“Hell is other people,” wrote Jean Paul Sartre in 1944.
Sometimes invoked by introverts and misanthropes as a sort of literary permission to avoid friends, binge-watch Netflix and drink wine, Sartre’s line (from his play No Exit) is actually a more subtle and complex observation about the ways we—some of us, at least—allow others to define us. “There are a vast number of people in the world who are in hell because they are too dependent on the judgment of other people,” the French existentialist clarified in 1976.
Hell is other people when we surrender ourselves to others’ judgements and perceptions, allowing them to fix our identities, rather than taking responsibility for our own self-determination and experiencing the freedom—even salvation—that accompanies it. Sartre’s observation is particularly relevant, I think, to journalists, especially those who try to write about other people—which can be hell for both parties.
In attempting to capture and convey the motivations, formative experiences, weaknesses, virtues and cruelties of our subjects, writers appoint themselves the “other people” Sartre warns about. Often this happens with our subjects’ willing participation. But even then—perhaps especially then—journalists win their subjects’ confidence by allowing them to proceed with a false assumption: that the story we write about them will somehow be theirs, when in fact it is always our own.
If this sounds unoriginal that’s because it is. Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, published four decades after No Exit, may be the best known admonition of the troubled relationship between a journalist and her subject. But instead of blaming the subjects for consigning themselves to hellish judgment, Malcolm holds a mirror up to nonfiction writers who make it their business to write about other people.
“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,” reads Malcolm’s gauntlet-flinging first line. Published in 1989, Malcolm’s New Yorker essay-turned-book forced an essential reckoning with the paradox at the center of writing about someone else’s life. That is, that the project of writing “truthfully” about another person is a project built on layers of deception.
Malcolm constructs her argument around a literal case study: the 1984 lawsuit filed by convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against the writer Joe McGinniss, whom MacDonald accused of lying in order to win his confidence and write his book. The power of Malcolm’s analysis, however, is in its universality—the degree to which anyone in the business of claiming authority over the facts and significance of other people’s lives must grapple with degrees of the same incrimination.
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself, that is.
In Malcolm’s telling, McGinniss’ successful efforts to enamor himself to MacDonald look like blatant bias at the outset of their relationship—“Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial,” McGinniss writes to MacDonald in one of their many confiding correspondences. Yet their relationship sours into manipulation when it turns out McGinniss was merely ingratiating himself to a man he was, from the beginning, pretty well convinced had murdered his entire family.
That’s how things looked to a jury of his peers. McGinniss’ betrayal was presented “so compellingly that at trial five of the six jurors were persuaded that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and two small children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who had deceived him,” Malcolm writes.
As a journalist, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for McGinniss though, not because his conduct wasn’t seedy and unethical—it was—but because it reflects a recognizable problem with the way human relationships function in the production of journalism.
The anxiety of these relationships travel in both directions. Reporting is a social act that draws on a journalist’s generous qualities—openness and empathy, attention and curiosity, thoughtfulness and experience. But when that social exchange has run its course, all those human moments shed their intrinsic value and must be forced to serve whatever the journalist is working on. What often begins as a genuine, honest exchange built on the desire to understand another person and their point of view necessarily deteriorates into Sartre’s vision of hell. When the reporting ends, the journalist must stop joyfully learning about his subject and begin ruthlessly judging his subject.
This is a deeply uncomfortable experience, often because while the journalist has always known that his relationship with the subject was only instrumental to the final product, that relationship still feels—and is—real. A good interview is not distant or mechanical. A good interviewer notices things and asks questions about them, just as a good conversationalist does. Sometimes it is useful to find things in common, to establish shared experiences. Some of this might be aimed at getting a subject to talk more, or to make them comfortable so they are more likely to trust and share, but it is rarely so overt as that. More often it is simply the case that a good interview, or a writer-subject relationship that is sustained over time, takes on the patterns of a human relationship—because it inescapably is one.
Until it isn’t.
Just as the subject, upon reading the finished work, will suffer what Malcolm calls the “catastrophe” of having been deceived into believing they were ever a true collaborator, the journalist will often feel that the part of himself that is the reporter—open, humane—has been betrayed by the part of himself that is the writer—antisocial, unmerciful.
It’s a fraught moment. As Malcolm points out, it helps explain why so many journalists experience a sort of whiplash between enthusiasm and dread when they must stop reporting and start writing.
“An abyss lies between the journalist’s experience of being out in the world talking to people and his experience of being alone in a room writing. When the interviews are over and the journalist first faces the labor of writing, he feels no less resentful than the subject will feel when he reads the finished text. Having to make, but not being able to make up, the journalist has a knotty and never entirely solvable problem, which he tends to put off facing as long as possible,” Malcolm writes.
Luckily or unluckily, some journalists do figure out how to solve this problem and to write. One of them is Emmanuel Carrère, whom the New Yorker has called “France’s best-known writer of literary nonfiction.” Carrère is not afraid of traveling to the darker parts of humanity in order to make discoveries—or if he is afraid, to write his way through it.
Published in 2000, his book The Adversary documents the stunning deception perpetrated by Jean-Claude Romand, a well-liked and highly-regarded doctor who worked at the World Health Organization in Switzerland and shrewdly invested his friends’ and family’s savings with the promise of high returns. Except he did not work at the World Health Organization, was not a doctor, and instead of investing the money with which he was entrusted spent it lavishly on a mistress—until the whole tangle of lies began to unravel and he murdered his wife, children, parents and their dog in a futile attempt to bury his shame.
With Romand in prison awaiting trial, Carrère writes to him with a proposition: “What you have done is not in my eyes the deed of a common criminal, or that of a madman, either, but the action of someone pushed to the limit by overwhelming forces, and it is these terrible forces I would like to show at work.”
But Carrère’s project breaks down. He can’t find an objective vantage point from which to tell Romand’s monstrous story; nor can he find his own subjective one. He doesn’t know where to begin. Carrère considers opening the book from the perspective of Romand’s neighbor, who wakes to discover that the fake doctor has burned his own house to the ground with his family inside it. In a letter, Romand himself suggests that Carrère consider writing the book from the perspective of a succession of family dogs, including the ill-fated final dog.
Three months after he begins writing, Carrère writes to Romand: “My problem is not, as I thought it would be in the beginning, gathering information. It’s finding my proper place with respect to your story. When I began work I thought I could push this problem aside by stitching together everything I knew and trying to remain objective. But objectivity, in such an undertaking, is a delusion. I needed a point of view.”
Carrère puts the work down, possibly to abandon it forever.
Two years later, he writes to Romand that he is getting back to work.
Carrère read The Journalist and the Murderer closely. Presumably it is required reading for any journalist taking on the subject of a person convicted of murdering their family. He also admired it, and in a review published in a 2019 anthology of his short nonfiction work—titled 97,196 Words—Carrère called Malcolm’s work “a model of literary reporting.” But, perhaps unsurprisingly given Carrère’s own subject matter, he also took issue with Malcolm’s sweeping condemnation of “every journalist” and their “morally indefensible” career choice.
“With a surprising degree of masochism that didn’t escape criticism—because after all, it’s her own profession she’s describing—Janet Malcolm puts all her talent into demonstrating that the relationship between an author of nonfiction and her subject is by nature dishonest, that’s just the way things are, and it can’t be changed,” Carrère writes.
“But I think it can: I think that, yes, there is a border, but that this border doesn’t run, as some would like to think, between the journalist—hurried, superficial, unscrupulous—and the writer—noble, profound, beset by moral qualms—but between authors who believe they’re above the story they’re telling and those who accept the uncomfortable idea that they are also bound up in it,” he writes. We’re left with an invitation to follow Malcolm’s criticism to its logical conclusion. If writers are not telling their subjects’ stories, then they must truly be telling their own, whether they realize it or not.
Carrère embraces that instinct, and ultimately followed it to a workable starting place in The Adversary. Its first line reads: “On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son. He was five years old, the same age as Antoine Romand. Then we went to have lunch with my parents, as Jean-Claude Romand did with his, whom he killed after their meal.”
It’s an opening that unlocks the entire project, which is not an interrogation of Romand, the killer, but an interrogation of Carrère, the writer, and his attempts to make sense and meaning out of lies and deception. Carrère’s ultimate subject is himself, in relation to the world of people around him.
It’s an approach that walks a tightrope between two giant potential pitfalls: on one side the chasm of literary navel-gazing in which the events of the real world turn into abstraction; on the other side the cliffs of egomania from which we are forced to plummet alongside a journalist who thinks he is more interesting than his subject.
Carrère avoids both, and the fact that these perils exist do not tell me that he is wrong, but rather that writing about people—ourselves, others or some combination of the two—is not for the faint of heart.
Michael Igoe is a senior reporter with Devex, where he has covered foreign aid policy and politics since 2013. He has a graduate degree in international development from the University of Montana, a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Goucher College and an undergraduate degree in Russian from Bowdoin College. He lives in Burlington, Vermont and has taught journalism at Champlain College.