Janet Malcolm in Forest Hills

This is the first time and hopefully last time I’ll ever review a true crime book in which I’ve met the victim. This unique viewing angle added a cutting edge to my reading experience, but Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial needs no added edge; it’s a crisp, tight little marvel of a courtroom drama, and a great demonstration of Malcolm’s potent journalistic technique.

Janet Malcolm writes odd books with small narrative footprints, deliberately structured to deliver unexpected, even eccentric opinions. Her literary biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice scours the Gertrude Stein/Alice Tolkas love affair for signs of dysfunction, then examines the improbably friendly relationship the two Jewish-American women maintained with a vile French Nazi collaborator, Bernard Fay, who allowed them to remain in their idyllic French countryside home throughout the Second World War. Malcolm writes and argues with such skill and confidence that her conclusions often feel unimpeachable, though its not clear what we are supposed to do about them.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills follows a recent murder trial in central Queens, New York. A once-promising marriage between Daniel Malakov and Marina Borukhova, two attractive young ethnic New Yorkers (she a doctor, he an orthodontist, both members of the tight-knit Bukharian community in Forest Hills and Rego Park, Queens) took a wrong turn once they had a daughter. They fought over how to raise the child and caromed suddenly towards a nasty divorce and custody dispute. It got much worse when Marina accused Daniel of sexually molesting their toddler. Her accusation was highly unconvincing, a transparent effort at gaining an upper hand in the custody dispute, and a disgusted public official decided that the child should live with Daniel. Marina then hired an older family relative to shoot and kill Daniel. At the end of the trial observed in this book, both Marina and the hit-man Mikhail Mallayev are convicted and sentenced to life in jail.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills is Janet Malcolm’s report on everything she sees in the courtroom that strikes her as wrong, disturbing or irregular. This, it turns out, gives the writer plenty of material to work with.

She’s blistering, for instance, on the phenomenon of “the Judge’s Vacation” (the sarcastic upper-casing is Malcolm’s). Judge Robert Hanophy had scheduled a beach getaway for a certain date after the trial’s completion, and when the trial begins to run long the judge forces the defense lawyers to improvise their crucial closing speeches with insufficient preparation time. They plead with the judge for more time, Malcolm angrily reports, and he mocks their earnest appeal. The fact that this can happen in a modern courtroom is infuriating. Is this really how justice works?

I’ve been lucky to have spent very little of my own life in courtrooms, but I’ve spent enough to know that Janet Malcolm is scratching at big truths here. (The fact that recent DNA identification technology has proven that many convicted murderers have been innocent all along is another shocking testament to the same disturbing truths).

She describes the other intangibles that strongly influence the outcome of this murder trial: Marina Burokhava’s inability to connect emotionally with the jury, one lawyer’s lack of basic savvy (Malcolm names names, and I pity many legal professionals in this book whose reputations may never recover), and the influence of court-appointed child counselor David Schnall, the book’s real villain, who completely took Daniel’s side over Marina’s in the earlier custody hearings, and made the fateful decision to hand the child over to Daniel.

David Schnall is a real doozy. He tells Janet Malcolm that he’s reluctant to speak to a journalist, then gets her on the phone and talks her ear off about various right-wing conspiracy theories that he apparently holds dearly (the American banking system is fake and was designed to crash; 9/11 was an inside job, etc.). Janet Malcolm is appalled, and even tries to communicate with the court about Schnall’s irrational opinions, knowingly breaking her own rules of journalistic objectivity by doing so.

But Malcolm’s own judgments are sometimes questionable. She’s right that David Schnall sounds like a jerk, but she doesn’t seem to realize that his conspiracy theories are common among the Tea Party/Glenn Beck crowd and not very startling at all (based on her shocked reaction, one would think that Schnall was the only Tea Partier she’d ever met). Malcolm’s underdog sympathies for the helpless Marina Borukhova may be noble, and are certainly gender-based, but the author seems to lack sympathy for the agony Daniel Malakov must have gone through after being accused of sexually abusing his daughter.

Does she not realize the extent of evil represented by Marina’s actions here? It’s on par with the murder itself. Both acts were sufficient to destroy his life — but if the false accusations had taken hold, his life and also his reputation would have been destroyed. His daughter would have lost her father if the accusation had succeeded. It seems clear that Marina Burakhova is some kind of moral monster, but Janet Malcolm’s primary interest in this book is to recover Marina’s humanity amidst the carnage of a modern courtroom.

We all carry our prejudices with us. I once shook Daniel Malakov’s hand, but never met Marina Borukhova. Janet Malcolm met Marina Borukhova, but never met Daniel Malakov. My sympathies are with him; Malcolm’s are with hers. Perhaps the channels all our sympathies follow are as predictable as this.

My biggest problem with this riveting book, finally, has to do with the dull, ugly cover design. This is the best the publishers could do? Perhaps they want the cover to capture the boredom that Marina and hitman Mikhail Mallayev feel while sitting in their 8-foot by 8-foot jail cells? But we book buyers do not deserve this punishment. I would have let Yale University Press use my Flickr pictures from the murder scene if they’d only have asked.

One Response

  1. Levi, this sounds like an
    Levi, this sounds like an interesting true crime story and psycho-drama. I agree about the cover art, though. It doesn’t really scream “crime thriller!”. It only whispers coyly “experimental fiction”.

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