 1900s by a federal judge–but the judge’s name does not appear in the National Archives, and they were “signed” in a city that did not have a federal court at the time.) If Malcolm includes such details in her book, they were underplayed enough that I can neither remember nor find them. (Fairness alert: She reports other reasons to doubt the charters, but then says that the person who raised the doubts had them resolved. We’re left in the realm of unknowable truth.)
  •  What happened to the $75,000? Malcolm says: “The chronicler of the transaction that introduced Sheila to her nemesis begins to lose his bearings soon after the fatal down payment was wired to Sheila’s account. At this juncture, he is like a motorist driving a car on a clear night who suddenly runs into a stretch of swirling, low-lying mist and must creep along using his dimmed headlights trying to see.” And so on. Spake, with none of the drum-roll, provides basic information that (to my knowledge) Malcolm doesn’t: “After [the arrival of the $75,000] on July 16, she had transferred $36,000 to one of Bailes’s corporate accounts, given him $34,000 in cash and checks and put $5,000 into her own operating account for billed time.”

Spake also adds a significant detail that I believe is absent from the book: While Bailes was in prison, McGough used power-of-attorney to complete the sale of another insurance company, telling the purchaser that Bailes was “traveling.” This can probably be made to fit Malcolm’s view that McGough would idealistically do nearly anything to defend a client. But unless Malcolm found that it was false (and I suspect we would have heard about that), I wonder why she left it out? (Fairness alert: It is conceivable that this is the same case as one Malcolm does mention, involving a prospective purchaser whom McGough neglected to inform that Bailes was in prison. But in the book, this person isn’t from Florida, doesn’t buy, and doesn’t hear about “vacation.”)

We’re back to matters of taste–and to the confessional mode that this book induces. In admiring what Spake has done, and admitting that Malcolm has raised my hackles, I realize that I am revealing something about myself. I’d be laughed out of the room if I tried to pass myself off as a tribune of working-class America. But this book makes me feel like Bruce Springsteen–the surly side of The Boss. It makes me feel a kind of blue-collar righteousness on behalf of someone like Spake, who did her best to make sense of the story, and who doesn’t keep reminding us of her admirable “reporter’s instinct.”

But no irritation with you, Jeff! Your turn now.