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The Fate of Michelle Malakova: ‘Oppositional Behavior’

Susana Bates
Gavriel Malakov with his niece, Michelle Malakova, Queens, March 2009. She was assigned to live with his family some months after her mother was arrested for murder.

At the opening ceremony of the new Queens Family Courthouse in February 2003, New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye said,

For too long, families with cases in Queens Family Court have been subjected to anything but dignified surroundings, but now, with the opening of this new justice complex, they will be in a place that will inspire confidence and respect again.

The governmental press release that quotes Kaye goes on to praise the building’s “beautiful five-story atrium” and to conjecture that “waiting areas with exterior views and maximum exposure to natural light should make the long waiting periods less stressful to families.” A non-architectural solution to the problem of chronic lateness was evidently never contemplated. Long waiting periods are a fundamental, almost sacred part of the legal system, indispensable to the administration of justice.

Accordingly, the architectural firms of Pei Cobb Freed and Gruzen Samton took it as one of their highest priorities—perhaps the highest priority of all—to make the corridors where people wait interminably as pleasant as possible. In The New York Times of July 6, 2003, Ian Bader of Pei Cobb Freed recalled the agonizing that went on at the firm over the facing pairs of wooden benches that line the corridors. “The first dimensional decision was, what is a comfortable distance face-to-face?” Bader said. Eight feet was finally arrived at: “close enough to accommodate large amounts of seating but not so close that it would make strangers feel uncomfortable facing one another.” “It’s not that architecture can solve the problems of the people who come to the building,” Bader added modestly—too modestly, perhaps.

When I attended the criminal trial at Queens Supreme Court of Mazoltuv Borukhova and Mikhail Mallayev for the murder of Borukhova’s estranged husband Daniel Malakov, all my attempts to speak to Borukhova’s sisters and mother were rebuffed; they refused to have anything to do with me. But in Queens Family Court, when I took a seat on the bench opposite Natella, Sofya, and Istat Borukhova, they did not rebuff me. Under the spell of Pei Cobb Freed’s dimensional magic, they began to accept my overtures, and to see me as someone to whom they could tell their side of the terrible story, though always with caution and reserve.

One day I arrived in the waiting corridor to find Natella, a mother of six, with a little rosy-cheeked boy of two on her lap. She was playing a game with him: she would uncurl and kiss his fingers one by one, then curl them up again, as he crowed with delight. The Malakov family’s grim belief that the Borukhova sisters and mother were accomplices in the murder (the Malakovs did not hesitate to share this theory with journalists) was hard to credit in the light of such a scene. On the other hand, wasn’t tender maternal attachment a crucial element of the case against Borukhova, the putative motive for her desperate act?

In April 2008, over the protests of her maternal relatives, Borukhova’s daughter, Michelle Malakova, was sent to live with her paternal uncle Gavriel (a brother of her murdered father) and his wife Zlata. In July 2008, seven months before the murder trial, she began making monthly visits to her mother at Rikers Island. She came accompanied by a social worker—usually Eliana Cotter of OHEL, an Orthodox Jewish foster care agency—and an interpreter. The purpose of the interpreter was to make sure that Borukhova said nothing “inappropriate” when she spoke to the child in Russian. Michelle sat on her mother’s lap and Borukhova told her stories and played games with her and asked her about her life. In the “progress notes” she was required to keep, Cotter observed the warmth and closeness between mother and child, and the child’s sadness on leaving.

Gavriel and Zlata had been firmly told by the Administration for Child Services (ACS) not to speak about the murder to or in front of Michelle, and they had obeyed, as had Daniel’s brother Joseph and sister-in-law Natalie. But Joseph and Natalie’s youngest children, Julie and Sharona, age six and seven, were under no such constraint. Their sharp ears had picked up what was obviously talked about all the time at home, and when they played with Michelle they saw no reason not to inform her that her mother was in jail and that she had killed her husband. This was two months before the prison visits began. On May 9, Cotter wrote that Michelle asked “where BM [her birth mother] is and said Julie and Sharona think she’s in jail. She said jail is ‘a very dark place.’” Cotter confirmed that Borukhova was in jail, but that “jail is not dark and BM has everything she needs.” She explained that “sometimes when people are waiting for court they have to wait in jail.” On May 22, Cotter wrote that on the way home from a therapy session,

Michelle asked why BM was in jail and if she did something wrong. CP [the “case planner,” Cotter herself] asked what if Michelle thought BM did something wrong, and Michelle said “Yes, she killed Danik.” She said her cousins Julie and Sharona told her this. Michelle then said BM couldn’t have killed him because she didn’t have a gun. CP asked if Michelle saw what happened. Michelle said that she did and a man shot BF. Michelle started crying and said she missed BM and wanted to see her.

Michelle had been speaking with Borukhova on the telephone since her incarceration, but these conversations were not a success. Since prisoners can only call collect, Borukhova would call during Michelle’s visits with her maternal grandmother and aunts and cousins, and Michelle talked to her reluctantly. She did not welcome the interruption of the games she was playing with the cousins. This was not callousness or unlovingness. Play is the serious business of childhood, its work. For Michelle, from whose life almost everything familiar had disappeared, play was a remaining structure that she grasped at as if holding on to a ledge over an abyss. She played harder than most children do. (Sharona and Julie had noticed this and commented on it to me when I met their family in the fall of 2009.) Michelle articulated her ambivalence to Cotter about her mother’s calls: “‘Sometimes I don’t want to talk when she calls. I don’t like that she calls all the time.’ CP asked if Michelle wanted BM to call during every visit or only sometimes. Michelle replied, ‘Only sometimes.’”

The visits with the maternal relatives were occasionally held in one of the aunt’s apartments (a few times Michelle was allowed back into her own old apartment), but usually took place at a social agency. In her notes, Cotter would list the names of the cousins who came—Yocheved, Liana, Nerya, Batya, Eliot, Milana, and Moshe—and the games they played with Michelle—Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, Mother May I? (!!!) The grandmother always brought home-cooked food for Michelle, who often, in her eagerness to play, heedlessly brushed her aside. Cotter noticed the child’s rudeness to her grandmother with increasing disapproval and finally intervened. “MGM repeatedly offered Michelle food but Michelle ignored her,” she wrote. “CP redirected Michelle to respond when people talk to her and Michelle said ‘I don’t want any.’ CP prompted her to tell this to MGM in Russian. At first she pretended she did not know how then she complied. MGM accepted Michelle’s response and stopped pressuring her to eat.”

Cotter’s nice resolution of the impasse between the heedless child and the Jewish grandmother is an example of what is called “problem solving” in social work argot. But when Michelle’s therapist, a social worker named Richard Maisel, used the term in a conversation with Cotter in November 2008, about an impasse between Michelle and Gavriel that he was attempting to cut through, there was no such easy fix.

Michelle started to see Maisel in June 2008. Gavriel and Zlata were dissatisfied with the previous therapist, Alla Weinstein, and wanted someone with “a more direct and honest and less evasive therapeutic approach.” Maisel gave them what he thought they wanted. In an early session, as Zlata told Cotter on July 13, “Mr. Maisel informed Michelle of the reason BM is imprisoned”—knowledge that Michelle naturally resisted and denied. But Maisel soon realized that what Gavriel and Zlata wanted from him was not only that he work with Michelle to help her face a tragic reality, but that he work on her to behave better at home.

Ever since Michelle went to live with Gavriel and Zlata in April she had displayed what they called “oppositional behavior.” She told them that she hated them and wanted to be with her maternal relatives. She refused to do her homework. By November, she was a holy terror, crying and screaming and hitting classmates at school and stealing food from them. Maisel saw that a good part of the problem was the foster father, who was locking horns with the child over every issue, and driving her to despairing fury. He would stand over her as she did homework until she balked and said she couldn’t do anymore. Maisel told Gavriel (Cotter reports) that “getting into a struggle of wills is useless, and as Michelle gets frustrated she may start purposely giving the wrong answers.” Cotter continues :

He suggested instead to try to work with her…try to join her as an ally, instead of forcing her as an adversary. He suggested taking a brief break or switching to another subject. FF [foster father] nodded and smiled, but Richard did not know if he was really listening to the conversation.

Cotter goes on:

FF discussed another situation which Richard identified as a struggle of wills…. In the morning when Michelle is having cereal, FF wants to force her to have bread with it. FF says this is very important because otherwise she is hungry later, eats her snack on the bus, and then takes food from others…. Richard tried problem solving, and suggested that maybe Michelle is just not hungry first thing in the morning and only becomes hungry a little later. Richard suggested packing her an extra snack to alleviate her hunger, and explain that if she doesn’t eat it then she can bring it home. Richard said this is a concrete solution to a relatively easy problem. FF said, “Ok, I may try that, but she’s getting fat.”

Gavriel—as might be expected—can’t suddenly turn himself into an empathetic adult. Maisel contemptuously characterizes him in Cotter’s report as “‘an undereducated, limited parental body’ getting into ‘struggles of will’ with a six-year-old.” When he stops bringing Michelle to her appointments and Cotter tells him that the child needs therapy “to process the numerous traumatic events of her life,” he retorts that

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