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.