Review: The Crime of Sheila McGough, Janet Malcolm

Have you heard anything bad about Janet Malcolm yet? If so, now would be a good time to tell me! The first flush of love from The Silent Woman has worn a little bit off, The Crime of Sheila McGough was not that good, and I haven’t had a chance to get another Janet Malcolm book out of the library.

The Crime of Sheila McGough is about a lawyer who was indicted for, I don’t know, some sort of dishonest practices. She was lawyering for a small-time con man, the con man stole from the wrong guy, the guy got pissed and prosecuted the hell out of him, and Sheila McGough got caught up in it and sent to jail. Janet Malcolm doesn’t think she did it.

Oh my God so boring. Janet Malcolm’s writing is good, but this is the story of a petty possible crime possibly conducted by the lawyer of a petty criminal, and it’s all a bunch of petty boring stuff about, like, putting money in this account and that account and was there a phone call and were there papers–

Tell you what. There may have been a phone call and there may have been papers but you know what there were not? Stakes is what. Jesus. I kept thinking Janet Malcolm was fixing to get to the juicy stuff but she never ever did and the reason she never ever did is that there is no m.f. juicy stuff. I do not care if Sheila McGough did it or not. I don’t care! I don’t care! I don’t care!

(See, I wasn’t lying. If you know about Janet Malcolm, now is probably the very best time to tell me.)

No other reviews. Not surprised.

  • Oh, this sounds like such a boring book and I probably would have such a hard time with it. I can understand why you felt so out of sorts about this one!

    • Yes, skip it! Malcolm’s done better things.

  • This does sound incredibly tedious : It’s too bad not even the writing could save it! But I definitely need to read The Silent Woman.

    • Oh Ana, you have to. I think that you would love it, seriously, and then all the rest of the blogosphere would read it too because you would be so persuasive about it.

  • I thought I knew everything that Janet Malcolm had published, but I’ve never heard of this one. Read The Journalist and the Murderer, or Two Lives, or In The Freud Archives (not absolutely sure of the title of that last one – it’s something approaching that). I think you must have come across one of her early books that is probably out of print elsewhere – and clearly for good reason.

    • Yeah, well, I didn’t expect this to be awesome, and indeed I selected it to read on the assumption that I wouldn’t care for it. I’m sure whatever one I read next will be excellent once more. I’m not passing any judgment on Janet Malcolm. Everyone’s got to have a dud, right?

  • When I come across a book full of mundane procedural stuff without stakes (what a good way to say it!), I find myself wondering who reads these books, and *what* they get out of them. Sometimes a boring story about boring people is a kind of credibility glue to stick together some sex fantasies, in which case I suppose it is obvious why people read them, but sometimes not even that is going on. Was it a sexy book?

    • It was not a sexy book at all. Also, hi! I am delighted to see you here, as ever, because you are lovely! Also No. 2, read a different Janet Malcolm book than this one, for I believe her other books are frequently very wonderful.

  • Peter

    My daughter, who follows this blog, called me to alert me to this. “The Crime of Sheila McGough” was written after Janet Malcolm had had a difficult encounter with the legal system, thanks to her book, “In the Freud Archives,” which led to a lawsuit, which ultimately reached the Supreme Court, over the question of whether she had fabricated quotations from Jeffrey Masson, who sued her. It is not unreasonable to suppose that her painful experience led her to identify herself with Sheila McGough, who was sentenced to prison for fraud, in a situation where Janet Malcolm thinks she was innocent. The eminent federal appeals court judge Richard Posner, in a review (New Republic, April 19, 1999) wittily titled “In the Fraud Archive,” took apart Janet Malcolm’s book, based on his review of the documents in the records of the case that led to McGough’s conviction.

    As it happens, I knew Sheila McGough very well, long ago, having worked for her for six months in 1970, when she was editor of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. (She and her two assistant editors occupied one large room.) The book refers to her having gone to law school, after having tired of seeing her subordinates leave to go to law school. I was one of them.

    I felt and still feel very sorry for Sheila, although she and I did not get along personally. I thought that her sentence — four and a half years, if I remember rightly, was disproportionately long, given that it was a first offense, and a white-collar crime. The only explanation I could come up with was that the judge was enraged at her complete and total denial of any responsibility for anything. I thought that she had fallen into the clutches of a con man. I thought that if she had thrown herself on the mercy of the court, saying that she had fallen in love with a rascal and had been led to engage in practices that she would never otherwise have considered, and that had cost her her career and her reputation, she might have been spared prison. My guess is that her pride prevented that.

    The story is sad, maybe even tragic, but in my opinion, not for the reasons Malcolm gives — that is, an innocent person railroaded to prison for a crime she did not commit — but for a much older story, a person beguiled into wrongdoing out of love.

    • How kind of you to stop by! Thanks for your interesting comments — I knew about Janet Malcolm’s legal troubles after The Freud Archives, but somehow didn’t connect them to this book. Of course I can imagine that would be a reason for her to connect with Sheila’s story.

      I thought one of the things that this book did exceptionally well was to convey how irritating Sheila was, and how the people connected with her case might have been hard on her because she was frustrating to spend time around. It sounds like that was your experience too!

  • John McKlveen

    Peter, were you the gentleman with the military background who Sheila hired? Did you notice any behavior in Sheila at Carnegie that leads you to believe romance was a factor in her defense of Bailes?