On the issues that matter in Malone NY (USA)

—  Calvin Luther Martin, PhD

Dave Merrick is running for Malone Town Justice.  (Yes, he’s the son of Don and Debbie Merrick. Don, as many of you know, was Principal at Franklin Academy for many years.  Debbie was a celebrated obstetrics nurse at Alice Hyde.)  Their son David, a Tenth Mountain Division veteran who saw combat in Somalia, is a sergeant in the Malone Village Police Department.

If you’re like me, and have little clue about the Somalia campaign, here’s a glimpse of what it was like.

Alpha Company landed at Baledogle Air Base the first week of Operation Restore Hope Eager to tangle with the warlord gangs.  Instead, the enemy disappeared into the red dirt like ants just before the rain. . . . At first nothing in Somalia worked. The ports and airfields were like the rest of the country: rusted, busted, or ripped off. . . . To Somalis, the US grunts — dressed in combat helmets and flak jackets and armed to the teeth – must have looked like giants from another planet. Their rules of engagement were sledgehammer simple and as loose as I have ever seen: fire if threatened. Early on, gang members in three Somali vehicles made the mistake of firing at a USMC Cobra helicopter. “Say your prayers, varmint,” muttered the pilot as he went in for the kill. He melted them like a candle in a bonfire. A machine gunner in a gun-mounted “technical” vehicle trained his weapon on a squad of Marines and was taken out by leatherneck fire.  Now the word is, Don’t mess with Operation Restore Hope.

Only a few weeks ago Mogadishu was an armed camp. Almost everyone, including 12-year-old punks, had AK-47’s. Now the gangs have stashed their AK-47s and gotten out of town. . . .

The military calls the tactical approach behind Operation Restore Hope the “oil blot.”  Once a new center is opened, food distribution and simple actions such as medical assistance and engineer support slowly seep out. As this blot grows larger, it connects with others, eventually covering the whole land. The technique used for seizing the major centers has been the same. First leaflets are dropped telling the people that the good guys are on the way. The next day Ambassador Oakley visits the target area to negotiate a nonviolent reception. The following day the muscle arrives, spearheaded by a paunchy squad of CIA hands who Rambo-in like something out of a bad B movie.  They are followed by a fast-moving rifle company well-covered by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft. Food distribution and assistance soon get underway. This week the last two major cities . . . should be free, and Somalia, a country the size of Texas, should be under US-UN control.

— Newsweek Magazine Jan 4,1993, p. 39.

The man risked his life to liberate Somali civilians from the thugs who had muscled in and taken over.

This, however, is not the reason this publication supports his candidacy for Town Justice.  We are more interested in his role as a senior officer on the Malone police force.

What do you see in the picture at the top of this page?  “A cop!” you reply.  You’re right, although you’re missing something.  “Okay, an old cop!”  You’re getting warm, but still no cigar.

“Okay, dammit, what are you getting at?”

Take off the police cap, drape a stethoscope around his neck, and imagine him in a white lab coat.  (Let’s give  him a beard, to make him look more like Sigmund Freud.)

“Yeah, so what!  What’s your point?” (You sound like your patience is running thin.)

Beneath the police uniform, there’s an invisible yet very real doctor’s coat.

A cop, my friend, is a doc.   Effectively, a policeman is a hands-on, street psychiatrist.   The men and women in blue didn’t sign up to be shrinks, but this, in fact, is what they wind up doing.  “Policing” is just another name for “community mental health.”

Imagine the human brain.  The mind.

As the caption says, our brain consists of bundles of interpenetrating nerve cells (neurons).  Imagine them as gears cranking out thoughts, beliefs, fears, needs. It’s the old Nature/Nurture debate:  Some of our thoughts are innate (inborn, or genetic), whereas others are learned, with the learning starting the moment we are born and quite possibly while we’re still in the womb.

Pediatricians will tell you the newborn’s relationship with its mother is critical to forming the adult mind that eventually unfolds. Some experts believe the human mind is pretty much programmed by age 4 or 5. Programmed for either self-confidence or shame.  Programmed to expect either abuse and neglect and insecurity, or programmed to expect nurturing and genuine love.

Shame, abuse, neglect, and insecurity, are not innate; they are learned — learned from catastrophic parenting.  (Self-confidence and the expectation of nurturing and genuine love, on the other hand, are innate, learned in the womb and reinforced at the nursing breast.  Some years ago I published a book on the subject, Eve’s Breast:  The Origin of Consciousness, Language, and the Erotic, K-Selected Books.)

The plot thickens.  (Or perhaps I should say, it deepens.)  Think of an iceberg.

The subconscious and the conscious are inextricably linked, ceaselessly conversing with and shaping one another, and yet the subconscious — as its name says — remains outside our ability to consciously “understand” and “control.”

How vast is the subconscious — the submerged dimension of “mind”?  Answer:  No one knows.  We don’t even know for certain if it communicates, somehow, with other creatures (whales, bears, moose, seals, and salmon, for instance) and even inanimate things — things like the landscape and trees and mountains and water in its myriad forms.  (The Eskimos I lived with for 2 years were convinced they communicate with whales, bears, moose, seals, and salmon.  I wrote 2 books on this subject, The Way of the Human Being, Yale University Press, and The Great Forgetting, K-Selected Books.)  That is to say, we don’t know whether the subconscious is universal (porous) and limitless — whether the earth and universe itself is in reality one vast Mind.  (Aldous Huxley thought it was.  He called it Mind at Large.  Quantum physics likewise posits a universal consciousness.)

Back to policemen.  Our mind meshes — as gears mesh — with the social & cultural “gears” outside us.  As in, for instance, school.  (Personally, my gears never meshed with calculus.  For me, studying calculus in college was like suddenly throwing a speeding car into reverse gear.  Yeah, that bad!)

Then, of course, there is the matter of trying to gear your mind to that of siblings, or parents, spouse, your children, and other individuals you routinely interact with.  This is a toughie, too.  My first marriage ended in divorce; the longer Jean & I lived together, the less successfully our minds geared.

Everything I said, above, is normal — par for the course — in human experience.  At the end of a difficult day, when your mind has been forced to process your boss, your family, the national news, other motorists on the highway or around town, and a myriad other “gears” clamoring for your attention — your brain feels fried.  You want solitude.  Serenity.  You want to flip the switch to “off” and stop all the gears whirring away in your skull.

And then, perhaps this happens.  This is a true story, by the way.  I wish it were not, but it is.  (I now change the pronoun from “you” to “me,” since this happened to me.)

Around 3:30 pm I was working in my study several weeks ago when I heard someone walking by, on the sidewalk, holler the F-Bomb (“F&#k”!).  In front of my home.  A young man walking down the sidewalk.  I went outside to ask him not do this in our neighborhood.  I told him it was unacceptable, here.  He insisted he could scream any kind of obscenity he wished.  I told him he could not, that, among other things, it’s against the law (disorderly conduct).  Whereupon he punched me in the head, knocked me down, and calmly walked away.

A neighbor who witnessed the assault called the village police, who arrived within minutes.  My assailant had disappeared around the corner by the time they arrived.

Two officers, Patrolman Martin & Miller.  I gave them my story.  This is where things got interesting.  I could see them processing what I told them, as they tried to figure out if they knew the man, based on my description.  (They had looked down Milwaukee St., and there was no one in sight.)  In the ensuing hour, as I made out my police report and talked further to the officer on duty, Sergeant Smith, and even Chief Premo, I realized something of immense significance:

These officers know, by name and description and modus operandi, nearly all the village screwballs and other difficult souls, since the cops encounter them on a regular basis.  They deal with the young woman who routinely walks out of Walmart with a shopping cart full of unpaid-for goods, including electronics.  (The Malone Walmart loses millions of dollars worth of merchandise, annually, to such shoplifting.)  They deal with the man who routinely beats his wife at night.  They deal with the chronic drug users and dealers.  Likewise, the people who break into and rob homes when the owners are away.  And the people who routinely drive like madmen, and women, on our streets and other roads.  

It’s as if a lightbulb went on in my head.

My wife, Dr. Pierpont, has a busy medical practice in behavioral pediatrics and adult psychiatry.  She sees all sorts of people with various degrees of mental disturbance and illness.  She treats drug addicts and dealers.  She treats the guy who drives his Ford like a fiend.  She treats brawlers and others with an outsized and chronic anger problem. She treats wife beaters.

And so, too, do the police, both state police and village police.  But with a difference:  My wife treats people who come to her of their own volition or, if they are children, they are brought by parents.  In other words, in my wife’s case, someone brings the troubled, even dangerous individual to the doctor, saying, “I need help!” or “He needs help!”

The police are obliged to deal with the same — or worse — damaged people.  People like Richard Matt and David Sweat, both destroyed by chaotic childhoods and a trajectory that either never sought or found healing.  (Besides, who knows what disastrous combination of genes each inherited?)  Or the shoplifters and thieves, the people prone to violence, people who self-medicate with booze and become enraged and rampage, and a host of individuals with various personality disorders and florid mental illness.  Paranoia.  Schizophrenia.  Delusional.  Out of control mania.  Suicidal.  Or people who simply make really bad, intensely anti-social choices in their daily life, spending their waking hours rending the fabric of society — dealing or using drugs, for instance.

In short, there is a high likelihood that every person who gets arrested or ticketed in this community, did so because either (a) he/she has a mental illness of varying degree of severity, or (b) fell prey to an impulse that, in his or her better judgement, would have been nixed.  (I can’t speak for other communities across the land, but I feel comfortable saying this about Malone.  I know the municipal judges and occasionally sit in on their court, and I know the police dept. well and, indeed, given where I live, have had to call them frequently.)

Let me put it more starkly:

» Malone has more belligerent nut-cases per square foot than any other place I know.  (I’ve lived in dozens of towns and cities across North America.)  I’m talking about the more-than-usual anti-social behavior one expects in a medium-sized town.  (Usual, humdrum anti-social craziness is some damn fool driving 50 mph down Main Street, Malone.  Yeah, it’s anti-social.  Consider that what’s being “driven” is a 5000 lb projectile, aka weapon, euphemistically called a “car” or a “truck.”)

» Secondly, it’s the police, not Dr. Pierpont, who have to literally stop these people and deal with the mayhem.

» Thirdly, what the police are dealing with is frank mental illness.  It might be transitory or chronic, but it’s mental illness, nonetheless.  Anything that violates the social contract of civil and decent and respectful behavior is mental illness, by definition.  I speak as both an anthropologist and historian.  The social contract is what has kept societies running smoothly since Adam & Eve.  (If you doubt me, take a course in Anthropology 101.)


In bygone days, it was community elders who enforced the social contract.  In paleolithic (hunter-gatherer) societies, it was one’s kinsmen who enforced it, together with community elders.  (In a paleolithic society, Matt and Sweat would have had their heads smashed in by one of their relatives, to remove such chronic, destructive behavior from the all-important community.  Why a relative?  To avoid what’s called a “blood feud” between families or clans.)

Anyhow, now it’s police who take the role of elders and do the apprehending.  And courts who likewise assume the role of elders and wiser relatives and render the decision whether to remove this individual from society (called “prison”), or fine the offender, or send them to the gallows.

This is not the place to debate capital punishment.  My aim is to rethink who police and courts are.  Continuing with the imagery of the brain and its “gears,” police and judges have to deal with the man or woman or child who has a gear or two out of place.

My wife, the doc, will tell you that this “out of sync” gear is almost invariably a result of childhood trauma.  She tells me this over and over.  “This child was neglected.”  “This child was abused, either beaten or sexually abused, or both.” “This child was [fill in the blank].” (Incidentally childhood sexual abuse is standard in rural America.  No, not by the creepy-looking, weird old guy who lives down by the river, but by mom’s boyfriend, or an uncle, cousin, grandparent, older half-sibling, parent, etc.  Shocking, yet true.)

Allow me to get personal, once more.  I was abused as a child.  No, not sexually, but physically by a violent father.  None of my friends or classmates or school teachers would have suspected it.  I was a model student — though seething inside.  In college, 3000 miles away from my monstrous father, at age 17, I exploded.  To use my phrase, I broke the social contract with gusto.  It’s a miracle I wasn’t arrested (including for drunk driving).  I was almost immediately placed on disciplinary probation by the Dean of Students at my small college.  “Martin, the next time you screw up, you’re outta here!”

Even this threat didn’t stop me.  (Sound familiar?)  What stopped me was when the Dean of Students, a bear of a man (I can still visualize him), called me into his office and gave me a lecture, the same way Sgt. Merrick and Judge Gardner give felons a talking to:  “Martin, you’re messing up your life.  You’re smart.  But there’s something wrong with you.  You are intensely anti-social.”  (Note:  One of the college psychology professors had given a personality test to all the incoming freshmen.  A week later he summoned me to his office and quietly told me that out of the entire freshman class, I was an “outlier,” scoring alarmingly in the anti-social end of the behavior spectrum.  “Um, yes sir,” I responded, “why are you telling me this?”  He looked me over thoughtfully for a moment and remarked, “I just wanted to meet you.  That’s all.”  Then, dismissed me.)

Three months later, I was sitting in front of the Dean of Students, who, like a cop or judge, now had to deal with this traumatized 17-year-old.  “Martin, you’re a pain in the neck.  You keep appearing before the Disciplinary Committee.  Young man, we’re tired of seeing you in front of us!  So, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do.  I’m putting you on the Disciplinary Committee, as a full member!

You could have knocked me over with a feather!  In a flash, I went from being a pain-in-the-ass hell-raiser, to being the judge of pain-in-the-ass hell-raisers.

Dr. Orley Heron was the dean’s name.  The man was a genius.  (Deans of Students are, like cops and judges, shrinks and care-givers.)

So began my long process of healing from childhood trauma.  Fixing that misplaced gear in my mind — the gear that messed up the works.  (I went on to be appointed to the student court, and wound up as chief justice my senior year, and was nominated by the college and awarded the distinction of Who’s Who among Students in American Colleges and Universities.  I got a C in calculus, by some miracle of God.)

Okay.  Re-think the Malone Police Dept.  Rethink the Malone Municipal Court.  Cops, judges, jail, and probation department are all endeavoring to recalibrate messed up mental “gears.”  So kids like me, who seethed with unresolved childhood trauma, can be healed and become productive members of society, respecting the all-important social contract.

For me, it worked.  If I am pulled over by Sgt. Merrick for speeding down Main Street, Malone, I want him to ticket me, and I want Judge Gardner or Lamitie to fine me.  I want this treatment out of a profound respect for the social contract and respect for police & judges as care-givers.

Okay, you’re wondering, “What happened to the guy who punched you out?”  I discovered, later that day, that he’s mentally ill.  I had suspected as much.  (I learned this from a neighbor who recognized him and told me something about his background.)  More importantly, I discovered he was voluntarily seeking treatment for his paranoia and schizophrenia.  “Ah,” I thought, “there’s hope for him.  He’s trying!  So long as he’s trying, I can work with him, and can heal both him and me” — me from the bruising sense of violation one experiences when beaten up.

I resolved that, should I ever see him again, or if the cops found him, I would — ready for this? — apologize to him.  At first, yes, I drew up charges against him.  Then I thought better of it.  “I will apologize for my being confrontational.  No doubt this triggered something awful somewhere deep in his subconscious.  And he responded the only way he knew how to — by slugging me.”

That’s precisely what happened.  In fact, it was more uncanny than I could have imagined.  I was chatting with Sgt. Merrick in my breezeway the following day, on David’s day off (hence, he was in civilian clothes) when, lo and behold, the same man walked down my sidewalk, eyes fixed on the pavement, glancing neither right nor left.  “David!” I whispered, “that’s him!  What should I do?”  “Call the Village PD,” he suggested.  “They can apprehend him as he’s walking through Arsenal Green.”  I walked out to the street to see if he was going to cross Main Street to Arsenal Green.  Before he got there, he happened to turn around and look directly at me.  I waved for him to come back and speak to me.  He paused, then began walking resolutely toward me.  Turning to David, I asked, “Will you come with me?”  “Certainly!” he assured me.  David & I walked across Clay Street, and I extended my right hand in friendship.  “I want to apologize for yesterday,” I called out.  “I was confrontational, and that wasn’t necessary.  Please accept my apologies!

The man nearly wept with joy.  He shook my hand with the hand that struck me the day before.  “I am so sorry,” he said.  “I am really really sorry for hitting you!”  “I gather you have some emotional issues,” I continued, “and you’re being treated for them.”  “Yes,” he acknowledged.  He made it clear that he struggles with darkness.  “Stop by sometime and let’s get to know one another,” I went on.  “I may be able to help you.  We’ll sit out by my water fountain and chat.”  He seemed pleased by this.  “Yes,” David spoke up (though he never identified himself as a police officer, since he was out of uniform), “Dr. Martin has a lovely garden.  Very soothing.  Waterfalls.  You’ll like it there!”  The man seemed genuinely pleased.

I then hugged him.  He gave me a real hug.  (Something told me he had not been hugged in years, if ever.)

He is now my friend.

I would not have done this without wise counsel from Sgt. Merrick that day, for we had been chatting about the incident when — voila! — the man appeared!  (A miracle?  Maybe.)

This experience has a name.  It’s called “restorative justice.”  Dave discusses it on his website.  Restorative justice seeks to heal both perpetrator and victim by bringing them together in some ingenious, imaginative, and seemingly improbable reconciliation.  I first learned about restorative justice from the Five Nations Iroquois (who include the Mohawk, to the north of Malone).  Traditionally, when a warrior from a different tribe was captured — if it was discovered he had killed an Iroquois warrior, the prisoner was adopted by the family of the slain man — to take the place of the son or father or husband or brother they lost.  To fill man’s role and obligations to the family and group.  (I know this sounds strange, but that’s how it worked.)

David Merrick understands restorative justice.  He will try to implement it.  It can take many forms, though its underlying genius is always “repair harm” — to everyone involved.

Make no mistake, restorative justice is firm and tough.  It tells the young woman who habitually walks out of Walmart with a cart-load of stolen goods, “You must now work at Walmart for 5 months, without pay, to repay what you stole from them.”  To the 18-year-old ticketed for speeding and drunk driving, restorative justice says, “You are ordered by the court to take a CPR course, where you are trained to save someone’s life — where you learn how to heal people, rather than harm them.  Once you show this court your certificate of completion, we will waive this ticket, young man!”

Sgt. Merrick has a plan for the Town court.  He knows that Malone is small enough to handle offenders creatively, intelligently, and firmly — so to fix people and break the cycle,

It’s called “thinking outside the box.”

Dave hopes to run on both the Democratic and Republican tickets.  If you’re a registered Democrat, I urge you to attend the caucus on July 14th (Tues) at 6 pm in the Franklin Academy auditorium.  Attend and vote for him.

If you’re a registered Republican, do likewise:  Vote for him at the caucus.  The caucus will be held August 4th (Tues), 5-6:30 pm, Hosler’s Restaurant (Main St, Malone, across from the fairgrounds).

David Merrick