Reviewed: Still Pictures, Janet Malcolm, Text Publishing
From the years 2010 to about 2016 I believed, and was proven right, in one way or another, that I could wield dominion over the petty narrative structure of my life by taking to it with a camera. Born into a generation that didn’t yet take the existence of the internet as the status quo, watching it develop in much the same way we were developing. Images created almost solely to publish online were perfectly set to become representations of our lives—frames from what simultaneously could have been a life, but maybe wasn’t; a sensorial view into a hollowed-out inner space. An imagined visual representation of the world, one which did not always require compatibility with the so-called ‘real’ world.
If life in the meantime was unremarkable, the biased view of a camera, smartphone or polaroid could become the means to understand extrinsic forms of information, and to translate something. You could omit unnecessary details in order for things to look more remarkable—even become that, by proxy. The viewfinder became a means to orient images in a highly selective way, and to transpose them into a garish, but not unbeautiful, sequence, lo-fi and desperately constrained. By being taxonomical about memory, you could be relieved of the expectation to know or say who you truly were. It involved a certain level of self-mythology, a little bit of delusion. The mission was to get one’s preferred story back.
Like many people of my cohort, I’ve known the power and pitfalls of being devotionally, and sometimes casually, delusional. One fine evening I lay on my bed as I watched a video of Lil Nas X accepting a trophy at the iheartmusicawards, the rapper admitting that he had seen a TikTok professing the strengths of such a view: if he wasn’t delusional about his prospects, he would never have made it to that stage. This Didionesque view on ‘telling ourselves stories in order to live’ is a sensibility that is, of course, not just a Gen Z principle, but an organising system of an unsatisfied life.
We live in a time when it’s become increasingly clear that our economic systems are delusional and so are our leaders, as are their republic of followers. Delusional. There has never been a word so apt in describing postmodern neurosis, a necessary and often involuntary response to a future that won’t arrive in the expected form. It’s bathetic because most people know the feeling. Delusions have kept me occupied when the automation of the affective inner world grinds to a halt, leaving me with nothing to do but confect something in response—as if, to quote Adrienne Rich, the spectacles produced by capitalism ‘carry the messages of those social relations and power mechanisms: our conditions are inevitable, that randomness prevails, that the only possible response is passive absorption and identification’. Yet if we were to believe that our values are worth upholding, we may have to delude ourselves into thinking otherwise—like microdosing insanity, if you will. Some, like Lil Nas X, are insistent on this as a methodology; others, such as Janet Malcolm, see it as a release, or something inevitable. ‘The mystery of madness hangs over the world like a cry at night,’ writes the collagist and journalist. ‘The children of psychiatrists are no less crassly derisive about crazy people than the rest of the world.’
If there’s someone who can be considered an expert on self-delusion, much less the delusions we tell of ourselves and others, that person would almost certainly be Janet Malcolm. In her long career she was critical of psychoanalysts, and critical enough of journalists to psychoanalyse them. The psychology that undergirds the best photographers received no quarter. Her being a photographer herself, and married to a psychoanalyst, is only tangential. No-one else could get away with the level of cheek she does, her navigational expertise and sometimes charmed distance. That remoteness troubled her.
She indicated as much in a 2010 essay for the New York Review of Books:1 all her life she had tried writing some kind of autobiography, recoiling at her attempts more than once, binning what she had written and returning to the comfort zone of reportage where her involvement could be more concise, elegant, not too revealing. Like seeing yourself in the mirror of a fancy building where the light reveals just enough to appear flattering. Not too close. Not like passing a bathroom mirror and seeing all the undereye purple from having aged ten years in three. ‘My efforts to make what I write interesting seem pitiful,’ wrote Malcolm in that essay:
My hands are tied, I feel. I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist. To these people I have been a kind of amanuensis: they have dictated their stories to me and I have retold them.
She attempts to rehabilitate these feelings and their representations in Still Pictures, a collection of essays published posthumously about two years after her death in 2021. She makes this clear near the beginning of the book: ‘Autobiography is a misnamed genre; memory speaks only some of its lines.’ To bookend her life, she ventured to justify this claim by doing what she had once tried and failed to do, to finally write a memoirist’s memoir. Instead she did what she had always done best.
The daughter of a psychiatrist who doted on her, she returned the favour (detailed in a chapter called—funnily enough—‘Daddy’) by enhancing, in herself, the features she loved in others. You get the feeling she would be telling on herself by admitting any disappointment in this larger-than-life figure; her mother, while present, lingers in Malcolm’s life like a footnote. We find out why later, when she reveals that she is not yet ready to write about her mother. When she eventually does, the mention is fleeting, changing subject to focus on her grandmother. If her mother is present, and technically she is, her presence is not always strongly felt. Was this an influence? This is not the question she can decisively answer. As Malcolm says, ‘parents have their own mythologies’. A writer smart enough to know that boundless freedom is not true freedom but a prison of infinite, potentially overwhelming options, Malcolm handles the oceanic possibilities of memory by using a time-honoured tool of discriminatory thinking: constraint.
Her miniatures, not quite essays in the traditional sense, more like an elongated caption or a ‘snapshot’, are juxtaposed only to select photographs. A Czech term Malcolm uses—Skromnost, the title of a chapter about a girl she loved in her adolescence—could substitute for such an ethos. A fulgid term, a little geological, sounding like the word for a crest of a mountain, it translates more literally into ‘modesty’ but acts as a synonym for resourcefulness. As a descriptor, it manages expectations of her form, which she identifies as ‘a culture of conservation … one of being satisfied with what comes our way’. Malcolm thereby follows the tools of the erotic toolkit without being necessarily sexual or sensual. After all, the erotic is as much about what’s withheld as what’s teased or revealed. Not quite scarcity or overabundance, but a balance between the two is what any good artist should be inclined to pursue. Using what’s close at hand, admitting limits, not overcompensating. Or, in her words: ‘Campbell’s soup was not associated with Andy Warhol. We ate it.’
Although other critics have described her as almost frozen in time—impossible to imagine as young, yet not beholden to age—it’s precisely that cheekiness that comes through in the vision of her younger self, making her countenance as an adult whole. In one essay, ‘Slečna’, about a teacher at a Czech school Malcolm attended as a child, she looks upon this younger self with a perennial view, of being ‘part of the background of ordinary girls, who secretly loved and, unbeknownst to ourselves, were grateful for the safety of not being loved in return’. She shows affection for her inner child and those often ill-made early assumptions and their associated precocity and unknowingness, qualities some would hesitate to evoke even after years of practised self-compassion.
I note this if only to reiterate how useful such a stratagem may be when asking, what is the point of this? becomes too overbearing a task, obscuring the real point, about being the main character in your own life. When you’re young, appearing often posed in photographs convinces you of your belonging there—if only because another’s cruelty has yet to suggest otherwise. Delusion’s foundations are maintained by parents and society; it’s taken as fact that children would be unable to operate without any of those foundations, as if adults can readily do so. As Malcolm suggests, children are ‘mythological minded creatures’ who ‘sense the strangeness of it all’, and ‘as we settle into earthly life, this sense fades’. The triumph of grand storytelling must eventually take its notice.
In Still Pictures, each segment of Malcolm’s life is measured not by the obvious milestones, but through what seem like mini-reviews of an image, and then of the conditions that made up the respective photographs. A little funny to think about Malcolm looking at these deeply personal images and bitchily evaluating them as if they were professional photos taken by someone trained in portraiture rather than say, a family friend. But they are not just family photos; they do not even feel like vignettes. In a section called ‘Camp Happyacres’, about a childhood photo she barely remembers, she remarks that some hold ‘no artistic merit and summons no memories’. Perhaps aware that picking and choosing the most interesting lines from one’s autobiography is, in some way, ‘dishonest’, she is careful to include the uninteresting and the terrible. At no point, however, does the word ‘trauma’ appear.
Allegedly, the body keeps the score. This is to say nothing of the mind that lies within it. A process called Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing requires one to enter a pseudo-hypnotic state to let the brain play catch up. Though it’s not ‘me’ doing that work, in a sense, I feel the same exhaustion afterwards. I learn to do the rearranging, to follow self-reportage like a script, eschewing a diagnosis or even prescription. I don’t leave feeling ‘better’ per se, but I do feel more clear-headed, like after I’ve cleaned my room—able to understand a version of the truth that isn’t so loaded with emotion, hurt, disappointment, even shock, surprise, joy, belonging. Malcolm’s writing, which is always at odds with the distance between the more apolitical nature of everyday phenomena and the charged bias of memory, is not dissimilar.
In ‘Fred and Ella Traub’, Malcolm is looking at an image of two family friends, in an effort to understand how even somewhat peripheral characters shape her. She has somewhat of a breakthrough; somewhere along the way her direction shifts. The chapter is no longer about a marriage of sentimental and material feeling. A line becomes the working ethos for the ‘failed autobiography’: ‘I am struck by the character disparity between the dramatic character of the stories we hear and tell about people we know and the prosaic character of the people themselves.’
As I read, each time I suspect I’m getting closer to ‘the real Janet’, she turns on her heel and devotes a number of pages to what’s seemingly unrelated. In one essay on Hugo Haas, whom she describes as ‘the most minor of celebrities … a Czech-Jewish actor who fled Prague in 1939’, it appears to exist only to give an insight into her diaromic thinking, painting a ‘fuller’ picture of the personal, historical, cultural ephemera that surrounded her in some developmental stage yet complicates things further, leaving me to think: perfect! Trust the journalist who had spent her whole life thinking of conceit to reflect it at us. That very same ‘us’ is suspect, as we should be, imagined as the most unabashed of possible audiences, the most carnivorous of readers, a sensible interpretation likely influenced by her 1990 investigative book The Journalist and the Murderer. She thinks she might know better. This is why only the daughter of Czechoslovakian refugees could survive in the highly literal, arid world view of US journalism, being so good at it, so effectively un-American, that she would set the standards of US journalism for years to come. Even her parents could not exist in that all-encompassing supernatural landscape without losing some of themselves to its logic—her father, she writes, had ‘scarcely stepped off the boat before becoming a Dodgers fan’.
Janet Malcolm lived in an era when writers were seen to have the ability to function as journalists, rather than the other way round, as happens often in Australia; it is impossible to imagine her having written a book on ‘vulnerability’. She had no wish to literalise her memories or formative experiences. Janet Malcolm would not do as Leigh Sales did, for example, writing a book about her elderly parent dying and selling it as some kind of trauma memoir. What I now think of as impossible to perform under the rigid, News Corp–style apologia that almost entirely constitutes ‘Australian journalism’ (right-wing or otherwise), the kind that has basically garnered no respect by any free-thinking person outside the continent, I can conceive of as understandable by (some) American standards. Instead, Malcolm found the middle. I have read many of her books, but it isn’t until now, with evidence of her past suddenly clear, that I put two and two together. I guess it was my fault for not reading between the lines.
Jonno Revanche is a writer and critic originally from Adelaide, currently living in Sydney.
1 Janet Malcolm, ‘Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography’, New York Review of Books, <https://www.nybooks.com/online/2010/03/25/thoughts-onautobiography-froman-abandoned>.