Janet Malcolm: The Crime of Sheila McGough

Janet Malcolm
The Crime of Sheila McGough

After two decades of writing, Janet Malcolm now seems to be embarking on one of the century's stranger literary careers. There's a Dostoyevskian burden of conscience to the two books that have followed her famous libel case with psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson--as if Malcolm had realized some tradition of writerly atrocity that is hers alone to bear. She goes so far as to casually undermine the very prospect of making sense of the past. Consider this probing meditation on the custodians of Sylvia Plath's memory from The Silent Woman: "Once one starts throwing out"--that is, decides what not to include in the story--"it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start."

This tic is nothing so deliberate or controlled as pomo gamesmanship; Malcolm is far too scrupulous to let herself off the hook that easily. There are few escapes in her world: Readers, Malcolm seems to say, can rarely feel entirely secure that what we read is anything more than an arbitrary and partial collection of scraps fashioned into some poor replica of what really happened. And so this latest book, The Crime of Sheila McGough, begins with a discussion of how lawyers cut corners in courtroom testimony, hoping no one will catch them indulging in "one of the small untruths most of us mechanically tell in order that human communication be a swift, clear river rather than a sluggish, obstructed stream." Fifteen pages later she argues that "historical reconstruction in all cases gives rise to structures that are more like ruins than proper buildings; there is never enough solid building material and always too much dust."

Yet her story in outline is simplicity itself. Inveterate con man Bob Bailes, who by all accounts had a magical ability to conjure almost authentic-looking documents from thin air, set up a complex insurance scam that he advertised in the Wall Street Journal's classified ads. (Bailes haunts the book's margins. The most fascinating character here, primarily because his machinations defy all sense of logical utility, he died before Malcolm began her research.) After Bailes fleeced his marks, he left his lawyer, Sheila McGough, holding the bag. But rather than turn on Bailes, much less turn him in, McGough steadfastly defended him, asserting his innocence and his right to a defense. She continued on this course--even after doing time in prison on his behalf--with a literalism that Malcolm herself quickly finds tiresome. Was McGough, as she claimed, innocent of her client's double, triple, quadruple dealings? Or was she really, as the state of Virginia successfully argued, his lover and accomplice?

In Malcolm's account McGough comes across as so obtuse that she couldn't possibly be faking her stance: Told that Bailes's accusers had shady pasts of their own, she responds "Just because they're criminals doesn't prove that I'm not."

In the end, after Malcolm runs down most of the avenues of this case, sketching McGough's accusers (who still resent her) and her defenders (who have lost interest in her), we're no further along on the path to understanding it all. The author turns up no smoking gun, no incriminating paper trail. Malcolm herself calls McGough's ruin "incoherent and senseless" and admits she must leave her to her chosen fate.

So why bother reading this book, you might ask? Read it because the uneasy tone of Malcolm's writing deepens a rather prosaic tale into an unnerving parable whose truth is elusive and whose moral is seemingly nonexistent. There may no answer to the question of who's most at fault here--Bailes, McGough, the government, or Malcolm. Perhaps the blame lies with us, the readers, for peeping at such a life. This complex web of responsibility seems to suit its author well: Only someone as self-consciously compromised as Janet Malcolm could have produced such a complex and satisfying work of art.

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