I recently finished another book by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Janet Malcolm; I’d already read The Silent Woman, about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Two Lives, about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and now I have finished In the Freud Archives, a book about psychoanalysis and Freud scholars. The Silent Woman is my favorite so far, and will probably stay my favorite, but In the Freud Archives is a close second, and possibly is second only because psychoanalysis isn’t all that interesting to me, whereas Plath and Hughes are. With Malcolm, though, it doesn’t matter much whether the topic at hand is inherently interesting or not, because she makes it interesting. All these books follow a similar format: Malcolm takes an academic, literary, or cultural controversy and digs deep into the story, interviewing the major players and charting out the various sides of the conflict. She herself is a part of the narrative; although she is good at keeping the focus on the story at hand, she does give her personal impressions of the major characters and offers her particular slant on the story.
In the Freud book, as in the others, Malcolm is writing on a number of different levels. In the Freud Archives (published in 1984) is a book about controversies among Freud scholars, specifically about who will control the archives with many letters that scholars have not had a chance to study. It’s a story about Dr. Eissler, a distinguished Freud scholar and analyst, and Jeffrey Masson, a younger man who started his career as a Sanskrit scholar and found his way into the world of psychoanalysis. Eissler becomes a mentor to Masson, grooming him to take control of the archives. But Masson is a controversial figure among analysts; he is too pushy and too overtly ambitious, he seemed to come out of nowhere and made his way to the top of the field all too easily, and his views on Freud are increasingly unorthodox. The “plot” of the book is about the relationship between Eissler and Masson and about Masson’s status in the psychoanalytic world.
But In the Freud Archives is about Freud, too; we learn about what kind of a thinker and analyst Freud really was and about the development of his thought in his early years, the focus of Masson’s research. We learn about the history of the discipline and of scholarship on Freud. The way Malcolm describes it, psychoanalysis and Freud studies seem to be at a crisis point in the 1980s — or at least at a vulnerable moment — with a comfortable scholarly establishment too willing to overlook flaws in their theories and in their founder, an environment ripe for someone like Masson to come in and shake things up.
The book is also about Malcolm as well; she describes the settings in which she conducted her interviews and her impressions of all the major players. It’s also about her in a sense she couldn’t have predicted when she first wrote the book. My edition, from NYRB, contains an afterward written by Malcolm that describes the book’s aftermath: Masson sued her for libel and she spent 10 years fighting him in the courts. She was ultimately successful, but the episode shows the dangers of writing this kind of nonfiction. It’s impossible to know how one’s subjects will react to having their lives and careers dissected in print.
I kept thinking as I read the book that it would be interesting to have some one pull a “Janet Malcolm” on Malcolm herself — to write about the making of this book, the book’s reception, and the ensuing lawsuit and to follow up on what has happened in psychoanalysis and Freud studies in the years between then and now. In the Freud Archives is an absorbing read and an intriguing look into one corner of the scholarly world, but I have the feeling that there’s more of this story to be told.