Anatomy of a Journalist

Janet Malcolm dissects a murder trial, and her own profession

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial | by Janet Malcolm | Yale University Press | 168 pages, $25.00

On an October afternoon in 2007, Daniel Malakov, a dentist in the Forest Hills section of Queens, was taking his four-year-old daughter to meet up with her mother, his estranged wife Mazoltuv Borukhova. On his way there, Malakov was shot several times, and he died on the sidewalk where he fell.

Those are the indisputed facts. The rest—who shot him, and why, and what should happen to those responsible—was the subject of a long murder trial in Queens Supreme Court in 2009. The defendants were Borukhova and a distant cousin whom prosecutors said Borukhova hired to kill Malakov, in vengeance for his having won custody of their daughter. Janet Malcolm sat in on the trial for The New Yorker, and later expanded her feature into a full-length book, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, recently published by Yale University Press.

By the book’s end, we learn the jury’s decision, but enough doubt remains that we still don’t really know whether that decision is right. Not that the decision itself matters much, for Malcolm’s purposes. Instead, her primary concern is the elusiveness of truth itself.

In Malcolm’s characterization, a trial is the telling of a story—a tidy and selective and therefore fictional story—spun one way by the prosecution and another by the defense. Courtroom discourse, she writes, is “artificial” and “inhuman.” The various participants in the judicial system are like so many actors in a dramatic play, each one fighting for dominance. Of the attorneys’ opening statements, she writes, “If we understand that a trial is a contest between competing narratives, we can see the importance of the first appearance of the narrators.” Of the jurors: “The voir dire is nothing if not a recognition of the unattainability of the ideal of neutrality and the inescapability of bias.”

Along the way, she also seems to hint that she, too, is an unreliable narrator: she questions herself in a way that makes us wonder what else we should question about her re-telling. For instance:

When I wrote that Hoxha was lying when he said that the killer had been found, I did so on the assumption that Borukhova was telling the truth when she quoted him to that effect. Of course, this is an assumption I should not have made.

All of which brings Malcolm—inevitably, as to an itch that can never be sufficiently scratched—to the tricky business of journalism. What is a news article but a neat and tidy narrative, necessarily incomplete, and therefore not entirely faithful? And so then what is a journalist, but an audacious, advantage-taking liar? Can any interaction between journalist and subject ever be mutually beneficial to both parties? Profiling the reporters covering the trial from the Forest Hills Ledger, the New York Daily News, the Post, and the Times, Malcolm likens their common bond to that of a “crime family.” How could they be described any other way? After all, according to Malcolm, their profession is “transgressive” by nature:

Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse. A trial offers unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness. When the malignant, often libelous words of battling attorneys are lifted out of the heated context of the trial and set in cold type, a new, more exquisite torture is suffered by the object of their abuse—who now stands exposed to the world’s abuse. Journalists attending a long trial together develop a special camaraderie born of a shared good mood: their stories are writing themselves; they have only to pluck the low-hanging fruit of the attorneys’ dire narratives. They can sit back and enjoy the show.

All this will sound rather familiar to those who have read Malcolm’s best-known work, The Journalist and the Murderer, which famously begins by asserting that “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” The book concerned the fraught relationship between journalist Joe McGinniss and his subject, Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of killing his family; Malcolm recounts how McGinniss slowly and insidiously gained MacDonald’s trust and friendship on false pretenses, only to skewer him as a remorseless sociopath in the resulting book, Fatal Vision.

Many journalists reacted to The Journalist with indignation. Some did so because they felt unfairly castigated by her characterizations, and some because they found it hypocritical of her not to mention anywhere in the book that she, too, had been the defendant in a similar libel suit filed by a subject one of her books, Jeffrey Masson. In a 2000 essay in Salon, Craig Seligman hypothesized that, perhaps, this was the point: ‘“The Journalist and the Murderer’ struck me as a brilliant solution to her obvious impulse toward autobiography: Talking about McGinniss and MacDonald was an oblique and tactful way of talking about Malcolm and Masson.”

As for Malcolm’s to The Journalist and the Murderer—in which she vigorously rejected the suggestion that the McGinniss-MacDonald case was “a thinly veiled account of my own experience”—Seligman calls her denial “a stupefying specimen of bullshit,” and declares that Malcolm is deceiving herself. “To write anything more than just the facts, ma’am, is to write about oneself,” he writes. “How could she be so clueless about her own method?”

In Iphigenia, clueless she is not; the book is a much more honest first-person account of her doubts about the business. In her passages about her fellow reporters from the other papers, she never directly castigates any of them for impropriety—in fact, she seems to go out of her way to compliment them on their professionalism. This leads the reader to believe that, when musing on the “malice” of the trade, she must be talking about herself.

Throughout the book, Malcolm almost obsessively assesses and confesses her own methods of reporting, and the possible ethical lapses or errors contained therein. The angst of approaching people for interviews, and the blows she feels when those requests are rejected. The switch in status and power once that request is accepted. “Journalists request interviews the way beggars ask for alms,” she writes, “reflexively and nervously.” Yet once the interview begins, the journalist has complete control over the story and how the subject will be portrayed.

This last truth is thrown into stark relief—almost to the point of absurdity—in her interview of David Schnall, law guardian to the four-year-old daughter of the victim and the defendant. Malcolm recounts how she asks Schnall for an interview, and how he declines to speak about the case while the trial was still going on. But then he does proceed to talk to her about the case, on the phone, for almost an hour. (It’s unclear whether he is under the impression that the conversation is off the record.)

As Schnall talks, and Malcolm takes notes, she becomes increasingly disturbed by his paranoid diatribe about a “Communist-like” world order that involves everything from global warming hoaxes to Hurricane Katrina. Malcolm is so disturbed, in fact, that she takes the shocking step of faxing her notes to the defense attorney, with the expectation that Schnall’s mental health will be called into question, along with the reliability of his testimony against the defendant. “I did something I have never done before as a journalist,” Malcolm writes. “I meddled with the story I was reporting. I entered it as a character who could affect its plot.”

Later, Malcolm interviews Joseph and Nalia Malakov, the brother and sister-in-law of the murder victim. Although they are a private family, Malcolm notes that they “evidently felt no impropriety in speaking unguardedly to a journalist.” She notes that, in speaking with her, the Malakovs held “the perhaps not so far-fetched belief that journalists are part of the criminal-justice system: small but necessary cogs in its machinery of retribution.” Her subjects see her role as something like that of a juror, or a judge—when in fact, in her view, she, like all journalists, is by her very nature biased and self-serving. Malcolm’s drawing the reader’s attention to this disconnect does not seem to alleviate the guilt—or at least the hesitation she feels about her dealings with the Malakovs—that she implicitly expresses here.

Even by hinting at her ambivalence, though, she is subverting the traditional journalistic role in society as she explains it. That role is to bolster the illusion that justice is served by a neutral court system, and to help create the tidy narratives that real life so seldom offers. “Journalism is an enterprise of reassurance,” she writes—reassurance that the good guys always win while the bad guys are punished. “We do not wring our hands and rend our clothes over the senseless crimes and disasters that give us our subject. We explain and blame. We are connoisseurs of certainty.”

“Connoisseurs of certainty”? Well, she cannot be accused of that, at least.

Malcolm may have told her editors that Iphigenia in Forest Hills would be a fascinating whodunit, played out as she watched from the courtroom benches—and her editors may have gone along with it, judging by the book’s jacket copy. (“‘She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.’ This is the enigma at the heart of Janet Malcolm’s riveting new book about a murder trial in the insular Bukharan-Jewish community of Forest Hills, Queens.”) But to say that her book is about a murder trial is to say that The Journalist and the Murderer is about a libel suit. The plot is practically irrelevant. Or, at least, this murder trial is interchangeable with any murder trial Malcolm may have chosen to visit for a few months.

Depending on what readers are expecting, they may be either frustrated by the slow pulse of the murder trial as it proceeds throughout the book, or they may be fascinated, as Malcolm is, by the unanswerable questions at its heart. If readers go in knowing that Malcolm herself will be the most intriguing character of the bunch, and that the drama of her own internal experience of the trial will be much more engaging than what transpires in the courtroom, then they won’t be disappointed.

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[Update: this post originally listed a reporter from the Newark Star-Ledger as one of Malcolm’s compatriots at the trial. In fact, the reporter was from the Forest Hills Ledger, in Queens. The error has been corrected.]

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , , ,