Apr 12 2011

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm

Parul Sehgal

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Janet Malcolm is to malice what Wordsworth was to daffodils. In nine previous books, she's so thoroughly, so indelibly investigated a certain breed of malice—the kind that festers in the writer-subject relationship—that it ought to bear her name. Malice is journalism's "animating impulse," she writes as she turns reportage inside out to show us its seams (and seaminess) with trenchant ceremony. Biography and journalism are rotten with exploitation, venom, voyeurism; we've just averted our eyes. Like the child who cries that the emperor has no clothes, she announces truths hidden in plain sight. Of course the journalist will pretend to be your friend to get the story. Of course authorial neutrality is "a charade of evenhandedness."

She's presided over some very rarefied rows: an upstart Sanskritisit challenging Freud's seduction theory (In the Freud Archives), a bestselling writer backstabbing his subject (The Journalist and the Murderer), the sotto voce squabbles among the biographers of Gertrude Stein (Two Lives), and l'affaire Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman). But in her latest book, the slender, scalding Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she comes tumbling back to earth to report on a lurid murder case—and we meet a very different Malcolm altogether.

But first, the facts: On a clear morning in October 2008, Daniel Malakov, a dentist belonging to the Bukharan community, a Jewish sect from Central Asia, was shot execution-style in a playground in Queens in front of his four-year-old daughter. His estranged wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, an internist, tried stanching the blood with her hands. She applied chest compressions, and when the EMS arrived and bungled the intubation, she did that too. Malakov died shortly after being brought to the hospital, and suspicions were soon cast on Borukhova. The separated couple had been in the throes of a nasty custody battle; Borukhova had accused her husband of battering her and sexually abusing their daughter, Michelle. Malakov, in turn, accused his wife of turning Michelle against him. A family court judge had recently sided with Malakov and granted him full custody. It was a ripe motive: Had Borukhova slain her husband to avenge herself for the loss of a daughter, as Clytemnestra avenged Iphigenia?

Evidence mounted: A crude silencer turned up on the scene bearing the fingerprints of Mikhail Mallayev, Borukhova's cousin by marriage, a deeply in debt builder whose bank account had, in the weeks after the murder, received a healthy infusion of $20,000. Mallayev was charged with murdering Malakov, Borukhova with ordering the execution.

It's the kind of grim, archetypal story that can write itself. The Bukharians' conspicuous otherness in the courtroom—their wigs and gold teeth and translators, their shattered seclusion—gave the case an added fillip. And then there was the jolie laide "murderess" herself, an accomplished and unlikable woman who provoked an "allergic reaction" in almost everyone she met. Malcolm sets the stage with celerity, revealing, as usual, her eye for the small, telling gesture ("During the unshackling, Borukhova always looked over her right shoulder; Mallayev looked straight ahead"). The courtroom, which she calls "temple of waiting," becomes a primal scene—"the children (the jurors and spectators) are put out of earshot so that the grown-ups (the attorneys and the judge) can talk about things their charges shouldn't hear."

Here and elsewhere, Malcolm's interest and background in psychoanalysis obviously tincture her interpretations. (The author herself is the daughter of a lawyer and a psychoanalyst; it's fitting, from a psychoanalytical standpoint, that these are the very professions she has interrogated so extensively.) Her previous work roots out transgression in the halls of respectability, revealing that respectability itself conceals the inherent transgressiveness of various disciplines (journalism, biography), and Iphegenia performs a similar dissection on the legal profession.

Unlike her fellow journalists covering the case, Malcolm is not content to "pluck the low-hanging fruit of the attorney's dire narratives." She isn't persuaded of Borukhova's guilt, nor is she especially interested in exonerating her. Malcolm's quarrel is always with institutions, how they sanction (and conceal) individual acts of sadism and malice. She reveals that a woman can be convicted on flimsy circumstantial evidence for being prickly and odd and unpleasant, that a woman can receive a life sentence not because the evidence was compelling but because her enemies were powerful. One such enemy, David Schnall, Borukhova's "nemesis," a court-appointed children's law guardian, "seemed to fear and hate Borukhova from the start of his guardianship." Without ever speaking to Borukhova's daughter (his putative client) or assessing her well-being, he advised that custody be transferred from mother to father, and gave deeply damaging testimony in the murder trial. Another, a spiteful judge, Robert "Hang'em" Hanophy, severely hampered her defense by failing to allow them adequate time in preparing closing remarks (he was eager to leave for a Caribbean vacation).

Malcolm isn't Solomon, coolly presiding over "competing narratives." She's appalled. It's a typically Malcolm move to use the very discipline she describes to skewer its acolytes—in Two Lives and The Silent Woman, she writes a biography of biographers; in Psychoanalysis, she psychoanalyzes a psychoanalyst. In Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Malcolm launches a countersuit against a corrupt judge, a malicious children's service attorney, and the "hollowness of the presumption of innocence."

She can be playful: The book itself begins with the trial's opening statements in a kind of meta-commentary on how to open an argument and engage the reader as if she's on the jury. She can be devastating: Judge Hanophy is "a man of seventy-four with a small head and a large body and the faux-genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate." The prosecution, Brad Leventhal, is "a short, plump man with a mustache, who walks with the quick darting movements of a bantam cock and has a remarkably high voice, almost like a woman's, which at moments of excitement rises to the falsetto of a phonograph record played at the wrong speed." And when she can no longer tolerate being an observer—after an interview with the clearly unhinged Schnall, who treats her to a fifty-minute rant on his theories on the vitiation of modern-day sperm, 9/11, and why "Joseph McCarthy was right"—she does something she's never done before: "I meddled with the story I was reporting. I entered it as a character who could affect its plot." She faxes her transcript of the interview to the defense, who promptly requests a cross-examination to determine Schnall's sanity.

Malcolm persuasively argues that Borukhova did not receive a fair trial, and that the fatally flawed children's-guardian system harmed Michelle far more than it helped her (her "Dickensian ordeal" included a stint in foster care). True, the book is imperfect—but by design. Every decision or omission that gives it its wobbliness or rough-hewn quality has been made to answer some larger philosophical question about reportage. If the book ends (as most of Malcolm's books do) too abruptly, it's because she's won't abide the artificiality of narrative neatness. If her book is too polemical—if she doesn't make an effort to humanize or understand Malakov—she has already warned us in The Silent Woman: "Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness." You must pick a side.

But where this approach has worked for Malcolm in the past, in Iphegenia, the atmosphere can grow stifling. In The Journalist and the Murder, she writes, "What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject's blind self-absorption and the journalist's skepticism." Iphigenia in Forest Hills is a remarkable document, but it wants for this skepticism—or even the space for skepticism. Like a good trial lawyer, Malcolm tries to rigorously control how the reader interprets each subject, testimony, and scene. But like a poor trial lawyer, she forgets how much coaxing and convincing a mulish jury—or reader—might need.

The proud partisan, she feels a "sisterly" solidarity with the defendant. To her, Borukhova is "Cordelia" or "a captive barbarian princess in a Roman triumphal procession." But Malcolm never spells out why Borukhova so excites her imagination and her sympathy, nor does she explain why she has such difficulty believing that Borukhova might be guilty. Malcolm arrogates the right of the novelist and announces her biases; she feels no need to justify them. When she encounters Michelle peddling her tricycle with her "feared father's family," she describes the child's face "distorted by mirthless laughter." She doesn't tell us why the laugh sounded forced or even what it sounded like, she merely pronounces it false. It's a curious, charged moment in the text—and no less so for the reader whose faith in the author flickers.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills is an incendiary book that begins and ends—like any good epic must—in medias res (Borukhova, who was convicted, is now being represented in appeals by Alan Dershowitz). It's a story that discomfits as much as it explains. Not for Malcolm the journalism of "reassurance" or "rhetorical ruses," her small book with big stakes and mythic underpinnings flies close to the sun. It unsettles and scorches and soars.

Parul Sehgal recently won the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing.

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