Trials: On Janet Malcolm | The Nation


Trials: On Janet Malcolm

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But to prove that something has been falsified is only sometimes possible. In Masson’s libel suit against Malcolm, which was revised over the course of many years, and as some of the quotes she had been accused of fabricating were found in her tape recordings, there could be no evidence that Malcolm had conjured Masson’s quotes out of the ether. Her story could not be disproved for the simple reason that to prove a quote does not exist is materially impossible. One can prove that a quote is not where one was told it was to be found, or that it is substantively different from a recorded quote, but if, as Malcolm maintained, one holds that the quote might exist elsewhere—say, in a lost notebook that could be discovered at a later date by one’s errant progeny (as Malcolm was to swear, in an affidavit submitted a few months after the conclusion of her second trial, that her 2-year-old granddaughter had while playing in the writer’s summer home)—it is impossible to prove that the words themselves were never spoken. Libel suits of this kind often become character tests: he-said, she-saids before a jury of men and women who have themselves both perpetrated and been subjected to countless casual he-said, she-saids in the course of their lives.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills
Anatomy of a Murder Trial.
by Janet Malcolm.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz is the deputy literary editor of The Nation.

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When Malcolm describes malice as journalism’s “animating impulse,” she may be referring to simple spite; but such a definition seems reductive and literal. Perhaps she really does mean to imply only that the journalist is a nasty little parasite, draining her subject’s stories like a succubus to sate her bloodlust. But the picture changes if we venture that Malcolm’s understanding of malice might include reckless disregard—the title, incidentally, of Renata Adler’s 1986 indictment of the media establishment in two major libel cases, Sharon v. Time and Westmoreland v. CBS. The idea that most journalists are motivated by intentional malice is faintly ridiculous; the notion that in their directive to “get the story” they must choose some details and disregard, recklessly, a thousand others, is not just sound but obviously true. As Malcolm reminds us again and again, every narrator—whether he is a journalist, an attorney or merely a man sobbing his story to the bartender after a few too many—must attempt to shape a coherent story that reflects the reality he perceives but to which he can never be wholly faithful: “We go through life mishearing and mis-seeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up.”

In this world, where truth is unstable, there is no contradiction between the Malcolm who scoffs at the easy marks seduced by journalists such as herself and the Malcolm who likens journalists requesting interviews to beggars pleading for alms. Malcolm knows better than anyone that the journalist’s power is granted by the willingness of subjects to spill the dirt, even when it is not in their interests, but that, once they do so, they are under her near complete control. All she has to do is shut up and listen.

* * *

The question left unanswered in Iphigenia in Forest Hills is, Who, truly, is Iphigenia? Malcolm alerts us to the narrative that the prosecution will weave: Borukhova as a furious Clytemnestra wreaking vengeance upon Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter. But putting the question of his alleged molesting of Michelle aside—which is of course a serious charge, but one that is mostly irrelevant to the story as it unfolded after his death—Malakov is more a plot point than a player in Malcolm’s tragedy. He is certainly no Agamemnon. He is mostly passive against the onslaught of his formidable wife and the even more powerful justice system. He didn’t wrest Michelle away from Borukhova; he simply accepted the judge’s verdict when he was awarded custody. If he is the villain of this tale, he is a feeble one.

Iphigenia seems, rather, to be both daughter and mother, each a silent sacrifice to the hubris of the legal and familial systems charged with their care. Michelle is necessarily silent because, as a child, she has no real voice; Borukhova because, like Cordelia, she chose, by and large, not to speak. The daddy dearest here is not Malakov or Schnall or even Judge Hanophy, but the law and order enforced by the court, its proxies and the larger community. Our system of justice and punishment works to the extent that it functions symbolically; it does not operate blindly or fairly, and it requires blood tribute to lubricate its gears.

Dershowitz told me that Borukhova had received a copy of Malcolm’s story, but that, at least at first, she would not read it. She had other things on her mind: her appeal and, more urgently, the fate of her daughter, who is currently in foster care. Borukhova had bigger problems than a news story, even if it might be the definitive narrative of her life—the way that her story is remembered for years to come.

“How can she be this way? She shouldn’t be this way.” Why should we trust Janet Malcolm? She has admitted that she is biased and interfering. She contradicts herself. She makes no apologies. She repeats herself, some have charged—and she does. Again and again she tells us that the system is damaged beyond repair, its cast a cadre of shysters, patsies and brutes mad with the power to seal the fates of others. We get it, Janet, so please—quit harping.

Malcolm is not a gentle writer, and she does not pretend to hide her scorn for Hanophy and Schnall. But, given that Malcolm’s sympathies lie so clearly with her protagonist, it would be difficult to argue that the motive force behind Iphigenia is malice. Where other characters are concerned, Malcolm is generous or not depending on what they appear to deserve. Thus the well-meaning Siff is nonetheless bumbling and outmatched; Malakov’s father, Khaika, is a vengeful Jewish Godfather but also a patriarch protecting his brood. Malcolm can be brutal in her judgments, but it is the casual brutality of keen observation. I don’t detect in her writing the pettiness or spite that drives the gotcha and gossip stories published by so many others, but rather an underlying current of deep and inexhaustible anger at the way of things, which is recorded in our first stories and our latest court transcripts. “How can she be this way? She shouldn’t be this way.” How dare Malcolm, Adler, Arendt, Plath or Borukhova, when the rest of us do not? It is not the crimes these women do or do not commit, but how, that rankles. Their ambitions are unseemly, their behavior antisocial, untoward. If they are silent, they appear guilty; if they refuse to apologize, it must be so. The only words to be trusted are those uttered in confession.

* * *

Of all the characters Janet Malcolm has sketched in her career, perhaps none is more appealing than Gary Bostwick, the attorney who represented Jeffrey MacDonald in his suit against Joe McGinniss, and who was later hired to defend Malcolm in her final legal battles against Jeffrey Masson.

In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm does not conceal her affinity for Bostwick, who seems not just a proxy for Malcolm but perhaps even more Malcolm than the book’s first-person narrator. In the scene in which Malcolm has dinner with Bostwick and his wife, Janette, the attorney appears likable and savvy, heartily eating first his dinner and then his spouse’s as he relates his perspective on the concluded trial with intelligent eloquence. Yet Bostwick also plays the part of the angry trial lawyer until Malcolm poses this question: “I asked if Bostwick didn’t think it possible that McGinniss had been telling the truth in his letters to MacDonald—that he had loved him as well as hated him.” Bostwick, “as if suddenly remembering that he was no longer in the courtroom,” relents. Janette, a Gestalt therapist, says to Malcolm:

“In my work, a patient will come in and say, ‘This is the truth about me.’ Then, later in the therapy, a significant and entirely opposite truth may emerge—but they’re both true.”

“It’s the same with the judicial process,” Bostwick said. “People feel that it’s a search for truth. But I don’t think that is its function in this society. I’m convinced that its function is cathartic. It’s a means for allowing people to air their differences, to let them feel as if they had a forum. You release tension in the social body in some way, whether or not you come to the truth.”

This passage is so succinct a summation of some of Malcolm’s fundamental concerns that, after publishing it, she might never have written another word on such matters. How can a jury know that Borukhova committed murder, or that MacDonald did? (Gary Bostwick, to this day, believes he did not.) How can a biographer know whether Plath was driven mad by Hughes, or Hughes to infidelity by Plath? How can a court determine whether Janet Malcolm fabricated quotes when, by definition, their nonexistence is unprovable? Truth is multiple and contradictory. We are prisoners to our incomplete understanding of the world and of ourselves, but if we choose to investigate, we might unearth some truths about some things, even if in that process we necessarily warp and degrade their other facets. One truth may tolerate another, or may not. People tend to pick their story and stick with it.

Furthermore, the systems we have devised for uncovering the truth—especially journalism and the legal system—distort reality as often as they reveal it. They are suffused with prejudice and fear, and driven by the primal human need for a story to have heroes and villains, a climax and a denouement. For the sake of the story, we disregard, recklessly. We choose sides, and we want our guy to win. “Rooting is in our blood,” Malcolm tells us. “We take sides as we take breaths.” When Malcolm interceded for Borukhova she crossed the line from reporter to actor, but it is a line that, in Malcolm’s world, does not truly exist. Whether or not Iphigenia was meant as a J’accuse, it will have repercussions. Perhaps a new set of jurors will rethink Borukhova’s case, the presumed scientific infallibility of fingerprinting, their own preconceived ideas about her guilt or innocence, or the sorts of people they would prefer to believe innocent or guilty. Perhaps Judge Hanophy, as has been reported in the press, will retire, freeing himself to sip piña coladas at leisure.

I don’t entirely agree with Malcolm’s claim that journalism is an “enterprise of reassurance.” It is true that when the media tell us they have caught the killer and she will be punished, we are happy to believe that they are right. But journalism, or “the news,” is also an exercise in fear and subordination, because even though this killer was caught, there will always be another, just as there will always be another fire or hurricane or stabbing or shooting or car crash, and next time the victim could just as well be you. In our mythic cycle of violence there is no news, only the same small tragedies repeating themselves endlessly, and our rationalizations for why they occur and who is at fault. We cherish both the great hope that our system of justice will mete out fate fairly and the barely suppressed anxiety that it will not.

But you know all this. I have lined up the evidence, and you will decide for yourself whether or not to find me, or Malcolm, or Borukhova, guilty. This is a story you’ve read a thousand times and will a thousand times again, first as tragedy, perhaps, but forever after as farce. You can read it in the papers each day or watch it on the news at night. It’s 10 pm. Do you know where your children are?

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