Janet Malcolm writes:
Ten years earlier I had published a two-part article in The New Yorker about a disturbance in an obscure corner of the psychoanalytic world whose chief subject, a man named Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, hadn’t liked his portrayal and claimed that I had libeled him by inventing the quotations on which it was largely based. So he sued me and the magazine and the Knopf publishing company, which had brought out the article as a book called In the Freud Archives.
In an afterword to a subsequent book, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), I wrote about the lawsuit, taking a very high tone. I put myself above the fray; I looked at things from a glacial distance. My aim wasn’t to persuade anyone of my innocence. It was to show off what a good writer I was. Reading the piece now, I am full of admiration for its irony and detachment—and appalled by the stupidity of the approach. Of course I should have tried to prove my innocence. But I was part of the culture of The New Yorker of the old days—the days of William Shawn’s editorship—when the world outside the wonderful academy we happy few inhabited existed only for us to delight and instruct, never to stoop to persuade or influence in our favor. As the Masson case wound its way through the courts—dismissed at first, then reinstated, and eventually brought to trial—the press-watching public became increasingly pleased by the spectacle of the arrogant magazine brought low by the behavior of one of its staff writers. While Masson gave over two hundred accusatory interviews, I—in dogged accord with the magazine’s stance of unrelenting hauteur—said nothing in my defense. Nothing at all. Nothing of course produces nothing, except further confirmation of guilt.
But it was at trial that the influence of The New Yorker proved to be most dire. There was a style of self-presentation cultivated at the magazine that most if not all staff writers had adopted and found congenial. The idea was to be reticent, self-deprecating, and, maybe, here and there, funny, but to always keep a low profile, in contrast to the rather high one of the persona in which we wrote. I remember my shock at meeting A.J. Liebling for the first time. I had been reading him for years and imagined him as the suave, handsome, brilliantly articulate man of the world that the “I” of the pieces portrayed. The short, fat, boorishly silent man I met was his opposite. I came to know Liebling and to love him. But it took a while to penetrate the disguise of innate and magazine-induced unpretentiousness in which he made his way through the world as he wrote his wonderful pieces narrated by an impossibly cool narrator.
When I took the stand at the trial in San Francisco in 1993 I could not have done worse than to present myself in the accustomed New Yorker manner. Reticence, self-deprecation, and wit are the last things a jury wants to see in a witness. Charles Morgan, Masson’s clever and experienced lawyer, could hardly believe his good fortune. He made mincemeat of me. I fell into every one of his traps. I came across as arrogant, truculent, and incompetent. I was at once above it all and utterly crushed by it. My lawyer, Gary Bostwick, succeeded in inflicting some damage on Masson—he portrayed him as boastful and sex-crazed—but it was not enough to offset the damage I had helped Morgan inflict on me. The jury agreed with the plaintiff’s accusation that five quotations in my article were false and libelous…
My visits to Sam Chwat were part of the half-year of preparation for the second trial, almost like a military campaign, to which Bostwick and I devoted ourselves. Sam was the Professor Higgins who would transform me from the defensive loser I had been in the first trial to the serene winner I would be (and was!) in the second one.
The transformation had two parts. The first was the erasure of the New Yorker image of the writer as a person who does not go around showing off how great and special he or she is. No! A trial jury is like an audience at a play that wants to be entertained. Witnesses, like stage actors, have to play to that audience if their performances are to be convincing. At the first trial I had been scarcely aware of the jury. When Morgan questioned me, I responded to him alone. Sam Chwat immediately corrected my misconception of whom to address: the jury, only the jury. As Morgan had been using me to communicate to the jury, I would need to learn how to use him to do the same.
There were some minor but not unimportant particulars Sam inserted into this new concept of myself as a guileful performer. I would need to dress differently. At the first trial I wore what I normally did when out of my work uniform of blue jeans, namely skirts or trousers and jackets in black or subdued colors, clothes that looked nice but didn’t draw attention to themselves. The idea was to be tasteful. Another No! The idea was to give the jurors the feeling that I wanted to please them, the way you want to please your hosts at a dinner party by dressing up. This would be achieved by a “menu,” as Sam called it, of pastel-colored dresses and suits, silk stockings and high heels, and an array of pretty scarves. The jurors would feel respected as well as aesthetically refreshed, the way they do by women commentators on TV who wear colorful clothes of endless variety. I did as Sam advised, and after the announcement of the verdict, when Bostwick and I went to speak with the jurors, they made a point of commenting on my clothes. They said that each day they looked forward to seeing what I would wear next, especially which scarf I would wear.
There was a seemingly small but all-important technical problem that, for a while, neither Sam nor I could solve. The witness stand was located midway between the interrogating attorney’s lectern on my right and the jury stand on my left. How was I supposed to perform for the jurors when I had to turn my back on them while being questioned? The answer came to me one day in a flash. I would position my chair so that it partially faced the jury. Thus, when Morgan questioned me I could reply over my shoulder, while remaining frontally connected to the jurors.
The second and most crucial part of the second-chance work was to make me faster on my feet under cross-examination, in fulfillment of the fantasy of saying what I should have said in the first trial instead of what I did say. Bostwick assumed that Morgan would repeat the questions that had served him so well, and he and I devised answers to them that brought l’esprit de l’escalier to a new level. At trial, Morgan did not disappoint us. He confidently asked the old questions and didn’t know what hit him when I produced my nimble new formulations. I remember one of the most satisfying moments. At the first trial Morgan had repeatedly tortured and humiliated me with the question: “He didn’t say that at Chez Panisse, did he?” I had wiggled and squirmed. Now I could answer him with crushing confidence.