Megan Abbott on Janet Malcolm’s IPHIGENIA IN FOREST HILLS (Was Malcolm biased?)

In her book, Janet Malcolm worries that she identified too closely with Marina Borukhova when researching and writing IPHIGENIA IN FOREST HILLS.  Megan Abbott’s article in the New York Post explores the connection.  Abbott writes about the public’s fascination with true crime.  

Mystery fiction often draws from stories “ripped from the headlines”.  True crime non-fiction requires that readers look at the victims who didn’t die, the families and friends left to cope with the tragedy into which they have been forced to participate.

She couldn’t have, she must have

by Megan Abbott

Last August, I wrote a piece for the splendid Mulholland Books blog. The post was motivated by my response to Janet Malcolm’s  much-talked about New Yorker piece, “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” (May 3, 2010), which chronicled a crime that took place in my own neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens.

A local orthodontist was shot to death in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a cousin to kill her former husband, with whom she was engaged in a tumultuous custody battle.

The original Malcolm piece has now bloomed into a book and I can’t wait to read it because I find Malcolm a fascinating, frustrating writer (see In The Freud Archives and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes).

And I’m captivated by the notion—central to her article—that she herself can’t fathom her own reaction to the case. Specifically, Malcolm knows the doctor is guilty of her husband’s murder and can’t quite reckon with her own intense sympathy (identification?) with her.

“She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it,” Malcolm writes.

I think this sentence speaks volumes to our fascination with true crime. A few weeks ago on this blog, we were discussing Fatal Vision, the story of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, M.D., who was convicted in 1979 of the murder of his pregnant wife and his two daughters. In the comments section, I found myself embarrassed to admit my knowledge of MacDonald’s own defense claims, all these years later.

At age 13, I was so transfixed by both the book and the movie, by something in them, something in the story, that I became obsessed with the case, reading everything about it. I see now I was operating on two levels.  The story works, captivates because this Green Beret doctor, handsome and perfect with a perfect life, seemed to have exploded one night in an uncontrollable rage, committing unspeakable acts.  Those aspects tantalized me.

But somehow, at the very same time, I wanted MacDonald to be innocent, deeply. Not, I don’t think, because of some romantic, crusading notion of a man wrongly convicted but…but…but because perhaps I didn’t want to believe I could be so fascinated by a person (which is to say, really, a story) that is so ugly.

Without yet reading Malcolm’s book (but based on her article) I think this is different in tenor from her relationship to her murderer, with whom she seems to identify (what she calls her “sisterly bias”)  in ways I did not with Jeffrey MacDonald. But she seems just as swept up in the swell, drama, sorrow and heat of it all. The case speaks to her aesthetically and emotionally. And she goes deeper into her own response, permits herself that inward gaze. She is not afraid.

Ironically (or not), one of the first books I read by Malcolm was The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), her book about the “immorality of journalists” as framed through the relationship between Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGinniss, the journalist who wrote Fatal Vision. Originally, MacDonald was working closely with McGinniss, hoping the book would exonerate him. But ultimately McGinniss came to believe in MacDonald’s guilt and hence Fatal Vision makes the case for MacDonald as a pathological narcissist, a sociopath, a man capable of butchering his family.

Malcom sees it differently. Though she offers no stated feeling of her own view on MacDonald’s guilt or innocence (it’s not her interest), she believe McGinniss slowly realized MacDonald was just plain boring. In the absence of character (not everyone is as lucky as Truman Capote, with the mesmerizing Perry Smith), McGinniss fashions one—one who is in fact a murderer.

And, as McGinniss sells out his subject, Malcolm eviscerates hers. Ultimately, we see, the writer is, as Joan Didion famously said, “always selling someone out.”

Of course, reading The Journalist and the Murderer, years after my fixation with MacDonald dissipated, I had all kinds of responses. Hustled by McGinniss, hustled again by Malcolm. Relieved in some part to know my holding-out-for-hope with regard to MacDonald’s innocence wasn’t perhaps as hapless as I’d come to believe.

And wondering the extent to which we ever really know anyone anyhow. Aren’t we always just reading into ourselves? Looking for ourselves?

There was something I wanted when I read Fatal Vision. And I read and read and read until I got it. (Though what was “it”?)

Maybe Malcolm, sitting in that courtroom, watching the accused woman, trying to penetrate the enigma of the case, was watching herself, was looking for something, a clue.  Asking, without asking, “Tell me: what is it about YOU that matters so much to me? Who are you, to me? What does this—this yearning and curiosity and fascination inside me—mean? What does it say about me?”

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