A Modern Iphigenia Story Plays Out in a Custody Battle Turned Murder Trial

A new nonfiction book, Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills”, is the story of an ugly custody battle in which a little girl named Michelle is lost in the fray, and her father is ultimately murdered by her avenging mother. At Salon, Laura Miller says this of the book: 

Michelle is the Iphigenia of this book’s title, the counterpart of the girl of Greek myth who was sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, so that his fleet might sail to the Trojan War, and then avenged by her mother, Clytemnestra, who stabbed her husband when he returned. For [journalist Janet] Malcolm, Michelle is a child whose welfare is used as a pretext in battles among adults, but whose actual interests and happiness are overlooked. There could be no more eloquent proof of this than the fact that no one has been able to establish where Michelle was for many hours after her father’s murder. She seems to have been literally forgotten.

“Iphigenia in Forest Hills” is only an unsatisfying book if you can’t be bothered to think hard about what satisfies you. “Journalism is an enterprise of reassurance,” Malcolm writes toward the end. “We explain and blame. We are connoisseurs of certainty.” By refusing to do any of that, Malcolm has, in a mere 155 pages, given her readers far more than reassurance.

What sounds appealing in this book (at least to me) is that, by Laura Miller’s accounting, the journalist doesn’t paper over the story’s ambiguities (moral and otherwise). As Miller writes:

[T]he shooting of Daniel Malakov as he stood with his 4-year-old daughter in a playground was no fiction, and there are times when insisting that a handful of facts be made to add up to a clear chain of events and an unqualified apportioning of blame leaves us not with justice but something that looks like its opposite.

Hmm. Complexity is truth; truth, complexity. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know?

What might Keats say about that? Or Freud?

And there appears to be a feminist subtext to the book, a sympathy for Clytemnestra against Agamemnon:

Malcolm freely admits her “sisterly” sympathy with [Michelle’s mother, physician Marina] Borukhova at the outset. By the end of the book, the only thing this reader felt sure of was that Borukhova didn’t get a fair shake.

And neither did Clytemnestra in The Eumenides (the concluding tragedy in the Oresteia trilogy).

In its ambivalences, I wonder if Iphigenia in Forest Hills might make for a good companion meditation to read alongside the Oresteia itself and to ask these questions concerning both of them: 

  • When must a cycle of vengence yield to the law and order of the state, and what happens to justice at the point in which it does?
  • Who gets stuck holding the bag at the end of a chain of outlandish events and how does one ever really satisfy the Furies (the Erinyes)?

File:The Sacrifice of Iphigenia.jpg

Image source: Wikipedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to A Modern Iphigenia Story Plays Out in a Custody Battle Turned Murder Trial

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Some say vengeance belongs to the Lord. Others believe it theirs by right. Others still Insist that the State quell blood feuds to safe-guard peace. Even those who suppress fully their desire for revenge will often pay as a consequence as the most despicable in society take advantage of their amiable nature. I prefer to use anger as a catalyst for building comradery amongst those also aggrieved. By sharing my pain in a controlled expressive state and listening to others do the same, bonds are made, and social ostracisation of the offender takes place. If the offender is a stranger however, one for which no means of retribution if possible through law or social action is available, make sure that I shall either let it pass or have my revenge in such a manner as to not be held accountable for its actions. Justice, when dealt by one’s own hands, is best done in secret. If private vindication will not do, then this speaks to the foolishness of the vigilante.

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