In ancient Greece, the story of Iphigenia is one of murder, revenge and a fierce motherly love. When her husband, Agamemnon, sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to gain favor with the goddess Artemis, Clytemnestra flew into a bloody rage and killed him. She couldn't save her daughter, but she would have her vengeance.
In modern day Forest Hills, N.Y., another violent family story unfolded in the courtrooms. Mazoltuv Borukhova stood accused of having her husband murdered after a custody fight got nasty. He was shot, in broad daylight, while taking his 4-year-old daughter Michelle for a walk in the park. New Yorker journalist Janet Malcolm sat in the courtroom as the story of the murder of a middle-aged Jewish orthodontist played out, and the result is the courtroom drama Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial.
Malcolm watched the beautiful young Borukhova, a doctor, and thought "she couldn't have done it, and she must have done it." That conundrum doesn't ease as the evidence is presented. It's murky at best; the players are untrustworthy; and something as simple as likability could determine whether or not this mother will go to jail for life. The spark that set off the conflagration was ignited in another legal case: a family court had awarded custody of Michelle to Borukhova's husband, Daniel Malakov — despite the fact that there were sexual abuse accusations and Michelle appeared to be terrified of her father.
The role of journalism has traditionally been to answer questions: What happened and when? Who is guilty, and who is dead? Malcolm, however, has spent her career expanding the boundaries of the form. In such works as In the Freud Archives (1984), an account of the fight over and misrepresentation of a dead man's ideas, and The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), her exploration of how a journalist's personal biases can cloud his view of the truth, Malcolm has, counterintuitively, made things more dizzyingly complex, not clearer. Indeed, Iphigenia poses more questions than it answers, and the reader is left to struggle with them. What is justice? What is to be done when the rights of a parent conflict with the needs of a child? What can be done to fix our flawed legal system?
Iphigenia in Forest Hills goes down like a crisp episode of Law & Order, but it shakes and disturbs you like the smartest nonfiction can. The question raised by Malcolm that will torment you the longest is, what will happen to Michelle? In the myth, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon's other daughter, Elektra, continued the chain of violence by having her mother killed to avenge her father. As a result, the Furies — who cried out for an eye for an eye, blood for blood — were civilized into Justice to disrupt the string of deaths. With Justice repeatedly failing this Forest Hills Iphigenia, it's hard not to worry about what role she'll be playing as her own life and story unfolds.