To understand Dominic Carter’s rise and fall, you must understand the Carter marriage, a valiant and heartbreaking institution that gave him a normal life and an improbable career, then took it all away. And to understand the marriage, you must know Dominic’s secret.
Dominic’s story begins one night in 1963, in a messy closet in the run-down apartment of a miserable building in Harlem, in the middle of a loud party. With a there-you-have-it laugh, his mother told him he was conceived there when she was still a teenager; the 19-year-old boy was already engaged to another. The fact that his parents were not in a bed at the time (much less in love) has been one of Dominic’s lasting torments. His memories of his chaotic early life are imperfect. He only learned of his mother’s most violent deeds—the day a voice told her to throw him out the window, the many times she beat and strangled him, the time she nearly ruptured his testicles during a vicious spanking—when he recently discovered her psychiatric records.
Nobody told him till decades later that during her frequent long absences and his stays in foster care, she was hospitalized for chronic paranoid schizophrenia, straitjacketed, electroshocked, and plied with Thorazine. All he knew was how little they cared for each other, that no mother-child bond could form between them. He never called her Mom, always “Laverne,” and she never hugged him or told him she loved him. She only kissed him once—that’s one memory that has never left him, and not for lack of trying.
The story is repellent. He was 7½ at the time. She called him to her bedroom and onto her bed, a place he had never been. In the dim light she told him to undress, then pulled back the covers to reveal her own nakedness. She moved his hands to her breasts, then down the length of her body. “Touch it,” she whispered. She lifted him onto her belly. “My little yellow body fit on top of hers like a tiny lifeboat on a huge cruise ship,” he once wrote. “I have tried to erase this scene from my mind many times, but our genitals touched.” She kept at her son for the longest time, kissing and rubbing him everywhere and demanding the same from him, until her moaning finally stopped.
Nothing similar ever happened again, but the damage had been done. “As I started getting older and realized how bad it was, I really worried if I would be a freak of nature. Or if I would even desire a woman. When we would sit down at age 12 and talk about girls and so on, I actually had a sexual encounter in the back of my mind, and it was my mother,” he tells me. “It became almost devastating at times.” It’s hard to know how common is the sexual abuse of young boys. What’s clear is that millions of American men share an ugly history. Research over the past three decades points to the tremendous difficulty these survivors have in their later relationships—the anger, fear, and isolation that typically result from childhood sexual abuse. No excuse, but such men are about four times more likely to beat their wives or lovers.
The first time Dominic revealed these details was when he was in middle school and his mother, back from Bellevue or Mount Sinai’s asylum, petitioned to have him returned from foster care. Dominic pleaded with the judge in chambers and was left in his grandmother’s care as a result. But that didn’t end his peripatetic existence. When his grandmother became too ill to care for him, an aunt took over; when she was tapped out, it was on to a family friend in Seattle, then back, and so on: He attended five high schools in four years, with poor grades to show for it.
Yet somehow along the way he developed an outsize ambition. A guidance counselor, steering him away from college, predicted that he was more likely to land in jail than the workforce. But by some miracle, as he often says, he was given a full scholarship for a special preparatory program for urban kids with lousy grades at a rural SUNY campus, in Cortland.
Marilyn Stevens greeted the bus when it arrived there. She was seven years older than Dominic—a graduate of the program herself who had earned a master’s degree and returned to become its assistant director. Dominic laid claim to her right away. Within days of arriving, he actually said to her, “I’m going to marry you and make you my wife.”
“That was the first thing out of his mouth,” Marilyn told me during an interview at her office at a Bronx college. “I’m like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” She kept him at arm’s length, introducing him to a parade of coeds onto whom he might transfer his affections. It didn’t work. She let him in slowly. “He became part of my inner circle. And then a couple years down the road it was like, ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane.’ I guess I got beaten down, as the kids would say, with the chase.”