One day I hope someone will write a book with a title like Therapized Nation that charts the growth of the United States without mention of psychotherapists until about the 1970s.
After that, our history becomes so larded with shrinks that today few commercial novels, movies or TV shows exist without them.
What’s missing, though, are police department psychologists, especially women, as fully developed fictional characters. We see them in police briefings as stiff consultants coming forward when asked a question. Yes, they’re respectful of Freud and intrigued by Jung but oh, so careful to apply the safest and most general psychological theories.
I think this happens because the author doesn’t know enough to establish the police psychologist as a real pro in the field, let alone a great sleuth unraveling the department’s juiciest mystery. Plus: A feminist shrink who reveals what really goes on in a mostly male, mostly white police station? Never happens.
Until, that is, a real-life veteran police psychologist named Ellen Kirschman, who’s worked with the Palo Alto CA police department for 25 years, decided to launch a bold new mystery series in 2013. It’s bold because the now-retired Kirschman introduces a smart and sardonic middle-aged veteran shrink, Dot Meyerhoff, who’s as caustic and tough as she is compassionate.
Not afraid to confront the unspoken prejudices and internal politics of Kenilworth PD (Kirschman’s fictional Bay Area police department), Dot also finds one subtly innovative way after another to serve the mostly white male cops who need yet resist her counseling.
No ‘Bigot with a Badge’
As mentioned in Part I (below), police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement had begun to hit the headlines when I discovered Kirschman’s first novel, Burying Ben, in 2013.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was, that the issue of police officers killing unarmed people of color would take a decidedly unusual twist in the second Dot Meyerhoff mystery, The Right Wrong Thing (2015).
The unexpected turn is that the cop in trouble is not the usual “bigot with a badge,” as people now regard the average police officer, Dot notices. (And why shouldn’t they, the novel ponders. A hostile and combative manner is what so many smartphone and dashboard cameras have shown us in real life.)
Instead, the officer under scrutiny is a thoughtful and dedicated white female rookie named Randy who’s passed the grueling application process at Kenilworth Police Department with flying colors.
Dot, the department psychologist whose interview is the crucial last step in the hiring process, has gone on record describing Randy as “psychologically stable, (with) good impulse control, no problems with anger, not excessively vulnerable to stress or substance abuse, extroverted, and optimistic.”
Sounds fine, but this is where Kirschman brings the situational ax down: Guilt-ridden when her partner is injured because she panicked during a fight (even her partner calls her a coward), Randy receives mandated counseling — a controversial issue in itself — but is back on the force too soon, thanks to a weak chief who bows to political pressure.
It’s at that moment that fate throws her a tragic curve. In the midst of approaching a pregnant African American teenager named Lakeisha, Randy believes the girl has a weapon and fires her own gun in defense, killing Lakeisha instantly.
The outrage that comes down on Randy from Lakeisha’s family and community takes a number of turns that don’t make sense to Dot. She decides to risk the chief’s wrath (and her own job) by going into the field herself to find out what happened.
The Even Trickier Part
But perhaps the more engrossing, trickier part of The Right Wrong Thing is that Randy, who was previously ostracized by Kenilworth police officers because she was the department’s first female hire — and thus rumored to be too emotional (too weak) for the job — is now embraced as a hero by these same male cops.
“I’m one of the boys now because I killed somebody,” she tells Dot, referring to Kenilworth cops as “the same jerks who gave me extra whacks in defensive tactics, just for the fun of it. Now I’m their hero. Well, fuck them. If that’s what it takes to join the good old boys’ club, I don’t want it.”
Good for you, we think (well, I thought), but Dot sees beyond Randy’s anger to symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that must be dealt with first. They range from nasty insomnia and a compulsion to relive the killing of Lakeisha to obsessive “perimeter checks” (locking and relocking windows and doors) and “diesling at the curb,” the author’s term for being so jacked up with adrenalin that she anticipates emergencies everywhere.
Dot also knows that if Randy is given a slap on the wrist for killing a civilian, her own guilt will make things worse. “When the punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” Dot tells us, “all a person is left with is self-punishment.”
Indeed, Randy’s self-blame is so volatile that all she can think of is going to Lakeisha’s mother to apologize personally for the shooting. By every standard of police work, this is the wrong thing to do. But Randy no longer trusts police work or what it stands for. The only thing that feels right is unloading her remorse on the very person who’s least able to hear it
All of this comes out in the early pages, along with, of course, the usual pressures: intense-to-hysterical media coverage, litigious attorneys, death threats, a frustrated husband, furious family members and something new, even hilarious if it weren’t so tragic, on the police procedural scene:
The Spiritual Disconnect
This is Dr. Marvel (accent on the vel) Johnson, an “alternative therapist” who’s eager to tell Randy and her husband what they want to hear, instead of what they need to know.
Marvel earned her Psy.D (not Ph.D) from a place called Christian Connect Institute of Psychology and insists she’s “a bona fide psychologist” because her license allows her to practice in two states. “Christian psychologists recognize the place that God has in our lives,” she tells an increasingly skeptical Dot, “and the suffering that comes with a spiritual disconnect.”
Oh dear, “spiritual disconnect.” It’s not that Dot doesn’t understand the term; rather it’s the New Age way therapists like Marvel seem to toss stuff like that around that makes Dot gnash her teeth. Marvel has also turned the 12-step plan from Alcoholics Anonymous into a PTSD program of spiritual reconnection. “What has given Randy great relief is to give her suffering over to God,” Marvel says.
The more Marvel pushes her evangelism-in-therapy as a quickie solution to complicated issues, the more it’s almost fun to watch Dot smolder.
Marvel: “The point is that police officers are ministers of God’s authority on this earth, as it says in Romans, and as such are in a spiritual war against the forces of evil. I’m not saying [Lakeisha] was herself evil, but she clearly was in the grasp of evil forces. Once Randy realized this, she felt a great deal better.”
Dot: “Now I know this woman is full of crap.”
Kirschman wants to show us that no single police act ever happens in a vacuum. At the same time that Randy is trying to deal with the shooting of Lakeisha, community pressure is bearing down on Kenilworth PD, not only to hire more female police officers but to consider appointing a woman as chief.
Are Female Cops Different from Male Cops?
Listening to the debate between candidates for chief, Dot notices the subtleties of gender discrimination that affect police work in what could be many police stations today.
Question: Why do you think women make good police officers?
Answer: Jay Pence, the male candidate: “Women are good with children. They have good communication skills. They have a natural affinity for caretaking that is very helpful with domestic violence victims.”
Jacqueline Reagon, the female candidate: “Women are more likely to defuse an explosive situation by talking someone down and less likely to act aggressively when they are challenged… Whereas male officers are more likely to respond aggressively because of their egos or their need to exercise control.”
Wow. Are male-female differences so obvious in police work? They are, says Reagon, a chief with many years experience from other cities. She’s here to say the era of self-censorship by women police are over.
In fact, in the “cowboy culture” of Kenilworth’s nearly all-male force, Reagon says, “acts of physical prowess or daring” are “the only activities that count” by men in uniform. Were she appointed chief, emotions, teamwork and an avoidance of acting aggressively would be higher goals, Reagon adds.
This is why I find the Dot Meyerhoff mysteries so valuable. News reports of police shootings emphasize acts of violence and aggression rather than the strong emotions and biases that run underneath. We civilians can’t see them, but a veteran police shrink like Dot gets it immediately. About Randy, for example, Dot says:
“Compassion is Randy’s Achilles Heel. On the one hand, it will make her a better cop. On the other, it will obliterate the emotional distance she needs to do her job.”
By the way, I’ve always wondered why the military insists on being, you know, militant about uniforms. Demi Moore is so stuffed into that Navy blouse in A Few Good Men that she looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Women cops look equally uncomfortable because they’re wearing clothes originally designed for men, yet few people say anything about it.
Except Dot. She notices everything. “Uniforms improve how men look, the sharp creases and expert tailoring making them look taller, straighter, and fitter than they might otherwise appear. Chief Reagon’s uniform only emphasizes her height, her thick legs, and her lack of grace.”
Unfortunately Kirschman’s fiction continues to have problems. In The Right Wrong Way, her main characters (other than Dot) need complexity and sophistication; there’s a sameness to the dialogue; ethical questions are left undeveloped and “action” scenes sometimes feel false, as does Dot’s reckless way of inserting herself into police business.
Perhaps most important, we readers need to see the value of Dot’s job in the everyday. In one scene, for example, she calls spouses (mostly wives) into the station for a confidential meeting in which everyone is encouraged to let off steam and talk about resolutions to family issues. As Dot often says, “the only thing harder than being a police officer is being married to one.” Under her guidance, these debriefings can be profoundly cathartic.
Watching Dot champion these women while opening the gates to higher emotional ground should be fascinating and informative for the reader. However, just when the most revealing admissions begin to surface, Kirschman cuts away to a different plot point, leaving this opportunity unfulfilled.
Elsewhere, we get to watch Dot help a beleaguered officer pull out of a terrifying panic attack, and that is a joy to behold. How great it would be if we could see more of this routine psychologist’s work so beautifully handled, while at the same time Dot spots clues to the mystery underfoot.
But again, here we are in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which millions of women hope signals a true watershed in the way society thinks about women. If mystery readers enjoy the quiet genius of a woman like Dot, without regard to age or sexual attraction, surely there’s hope for a less babe-alicious genre.
Happily, Kirschman confronts one of the most controversial issues in this regard in book #3.
Next, Part III: The Fifth Reflection