I am almost certain I first learned about the Borukhova case from the local television news soon after Daniel Malakov was murdered but before the police arrested his wife, during that period of limbo when people have suspicions and air them but are careful to use the conditional tense. I believe it was the television news because I have vague recollections of sounds and images: the cadence of a professional, female voice bearing bad tidings; shots of a neighborhood playground gone desolate. I could be wrong. These sounds and images are not rare. They are the stuff of every nightly newscast: police tape, grieving relatives, pointed fingers.
I do not like the news, especially not television news, least of all your news at 10, the witching hour for local newscasts because it affords producers ample time to sift through the day’s petty corruption, malfeasance and borough tragedies and pick the choicest plums with which to send viewers off to sleep. On a certain New York City station the liturgy begins every night with the same incantation: “It’s 10 pm. Do you know where your children are?” I hurry to turn off the television on the rare occasions when I have forgotten to do so earlier. I have no children whose whereabouts I might worry about, and I do not like the news.
But if this time I continued to watch, it was because the Borukhova case was for me a special tragedy. The protagonists were exotic and familiar: members of the Bukharan Jewish community in Forest Hills, Queens, a closed, esoteric clan with mysterious origins in Central Asia. The deceased husband, Daniel Malakov, had been a young, respected orthodontist. His estranged wife and suspected murderer, Mazoltuv Borukhova, was a dark, beautiful, board-certified physician who had been born in Uzbekistan and studied medicine in Samarkand, the storied city of the Silk Road. She came to the United States in 1997, married Malakov several years later and bore their daughter, Michelle, in 2003, soon after which their marriage began to disintegrate. Michelle lived with her mother until October 2007, when a judge awarded temporary custody of Michelle to Malakov in a motion sought by neither husband nor wife. On October 28, Malakov was shot by an anonymous gunman—later to be identified as Mikhail Mallayev, a distant cousin of Borukhova’s—at a playground where Malakov had brought Michelle for a visit with her mother.
What I gleaned from the television that evening was not so detailed. The words that reached me through the nightly kaddish for the battered, the kidnapped, the murdered and the newly destitute might have been Jewish, immigrant, secretive, custody, doctor and woman. Had I known the accused murderer’s name was Mazoltuv I might have thought it ironic, but instead I thought mostly about what I would do if someone took away the children I hope someday to have—whether I might kill a man to get them back—and concluded that perhaps I would.
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A similar “sisterly bias” animates Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Janet Malcolm’s epic account of the Borukhova trial, first published in The New Yorker in May 2010 and now in expanded form as a book. Iphigenia is a courtroom drama that veers from the trial unfolding onstage to the lives of its protagonists, a diverse cast of characters depicted as good, bad, ugly and sometimes all three. Over the course of the narrative Malcolm makes the argument that whether or not Borukhova is guilty, her trial was a legal travesty and, more grotesquely, she was doomed not from its outset but years earlier, when she filed for and received a temporary order of protection against her husband (she claimed that he had physically abused her and, later, that he molested their daughter). At that point Borukhova became a hostage to the bureaucracy of the state. Social workers came and went; a “law guardian” was appointed by the Queens Family Court (but paid by the parents) to defend the interests of Michelle. The power granted these state minions was perverse, even absurd, as they were summoned to judge Michelle’s welfare based on minimal knowledge of her family situation and only the briefest acquaintance with the child herself. (Malcolm tells us that it is a point of pride among court-appointed law guardians to have as little contact with their charges as possible. It was revealed during the trial that Michelle’s guardian, David Schnall, adhered obediently to this code, finally meeting Michelle some eighteen months into his tenure.)