Ph.D. Octopus

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The Critic is a Judge, the Judge is an Academic

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by Luce

It’s already known that for Janet Malcolm, no profession is sacred, not even her own. Yet while remaining hyper-aware of her role as journalist in her latest book Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she also assumes the mantle and mentality (with intense psychological portraits) of lawyer, judge, and executioner, not to mention father of the dead, daughter of the accused, state-appointed law guardian, and alleged murderess. Some might call it a performative contradiction, but then again she sees all the characters in the trial as performers with deep contradictions. Perhaps she’s merely joining the gang, or perhaps her own performance is intended to highlight the inconsistencies that surround her.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills recounts the murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a physician and member of the Bukharan Jewish community in Forest Hills in Queens, accused of hiring a hitman to murder her ex-husband after a court ordered their young daughter be transferred into his custody. I recommend it wholeheartedly. About her protagonist, Malcolm writes, “she couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.” This appears on page 32 of 155 pages, and by the end the reader is left with no further conclusion than that. Either we remain satisfied with this impossibility, or we start doubting Janet Malcolm’s authority. But why doubt Malcolm’s authority rather than someone else’s? Take the judge for instance: Robert “Hang ’em” Hanophy, whom one juror (apparently hand-selected for his gray everydayness) says (on page 96) is “real and down to earth and serious about his job. And funny. He had a good sense of humor.” But nearly 90 pages before, Malcolm has already described Hanophy as “a man of seventy-four with a small head and a large body and the faux-genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate.”

I keep noting the timeline of the book because it tells us something about what Malcolm’s doing here. Malcolm doesn’t ask the reader to reach his or her own conclusions as testimony is laid out; she doesn’t pander to expectations of objectivity. The jurors and judge are already biased toward actions and behaviors that seem legitimate to their own understandings, and Malcolm isn’t about to let them get the monopoly on prejudice. Yet while Malcolm gives her narrative precedence, the nature of the written form allows her thoughts to become interwoven with those of other characters’; the reader flips back and forth to re-read a  Malcolm characterization of someone an interviewee has presented in a very different light. And so Malcolm’s own narrative can be retroactively challenged. While I was initially convinced by Malcolm’s claim that Borukhova both couldn’t have and had to have killed her ex-husband, at some point I began to doubt that she couldn’t have. Despite this deep paradox, Malcolm is more convinced that she knows Borukhova’s character than I am (though in a recent Paris Review interview, Malcolm admits, “As I went along I felt I undestood her less and less… [Borukhova] becomes who you imagined she is.”) Flawed legal evidence abounded, and Borukhova appeared to be a successful career woman, a devoted mother, and quite possibly an abused wife, but none of this convinced me that she couldn’t have done it.  Perhaps this makes me the radical relativist to the contrarian Malcolm, characterizations that make generational sense given her birth in 1934 and mine in 1983.

So Malcolm’s book is interesting because it reveals the biases behind courtroom narratives and because it suggests alternative ones. But it’s most interesting because while figures in the courtroom remain isolated in their thought processes (jurors aren’t supposed to talk to each other about the case until they reach the jury room, although of course they all do during lunch breaks), by presenting double, triple, quadruple narrative threads (of defense, prosecutor, law guardian, father, sister-in-law, accused, judge, herself) Malcolm forces the reader out of a unitary or even argumentative narrative structure. The reader sits alone with these multiple threads, enjoying wall of immunity against the forces of group think that often happen in jury deliberations (I suppose now’s the time to link to 12 Angry Men); the reader has the time to consider and reconsider, edit and re-edit, sift through and rearrange the puzzle pieces into various constellations.

Speech simplifies, curtails, and most importantly because it’s perceived in the courtroom as the arbiter of truth, you are likely to betray yourself with your own words. The jury in the Borkuhova case focused on the fact that the accused had a date wrong in her testimony — she said the alleged hired assassin had visited her for a doctor’s appointment on a day when there was documentation that he was in Israel. Malcolm points out that this easily could have been a slip of the tongue, or a mis-remembering, perhaps due to the fact that Borukhova had become malnourished in jail because she wasn’t provided with food that satisfied her strict kosher dietary laws. But it became a deciding point in the jury’s deliberations. It proved she was untrustworthy. The jury I sat on this winter focused on the fact that in a 2008 (or was it 2007?) deposition the plaintiff (who was suing a landlord) claimed that she had grabbed on to one part of a stair railing that allegedly came loose from the wall, but at the trial she pointed to a different part of the railing. A lapse of three (four?) years and an event that took place at 2am involving a heavy fall? Why not?

I suppose, especially given our saturation in TV courtroom dramas, we expect perfectly polished and practiced testimonies on the stand. A slip on a date seems incriminating, but it also reveals our implicit belief that the witness should be giving us a prepared performance. Because obviously we don’t hold ourselves to such high standards of memory in our own everyday lives, right? A friend asked me the other day what date I’d taken my general exams on. For two hellish months, the date and time of my exam had been imprinted on my brain. Less than a month later (I hate to think what this says about all the other knowledge I crammed into my head for it) the date was gone (April 21st, 2pm, I figured out later from my calendar). Unprepared for that same question in the witness stand, how would I come off? “Ms. Loveland, you mean to tell me that you did nothing for three whole months but prepare for this exam, yet you can’t even remember what day it took place? Are you sure you were as serious a student as you make out?”

Yet while we expect polish, a courtroom performance must still come off as natural, unassuming, realistic. This is no expressionist theater. During my trial, one of my fellow jurors commented a number of times on how during closing statements the plaintiff (who was suing the landlord for a shoulder/back injury) rubbed her shoulder and looking mournfully at the jury. “She was so obviously doing that to get our sympathy,” was the general sentiment. “Not gonna work,” the unspoken second line. In other words, know your audience.

So who is Malcolm’s audience? Well, for one, me: a history graduate student who read Iphigenia two days after completing her general exams. Does it appeal especially to people who recognize that a certain amount of adroit strategy makes up much of their own everyday lives? In prepping for my general exams — a 2-hour verbal performance with a panel of four “judges” (or professors with whom I happily have good working relationships, unlike Borukhova and Hang ’em Hanophy) — I learned how to analyze the dilemma of feminism in French republicanism with queer theory, but I also learned how to speak that analysis with confidence, how to gain time while I gathered my thoughts on a question, how to deflect certain topics that I knew were dangerous waters (not that I always succeeded).

Both substance and form are obviously important for relaying ideas (ostensibly what much of academia is all about), and every profession has its manner of speaking, its behavioral norms. But if we pull in some Bourdieu, then what class of academics does this create and how does this intersect with other classifications (socioeconomics, undergrad education, gender, race etc) in American society? Who is able to embody the behaviors and speak the language acceptable to a committee of professors, and how much is this predetermined before entering graduate school? At a conference on “who and what universities are for” at NYU, Diane Ravitch opened her talk by saying “Who is the university for? It’s for anyone who wants to go to university.” Of course that’s too easy, and it’s also too easy to assume that those who enter PhD programs will succeed in them. Some will drop out, others will be pushed out, and the question is how much is that based not on performance but on performativity?

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Written by Kristen Loveland

May 11, 2011 at 07:00

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