Posted by: zhiv | December 19, 2008

A Janet Malcolm Story

I started looking at Janet Malcolm’s book “Reading Chekhov:  A Critical Journey,” which is excellent.  It’s not exactly what I expected:  for some reason I thought it was going to be about Malcolm spending a certain amount of time reading Chekhov and writing about her experience (not a crazy assumption based on the title, I don’t think).  Instead, more interestingly, it is a travel diary about Malcolm’s journey to Russia to explore Chekhov’s homes and haunts.  And so, not surprisingly, Malcolm already possesses a vast knowledge of Chekhov’s works and life as the book begins.  Malcolm is extremely smart and learned, and she is a graceful, exacting writer in the best New Yorker mode.  She has interesting things to say, and this book figures to be a valuable guide for the next stage of my own exploration of Chekhov.  I first checked it out of the library a couple of years ago, when I was taking my initial glance at Chekhov and didn’t really know anything, and I quickly realized that I needed to do some reading first–I must have only looked at a couple of pages, because I didn’t know or remember the travel aspect of the book.  I thought of it again after I wrote the “Concerning Chekhov” post, and only just got around to getting it from the library again.

And then I thought about Janet Malcolm once more when I was writing about Alice James and Jean Strouse and female hysteria and The Bostonians.  It reminded me of a story, specifically of what I think of as “my Janet Malcolm story,” but it’s about a place and time more than it’s about her; and since these are the types of things I’m writing up these days, I thought I’d take a crack at it (and now I didn’t get around to typing it until the end of the week).

I graduated from Berkeley in 1980.  My girlfirend at the time had a job at Poulet, a gourmet deli run by sausage king Bruce Aidells, in North Berkeley on Shattuck Avenue.  Hanging out down on Shattuck with foodies and drinking Peet’s coffee seemed to be a very post-graduation thing to do, the beginnings of adulthood.  It was short-lived, however, as I broke up with my girlfriend, moved into an Oakland slum house next to the freeway, and got a bad, minimum-wage job at a chain bookstore at a mall in El Cerrito.  I was laying low and setting up a plot to win the heart of my old crush/obsession, a girl from my high school who was going to Berkeley.  It was a soap opera romance that was about to begin its second act, that December, when I finally climbed over the castle wall and we got together on the night that John Lennon was shot.  So call it an 80’s romance.

Eventually she became known as Sweeney, which is a good name for a character in a story.  Sweeney was beautiful and smart and always a little sad, and her melancholy was somehow part of the irresistable attraction for me.  I wanted to share her pain, to have her become intimate with my own shame and sorrow, for us to make each other whole.  Walking down the stairs of her apartment after our first night together and reading the headline about John Lennon seemed appropriate somehow.

A couple of years later Sweeney had graduated and I was in the PhD program in English at Berkeley.  She was in her own post-graduation phase, and oddly enough she got a job in North Berkeley, a block away from Poulet.  A pair of women, Jackie and Denise, owned a couple of boutiques on the avenue, one for women and one for children, and they also had an aerobics studio down at the then-new development at Fourth St.  Sweeney was highly competent, and within a few weeks she was managing all three businesses, doing their books, and teaching aerobics classes while wearing leg warmers:  like I said, it’s an 80’s story, and that extends to the fact that one of Sweeney’s employers, Denise, was such an intense Annie Hall clone that the women’s boutique was called La Di Dah.  Denise came by the identification honestly, as she was a lively and fun, slightly ditsy brunette, attractive and sexy in a disarming way, with an individual sense of style.  It makes me think of how the way that Debra Messing stumbles around in Will and Grace takes a lot from Diane Keaton and Annie Hall, and Denise and her blond, equally attractive partner Jackie, had a sort of Berkeley Lucy and Ethyl routine, hanging out with the post-radical, newly entrepreneurial crowd and getting in scrapes.  Denise and Jackie were in their early 30’s and they both had young children, so Sweeney’s all-encompassing job description also included baby- and house-sitting.  Denise was divorced, but she was living with a guy, and I only really got to know this world when they went away on a trip for 10 days and we lived at her house and took care of her kid.

Denise’s boyfriend’s name was Jeff.  Denise had that fresh, charismatic, romantic persona I’ve tried to describe, and Jeff seemed to be a highly suitable mate.  He was darkly handsome and some sort of intellectual, a cut above the burdened and struggling thinkers who were a dime a dozen in Berkeley then, dynamic somehow.  Still, he didn’t seem special, not at first glance, and I didn’t have a bead on him for awhile, not until after we had done our house-sitting stint, I don’t think.

During the late spring and summer the pool in Strawberry Canyon gets going, and it’s a place to swim and lie in the sun and read, to try to get some work done.  I was always a swimmer, and Berkeley is a great place to swim with a bunch of nice pools.  Strawberry Canyon was just one very nice spot, the best poor excuse for going to the beach, and not being a parent I didn’t realize that it was the best option for swimming with kids.  Sweeney and I went up there one sunny day, and we bumped into Denise and the kid and Jeff.  They were all sitting by the lower pool as we came in, and Jeff was talking to a woman who looked like she was rather uncomfortable sitting poolside.  We said our hellos to Denise and the kid, and Jeff said hi, and he introduced us to the woman, saying this is Janet Malcolm, and she’s interviewing me for The New Yorker.

Jeff was proud and excited and happy.  He and Malcom had been spending a lot of time together.  Janet Malcolm was petite and focused, if I remember correctly.  It’s hard not to read too much, so long after the fact, into what was just a cordial, momentary greeting at a swimming pool in the summertime.  We didn’t even stop and hang out, and the entire interaction was a few minutes at most.  It almost seems like one of those memories that takes on a life of its own, twisting into a narrative that serves its own puposes somehow.  But the image in my mind is of Jeff Masson, confident, smiling, shirtless and wearing swim trunks, and Janet Malcolm reluctantly taking time out from her questioning to squint into the sun and say hello.

I was conscious enough to sharpen my interest in Masson after this incident, and I managed to develop a vague sense of his work, something to do with psychoanalysis and sexual abuse, but it was still quite amorphous.  A couple of months went by–I should check the New Yorker publication dates;  and this is post #3 of my New Yorker commentaries, just in case any one is keeping track–and I believe there was a growing sense of excitement around this little Berkeley group about Masson’s book being published.  Perhaps it was a briefer interim, and Malcolm’s interviews were something of an in-depth rush job.

If this hadn’t happened over 20 years ago, perhaps I could remember the exact circumstances of reading “In the Freud Archives” in The New Yorker.   One of my best friends, who would become a Berkeley psychiatrist, was taking a year off from UCSF medical school to get an MA in English at Berkeley, reading Tristram Shandy and Lacan and beginning analysis.  It was an interesting time at Berkeley.  Senior professors like Frederick Crews were in post-Freudian evolutions, younger critics like Joel Fineman made dizzying forays into Shakespeare by way of Freud, while Foucault was a presence both on campus and in post-assassination, early-AIDS crisis San Francisco.  It was almost as if Freud was a Saddam Hussein-like presence in the academy, and Jeff Masson meant to appoint himself to a Paul Bremer-type position, trying to get a major photo op while tearing down his statue.  So we were “terrifically aware,” to use Truman Capote’s phrase about Andy Warhol when the young graphic designer was stalking him, of the Janet Malcolm “profile” of Masson.  It was a sensation, a scandal.  Overnight the obscure Masson became a celebrity, a clown, a charlatan, a vaguely disruptive and dangerous fraud and numskull–again, now the characterization is reminiscent of a “heckuva job, Brownie” damning soundbite.  Masson was like a George Bush crony and acolyte–and what harsher critique can we make these days–, self-important, foolish, inexperienced and in way over his head in a very serious enterprise with global repercussions.  Malcolm eviscerated Masson.  It was an epic takedown, and I guess it made such a strong impact on me not just because I had this slight personal connection to the players, but because I was 25 and had stumbled into a ringside seat for my first bigtime literary and academic prizefight.

And the rather amazing thing is that Masson was right all along.  Malcolm must have know this, and the deeper, reflective reading of the episode is that she wasn’t going to let the pipsqueak Don Juan hanging out in Berkeley with his poor man’s-Annie Hall girlfriend get the credit for the Freud revision and sell-off, which savvy traders had already been doing for years.  It’s crucial to remember that sexual abuse was just becoming an acceptable mainstream topic, at the same time sexual liberation and understanding was entering a new stage based on the tragedy of gay men dying from a mysterious and frightening plague.  These were massive cultural eruptions that belied the evolving bald-faced mythic deception of Ronald Reagan’s America.  Janet Malcolm brilliantly found a way to make her own reputation out of the messy bravado of Jeff Masson’s life and studies.  I vaguely knew Masson, but I learned about his work and his thesis through Malcolm, as did everybody else.  It was Malcolm who got to present the evidence that Freud knew that some of his hysteric patients had been sexually abused.  She was able to have it both ways, which is what it was, a double truth, there was sexual abuse and there wasn’t, and she made the second stage decision of a journalist and self-appointed judge weighing the arguments of two positions, while humiliating the upstart, ambitious prosecutor.

I use another reading incident as my own marker for the evolution of the  discussion of sexual abuse.  A few years later I was working as a creative executive in the film business and, in one of those episodes of literary serendipity, I was on a Jane Smiley reading binge, finishing up The Greenlanders along with her other early works, when the manuscript for her new novel arrived in our office.  By mid-morning I had read a couple of hundred pages and had the pleasure of discovering for myself, with no reviews or forewarning of any kind, that she was retelling King Lear on the American prairie and writing a tragic novel of sexual abuse.  And that must have been 1991, and the topic was still raw and stunning, more than five years later.  At the time of the the Malcolm-Masson affair and “In the Freud Archives” the idea of sexual abuse was absolutely shocking, still virtually unthinkable.  Malcolm was fighting a rearguard action of a very complex kind, somehow protecting the legacy of Freud, destroying the promising career of Masson, and commandeering the early discussion of sexual abuse all at once.  And as I said, making her own reputation.  A lawsuit and repercussions would follow, but the die was cast.  I don’t know the subsequent history as well as I might, and as always I could be wrong in all sorts of ways about this story.  Masson moved further away from the Freud world he had already rejected, has gone on to explore the emotional lives of animals and made other, relatively quiet studies.  Malcolm may have felt some guilt about her journalistic treachery and opportunism, and I suppose I’ll continue my studies to try to find out more about the aftermath of this incident, and more about Malcolm as I read her book on Chekhov.  But the critical memory abides, 25 years later, of Jeff Masson smiling, youthful, and virile, proud of his work, studies, and discoveries, the sun shining down on him on that day, unknowing that fate was stooped beside him, drawing him out to his own doom.

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Responses

  1. Well, that IS quite the story, and thank you for telling it. I fell in love with Malcolm’s writing when I read her book on Plath earlier this year, and I’m eager to read more (I’ve got her book on Stein on my shelves, but I’ve been interested in the Chekhov book for a long time too). This story puts her in quite a negative light, which, I suppose, makes me even more interested in her work and who she is herself. Her writing makes her seem so honest and straightforward and incapable of treachery, and it’s fascinating to think about the relationship of the writing and the person behind it.

  2. D-
    I remembered your enthusiasm for Malcolm when I started writing this, and I’m so glad that you read and enjoyed it. She really is a great writer and thinker. Good to get this out there and out of my head, I must say. And now I’m enjoying her Chekhov book quite a bit–need to go finish it pretty quickly now. I’d be curious to see what you would think of In the Freud Archives. Thanks again.


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