Interview: Crime Reporter Melissa McCarty on Gangs, Mental Illness, and #Metoo
Melissa McCarty travelled the country for 3 seasons with armed bodyguards confronting accused killers for the Emmy award-winning show Crime Watch Daily with Chris Hansen. Her memoir, The Making of a Crime Reporter, covers crime, addiction, and mental illness, and the #Metoo movement.
McCarty grew up in a high-crime community in Northern California. There were gang members everywhere, including her brother Mikey. That’s him on the cover of her book.
In an interview, McCarty talked about the role of addiction and mental illness in crime, what inspired her to find a way out, what she has learned from crime victims and survivors, and how she heard her own story differently when she read it aloud for the Audible version.
You say that people have a choice, even those who grow up in high-risk environments. You and your brother made different choices. He joined a gang and you became a journalist. What made the difference?
Not everyone has drive, it has to be empowered each day by some kind of force, or else you remain content. My brother was always content with the basic needs of survival. It also had to do with the beginning stages of his unforeseen enemy. He was experiencing bi-polar, manic episodes with severe panic attacks not knowing at the time what it was. Mental illness wasn’t discussed openly in our family.
When he was in his early twenties, he felt “crazy” drawn to the tough crowd as protection, also because we were white in mostly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In my teens, I had a silent but strong yearning for a better life. I always wrote in a journal, mapped out my dreams and the steps to achieve each. The final push was negotiating with my father to let me drop out of high school because I was bullied so badly. He said only if I joined a junior-college and took the courses he suggested I’d like — broadcast journalism. Its when I fell in love with storytelling and spent countless hours in an edit bay creating. Its where my dreams came to life.
Who helped you when you were growing up? Who gave you a sense of stability? Who were your role models?
Now, I’d say my father. But back then we were at odds. I stood by my older brother who was reckless but protected me from getting beat up at school each week. I admired women on TV. I was obsessed with Diane Sawyer and every woman on CNN. I read dozens of journalist memoirs. I gave myself stability by running away from my brother and off to college, then to any small town where I was allowed and actually contracted to be on TV. I had everyone say I couldn’t do it, couldn’t make it as a newscaster, I climbed the tv corporate ladder out of intense passion for storytelling and spite to prove everyone wrong. Anger is a useful tool at times.
You are sympathetic about mental illness and substance abuse as the sources of violent crime. What percentage of violent crime do you think they are responsible for? What is the best way for society and the justice system to deal with criminals who have mental health or substance abuse problems?
Some attorneys would cite mental illnesses for any and all violent acts committed because how can we justify a person knowingly killing another out of the thrill, the sobering joy to experience it? It happens. I’ve covered those very circumstances, so if they aren’t diagnosed with an ailment, society tries to pin it to them because what sane rational person could kill for kicks?
I think our system doesn’t allow people to fairly thrive. Mental health programs are cut back, mental health isn’t taught in schools and it should be. The signs and symptoms should be a mandatory requirement in health. If you disagree pull the numbers of teen suicides. Society needs to destigmatize from our language, the words we use, the movies and television we make depicting such issues, to the protocols in our justice systems. More courts are offering alternatives for substance abusers. Jail workers and police are now getting more training to deal with mentally ill individuals but not fast enough. Treat their minds instead of locking them up. If you have a broken gauge on your emotional knob, an imbalance know one can see, at times not even you, an incident occurs and you can’t fully grasp what is happening, should your punishment be a cage? Take some of the millions spent locking up society dividing it into death row, white color, general violent and non-violent pods and build rehabilitation transitional jails. Addicts already live in a mental prison, let’s give them tools to strengthen their minds to set themselves free.
What alternatives can communities provide to gangs?
I have exhausted this search in my career working with those who know best, cops who protect communities from the nightly bloodshed.
People join gangs with the falsehood of loyalty, family and protection. None sustain the test of time, its all a facade teens learn too late. The way out is parents who instill self-love within their kids growing up in “at risk” neighborhoods. If you love yourself and see a future, are enrolled in academics, sports or have passions you’re excited about, those kids will steer away from negative influences. The insecure kids who are filled with anxiety and self-doubt with no outlet at home fall victim. The prevention comes within families. My parents were very young, from the mid-west, native and both worked full-time jobs too overwhelmed to notice what was going on.
What is your relationship to your brother like now?
My best friend from afar. We live states apart but I continue to help him. He continues to struggle with staying sober longer than a few weeks. He takes his medication each day because he says it truly helps with manic episodes. He’s very poor and it breaks my heart but also fuels me to work that much harder each day.
What do you bring to your reporting on crime that someone who grew up in a different environment cannot?
Empathy. Not many national reporters or crime reporters (I’ve done both) grew up in crime-riddled environments witnessing a stabbing, and buried two friends murdered, with one friend accused of killing the other. I understand poverty, what poor parenting and lack of options or access to money and good education equate to in real life. I understand for some, crimes are done out of desperation. I also know the grief of victims, what it feels like to mourn a loved one. Having perspective and properly telling all sides is what allows growth to shed the right kind of light on darkness. Lastly, I will never sit and judge the person across from me regardless if they are accused of the crime or the victim of one. I sit and question to understand.
As you read the book aloud for the audible version, what did you see differently or understand better about your life and your choices?
I felt my judgment and resentments at the time toward my brother. Narrating my audible, made me feel ashamed during certain chapters because I wrote with anger, then at times tried to justify his actions that are obviously hurtful and wrong, out of my guilt. I wanted to rewrite parts but decided to leave it as is because those are the emotional roller coasters of loving an addict or someone with mental illnesses. We feel guilt, we feel anger, pain, wanting to walk away then give all we have its a constant exhausting love affair that drains you. It also made me want to shout louder. Hold a microphone chanting to the world “You are not alone.” Life is overwhelming, jobs are few, hatred is elevated more then we’ve ever seen, addiction and mental health have afflicted all of us in some way. I wish every lost or troubled teen would listen to my voice, hear the emotional journey and feel empowered by the strength of my success, pushing through and learning to forgive while carrying heavy weights of life.
Are the #metoo and #timesup movements having an impact in your workplace?
It has been heard and felt at work, in meetings, at social gatherings. Our industry has been forever rocked. I just hope we stay focused on the stories of substance and not petty accusations that overshadow an incredible cause. I don’t want to hear about someone grabbing your ass at a party years ago. Let go of the pettiness. Don’t waste my time. In the book, I detail many, many occasions of hostile work environments, small seeds planted to self-destruct the confident driven woman that is just as powerful and offensive as attempted sexual assaults. If you hold my dreams and goals hostage for your own satisfaction you should pay. Many are and thank goodness. I have seen it change my industry to its core from how we now communicate, even joke around with one another. I think its great. Just don’t be petty.
Have you learned more from the criminals or the survivors and victims?
The victims. I’ve learned what real strength is. I’ve seen first hand what courage looks like. I’ve seen what the human heart can endure. I started out as a local newscaster, to national crime reporter thinking I’ve seen enough grief and lived enough personal anguish to last me a lifetime, most people could never carry such burdens and enjoy life properly. So much, I found contentment in sadness. Until “Crime Watch Daily” allowed me long-form storytelling. Which meant talking for hours and letting people properly see how one can function and come out the other end after losing literally everything and everyone they’ve ever loved. My continuing progression as a person has been the school of real life. Once you see people overcome anyone’s worst nightmare, you look at your own life differently. With clarity. You aren’t petty. You appreciate always and you know regardless of what happens you will keep going.
I use to wait each day for the phone to ring, my parents, telling me my brother is dead from an overdose or gang shooting. I spent years, thinking on that day I’d be broken for life. I wouldn’t have any reason to live if my brother were taken. Then I spent a career entrenched in sharing the grief of people who lost their entire families, their children, wife or daughter to violent unspeakable acts and I was shown we are truly stronger than we’ll ever know. The trick is to keep loving. Keep sharing.
What is it that most people misunderstand about crime and the people who commit crimes?
I don’t want people to think I condone criminal activity I just understand the desperation behind certain acts. None of which are murder. But certain offenses; stealing, drugs, prostitution etc… those are done by people raised to believe or feel they aren’t qualified, good enough or able to get proper jobs and get a fair shake at life. It’s survival. Its feeling society doesn’t care about me so why should I care about it. I’ve seen such poverty where the look in those neighborhoods are worn like uniforms of defeat.
However, a misconception is “It won’t happen to me”. You’d be surprised at the warning flag free, typical no indicator backstory of those accused of murder. Life can change in an instant I think it comes down to mental strength and self-worth. I really do. I think the tipping point, as a career-long crime reporter is self-control when people are pushed beyond their thresholds.