What's All This Then?

This site is edited by Coudal Partners, a design, advertising and interactive studio in Chicago, as an ongoing experiment in web publishing, design and commerce. [Next]

What's All This Then?

Thanks for visiting. If browsing around here while at work has had a negative effect on your productivity we're sorry but imagine what it's done to ours. [Hide]

Wednesday Edition

This is our studio site. Among lots of other things, we run Field Notes Brand,
go there right now and spend lots of money. Thanks.

Coudal Partners

The Journalist
and the Murderer

by Janet Malcolm

Field-Tested by Lori Andrews

in New Orleans, Louisiana

I’m sitting at a wrought iron table on the lawn of the French Quarter Police Station in New Orleans. As I sip an iced tea, I crack open Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. Sitting next to me is a murderer.

That man, Johnny Spain, killed when he was 17. In prison, he became a Black Panther whose subsequent political trial brought him support from around the world. His conviction was overturned after he spent 21 years behind bars.

For four years, as a journalist writing about him, I’ve met Johnny’s lovers, his relatives, his prosecutors, his jailers, his mentors, his enemies. I’ve read the 50,000-page transcript of his trial, listened to tape recordings of his sessions with psychologists, read the 100 books he kept in his cell. I’ve insinuated myself thoroughly into his life. So the first two sentences of the Malcolm book resonate for me: “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.”

I listen to Johnny breathing beside me and feel a cloying terror. Not because of Johnny’s capability for violence, but because he is reading the book manuscript I wrote about him.

I surreptitiously search for signs of interest or concern on Johnny’s face. As always, he is inscrutable. In prison, he protected himself by never showing emotion. In our interviews, he talked about himself in the third person. Whether he was describing being beaten, or shoved in the hole for six months, or teaching at Stanford after his release from prison, it all sounded exactly the same.

Hours pass, and the victims and perpetrators of the day’s misfortunes and crimes pass us on the way into the police station. Occasionally, I enter the Café Beignet next door for food or drinks, and we read on. Malcolm likens the relationship between journalist and subject to that of lovers, each demanding something from each other. But my demands have escalated. I now want to provoke Johnny. I want him to see his painful, dark life laid out in my book and finally open up about his feelings.

The Malcolm book is short. I finish reading before he does. I think about the pressure from my editor to breathe life into Johnny and to make sense of his story as if he were a character in a novel. My pulse races as he turns over the last page. I expect a big reaction, a torrent of words or tears. Instead, Johnny turns to me, his face unchanged. “That poor boy,” he says about himself.

Lori Andrews is the author of a dozen books, including the mysteries, Sequence and The Silent Assassin, and the biography of Johnny Spain, Black Power, White Blood. She can be reached at her website.

Buy The Journalist and the Murderer

Read the next Field Test by Rosecrans Baldwin

Field-Tested Books

Visit The Bookstore

The 2008 Edition
The 2006 Edition
The 2003 Edition
Your Submissions

The 2008 Edition

The Complete Index

All the Field-Tested Books, sorted by
reviewer, book title, and author.