Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm

So, Janet Malcolm is a journalist and writes for the New Yorker as well as having published a number of acclaimed works of nonfiction and biography. I have been interested for some time in reading The Silent Woman (biography of Sylvia Plath), and actually own Two Lives (of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas), although I have not yet read it. Her latest release is Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and I was interested enough to buy it at once, for the library, and to take it to lunch with my on the day of its arrival to start reading it.

First impressions: I guess the cover is boring to you here in image form, but I find it striking and respectable in its simplicity. I wish more books would try this style of straightforwardness; not that I don’t appreciate beautiful, elegant, well-designed covers that involve color and images, but this slim, simple, black book is very eye-catching in a world of graphics.

It starts off very strong. I’ve said before, my kind of nonfiction is narrative style; this is just right for me. Malcolm has a voice in her own story, including occasionally referring to herself: how she would have reacted to a certain question in the jury selection process, for example. Or, later in the book, how she interacted with the families in question during interviews; or her discussion of the different journalists and their interactions during the trial. I like that Malcolm plays a part in the book. It seems more realistic that way. Who can help being a part of the story she writes, especially in a case such as this? Malcolm followed the case for many months. She couldn’t have helped but be involved on some level.

The story is this. NYC is home to a community of Bukharan Jews in a neighborhood called Forest Hills, in Queens. Boy meets girl; they marry, and have a baby girl. Four years later, husband Daniel is murdered while handing off daughter to ex-wife. She stands trial for his murder, along with the man who allegedly fired the gun, as her hired hit man.

There are accusations that Daniel physically abused his wife and sexually abused their young daughter. There is a heated custody battle and suspicions of emotional neglect and attempts to turn her against one parent or another. The event that allegedly pushes the wife to have the husband killed, is that a custody judge chooses to remove the child from her mother’s care and place her with her father. This looks like a crazy decision, since the child barely knows her father and he was not asking for custody, merely visitation rights. There is questionable evidence; both the prosecuting and defense attorneys come in confident of victory. There are issues of culture. I learned a lot about the Bukharan sect of Jews, which I knew nothing about before reading this book.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills reads a little bit like a courtroom-procedural novel of criminal intrigue. Our questions, however, are not finally answered, as they almost certainly would be in a novel. Malcolm is not sure whether Mazeltuv Borukhova did, in fact, hire Mikhail Mallayev to kill her ex-husband Daniel Malakov. (Her title, by the way, is part of what initially attracted me to this book, along with Malcolm’s excellent reputation as an author of biographical nonfiction. It references the story of Agamemnon and his family, which I know best, and love, as told by Aeschylus. Of which, more below.*) I love that Malcolm interviews and interacts with both families and both sides involved in the legal battle, while noting her personal reactions including any bias she sees herself develop. She recognizes and gives weight to emotional reactions and personalities. It’s not a sterile treatment – because our legal justice system is far from sterile. In the end, she doesn’t tell us what really happened, because she doesn’t know. The blurb inside the front cover begins with the defining quotation of the book:

She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.

So there you have it. A story of ambiguities and questions, beautifully and insightfully told, from myriad angles. My first Malcolm read has come far too late, and I’m more eager than ever to get into more of hers.

*The Oresteia by Aeschylus is a trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies: The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. I could go on all day; I love ancient Greek drama. But I’ll try to be brief. Iphigenia’s story:

As the Greeks prepare to sail to Troy (to lay seige, in the Trojan War, to recover Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother, stolen by Paris), the winds are against them; to appease an angry goddess, they choose to sacrifice Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia. She is brought to the harbor in a wedding dress, believing she will marry Achilles, but instead is killed by her father, who then sails for Troy. Upon Agamemnon’s triumphant return ten years later, his wife (Iphigenia’s mother), Clytemnestra, along with her new lover, entrap and kill Agamemnon.

Thus, Malcolm’s title suggests that the mother in this story, Borukhova, is so angered by the “theft” of her daughter (through custody court, not sacrificial slaughter) by the girl’s father that she has him killed (by a man implied to be her new lover). As I said, I was drawn in by this allusive title. I find the allegory a bit weak in the end: the daughter in Malcolm’s story is not murdered (although there is some question that she might have been raped!); and the title’s implication suggests a bias that Malcolm generally does not profess in the body of the book. But still, it is a dramatic title, one that got my attention; and it makes a larger point, that this tale is one of epic tragedy and does no one good in the end. There is no victor; no one’s lot is improved by these sordid events (as the victim’s father points out repeatedly), regardless of whether Daniel Malakov was a good man and doctor or a deplorable and sick abuser.

I recommend Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills; and I also recommend Aeschylus!!

10 Responses

  1. Malcolm is AWESOME! She’s one of my favorite nonfiction writers. I loved her book on Plath and thought her book on Stein/Toklas was great too. I can’t wait to get to the rest of her work, including this one, plus her book on Chekhov and on Freud. I love her mix of good storytelling and interesting meditations on writing itself — how biographers work, for example.

  2. Thanks Dorothy. I am further encouraged! 🙂

  3. This sounds wonderful. I read Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murder a couple of years ago and loved it. She’s a very perceptive writer, wonderful journalist and a compelling storyteller.

  4. […] Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Janet Malcolm. Nonfiction. A journalist’s account of a murder trial that took place in Queens, in a community of Bukharan Jews, with no final decision as to whodunit; an interesting study of murder and of culture. Malcolm is an amazing writer of nonfiction. […]

  5. […] something very narrative, conversational, interesting about this. Similarly, Dethroning the King, Janet Malcolm, Annie Londonderry, etc. It’s not sensationalist; it’s just exciting. Written like a […]

  6. […] books, too!) Maybe next year it will be someone different – maybe a nonfiction author like Janet Malcolm or Erik Larson. Who knows? There are so many good authors out there, and we don’t always get […]

  7. […] Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, Janet Malcolm** […]

  8. […] the White City, Erik Larson Fire Season, Philip Connors Heroine’s Bookshelf, Erin Blakemore Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Janet Malcolm Mr. Playboy, Steven Watts And also Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson and […]

  9. […] been impressed by Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, I knew I wanted to read what I thought was her biography of Sylvia Plath (and, secondarily, […]

  10. […] and not exactly what I’d expected; but it is in line with my own previous Janet Malcolm read, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. As I said on Tuesday, this is not a biography as I thought; it is rather an examination, if not an […]

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