Thursday, July 28, 2011

Connoisseurs of Certainty

Yale University Press has published Janet Malcolm's new book. Iphigenia in Forest Hills : Anatomy of a Murder Trial. It concerns a sensational real-life drama set against the ordinary background of the Forest Hills neighborhood in the ordinary American town of Queens, New York.

A young mother and father going through a divorce were negotiating custody of their four-year-old. Unexpectedly and abruptly a family law judge ordered the child to be taken from the mother and given to the father. Shortly after the transfer took place  by force, with the help of police  the father was murdered by a "contract killer" with ties to the mother.

Malcolm (below) spent seven weeks attending the murder trial at Queens Supreme Courthouse. In the book she offers profiles of all the participants, interviews with many of them, and her usual cautious & nuanced speculations about what actually might be going on in front of her eyes. But she never claims that she KNOWS what is going on – even though all the other players on this stage are all-too ready to express extreme (and conflicting) certainties.

Below (in italics) I've set out a few brief examples of the way Malcolm insists on making her version of the story more complicated rather than less complicated  a sort of anti-journalism, and the trademark of her style since she began to publish widely back in the Eighties.

In her first tentative step into the court system that would swallow her, Borukhova [the mother, above and below] did call the police, but stepped back after Malakov [the father] was arrested; like many battered women, she did not press charges. However, on June 24, 2005, citing further abuse, she requested and received a temporary order of protection from the Queens Family Court, whereby Daniel was ordered to stay away from her and Michelle or be liable to criminal prosecution. Now she had crossed the line between the private and the public. She had asked the state for help, and the state had given it, but, in exchange for its protection, had exacted control over a part of her life  her motherhood  that was as firm in its way as the "stay away" directive to Malakov.

"The prosecution does have an overwhelming advantage," he said. "The jury walks in and figures the defendant wouldn't be there if he wasn't guilty. They don't trust the defense lawyer. And if there is any bias by the judge, if there is any body language by the judge that supports that bias, it becomes almost impossible to overcome." Scaring
[defense attorney] spoke of Hanophy's bias by body language: "During the prosecution's summation, Hanophy sat behind his desk intently listening. During the defense summations he walked around looking bored."

But Leventhal
[the prosecutor] was letting no opportunity to buttress his case go by. He knew that juries want more than evidence to convict; they want to be certain that the person [in this case the mother, as shown again, above] they are sending to prison or to another world is an evil creature as well as an evil-doer.

It was as inevitable that Borukhova would revenge herself on Daniel for the loss of Michelle as that Clytemnestra would revenge herself on Agamemnon for the loss of Iphigenia.

Joseph and Nalia [relatives of the murdered man] evidently felt no impropriety in speaking unguardedly to a journalist [Malcolm herself, seen again above]. Murder violates the social contract, and makes a mockery of privacy. As they had eagerly cooperated with the prosecution, so they eagerly told me their stories  as they had been telling them to other journalists - in the perhaps not so far-fetched belief that journalists are part of the criminal justice system: small but necessary cogs in its machinery of retribution. As losing defense lawyers are wont to do, Scaring had spoken bitterly of the role of the press in his defeat. He said that the defendants had been tried and convicted in the press, and it is true that the press had made the prosecution's narrative its own. Journalism is an enterprise of reassurance. We do not wring our hands and rend our clothes over the senseless crimes and disasters that give us our subject. We explain and blame. We are connoisseurs of certainty.