Writers’ Responsibilities to Subjects

In “The Journalist and the Murderer,” Janet Malcolm focuses on a libel suit between Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, and the celebrity biographer he hired to write his story, as a way of examining the relationship between writer and subject. While writing this book, Malcolm was sued by one of her own subjects, Sanskrit scholar and erstwhile Freudian archivist Jeffrey Masson, who contended that Malcolm misquoted him in order to slander him. Perhaps Malcolm’s experience with Masson infused her writing with an extra dose of bitterness. In any event, in “The Journalist and the Murderer,” she sharply delineates the stakes for writer and subject:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

But Malcolm also notes that, in general, subjects have just as many selfish motives and biases as writers: “Of course, at the bottom, no subject is naive. …[E]very subject of writing knows on some level what is in store for him and remains in the relationship anyway, impelled by something stronger than his reason.”

Journalists, Malcolm reminds us, never have any intention of writing their subjects’ autobiographies for them. The subjects, however, frequently do not know this until their stories appear in print, at which point they are often disappointed or resentful:

The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or misrepresentation of his view; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him.

Lauren Slater encountered similar trouble when writing about Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan in her recent book, “Opening Skinner’s Box,” about the controversial work of the late Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner. (Skinner was a champion of behaviorism, a school of psychology that attributes behavior to positive reinforcement —think Pavlov’s dog—and denies the existence of free will.) Kagan, a contemporary and colleague of Skinner’s and renowned in his own right as an expert on early childhood development, knew the behaviorist for years, so he was a natural choice for Slater to interview. When she asked Kagan if he believed that free will did, in fact, exist, he ducked under his desk. “I’m under my desk,” he shouted up to her. “I’ve never gotten under my desk before. Is this not an act of free will?”

When the book was published, Kagan, along with other subjects Slater had interviewed (including Skinner’s daughter Deborah), claimed that she had misrepresented him. Specifically, he denied that he had ever gotten under his desk. (When The New York Times subsequently questioned Slater about his allegations, she was able to produce an email in which Kagan seemed to acknowledge his unusual behavior.)

Who is in the wrong here? That question is not easily answered. Ultimately, Kagan was as motivated to defend his professional views on psychology—not to mention the dignity of his public persona—as Slater was to get her story. Ultimately, the communication between subject and writer is always a double-edged sword. While writers have considerable editorial power, their subjects invariably have impressive agendas of their own and the ability to derail communication or refuse to share information. The final responsibility, however, is the writer’s: He or she is the one to reproduce the information provided by the subject for an audience. We can’t know for certain what occurred or what was said in Slater’s interview with Kagan; instead we are reliant on Slater’s account of the events.

The question then is what impels the writer. Malcolm maintains that journalists justify their dominance by invoking the phrases “freedom of speech” and “the public’s right to know,” their commitment to journalism as an art form, and—more simply—their own need to survive professionally. Another common, morally defensible answer is that one person’s truth is better than no truth at all. Nonetheless, writers have an ethical responsibility to consider the ways in which their stories may continue to affect their subjects’ lives, even long after publication.