Trials: On Janet Malcolm
“Iphigenia in Forest Hills” is one of a number of stories reported for The New Yorker that Malcolm has gone on to publish as a book, many of them engaging, in one way or another, the practice of psychoanalysis. In the Freud Archives (1984) describes the rise and fall of Jeffrey Masson, a young, megalomaniacal psychoanalyst among the Freudian elite who becomes a theoretical renegade. The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) narrates convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald’s libel suit against his treacherous biographer and erstwhile friend, the writer Joe McGinniss. The Silent Woman (1994) is a book about books about Sylvia Plath and their relationship to Ted Hughes, the poet-husband who survived her and who, along with his sister, Olwyn Hughes, served as Plath’s literary executor.
The Silent Woman is perhaps Malcolm’s most nuanced and beautiful book. In it Malcolm investigates the real robbing of a life story from its subject, a theft that is perpetrated by an often adoring biographer but with which the deceased subject, in the artifacts she has left behind, is complicit and utterly powerless. No matter what the intentions of the biographer, Malcolm suggests, this is not love and theft, the borrowing and reconstituting and homage to which artists sing hosannas; it is back-stabbing and grave-robbing, and its cost is human lives.
This book, more so than its infamous predecessors, comes closest to distilling all of Malcolm’s primary preoccupations into one slim volume. It is also the book in which Malcolm’s loyalties are most obscure. If we are “connoisseurs of certainty,” as Malcolm has written, then she is a virtuoso of provision and doubt. The Silent Woman is remarkable for Malcolm’s near excruciating awareness of every word in every sentence, how it bolsters or detracts from or complicates the lines of her argument; how every sentence works together to render a disciplined portrait of profound ambiguity.
The title The Silent Woman refers to several modes of silence, most obviously the necessary and resounding silence of the dead. But it is also the much resented literary “gag” order represented by the Hugheses’ control of the Plath estate, and, according to Olwyn Hughes, the silence Plath used as a weapon in life. The raging, “pitiless” voice of the master finally and fully articulated in the poems of Ariel was one manifestation of Plath’s power; the aggression of cold dumbness was another. Olwyn recounted an altercation with Plath to Malcolm: “She never said a word, but mutely glared. It is the only tiff I have ever had in my life where the other person hadn’t a word to say for themselves.” This aggression was compounded when Plath left the next day at dawn, making it impossible for Olwyn to reconcile with her. As Malcolm reminds us, Plath “‘left at dawn’ on another day, in 1963,” when she committed suicide—the ultimate act of silent aggression, its survivors left “forever in the wrong.” The war of the living to preserve the integrity of their stories against the deafening quiet of the dead is one that neither side can win.
Plath and Borukhova are both silent women; one dead, the other dumb, choosing to remain stoic against her interrogators. Borukhova’s story, like Plath’s, is told by others. In Malcolm’s account, Borukhova seems to sense that she is not the owner of her narrative; that to try to wrest it from the court, the lawyers, the media would be futile. She behaves as if she has already been buried, watching her biography write itself in the pronouncements of the judge, the faces of the jurors, the news stories accumulating each day like drifts of dirty city snow.
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Upon its publication in The New Yorker, “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” was not met with universal acclaim as a tour de force of writing and reporting. In the New York Times’s “Media Decoder” blog, David Carr avoided rendering a verdict on Malcolm, merely allowing himself to sniff that “she may have been one of the reporters covering the trial at the Queens Supreme Court in Kew Gardens last March, but she was not and never has been part of the press corps.” Carr leaves the verdict instead to readers, and not just to readers generally but rather to those ghostwriters known as “commenters.”
Commenters are men and women in real life, presumably, but on the Internet they are disembodied pixels of pure judgment that trade little more than an e-mail address for the privilege of hearing themselves speak in the virtual pages of publications otherwise inaccessible to the voice of the layman, in this case, the venerable Gray Lady. Many do so anonymously or with a user name, believing that though their words may be read, they are in no danger of facing the consequences of their free speech, least of all the very real consequence that working writers must face when they put fingers to keyboard: a libel suit. Some brave (or stupid) folks use their actual names, perhaps emboldened by the carnival-like spectacle that welcomes the performance of every comer willing to step right up.
Thus Carr has only to lay the groundwork for the judgment of commenter John H. Marks of Massachusetts, a veteran reporter, who writes that Malcolm is
not someone who ever applied herself to the daily grind of telling unglamorous stories about ordinary people, about the funding of schools, the budgets of police departments, the sadness of an untimely death, the burning of a small house. That’s the essence of journalism, for my money, and seduction is a part of it, as are all the basic human endeavors. It’s a complicated job and only for grown-ups.
Marks is one of many whose objections to Malcolm seem grounded not in perceived professional transgressions but in her uppity, unapologetic, even indecent intelligence. He is a spokesman for the peculiarly American persuasion that the workaday hack is more honest, more industrious, more deserving of our admiration than a superior mind, even a genius (unless, of course, his genius is for making money).
Other commenters have been less polite. In the Village Voice: “The old shrink broad (JM) is pushing 80…. How does Janet get away with recycling 20 year old shrink stuff virtually word for word all over again?” In Salon, after the publication of the book: “So yet another misandrist rant from someone who is pissed that for once a man got some tiny measure of justice? Thanks for publishing this review so I know not to buy Malcolm’s obviously biased piece of crap book.” Back to the Times: “Malcolm’s tiresome literary aspirations”; “a journalist with an agenda”; “pompous and pretentious…a need to place herself above all other writers, as if she is auditioning to be their confessor.”
“No thank you,” continues the last. “What is it about this writer that wants killers to go unpunished by society?… Whom does Janet Malcolm want to kill with impumity [sic]?” Of course, all writers get bad reviews, but Malcolm’s unabashed sympathy for Borukhova and her mode of expressing it seem to have struck an especially raw nerve.
After Borukhova was convicted in March 2009, she all but disappeared from the public eye. (As a mere weapon-for-hire, Mallayev, who was also convicted, never occupied it in the first place.) I spoke with Nathan Dershowitz on the phone in February, a week after his brother, Alan, argued Borukhova’s appeal. Dershowitz would not tell me whether he and his brother were representing Borukhova pro bono, nor would he comment on the specifics of Malcolm’s article, telling me instead that he had read the piece and had “lots” of thoughts about it. He did not think the article would affect the outcome of the appeal, about which he seemed optimistic. He did echo many of Malcolm’s concerns about the psychological burden facing defendants and their lawyers. “The prosecution controls the distribution of information,” he told me. “The press is grossly one-sided. Prosecutors hold press conferences when they first arrest someone. The defense can’t catch up.” Dershowitz described one case “in particular that was on Court TV.”
Dr. Sybers was a medical examiner down in Florida, and what happened with him was a number of other medical examiners sat around to try to decide, if you wanted to off your wife, what would you give her? And they looked around to try to find what it was. They finally came up with something called succinylcholine, which is used in operations to numb people. We went through the whole trial, everything up and down, in and out. After we got the case reversed, the FBI discovered that succinylcholine is endogenous to the body. They discovered that if they checked anybody, or meat in the refrigerator, or fish, they would find succinylcholine in it in about the amounts that they found in the wife.
The New York Times reported the story differently. Sybers was engaged in an extramarital affair when his wife died, in 1991, of unknown causes. Needle marks were found on one of her arms. A special prosecutor was appointed, who then spent five years building a case against Sybers before bringing him to trial. Sybers’s conviction, in 2001, hinged on the testimony of an expert witness about succinylcholine. Two years later, a Florida appeals court found for Sybers: methods of detecting succinylmonocholine, the chemical into which succinylcholine breaks down, were novel and procedurally dubious, and it was discovered that the chemical is in fact present in many corpses.
“The underlying theory for this rule is that a courtroom is not a laboratory, and as such is not the place to conduct scientific experiments,” the court concluded. The special prosecutor admitted that “though believed to be accurate at the time of the testimony” the evidence could “no longer be relied upon.” Sybers pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for time served.
But neither Sybers’s reversal of fortune nor its coverage in the media seems to have mollified Dershowitz. “That story is still out there about his doing it,” he told me, “and then they allow the footer at the bottom: his conviction was reversed. Period. That never really makes it into the story. So what happens is, as with Janet Malcolm’s story, it ends before the appeal.”
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