Malcolm Gladwell  

Malcolm Gladwell  

A weeklong electronic journal.
Nov. 20 1996 3:30 AM

Malcolm Gladwell  

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       Yesterday was the murder trial. We watched videos of the defendant confessing, and then the psychiatrists for each side took the stand and debated whether he was competent to stand trial. By rights, this should have been fascinating--especially since the murderer involved is one very sick dude. And I suppose, in a certain abstract way, it was. But my experience with trials is that they are never as interesting as you'd think they would be. I have a friend who argues against self-disclosure on the grounds that it presents an insurmountable literary problem--that the range of human emotion and feeling is a lot more complicated than the narratives available for relaying those emotions and feelings are, with the result that even the most sophisticated attempts at revelation sound like something from the JennyJones show. I think that trials have the same problem. Once the attorneys have gone on about Miranda warnings, and the experts have recited their credentials, and every description of every potentially interesting act has been dragged out in lawyerly monotone ("And the chain saw you used to sever the head was a Black & Decker 456 Model C, is that correct?"), the proceedings get bleached of all drama. The law just doesn't have the vocabulary to capture real life. Now I suppose this is all for the best, since it is probably the only way that defendants can get a fair trial. But it does mean that the people who complain that the media sensationalizes criminal trials have it exactly backward. The media doesn't make crime more interesting than it is. The law makes crime less interesting than it is. This is also why I've always been a bit suspicious of Hannah Arendt's famous pronouncement at the Nuremberg trials about the banality of evil. Is evil really banal? Or does evil simply seem banal when it's discussed in a courtroom?
       The psychiatrist I'm writing about finished her testimony at 5 p.m., and I was off to the airport. On the way, I finally got around to the papers from the weekend. Alger Hiss died? Okay. I can't resist. I have to tell my Alger Hiss story. When I was in high school, my best friend Terry and I read Whittaker Chamber's Witness and were so blown away by its hysterical, hyperbolic, over-the-top, Cold War awesomeness that we decided it was time to make our own contribution to the genre. This was probably the summer of 1980. Somewhere (probably Allen Weinstein's book on the Hiss case), we found a list of the houses Hiss had lived in during his years in Washington. We borrowed Terry's mother's car. We drove the 10 hours to D.C. We visited each of the four addresses, photographing the exterior and then knocking on the door in order to interview the occupants. (Sample question: "Does it bother you that you are occupying the former residence of a alleged Soviet spy? If not, why not?") We drove the 10 hours home, and then wrote up our findings in what I still believe to be my finest work of journalism. It was called, if I remember correctly, "The Many Houses of Alger Hiss," and its tenor is perhaps best captured by the final two lines of the preface: "All of which leads to two overwhelming questions: Who was this man they called Alger Hiss? And where did he live?"
       I know what you're thinking. You're thinking back to yesterday's rant and saying that Hiss, as a Communist, must have lived in very small apartments. But that's just it. He didn't. Don't you see? I'm sure we dealt with this issue somewhere in "The Many Houses." The man was a spy. It would have been too obvious.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker.