Janet Malcolm · Incarcerated Artists · Carole Baskin
Plus: a Gibney trailer and a drug-court fail
Apologies for some email weirdness from yesterday’s edition, which seems to have reached…two of you? the first time we sent it. You can (and should!) read it right here. And you can always check the B.E. Twitter if you think you might have missed an issue/SDB forgot to check the scheduled date setting. — EB and SDB
Speaking of “that hellsite,” journo Twitter is talking about Janet Malcolm’s…not sure what to call it, so “defense of her reporting practice” in The New York Review Of Books. “A Second Chance” is Malcolm’s mea culpa — of sorts; as usual, she seems not to understand how she comes off, even though the piece is in the main about exactly that, the projection of image — for compositing quotations for a New Yorker piece that got her, The New Yorker, and Knopf sued for libel. It’s typically Malcolm in that it’s extremely well-written and informative (Eve noted in our Slack yesterday that the bits on the jury advisor, and his successful counsel regarding Malcolm’s accessorizing in court, are the sort of inside-baseball intel we love around here), but with more than a whiff of expectant smugness, and absolutely no acknowledgment of the privilege that lets her consult a trial coach on the magazine’s dime. Here’s a typically lofty passage:
The device was the uninterrupted monologue in which characters made preposterously long speeches in impossibly good English. Anyone could see that the speech had never taken place as such but was a compilation of what the character had said to the reporter over a period of time. Not everyone liked the convention, but no one thought it was deceptive, since its artificiality was so blatant.
Oh, word? …If you don’t specifically note that quotes have been edited for clarity, or an interview condensed — if, by putting quotation marks around it, you assert that you’re, you know, quoting the source — then it’s deceptive. It’s a deception of omission, and simultaneously 1) pleading ignorance of basic reporting standards that anyone who has seen ten minutes of All The President’s Men understands, and 2) sniffing that “anyone could see” those standards don’t apply in this case? I have objected for years to the unexamined reverence for Malcolm in true-crime review circles, to the point where I felt real physical relief that Pamela Colloff, who is legit, had the same reaction I did.
Again, Malcolm is a legendarily good writer on the sentence level, and I won’t sit here and tell you that the target that let Malcolm make this particular name for herself, the late Joe McGinniss, is nearly as good, or above reproach as a straight intelligence-gatherer, either. The Ted-Kennedy-book contretemps proves as much. And The Journalist And The Murderer, while disingenuous, still raises questions worth pondering: what do reporters “owe” their subjects? does everyone understand the “rules” that govern these relationships in the same way? is it okay, or “okay-er,” to mislead a guy like MacDonald, who because he’s a narcissist is trying to mislead and manipulate you every minute?
But Malcolm’s own interactions, or lack of them, with the material evidence of the MacDonald case should have raised, and continued to raise, variations on these same questions about Malcolm’s work, because Malcolm didn’t attend the MacDonald trial, and appears to have willfully misread interactions during MacDonald’s libel lawsuit against McGinniss…because it made her “non-fiction” narrative theorem better, more readable, less complex and troubled by objective information. (Granted, this is according to McGinniss, but it’s not like anybody else stepped forward to say that she was present, or requested research materials.) She didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story, in other words, and that’s a choice. That’s a choice Truman Capote made, a couple of times. That’s a choice Joseph Mitchell made. In Cold Blood is a hall-of-fame text, I’ve read Up In The Old Hotel numerous times…I don’t think we need to cancel those men and those works — or Malcolm — but perhaps the real enduring value of Capote and Mitchell and The Journalist And The Murderer is in fact those choices, and the truths they sacrificed in the service (…according to their creators) of some “higher” or “purer” truth about human nature or Maslow’s hierarchy or whatever the hell. Perhaps the truth they and others uncovered by neighborhood-playing conversations and quotes is that we as a culture find narrative flow more valuable than rigor or transparency.
Or that writers are defensive pieces of shit.
The thing is, all of it can co-exist. I didn’t necessarily need to be letting Norman Mailer use my bathroom, but The Executioner’s Song is an underrated master class in fluid POV-switching, and I didn’t feel it was an untrustworthy exercise. Capote was a tragic shape-shifter whose desire to be/be in a story of his own very likely compromised his telling of the Clutters’ story, but he was also valiantly curious, and self-satisfied, and at the mercy of vodka, all at once. Malcolm is snobbish nepotée whose writing is a diamond necklace, even when she’s full of shit. The good and the sketchy can co-exist, and I don’t need Malcolm, or the men I’ve mentioned, or Casey Cep, or Lacy Crawford, or even Colloff to come perfect every minute. But you have to come clean, because that’s the bargain, and Malcolm just really never does. If it’s a prose poem about a trial, say so. If it isn’t, report it out and show your work. Malcolm is best known for questioning the nature and fundamentals of the journalist-subject relationship, which is a job that wants doing…by someone who isn’t merely theorizing about those fundamentals, and isn’t carelessly dishonest about sourcing and intent.
I do think on some level Malcolm is trying in this Review Of Books piece to reckon with her role in how we understand true-crime reporting. If nothing else, it’s started a conversation about trust in justice journalism. But Malcolm earns credit for starting these conversations; she hasn’t earned that trust. — SDB
“Crackpot Rants, Dirt-Cheap.” That’s not our motto here at Best Evidence but it prolly would be if they’d let us change the launch URL. Just $5 a month gets you all the links, reviews, and premiere heads-ups of the free verzh, AND bonus content!
Or just keep it at the free version! We’re happy to have you, and to hear from you on content you’d like to see. Need a Manson-book ranking? Mash that button. — SDB
The Hyperallergic newsletter sent me a fascinating comic on Monday: “Fishkill Correctional Facility’s ‘Artists In Residence.’” It ends on a down note, but I hope the “until next time…” isn’t just a comics trope, and the story of Fishkill’s inmate-run illustrator group continues, because it’s witty and process-y (M&M coatings are used for paint). Well done, Adam Roberts and CM Campbell.
(Not sure how you’ve heard of Fishkill before? Probably not in a Law & Order chyron; it’s not that far outside the city, but it’s one of the less notorious institutions in the New York State system, although Harvey Weinstein was supposed to head there after sentencing because he needed its hospital (he’s currently incarcerated near Buffalo, I believe). Fishkill is one of the prisons that’s home to the Puppies Behind Bars program — as seen on Oprah — that helps raise guide dogs and explosive-detection dogs.) — SDB
Morgan Godvin opted for drug-court lockup to get clean, but the system didn’t cooperate. Writing for The Marshall Project, Godvin says she sincerely believed going to jail — with Suboxone scrip in hand, and motivated by a future career as an EMT, one she wouldn’t be able to pursue with a felony conviction — would stop her heroin slide.
I devised a plan: At my check-in with the drug court judge later that day I was going to ask the judge to send me to jail so that I could be re-stabilized there.
My doctor wrote an eloquent letter for the courts imploring them to provide lifesaving Suboxone to me. Getting stabilized on the medication was the only way I was going to stay clean and avoid a felony conviction.
Godvin got sent to jail for five days, but the medication was refused, because to provide it “was against jail policy, which flies in the face of more than a decade’s worth of data proving Suboxone saves lives and reduces recidivism.” I…really don’t understand any part of this, I really don’t, especially if Godvin was sentenced based in part on the recommendation of a doctor who prescribed the damn Suboxone in the first place, and booked into the jail with it. Isn’t this, net, easier for literally everyone on both sides of the bars? Even if you don’t care whether an addict is suffering, doesn’t it save time and money? I remember feeling infuriated by the resistance to medication-assisted treatment that Beth Macy repeatedly recorded in Dopesick; it’s one thing for judgy civilians to be like, “Get clean by yourself cold turkey or it ‘doesn’t count,’” because they’re not in a position to know better, but for people working in the carceral system to think that’s still a viable plan when they’re surrounded every day by proof that it isn’t? This country sometimes, I swear to God. — SDB
48 Hours is airing a special report on Tiger King tonight. No real need to watch it, as CBS News just kind of tells you what it’s going to reveal, right under the video preview. More info below:
Now, for the first time on TV, the ex-wife of a former employee of Baskin and Lewis has come forward with a sensational allegation to "48 Hours" correspondent Richard Schlesinger. Schlesinger's report, "The Tiger King Mystery," will air on a special "48 Hours" series: "Suspicion," on Wednesday, September 9, at 10/9c on CBS.
Trish Farr-Payne tells "48 Hours Suspicion" her ex-husband Kenny Farr may be connected to Don Lewis' disappearance.
Kenny Farr was a handyman who worked for many years for both Lewis and Baskin. He helped take care of their big cats and worked on their many properties. His ex-wife Trish Farr-Payne claims he was often violent with her, and that the couple had a tumultuous relationship. Trish Farr-Payne tells "48 Hours Suspicion" that around the time Lewis vanished, Kenny Farr arrived home in the middle of the night with Lewis' van. Inside that van, she says, was a collection of guns that Kenny Farr allegedly told her belonged to Don.
Farr went on to say that “Don’s gone. And — I don’t want you talkin’ about him.” Farr-Payne didn’t question any of that because Farr “would blow up real easy at” her.
More info, including on the provenance of a padlocked freezer, at the link above, but if you’re still holding out for evidence that Baskin fed her huz to a big cat, I think you’re out of luck. — SDB
Showtime dropped a trailer for Alex Gibney’s Kingdom Of Silence last week. The film premieres on Showtime Friday October 2, and it might be stretching the definition of “true crime” to include it, but 1) Gibney’s got a c.v. in this space, and 2) Kingdom Of Silence examines “the complex relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and how the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi amplified entanglements between the two countries.” Check out the preview below. — SDB
Thursday on Best Evidence: How to prove “corona-cide,” and other items from Eve’s desk.