Iphigenia in Forest Hills

IphigeniaWhen I began reading Janet Malcolm’s book about the murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, accused of hiring a man to kill her ex-husband Daniel Malakov, I don’t think I had any particular leaning regarding her guilt or innocence. The fact that she was a doctor and a respected member of the Bukharan-Jewish community in Queens didn’t hold any sway with me. The respectability argument also meant little to me when it came to the accusation that Malakov beat his wife and sexually abused his daughter during their marriage. These things happen in places where we’re told to least expect them. Seeming unlikeness is not an argument.

As I finished Iphigenia in Forest Hills, my lack of opinion about guilt and innocence hadn’t changed. I don’t think Malcolm was all that interested in the question of guilt or innocence. She’s doesn’t investigate the crime so much as she investigates the trial. What was the evidence? What were the arguments? What kinds of backstage happenings led to the verdict? She looks into not just the murder trial but also the earlier custody case that took the couple’s daughter, Michelle, away from her mother. The resulting book shows how trials are not just about getting at the truth.

There are lots of moments during the case that might worry someone who thinks court should be about revealing the truth. Many of these moments involve the way personalities came to dominate the proceedings. Being able to make a good argument and speak in a way that appeals to a jury is more important than the substance of the argument. And then there’s the judge’s desire to wrap up before his vacation, which causes him to have the defense offer closing arguments on a Friday, with limited time to prepare, while giving the prosecution a weekend.

Even more troubling is the custody case, where Michelle is taken from her mother because the court (and her advocate) belief that Borukhova has been poisoning the daughter against her father, as evidenced by the daughter’s distress at being taken from her mother during visits with her father. Borukhova’s answer, that she had been abused and witnessed abuse at her father’s hands, doesn’t seem to get serious consideration. From what Malcolm reveals, the evidence on both sides is weak, but the penalty for Borukhova’s alleged wrongdoing at that stage seems severe, given how common it is for a shy 4-year-old to be extremely attached to a particular parent.

The trial and the many ways it seemed to go wrong makes a fascinating (and frustrating) story, although I found Malcolm’s approach to it, especially in the early chapters, unnecessarily muddled. She moves around in time a lot, not depicting the events of the trial in chronological occurred, but beginning late in the defense’s case and shifting backward and forward to paint the picture she wants readers to see. I can’t help but wonder whether, in all that bouncing around, she left out key information that bolstered the prosecution’s case.

For even though Malcolm doesn’t declare a position, the nature of the book means that it appears to lean toward Borukhova’s innocence. I think it’s probably more fair to say that she’s trying to show how messy trials are and how human idiosyncrasies get in the way of the pursuit of justice.

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2 Responses to Iphigenia in Forest Hills

  1. Yeah, I never think Janet Malcom’s as good with the stories of legal squabbles, etc., as she is with literary biography. Two Lives is wonderful, and The Silent Woman is super, super great. I might reread The Silent Woman this weekend in fact.

    • Teresa says:

      I liked this and The Journalist and the Murderer for the complicated questions they raise, but I thought The Silent Woman was a much better book overall. I’d read more of her crime/legal stuff, though.

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