Iphigenia In Forest Hills, By Janet Malcolm

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As soon as I read this bizarre murder story, I felt impelled to read it again. It is impossible to put down. In 2009, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm – whose previous literary investigations include In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer – attended the trial of Dr Mazoltuv Borukhova for the murder of her estranged husband, dentist Daniel Malakov. Borukhova was alleged to have paid a hit man. Malcolm's writing is not a cold courtroom analysis but an impassioned examination of a complex history which includes child abuse, sexual taboo and a ringside trial seat in front of the famous "hanging judge", Robert Hanophy.

Although this book explores the inculpation of a woman who may well be innocent, it also puts the US justice system on trial by focusing on Hanophy's bare-faced manipulation. This judge, who constantly belittled Borukhova by always calling her Miss, never hid the fact that he wanted to wrap the trial up fast so that he could go on vacation and "sip pina coladas". His stress on speed meant that vital information was never brought to court and severely prejudiced the defendant.

Malcolm's gripping reportage over the seven-week drama hooks the reader in because she successfully evokes the clashing circles of several separate New York societies. She spotlights Queens' Bukharan-Jewish community, and Ukrainians seen by other Russian-Jewish Americans as "more like Muslims than Jews". Within this closed group she reveals the accusations that Malakov was reported to have beaten his wife and kissed his daughter's vagina. The silent victim at the centre is Michelle; the narrative's Iphigenia.

Multiple descriptions of Michelle screaming as she was pried from her mother's arms are chilling. The social services took her to her allegedly abusive father. Amid the murkiness of conflicting testimonies, Malcolm casts light on how Borukhova might have saved herself by gaining empathy from the jury, but shows how she lacked the sophistication to play to the gallery. Her courtroom performance only alienated those who might help.

Added to this catastrophe is the entry of prosecution witness David Schnall, a court-appointed guardian. In a phone-call, Schnall told Malcolm that the US 'is "a communist country" and that "Joseph McCarthy was right". She revealed his fantasies to show that his testimony could be unreliable but the judge refused to discount Schnall's word. Hanophy stacked the cards against Borukhova and convicted her of conspiracy and first-degree murder, with life imprisonment and no parole.

Malcolm continues her investigations. Family members reveal that they ostracised Borukhova for her sexual immodesty (with her own husband!). It's hard not to judge this trial as one which held many secrets and that, even if Borukhova had her husband murdered (which is not certain), her removal suited a lazy judge and a puritanical group of Jews. The leading character is called Mazultov; in Hebrew, "good luck". Sadly, this woman had none.