All this will sound rather familiar to those who have read Malcolm’s best-known work, The Journalist and the Murderer, which famously begins by asserting that “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 concerned the fraught relationship between journalist Joe McGinniss and his subject, Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of killing his family; Malcolm recounts how McGinniss slowly and insidiously gained MacDonald’s trust and friendship on false pretenses, only to skewer him as a remorseless sociopath in the resulting book, Fatal Vision.
Many journalists reacted to The Journalist with indignation. Some did so because they felt unfairly castigated by her characterizations, and some because they found it hypocritical of her not to mention anywhere in the book that she, too, had been the defendant in a similar libel suit filed by a subject one of her books, Jeffrey Masson. In a 2000 essay in Salon, Craig Seligman hypothesized that, perhaps, this was the point: ‘“The Journalist and the Murderer’ struck me as a brilliant solution to her obvious impulse toward autobiography: Talking about McGinniss and MacDonald was an oblique and tactful way of talking about Malcolm and Masson.”
As for Malcolm’s to The Journalist and the Murderer—in which she vigorously rejected the suggestion that the McGinniss-MacDonald case was “a thinly veiled account of my own experience”—Seligman calls her denial “a stupefying specimen of bullshit,” and declares that Malcolm is deceiving herself. “To write anything more than just the facts, ma’am, is to write about oneself,” he writes. “How could she be so clueless about her own method?”
In Iphigenia, clueless she is not; the book is a much more honest first-person account of her doubts about the business. In her passages about her fellow reporters from the other papers, she never directly castigates any of them for impropriety—in fact, she seems to go out of her way to compliment them on their professionalism. This leads the reader to believe that, when musing on the “malice” of the trade, she must be talking about herself.
Throughout the book, Malcolm almost obsessively assesses and confesses her own methods of reporting, and the possible ethical lapses or errors contained therein. The angst of approaching people for interviews, and the blows she feels when those requests are rejected. The switch in status and power once that request is accepted. “Journalists request interviews the way beggars ask for alms,” she writes, “reflexively and nervously.” Yet once the interview begins, the journalist has complete control over the story and how the subject will be portrayed.
This last truth is thrown into stark relief—almost to the point of absurdity—in her interview of David Schnall, law guardian to the four-year-old daughter of the victim and the defendant. Malcolm recounts how she asks Schnall for an interview, and how he declines to speak about the case while the trial was still going on. But then he does proceed to talk to her about the case, on the phone, for almost an hour. (It’s unclear whether he is under the impression that the conversation is off the record.)
As Schnall talks, and Malcolm takes notes, she becomes increasingly disturbed by his paranoid diatribe about a “Communist-like” world order that involves everything from global warming hoaxes to Hurricane Katrina. Malcolm is so disturbed, in fact, that she takes the shocking step of faxing her notes to the defense attorney, with the expectation that Schnall’s mental health will be called into question, along with the reliability of his testimony against the defendant. “I did something I have never done before as a journalist,” Malcolm writes. “I meddled with the story I was reporting. I entered it as a character who could affect its plot.”