Book Review

The Crime of Sheila McGough , by Janet Malcolm. Alfred A. Knopf, 164 pages, $22.

Does the law require you to be wary of a man who sends you flowers? Must you ask why when a convicted felon wants to use your bank account to receive a wire transfer? Is giving your fellow man the benefit of the doubt (also known as generosity of spirit) a crime?

Yes, according to the verdict in The Crime of Sheila McGough , Janet Malcolm’s seventh book, a beautifully written and tautly argued meditation-provocation on the law. The book is meant to reverse that court verdict, but it also subverts in a broader sense because it challenges our assumptions about what a story-a legal argument, a journalist’s account, party gossip-must be.

The events, as narrated by Ms. Malcolm: In 1990, Sheila McGough (pronounced Mc- Guff ), a Washington, D.C., lawyer, was convicted of 14 felony counts in a Federal court and sentenced to three years in prison. The main charge was that she failed to keep in her attorney trust account $75,000 sent to her by a business associate of one of her clients. Instead, she followed her client’s instructions and gave him the money, less $5,000 he owed her in legal fees. The business associate objected, sued and a settlement was reached. Three years later, the Government went after Ms. McGough. This is the surprising part: Even in an era when a President risks impeachment for lying in a civil suit, a case like this is unusual. There are so many exculpatory possibilities. Perhaps Ms. McGough made an innocent error. She was just out of law school. Perhaps her client tricked her. Send her to bar counseling or turn her over to Judge Judy. But disbarment and three years’ time?

This is the sort of story Ms. Malcolm is drawn to. She likes to report on normal-seeming professionals-psychoanalysts, journalists, biographers-who turn out to have a complicated relationship with the truth. She pulls back the white collar to reveal the ring. Our soothsayers are not frauds, but they turn out to be fabulators. For them there is no truth, only story. To be able to determine the narrative shape of people’s lives is intoxicating, and once they have tasted this power, they want more: new lives to reconfigure. Which involves them in something like seduction. The psychoanalyst buries himself in his “impossible profession.” The journalist becomes “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness.” The biographer is like “the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers.” In her new book, lawyers get their turn.

Here’s some information the prosecutors made much of at the trial. Ms. McGough’s client, Bob Bailes, had a history of fraud. She knew this. She also knew he often had no fixed business address and sometimes worked out of his car. Any fool could see that Bailes, who died in 1995, was a lifelong con man. Why couldn’t Ms. McGough see it? The prosecution had an explanation: Bailes sent Ms. McGough flowers. This detail clinched the case. Here was a story the whole jury knew: Ms. McGough was a lonely woman, on her way to spinsterhood, lured into participating in crime by a practiced con man.

Ms. Malcolm rejects that story. She goes through the evidence and re-interviews the participants and makes Ms. McGough’s case again. She finds evidence of false testimony and tampered-with documents. In large measure, she convinces you that the crime of Sheila McGough was no crime. The story the prosecution told was wrong.

For a writer of Ms. Malcolm’s searching intelligence, this isn’t enough of a challenge. For her, the real question isn’t why justice miscarried. Justice gets botched a hundred times a day. The question is: Why Ms. McGough? If an error in handling an escrow fund doesn’t usually land you in jail, why this time? If this book is to be believed, the strange and very Malcolm-ian answer is that Ms. McGough was guilty of non-narratability. She refused to turn her actions into a credible story. She was, Ms. Malcolm notes, both “almost preternatural[ly] honest” and “maddeningly tiresome and stubborn.” I am who I am, in all my contradictions, Ms. McGough offered, I am true to life. The jury voted to convict on a Wednesday in late November-with time left over to do their Thanksgiving shopping.

Ms. Malcolm wants us to know that The Crime of Sheila McGough is as much an artifact as the crime of Sheila McGough. She reminds the reader that she has the hammer and the nails. She tells when she catches a cab, grabs a train, grows irritated or bored or skeptical, or runs out of tape. It is a style that has become ubiquitous among smarter feature journalists, and I blame her for that. She is great at it, though, the best. That’s the construction job. Now for the seduction.

The journalist focuses on the subject; the subject experiences the exhilaration of being the center of the journalist’s intense, quasi-erotic attention. Since she spelled out the dynamic so superbly in the now famous opening to The Journalist and the Murderer , I’ll call it Malcolm’s Law. Here it is again: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too 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. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns-when the article or book appears- his hard lesson.” This appears to shed light. Janet Malcolm casts herself in the role of a Bob Bailes. She is a con artist writing about a con artist and his dupe.

Perhaps. But Ms. Malcolm is like one of those velociraptors in Jurassic Park . She is always learning, testing for weaknesses. Could there be an exception to Malcolm’s Law? She didn’t see one when she wrote The Journalist and the Murderer . The key word was “every”: every journalist, every subject. Joe McGinniss seduced and betrayed Jeffrey MacDonald. The critics, against her protests, added that in In the Freud Archives , Janet Malcom seduced and betrayed Jeffrey Masson (note all those J.M.’s). But what if the subject were so egoless, so innocent, that the seduction-betrayal dynamic short-circuited? What if a virgin were found who could resist the lure of narrative, who could hold at bay that “lumbering prehistoric beast that knocks over everything in its path as it makes its way through the ancient forest of basic plots”?

The description of the first meeting with Ms. McGough, at a downtown Manhattan coffeeshop, is a delight, Ms. Malcolm in full flower, full of surprising observations and quick slits with the analytic knife. Ms. McGough, she writes, “was small and blonde and pretty, and her voice was fresh and girlish, formed for phrases like ‘Gee whillikers!’ and inflected by habits of unremitting good sportsmanship. She looked younger than her 54 years. Prison had evidently not broken or marked her. With her pale, translucent skin and single-strand pearl necklace and decorous navy-blue suit, she might have been the director of a small foundation or a corporate wife from Scarsdale, in town for a matinee. She talked almost uninterruptedly for the two hours of our meeting.… [But she] was not interested in telling a plausible and persuasive and interesting story. She was out for the bigger game of imparting a great number of wholly accurate and numbingly boring facts.”

Ms. Malcolm pursues the romance, anyway, going down to Washington, visiting her home, maneuvering to open Ms. McGough up for study. But Ms. McGough doesn’t recognize what’s going on. She believes in truth, not narrative. “The journalistic subject is normally someone with a story to tell; you might even say to sell,” Ms. Malcolm writes. “With Sheila, the task, on the contrary, was to try to coax a story from the morass of her guileless and incontinent speech.” The verbal clutter drives Ms. Malcolm crazy. “With Sheila there has never been any question of enjoyment,” she writes, describing theirs as “the most abstinent of any journalistic relationship I have known.” Ms. McGough is committing a new crime: She is wasting the journalist’s time, just as she wasted the court’s. If she were the jury, Ms. Malcolm would convict. But by the end of the book, a different feeling emerges, one of admiration: Ms. McGough “has settled into my imagination as an exquisite heroine,” Ms. Malcolm writes, all the same happy to be rid of her. “When I think of [her], I am awed by her disdain for the disguises for self-interest that the world offers us so it can get its business done.”

It may seem that this is too neat, that the story of the story hides a different moral. Perhaps Ms. McGough outbluffed Ms. Malcolm, perhaps she was guilty after all. Or, alternatively, Ms. Malcolm’s lust cooled. Perhaps in the end a roué is relieved to find a girl who doesn’t know or care about sex-and the journalist a subject indifferent to narrative.