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The Crime of Sheila McGough Paperback – February 8, 2000


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The inimitable Janet Malcolm has previously probed the soft white underbellies of psychiatry, journalism, literary biography, and a half-dozen other disciplines. In The Crime of Sheila McGough, she takes on the legal profession. At first glance this may seem like a ludicrously easy target: who doesn't have his doubts about the vast army of ambulance chasers, shysters, and corporate sharks? But as always, Malcolm has more complicated fish to fry. What fascinates her about the legal system is the endless, agonizing clash of contending narratives. "The transcripts of trials at law--even of routine criminal prosecutions and tiresome civil disputes--are exciting to read," she notes. "They record contests of wit and will that have the stylized structure and dire aura of duels before dawn."

To prove her point, Malcolm has chosen one particular prosecution--or, as the facts seem to indicate, persecution. In 1986 a Virginia attorney named Sheila McGough took on the case of a con artist named Bob Bailes. First she defended this charming chiseler against a charge of bank fraud, and lost; then, two years later, she went to bat for him when he was indicted for a bizarre, insurance-related bunco game. Again she lost, and Bailes--whose tale-spinning amounted to a kind of artistry--remained in the slammer. At this point, most advocates would have moved on. Not McGough: "After her client went to prison, she continued defending him as if nothing had happened.... She remained at his side and fought for him as if he were Alfred Dreyfus, instead of the small-time con man, with an unfortunate medical history and an interesting imagination, that he was." Nothing, it turns out, clogs the machinery of the judicial system more thoroughly than an honest--okay, pathologically honest--attorney.

As McGough continued to fight for her client, she aroused the wrath, and eventually the suspicion, of the court. Surely this nutty crusade must have some hidden agenda. Malcolm makes a strong argument for her subject's innocence: "Veracity was her defining characteristic, like the color of an orange. Her behavior may have been odd, deviant, maddening, but her devotion to the truth--almost like a disease in its helpless literalness--was an inspiriting given." The court, however, thought otherwise. In 1990 McGough was found guilty of 14 counts of felony (most of which made her an accessory to Bailes's depredations) and sentenced to 3 years in prison. Only after her release in 1996 did she enlist the author on her behalf. Unlike previous objects of Malcolm's scrutiny, McGough made little effort to finesse the narrative. All the more remarkable, then, that the most sublime cross-examiner in American letters found her innocent.

The Crime of Sheila McGough is, needless to say, a stinging critique of the legal system. "Without the thinner of common sense," the author insists, "the law is a toxic substance." (Malcolm, who's gotten a liberal serving of legal toxins during the 1980s and 1990s, is surely speaking from experience.) Yet her book is an equally brilliant brief on human behavior (and misbehavior). And as she plunges deeper into the legal labyrinth, her quest for the truth and nothing but the truth leads her to some superb insights about that other form of imaginative advocacy--writing. "The truth," she offers, "does not make a good story; that's why we have art." But in The Crime of Sheila McGough, Malcolm has it both ways. Deliciously witty and almost supernaturally aware, her book is a true crime story in every sense of the phrase. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Malcolm's newest foray into the uneasy relationship between truth and narrative takes on the legal system in defense of disbarred and criminally convicted attorney Sheila McGough. McGough contacted Malcolm when she was released from prison, claiming that she had been wrongly accused of complicity in the schemes of a con-artist client and that her only "crime" was overzealous representation. Malcolm's theme is clear: trials are narratives, neatly packaged stories, while the truth is a "beast," not easily confined by such artifice. It's an extension of the line of thinking she pursued in such previous books as The Silent Woman, In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer. While Malcolm writes of McGough's "guileless and incontinent speech," she ultimately voices a befuddled respect for the lawyer, arguing that true, selfless advocacy may not be sexy, but it exists. Given Malcolm's personal experience with the law (the Supreme Court found that she had misquoted Jeffrey Masson in a 1983 New Yorker profile), it's easy to read this book as yet another act of self-defense in which Malcolm, acutely self-conscious about her journalistic efforts to impose order on mere facts, tells readers, once again, that the "truth does not make a good story." Readers are left with the verdict that Malcolm, who recognizes and embraces both the necessity and the inherent "untruthfulness" of narrative, is an artist, while McGough, who values "a great number of wholly accurate and numbingly boring facts," is a tiresome, if truthful, fly in the narrative soup of the law. Malcolm doesn't offer any sustained psychological appraisal of McGough. And that's too bad, because, although arguably not criminal, McGough's behavior was surely unlawyerlike?as though some personal need beyond the best interests of her client drove her to act as she did. As to what this need might have been, Malcolm is lamentably silent.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; First Edition edition (February 8, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375704590
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375704598
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.3 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,183,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Moira D. Russell on July 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
Like most of Janet Malcolm's books, "The Crime of Sheila McGough" is well-written enough to be interesting and certainly readable. Unlike her other books, which are often oddly persuasive although demonstrably wrong, or at least ill-fated ("The Journalist and the Murderer," "In the Freud Archives"), "Crime" never really manages to give a clear portrait of its central character, whom Malcolm claims to see as an "exquisite heroine," or the situation she found herself in. Sheila McGough was a defense lawyer for a con artist who wound up being indicted as a conspirator in his schemes, and while Malcolm insists her heroine was not romantically involved with her client nor a criminal, it is hard to disagree with the various attorneys interviewed in the book who characterize McGough as simply in over her head. While it seems unlikely McGough was "framed" or the target of a government conspiracy, as she and her family claim, she does seem to have been ground up in the court system mainly because she didn't really know what she was doing as a lawyer. Malcolm wants her point to be that McGough's dogged defense of her client is particularly unsuited to the legal system in America today, but her sweeping generalizations about the courts seem idiosyncratic and she faults lawyers for thinking of their profession as a career (one wonders what else she would have lawyers do). She keeps insisting her heroine is terrible but lovable, a sort of legal Madame Bovary who is noble in her doomed romantic illusions about the law, but the substance of the book seems as hard to pin down as the con artist McGough went to jail for protecting. Malcolm characterizes a trial as being a duel of narratives, but her own narrative convinces the reader of nothing except that Sheila McGough is indeed exasperating.Read more ›
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By schiffe@msn.com on July 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I read this book in one evening. I couldn't put it down. I believe that Sheila McGough was innocent. What I can't believe is that Janet Malcolm never uses the word autism in the book. Does she not realize that Sheila was a very high functioning person with autism? Read Oliver Sacks's An Anthropologist on Mars for a better understanding of Shelia. I was also truly fascinated by the "bad guy", Bob Bailes. Geoffrey Wolfe has written a wonderful memoir of his father who was very like Mr. Bailes. I enjoyed getting to know all the people in this book. Ms. Malcolm does a wonderful job of introducing them to the reader. My only complaint is that I wish I knew how to pronounce Sheila's last name. Is it McGoo? McGo? McGuff?
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By David Savageau on April 9, 2000
Format: Paperback
Malcolm is one of the best. Read the first two paragraphs of THE CRIME OF SHEILA McGOUGH. Not many writers of Amazon's current Top 100 books can do as well.
But Malcolm's book about a guileless, professionally tone-deaf lawyer who goes to extraordinary lengths to appeal the conviction of her client, an affable scamster named Bailes, is a waste of the author's talent.
The book is brief enough to defeat prematurely tossing it aside in exasperation. But it better could have been a well-crafted essay on the tawdry McGough episode as an instance of ironies and paradoxes found in the law.
Instead we get Malcolm recounting her role as a tireless gumshoe, visiting the players on both sides of the McGough case, turning up nothing sinister or dramatic enough to change the verdict that sent McGough to prison for three years for helping client in one of his scams.
Was McGough railroaded? An earlier posting suggested the subject suckered Malcolm in the same way McGough was hoodwinked by the client. It's hard to disagree with that. I think the author blew a lot of time on this and added little to our understanding of the law.
A far better book about the law's lack of clarity, an absolutely riveting one by a then unknown writer who took an enormous risk for a distant and uncertain payoff, is A CIVIL ACTION, by Jonathan Harr.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Elaine Golin on January 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was shocked to see this book masqerading as investigative journalism. I have never read any of Malcolm's other work - but I was gravely disappointed.
In brief, Malcolm attempts to unravel the events leading to the fraud conviction of her "heroine", McGough, a former attorney. What is painfully apparent to the reader is that Malcolm's adovcacy of McGough is as blind and as ill-considered as that of McGough for her client.
At the very least, based on what Malcolm tells us, Sheila McGough was a TERRIBLE lawyer. It seems likely that she was emotionally or mentally disabled in some way -- one insightful reviewer below guesses autism, and that sounds right. However, it also seems likely that she committed crimes but Malcolm steadfastly disregards all the evidence that points that way, calling each of Sheila's misdeeds bad "judgment". Moreover, Malcolm reveals a lower level of understanding of the legal process than any average court TV reporter - claiming at one point that it is normal to notarize documents that the notary has not witnessed the signing of - please, folks, don't try this one at home.
Malcolm also reads way too much into transcripts, brief interviews, etc. -- great novelization skills, but for non-fiction, way too heavy handed.
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