Dan Mallory’s lies were hurtful, and I hope he sees that now

Dan Mallory, who wrote “The Woman in the Window” under pen name A.J. Finn, did not directly copy any other works. But what he did do was worse.

I set out today to write a comparison of “The Woman in the Window,” last year’s literary thriller that had everyone talking, and “Copycat,” the movie that Dan Mallory was accused of essentially ripping off by The New Yorker in an expose posted online this week.

I rented the movie, a 1995 thriller that probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves today despite holding a respectable 76 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I got out a pad and pen and set out to write down, scene by scene, where the novel and book mirrored each other. This piece was going to be a side-by-side comparison, a “the book was better” post, only probably in reverse.

What happened instead was this: I watched a pretty good ’90s flick with a star-studded cast that probably doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, and I was not able to write my planned follow-up piece about Mallory, who was outed in the New Yorker piece as a man whose mental illness likely contributed to — but did not excuse — a series of bizarre and destructive actions that led to him becoming a millionaire author.

And, as I read more throughout the day and heard from many voices, I was able to find a much better perspective on his story and how, even if he’s not guilty of any plagiarism or true storytelling crimes, what he did was incredibly wrong in some impactful ways.

But first, I will go ahead and compare “The Woman in the Window” and “Copycat” like I’d planned because that does also interest me. Ian Parker, who composed the extraordinary profile of Mallory in The New Yorker, said this about their similarities: “An American woman in mid-career, a psychologist with a Ph.D. and professional experience of psychopathy, is trapped in her large home by agoraphobia. She has been there for about a year, after a personal trauma. If she tries to go outside, the world spins. She drinks too much, and recklessly combines alcohol and anti-anxiety medication. Police officers distrust her judgment. Online, she plays chess and contributes to a forum for stress-sufferers, a place where danger lies.

“This is the setup for ‘Copycat,’ a spirited 1995 thriller, set in San Francisco, starring Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter. It also describes ‘The Woman in the Window.'”

When put this way, it appears that the two may be essentially the same story, which is why I set out to prove that theory. And, while there’s nothing untrue or necessarily misleading about this, those — with just a few more — are pretty much the only similarities.

In “Copycat,” as in Mallory’s story, one of the main characters is a psychologist with agoraphobia. This character, Helen Hudson, has been in her large home in a large city for about a year after a personal trauma. If he tries to leave, the room does spin. There is a scene where she takes her pills with some kind of alcohol.

Let me sprinkle in a few ways they are dissimilar. First, the personal trauma in “Copycat” was that Hudson was strung up by a serial killer in a women’s bathroom, which also led to a police officer dying. This was done because her psychological expertise was serial killers. In “The Woman in the Window,” the protagonist is a child psychologist whose family died, causing the agoraphobia.

So, the setup is not so on-the-nose as it may seem. But, there are some tiny details that are essentially identical in the two stories. As Parker puts it in The New Yorker: “Online, she plays chess and contributes to a forum for stress-sufferers, a place where danger lies.” Mallory is guilty of this lifting of character details. There is another that, while not as exact, is very similar. “In ‘Copycat,’ the psychologist’s forum log-in is She Doc. In ‘Window,’ it’s thedoctorisin,” Parker notes.

Parker noticed another similarity I did not find as overt: “in ‘The Woman in the Window,’ a photograph with a time stamp in its corner downloads from the Internet at a suspenseful, dial-up speed, it (could be seen as) an homage to the same scene in ‘Copycat,'” though the comparison is made as a possible example of Mallory paying homage to the film. The scene is essentially used while making a point that Mallory has never publicly acknowledged the distinct similarities between his novel and “Copycat.”

Parker in The New Yorker also uses the fact that police distrust the judgment of both Hudson and Mallory’s main character, Anna Fox, as a similarity. But, that doesn’t last long. In fact, because the main villain in “Copycat” is a full-blown serial killer, the police end up using her to solve their case. In “Woman,” Fox is completely dismissed by the police after seeing a murder and the villain is a neighbor boy who is turning into a serial killer.

But here are a couple more similarities before I show how these two stories are quite dissimilar after the initial setup of one character. These are a bit more thematic than concrete details, but in both stories the agoraphobic character’s privacy is invaded physically and through the Internet. In both, the villain physically breaks into her home (note that Fox’s is in New York, while Hudson’s is in San Francisco). In “Woman,” the villain pretends to be an old woman on the online forum. In “Copycat,” the villain sends Hudson creepy images directly to her computer in 1990s hacker style.

Those are the sum of the similarities between the stories, as far as I can tell. In “Copycat,” Hudson, played by Sigourney Weaver, becomes a de facto consultant for the San Francisco Police Department, helps them figure out who has been offing women using methods identical to past famous serial killers. In the end, the serial killer is being directed by the one that strung her up in the beginning of the movie, and the turn in the final scene is that he’s recruited another one to hunt Hudson.

In “Woman,” Fox witnesses a murder while spying on the neighbors and tries to tell the police. The cops don’t believe her, in part because the person she thought was murdered is alive and a completely different person (something that surely came from Mallory’s own experiences). She is unsure if she’s going insane while guzzling wine and popping pills. The twist is that it was the neighbor boy she trusted all along, the one she was trying to shrink because that’s what she used to do. And the woman he killed was her biological mother, while the other woman who’s very much alive is the child’s stepmother.

In addition, I would argue that the main — and more developed — characters in “Copycat” are the police officers, played by Holly Hunter, Dermot Mulroney, and Will Patton. In fact, the movie is a police procedural thriller, and I would argue Hunter and Weaver share the female lead.

So, the similarities between “The Woman in the Window” and “Copycat” are not all that substantive in the end. But Mallory’s real-life lies are.

In terms of story, what Dan Mallory, writing as A.J. Finn, is most guilty of is not changing enough character details so that Fox and Hudson are not so superficially similar. For “The Woman in the Window,” Mallory stole those character traits of his protagonist from “Copycat,” stole the more basic premise from the Hitchcock film “Rear Window,” and stole the unreliable-because-she’s-drunk narrator trait from “The Girl on the Train.” What makes his lifting of the “Copycat” details a bit scandalous is that he did it so overtly without giving any nods, either in public interviews or in the story, to the original source. He did those with “Rear Window” and “The Girl on the Train.”

Sticking with the theme of story, in a broader sense Mallory took those primary sources and used his decade-plus in the literature business to Frankenstein a domestic thriller sure to sell big (though even he probably didn’t realize it could be one of the biggest outliers of a decade) and make him a rich man. And, if that’s all he’d done, he may have just seemed like a shrewd businessman taking advantage of market trends.

But, as with all compelling narratives, it’s the backstory that led up to the creation of “The Woman in the Window” that makes Mallory the villain.

The reaction on Twitter to the profile in The New Yorker was large, swift, and had two main themes. The initial reaction for many, including myself, was mostly disbelief. As a journalist, I was intimately familiar with tales of fabulists like Stephen Glass. Mallory, however, put Glass to shame.

But the other, more visceral reaction, has been outrage. Many peoples’ opinions go something like this: In the publishing world, a white man can still fall up the ladder by lying, make gobs of money in a profession dominated by women because he’s “charming” and “good looking,” and use a gender-neutral pseudonym to stir up a fever pitch around a novel whose first-person narrator is a woman.

Heavy in the mix was outrage over the details of his lies. He said his mother died of cancer, a disease that does claim far too many lives. He also claimed that he’d beaten cancer more than once, which people who are not Dan Mallory heroically do.

Mallory also said his brother committed suicide, which did not happen. Mallory himself has been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and speaks publicly about his own dealings with crippling depression. How could someone who claims to suffer like that lie about a loved one committing suicide?

That’s the facet that hits me the hardest and is, after having a day to think about it, the reason I’ve been a bit obsessed with a story that doesn’t otherwise affect me in any way.

But, if someone were to look at my medical chart, they’d see my prescription in high school for the antidepressant Zoloft. They would also see my more recent prescription for a low dose of amitriptyline, also an antidepressant. Those with whom I worked most closely in my newspaper career know about my struggles with depression.

I cannot speak to the aforementioned issues of race and gender, obviously. But on the lying about suicide, yeah, I’m going to go ahead and be upset about that one. It’s not as high on the list as the other reasons to be troubled with Mallory and his story. And, while I do understand and empathize with him having a mental disorder and depression, I know that it absolutely does not condone much of the behavior described in The New Yorker.

It can explain why he didn’t want to go to work for long periods, and lying about being depressed. I have said I had the flu when I simply could not go into work. But that was for a day, two at the most, before I would discuss with someone what was actually happening and do what I needed to do to get well enough to get out of bed and out the door. And I said I had the flu, a cold, or something like that (though, I fully admit that a lie is a lie is a lie, and I have been a liar, and for that I am and will always be ashamed). The lies that Mallory pedaled, though, are not excusable by depression, in my opinion. Those are something else. Could it be the hypomania that comes with bipolar II? I will let doctors discuss that, but let’s just say they would have to do a thorough job convincing me of it.

While I would never go so far as to accuse someone of lying about having depression or any other mental illness — admitting it privately was incredibly difficult for me, and publishing this is something I almost didn’t do, and obviously didn’t do when I first wrote about this story yesterday — I understand why some doubt his claim to suffer from bipolar II or depression. Parker got Mallory’s doctor to confirm the diagnosis in The New Yorker, which is enough for me to believe Mallory, barring any controdictory admission by him.

I hope Mallory has gotten the help he needs. And I hope that help has allowed him to see that what he did was wrong.

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