Part Two: Janet Malcolm Finds ‘Iphigenia’ in Her Own Mind

Janet Malcolm’s 25-page article about Mazoltuv Borukhova’s murder-for-hire of her husband Daniel Malakov is, more than anything, an attempt to rationalize her own pre-conceived notions with the reality of the case. She subtitles her piece “Anatomy of a Murder Trial,” but that’s just the cover story for her effort to understand how “this gentle, cultivated woman” could pay a man to murder her husband. The central issue to Malcolm is “the enigma: she couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.”

But the problem is not in the facts of the case which are about as clear as they come. The problem is in Malcolm’s head. The first part of her “enigma” – “she couldn’t have done it” – is nothing more than Malcolm’s own mind rebelling at the idea that a “gentle, cultivated woman,” in short a woman like Malcolm herself, could conspire to murder. We can almost hear her thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Not surprisingly, Malcolm’s piece is about a woman and mother. Would she write a piece about a “gentle, cultivated man,” that’s driven by the notion “he couldn’t have done” a murder he plainly committed? I doubt it. Indeed, in a piece several years ago, she seemed content for readers to conclude that British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes had driven his wife Sylvia Plath to suicide. Another gentle (maybe), cultivated woman took a life and Janet Malcolm seemed to want to find her husband responsible.

As I said previously, the Borukhova case is simple, so it’s remarkable that Malcolm has such difficulty with it. Most of us have looked at the facts, drawn the obvious conclusions and moved on.

The fact is that women commit crimes every day. When they kill, they tend (as do men) to kill men, and the men they kill tend to be their intimate partners. Moreover, women are more likely than men to hire the job done rather than doing it themselves. Therefore, Borukhova’s behavior fits common patterns of women who murder. So Malcolm’s difficulty in accepting the obvious is unusually strange.

We see this frequently. Wrongdoing by a woman is predictably met by the response from some quarters either that “she couldn’t have done it” or “she did it but she had an excuse.” One of the favorite excuses is “battered woman syndrome” that, for some people requires no physical abuse whatsoever. I reported recently on the effort of Dr. Lynne Zager to excuse the murder-for-hire conviction of a Tennessee woman on the basis of “battered woman syndrome,” despite the fact that the woman herself reported no physical abuse by her husband and there was no evidence of same at her trial.

To her credit, Malcolm doesn’t ignore the facts of the case. That’s the usual strategy of those who want to absolve women of whatever crime they may have committed, but with a few exceptions, Malcolm gives us the facts. Borukhova claimed that Daniel had sexually abused Michelle, but the allegations were always found to be unsupported by any evidence save her word. And given her lengthy history of lying, both before and after the murder, both under oath and not, Borkhova is scarcely to be relied on.

Malcolm’s attempts to find something, anything, with which to “acquit” Borukhova are weak at best, and I got the feeling that somehow, she knows it. For example, everyone who knew Daniel – his friends, his relatives, his patients (he was an orthodontist), his acquaintances – all described him as kind and generous. But his wife said he was Jekyll and Hyde – one person in public and a different one at home. The straw Malcolm grasps at to corroborate Borukhova’s claim is, incredibly enough, Daniel’s clothing. He wore casual clothes to the office and yet his closet at home contained some expensive suits – Armani and Hugo Boss.

Like her inability to see the obvious in the murder case, Malcolm manages to not see it in the matter of Daniel’s clothing. He wore casual clothes to his office because that’s the common mode of attire for dentists (dentistry can be messy); he maintained a higher-end wardrobe at home because he was a professional and that sometimes requires more formal attire. Amazingly enough, Malcolm lets her readers know her own mode of dress while covering the trial – “uninteresting jeans and corduroys and sweaters.” I wonder if her closet contains anything more chic, more formal, more elegant. Surely it does. Is Malcolm herself then a Jekyll and Hyde figure? No, she’s a person like Daniel Malakov and countless others who owns more than one kind of clothing.

Malcolm’s need to see “gentle, cultivated” women in her preferred light shines through when she writes about Daniel and Marina’s divorce. Borukhova demanded everything – child support, spousal maintenance, insurance – the works. That’s not at all unusual, but to Malcolm, “these demands diminish her.” No, actually they reflect her. She made them and they are necessarily an aspect of who she is. What they diminish, is Malcolm’s preconceived idea of her, and any “gentle, cultivated woman.” Malcolm longs for Borukhova to support her notion of the high-functioning, successful woman – a person who doesn’t stoop to certain acts. But Borukhova disappoints her and Malcolm takes the come-down hard.

Malcolm’s article is an extended battle with her own preconceived notions about women, particularly women of her own class and education. Faced with the incontrovertible facts of Borukhova’s crime, she labors to rationalize the mythology she’s learned about those women (“she couldn’t have done it”) with the reality that so plainly contradicts it.

Ultimately, mythology wins. Tellingly, Malcolm’s article is entitled “Iphigenia in Forest Hills.” Iphigenia, in Greek myth and drama, was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. When Agamemnon angered the goddess Artemis, she becalmed his ships on the way to Troy and demanded the sacrifice of his daughter to atone for his offense. The story varies after that. Sometimes he agrees and Iphigenia is killed; sometimes Artemis steps in at the last moment.

What this has to do with Mazoltuv Borukhova and her conspiracy to murder her husband is guesswork. Malcolm herself never lets us in on the secret. But suffice it to say that Iphigenia was an innocent sacrificed to propitiate a god for the wrongdoing of a man. By any measure, it’s an enormous stretch to compare Borukhova to the innocent of myth, but that’s what Malcolm does. Ultimately, somehow, she’s convinced herself either that Borukhova took no part in her husband’s killing or that she should be excused for it. Whatever the case, there’s a sort of poetic justice to her use of mythology to describe her failure to recognize her own mythologizing about “gentle, cultivated” women.

To view Malcolm’s effort, played out over 25 pages, to come to terms with a simple concept – gentle, cultivated women are sometimes capable of terrible wrong – and fail, leaves a strange sensation. The writer is far from stupid and doesn’t shy from the facts, and yet finally, her own need to cling to a mythology of women (at least educated ones like her) as innocents overpowers her. It’s like watching a big, strong man struggle to open a package of potato chips and, unable to do so, walking away hungry. You want to go to him with a pair of scissors, open the bag and let him eat.

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