Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial

by Janet Malcolm (Yale Univ.)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum Apr. 12, 2011

Janet Malcolm is to malice what Wordsworth was to daffodils. In nine previous books, she’s so thoroughly, so indelibly investigated a certain breed of malice—the kind that festers in the writer-subject relationship—that it ought to bear her name. Malice is journalism’s “animating impulse,” she writes as she turns reportage inside out to show us its seams (and seaminess) with trenchant ceremony. Biography and journalism are rotten with exploitation, venom, voyeurism; we’ve just averted our eyes. Like the child who cries that the emperor has no clothes, she announces truths hidden in plain sight. Of course the journalist will pretend to be your friend to get the story. Of course authorial neutrality is “a charade of evenhandedness.”

She’s presided over some very rarefied rows: an upstart Sanskritisit challenging Freud’s seduction theory (In the Freud Archives), a bestselling writer backstabbing his subject (The Journalist and the Murderer), the sotto voce squabbles among the biographers of Gertrude Stein (Two Lives), and l’affaire Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman). But in her latest book, the slender, scalding Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she comes tumbling back to earth to report on a lurid murder case—and we meet a very different Malcolm altogether.

But first, the facts: On a clear morning in October 2008, Daniel Malakov, a dentist belonging to the Bukharan community, a Jewish sect from Central Asia, was shot execution-style in a playground in Queens in front of his four-year-old daughter. His estranged wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, an internist, tried stanching the blood with her hands. She applied chest compressions, and when the EMS arrived and bungled the intubation, she did that too. Malakov died shortly after being brought to the hospital, and suspicions were soon cast on Borukhova. The separated couple had been in the throes of a nasty custody battle; Borukhova had accused her husband of battering her and sexually abusing their daughter, Michelle. Malakov, in turn, accused his wife of turning Michelle against him. A family court judge had recently sided with Malakov and granted him full custody. It was a ripe motive: Had Borukhova slain her husband to avenge herself for the loss of a daughter, as Clytemnestra avenged Iphigenia?

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