How Janet Malcolm Created Her Own Personal Archive
Eve Sneider on Malcolm’s Posthumous Still Pictures
Feature image, Malcolm with a camera, date unknown, courtesy of FSG.
Stepping into Janet Malcolm’s home overlooking Gramercy Park was like entering an alternate version of New York City, the kind one might have read about in a childhood chapter book. The ceilings were double height, the lighting was warm and soft. The art adorning the walls was attractive, but the pièce de rèsistance was Malcolm’s library.
Books covered the walls of her soaring living room, with a wooden ladder tucked in the corner to offer easy access. The collection was organized by genre: photography, biography, criticism. Books by friends got their own shelf by the door, perhaps to ensure that good company was never far beyond reach.
This was where Malcolm and I met for the first time when, in the waning days of the summer of 2019, she invited me over for tea. I had just completed my own research project on her life and work. Surrounded by Malcolm’s home library, we discussed my time in her papers.
At one point, Malcolm got up to grab a photograph of her elementary school class at the top of the Empire State Building. She had been telling me about a series of essays she was starting to tinker with, short reflections on old pictures. She was not sure what she wanted to do with them but her editor thought they would make a good collection. In this photograph, the children of P.S. 82 were smiley and windswept, no older than nine or ten. She asked me if I could pick her out of the lineup. Of course I could: small frame, unmistakable grin, third from the left in the front. This is the kind of intimacy built by time spent in an archive.
This photograph is one of a few dozen that provide the source material for Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, Malcolm’s final book-length work, which was published posthumously in January 2023. On the surface, these essays are a radical departure from everything else Malcolm wrote over the course of her career: they concern people, places, and items that populated her younger life, rather than subjects from which she could purport to maintain some degree of journalistic remove.
But the choice to root her recollections in printed images was a calculated one. By starting with her own archive, Malcolm created the opportunity to write from a vantage point more akin to that of her earlier work, to keep her readers ever at arm’s length.These essays are a radical departure from everything else Malcolm wrote over the course of her career: they concern people, places, and items that populated her younger life.
Prior to her death at 86 in 2021, Malcolm had long been a towering figure in American journalism. She had earned a reputation for penning biting criticism and novelistic reporting. Whole issues of the New Yorker were devoted to her deep dives. But despite her robust literary credentials, she was wary of becoming a celebrity in her own right. For much of her storied career, Malcolm seemed to shun any work that might resemble autobiography, or really expose her true self to her audience at all.
After Jeffrey Masson, Sanskrit scholar, psychoanalyst, and the subject of In the Freud Archives, sued Malcolm for libel in 1984, tarnishing her image even though she won the suit, she retreated almost entirely from the public eye. She did not pose for photos. She hardly ever made appearances: for a rare public event in the spring of 2012, she insisted on reading aloud from a pre-written and edited script rather than speak off-the-cuff. She postured in her writing as someone terrifyingly and unapproachably sharp, never missing an opportunity to remind her readers of “the fiction—on which all autobiographical writing is poised—that the person writing and the person being written about are a single seamless entity.”
Her work over the final decade of her life, though, tells a different story. In 2010, she published her first piece hinting at a change of heart, a short essay for the New York Review of Books titled “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography.” At the time, any intimation of a memoir in the works would have taken devoted readers by surprise. There, she’d remarked, “I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist. [These people] have posed for me and I have drawn their portraits. No one is dictating to me or posing for me now.” But in the years following the publication of this essay she did find a way to write about herself more directly. The people smiling at the camera in her personal photographs became the ones sitting for her last set of portraits.
It’s hardly coincidental that Malcolm was organizing her own archive around the same time that she began to explore writing about her life. In 2013, she sent her first shipment—59 boxes of assorted detritus—up to New Haven, where they would live at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. To say that Malcolm organized her papers would be a stretch. In some cases, she simply emptied the contents of her filing cabinets into cardboard boxes. But elsewhere, she annotated letters and folders, leaving easter eggs and reminders for any future researcher that she was thinking carefully about what to include in her archive and, more importantly, what to leave out.
In 2020, she sent a second installment of materials, bringing the total number of boxes in her archive to around a hundred. This project punctuated the final decade of her career. As she built this collection during these years, her aversion to writing about herself, or engaging with her own legacy at all, slowly gave way to something closer to ambivalence.It’s hardly coincidental that Malcolm was organizing her own archive around the same time that she began to explore writing about her life.
Malcolm published the first of what would become the Still Pictures essays, “Six Glimpses of the Past,” in the New Yorker in the fall of 2018. A sequence of short reflections on family photos, the piece began with a snapshot of the writer as a little girl wearing t-strap sandals and a polka-dotted bucket hat and beaming at someone beyond the frame. But Malcolm was careful to remind her readers that just because she was sharing this photograph didn’t mean she was getting personal.
Regarding the picture, Malcolm wrote, “I say ‘my’ age, but I don’t think of the child as me. No feeling of identification stirs as I look at her round face and thin arms and her incongruously assertive pose.” The little girl posing in the picture and the woman writing about her were hardly the same person at all. This was the same perspective she employed to write about a family therapy session from the other side of a one-way mirror, or Sylvia Plath through five other biographies of her, only this time there was no denying that she was much closer to the content. The material was brand new, and the perspective was quintessentially Malcolm.
Still, Malcolm had long been aware of the limitations of her approach. As she once jotted down in a set of notes, “We are all in our work… What I write here will probably have a lot more to do with me than it does with [other] people.” Malcolm’s device of using her own archive to access her memories was a brilliant act of self-deception. She had always made clear to her readers that she was showing them events, or books, or people as she perceived them, and not in any absolute or purportedly objective terms. The Still Pictures essays are autobiographical less because she was showing readers her family photographs, and more because she was letting us in on how she looked at them.
Prior to attempting an autobiography in 2010 or penning the Still Pictures essays later that decade, there was one other occasion when Malcolm chose to write explicitly about her youth and her homeland. In 1990, she traveled back to Prague on assignment on the eve of Václav Havel’s inauguration. But, she wrote in that piece, “another agenda also claimed my attention, and sometimes threatened to subvert the journalistic one. This was my quest for the Proustian sensations that would reconnect me to my early childhood in Prague, and illuminate—and possibly settle—the question of what coming to this place meant to me.”
Though Malcolm resisted writing about herself, essays like this one are an unmistakable illustration of how she used her journalistic work to explore her own mind, especially some of its more submerged corners. She was open about her fraught relationship with many of the fixtures of her youth: Judaism, Prague. After this story came out, she received a torrent of notes from readers, many of whom had similar ties to Eastern Europe or similarly complicated feelings about the places they were from. She was good about responding to them. In one reply, to a Mr. White, she wrote, “The thoughts stimulated by your letter make me want to return to Prague and learn more about the feelings of unease and alienation my ‘homeland’ evokes.”
Decades later, as she wrote Still Pictures, Malcolm’s relationship with her memories remained fraught. Shame and ruefulness crackle beneath many of her recollections. The years she spent facing unrelenting criticism are no doubt partly to blame. She saved every profile of her or review of her work, many of them unflattering, with headlines like “Oedipussy-whipped” and “The back-stabber’s art.” This kind of coverage—often sexist and snide—compounded her anxieties about the divide between the written account and real life, or the lack thereof. Her writing in the final phase of her career is consistent with so many of her earlier anxieties, about how writers posture within their work, and what the implications of that work are for people alive in the world.
When Malcolm decided to write these essays for publication, she was still in relatively good health, though illness kept her from finishing what was meant to be the final piece in the collection. While writing about herself through her personal archive seems like an attempt to maintain a safe distance from her readers, she knew the photographs could only provide a protective barrier for so long. Why did she want to bare herself? Perhaps she was aware, having recently sent a batch of papers to Yale, that she would likely become someone else’s subject sooner rather than later. She knew better than most that the only thing scarier than writing about oneself is letting someone else wrest control of the narrative.She knew better than most that the only thing scarier than writing about oneself is letting someone else wrest control of the narrative.
This may well be what motivated her to write, and publish, some of the most exposed writing of her career. Revealing herself did not come naturally. Her mother Hanna was a particular hair trigger for this aversion. In one of the collection’s opening essays, Malcolm remarked, “I’m not sure that I’m ready to write about my mother yet.” But eventually she did, repeatedly, and the result is arresting. Her recollections are alternately sweet and caustic. Hanna doted on her daughters, even making them profiteroles when they were sick. But, Malcolm added, she could also be volatile. Their relationship was loving, but complicated.
Ultimately, once Malcolm was able to overcome her ambivalence, her writing about Hanna became some of her most open writing about herself. “Did I become a journalist because of knowing how to imitate my mother?” she mused at one point. “When I ask someone a question—either in life or in work—I often don’t listen to the answer. I am not really interested. I don’t think my mother was interested in what people told her, either. She asked her questions. But her mind was elsewhere. This is what I can’t get hold of. What was she interested in?”
What was Malcolm interested in here, when she wrote this line and these essays, appraising her personal papers and family photographs? She was hardly naive about the effect that a piece of nonfiction writing can have once it takes on a life of its own. She knew that publishing a memoir would change how her readers—past, present, and future—related to her. And she was well aware that when you send your papers off to live in a university library you lose control of who uses them, and how.
Case in point: in the spring of 2019, I curated an exhibit of selected materials from Malcolm’s archive, which was displayed in glass cases front and center in Yale’s main library. Malcolm had declined to speak with me for the project early on, and I chose not to think too much about the prospect of her coming to see this display. After all, the show was an unmistakable manifestation of her idea that the biographer is really a burglar. Her personal notes and letters, teenage photographs and newspaper clippings, spend six months prominently displayed before students, researchers, and ambling passers-by.
But she knew better than anyone that the voyeurism was part of the appeal. New Haven is less than three hours by train from Gramercy Park, an easy day trip. Unbeknownst to me, in early summer she paid the display a visit. We hadn’t spoken yet. She didn’t want to be the subject of someone else’s show. Or did she? Shortly after going to see it Malcolm wrote two emails. One to the Beinecke, to let them know that she was preparing more papers for her archive. The other to me, asking if I would like to come over for tea.