Anchor Down

Photo: Jocelyn Lee

Note: As reported by Daily Intelligencer, Carter’s assault conviction was reversed in August 2011.

On an icy Wednesday morning last month, after her 17-year-old son had left for school, Marilyn Carter steeled herself for a very public outing with her husband. She smoothed on an elegant black suit, chose a pair of knee-length boots with a significant heel, and applied a perfect crimson to her lips.

Her husband took a hot shower. Later he would tell her he had wept there. On some days he worries his tears will never stop. “I thought about giving you guys all the money I have left, and I thought about moving to Jackson Hole and getting a job at their supermarket,” he would say melodramatically. “Part of me, even when I was on the top, wanted a life where nobody would know who I was.”

When he was on top, he was Dominic Carter, the boxy political anchor for NY1 and longtime host of the cable news program Inside City Hall. He is one of the city’s most prominent African-American journalists and a well-liked political interpreter of the New York City scene, often called upon to explain New York’s power elite to Chris Matthews or Charlie Rose.

But Carter’s world imploded spectacularly last fall after the New York Post discovered he was standing trial in an upstate courtroom on charges of spousal assault. Every move he has made since then has seemed intentionally wrongheaded—as though he were determined to destroy the Dominic Carter we see on television. If so, it has worked. His station let him go. Except for a few court appearances, including his subsequent trial in November and sentencing last month for attempted assault, he has been, as he tells me, “in hiding.” He has not returned calls from former colleagues. He has kept largely to his house, an impressive colossus in Pomona, 40 minutes north of the city, except for the fifteen days he spent in jail (last week, he was released early, at the halfway mark of his sentence).

His wife of 25 years has remained tenaciously at his side. In fact, as odd as it sounds, she blames herself for his predicament. It was she who called 911 more than a year ago, with bruises and cuts on her face, throat, arm, and shins, then swore out a complaint against him. Those wounds have healed, and most days she’s forgiving. “It’s horrible to feel the way that I feel, to look at this man and say, ‘Oh my God, what happened here?’ This was not supposed to happen,” she tells me emphatically. “How do you live with yourself knowing that, had I not made that phone call, none of this would have happened?” But of course, there’s only one person to blame for her injuries and the legal problems that stem from them.

His career, it turns out, is as much her accomplishment as his. Marilyn has always played the role of Dominic’s mentor and therapist, the architect of his id. More than anybody else, she gave him the faith and courage to transcend his past—he grew up in the projects in the Bronx with a seriously disturbed mother—and become the geeky dean of the city’s political press corps, a Gabe Pressman for the new century. It’s a project she began when she was 25, climbing an academic ladder out of a rough stretch of Harlem, and he was still a teenager. Dominic has been a surrogate brother to her, helping ease the pain of having to watch as seven of her nine brothers died, most from heroin and AIDS. And for him, she has been a stalwart mother figure.

Despite everything, he remains her project now. This morning, she has insisted that Dominic attend the funeral of Percy Sutton, the pioneering civic leader and media powerhouse who died over the holidays. It would be a Who’s Who of the city’s ruling caste: governors and mayors, judges and attorneys general, Sharpton and Jackson, a massive alumni list from Dominic’s interview program. She wanted her husband to show his face with her at his side, a first step in the comeback.

Later that afternoon, they sit on opposing sofas in the family’s all-white living room, replaying the day. “It was hard,” Dominic admits. Part of him wishes they hadn’t gone at all—he wasn’t shunned, but the reception wasn’t especially warm.

“I wanted him to go,” Marilyn tells me. “He needed to know that there are people that are out there that still support him and love him. Everywhere we turned, it was ‘Dominic, we love you, we miss you, you’re going to be back.’ ”

He shakes his head. “See, my wife means well with what she just said. But she doesn’t understand.” Carter was not in denial on at least this point: that his career would not be easily salvaged, and that it had maybe never been what it seemed. “I’m almost embarrassed to admit that there have been times when I felt my success was something I shouldn’t have had,” he adds. “I was running so hard from my past that things fell into place over 25 years of a broadcasting career. And fell apart within a week.”

Laverne Carter and her toddler son, Dominic, at the zoo in 1967.Photo: Courtesy of Carter family

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.”

Carter with his lawyer, Martin Gotkin.Photo: James Messerschmidt/Polaris

He graduated in May 1985, and they married in July.

Almost in passing, one day Dominic told his wife what his mother had done, but said he didn’t see it as a central fact about his life. “We were sitting and watching TV, and he just blurted it out,” Marilyn remembers. “I was really in shock, because I couldn’t imagine that a mother could do such a horrendous act to her child. So I just put it in the back of my head and never revisited it. He never spoke about it, and I never brought it up again.”

Dominic’s education and career eventually became the Carters’ shared passion. He had set his sights on being famous long before deciding to be a journalist. He credits a thrilling childhood appearance on the popular children’s program Wonderama. In college, he acted in some plays before falling under the spell of the campus radio station. As an undergraduate, he landed an internship in the newsroom of Percy Sutton’s WBLS. But no real offers materialized after graduation, so for a number of years he joined Marilyn at college after college, working as a dorm resident adviser as she pursued a Ph.D. After repeated rejections, he was finally accepted to Syracuse, but when WBLS called him with a job offer, the Carters headed back to the city before either collected their degrees.

They moved in with Marilyn’s mother on 119th Street and Morningside Avenue. “Marilyn comes from a family of tremendous love,” Dominic says. “Her mother ended up being like my mother: She took on that role in my life.”

“I truly believe he wasn’t striking out at me,” says Marilyn Carter.“He was striking out at his mother all these years.”

Two children arrived, Courtney and Dominic Jr. But these weren’t entirely happy times. Laverne Carter, seldom seen since his adolescence, was back in Dominic’s life. She had ingratiated herself into his new family. “She had the nerve,” he once said, “to become a doting grandmother.” Even after Dominic begged Marilyn and her mother to keep Laverne away, they frequently invited her to Harlem for dinner. “When we saw Laverne, she was just like you and me,” Marilyn tells me. “She was always put together very nicely, not a hair out of place. Talk, talk, talk—very funny, very comical. So in your mind you say, ‘This didn’t happen,’ but he says, ‘This did happen, I don’t want her here, I don’t want her around my children.’ ”

“Marilyn was determined to bring us together, and that was going to happen over my dead body,” Dominic says. “I felt a little betrayed. I felt that Marilyn and her mother just didn’t understand.”

In her defense, Marilyn says she simply didn’t want to be rude. “She would call my mother or she would call me, and my mother and I are not the type of people that want to hurt another person’s feelings,” she says.

So Dominic stayed away. Soon, he was barely coming home at all. He more than doubled his salary with overtime, then he would drink the night away with old friends from the Bronx. And there were women, about which he says little.

“I’ve made mistakes, and I have a very good wife who stood by me,” he admits.

I look over at Marilyn as he says this. Her face is unreadable, her eyes are flat. She admits that the subject is part of the “baggage” that has animated ferocious battles over the years. “That’s where we need a lot of work on—to stick with the issue at hand. As opposed to letting all the old stuff resurface. I think we’re both guilty of that.”

But nothing he did or said kept his mother out of the apartment. He was left with no choice but to confront her one evening. “Laverne,” he said calmly, “why did you do that to me?”

She thought for a moment, then cleared her throat. “Boy, leave me alone with that,” came her reply.

A college professor once advised Dominic to “act and sound white” in order to succeed, and when he was younger he made an effort to “whiten” his voice, which didn’t work out exactly as planned. On air, Dominic is unmistakable. He sounds eager and Bronxy, like a raspy Cuba Gooding Jr. with a slightly tied tongue (“political” comes out “politico”). But that parochialism is ideally suited to NY1, the hyperlocal start-up that began in 1992 to assemble a roster of born-and-bred New Yorkers with the kinds of distinctive voices you would find on the subway platform but typically not on TV. Dominic was one of the first recruits. Soon Dominic was breaking important political stories and nursing a growing celebrity. Marilyn, meanwhile, was thriving as a college administrator. Their combined salaries were enough for them to buy a three-bedroom house in Rockland County, making them the first members of either family to become homeowners. But suburban bliss eluded them. When they were together, they fought viciously. When they were apart, which was most of the time, they continued battling over the phone. “It was like we were both locked in the same room with no exit,” she once told me. She feared his temper and responded to it with sarcasm.

At work, his rages were legendary. More than once he stormed out, either quitting or threatening to quit. He once threw a stapler at a colleague he believed had insulted him and lunged at another so ferociously he tore his shirt, co-workers say. That time, Steve Paulus, NY1’s general manager and Carter’s TV mentor, suspended him for a week and gave him a lecture about impulsiveness, nothing worse. “Steve has made Dominic his pet project, and really tried to save him from himself,” a fellow NY1 employee tells me. Paulus doesn’t disagree, but points out that his mentoring worked. “Dominic has not had any kind of violent outbursts in the newsroom for at least ten years. I’ve seen reporters throw typewriters, I’ve seen fistfights. News stations are violent places sometimes. He managed that situation, and he’s been totally a gentlemen for years and years and years.”

It is true that Carter became a respected figure at NY1. But he was also legendary for the screechy phone calls to his wife—often belittling and harsh. “He was an asshole to her,” says an old friend who requested anonymity, “but this is important: Nobody ever said, ‘Wow, I bet he goes home and splits her upper lip.’ ” Another said, “They’re like an over-the-top couple at war with each other, but they’re totally involved with each other. They break up, they get back together.” Most people assumed the clashes stemmed from the detailed rumors of infidelity, specifically that he had a parallel family: two children, one of whom he also reportedly named Dominic Jr. No one I talked to at NY1 reported firsthand knowledge of this, and Dominic denies every aspect of this story to me emphatically, saying he has only ever fathered two children. He also emphatically denies ever assaulting his wife.

At first, Marilyn told me the same thing; more recently, she says it happened once. But court records and interviews with friends indicate that the police were regularly called at least since the mid-nineties. Sometimes it was Marilyn making the calls, sometimes her children, no doubt rattled with fear. In 1997, she swore out charges against Dominic for hitting and choking her and forbidding her from going to work or taking her son to school—or even leaving her bedroom. She said he sat outside the door on a chair like a demonic jailer, warning her against opening it. Apparently he admitted all this to the officers who responded, but when they moved to arrest him, according to the judge, he reportedly growled, “I am not your boy!”

Carter has often seen his situation in racial terms, though in this instance there seem to be little grounds. The case was resolved with apologies to Marilyn, an agreement to enter therapy, and an ACD, or “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal,” a legal status that means if he stays out of trouble for a number of months, which he did, his record is wiped clean.

There were more allegations of choking, kicking, hitting, and verbal abuse between 2003 and 2008. Marilyn never told anybody about these police reports, and few suspected anything. “It seemed like he’d outgrown it: The risky-tempered, angry Dominic had matured,” says a former colleague. “For all of Dominic’s quirks and personal indiscretions, I don’t think anybody would have pegged him as a quote unquote wife-beater.”

Perplexingly, Marilyn can seem more concerned with guarding the secret than ending it. Early on, she did tell me about Dominic’s entering therapy, but didn’t mention the assault allegation that precipitated it. In addition to his private sessions, they were attending marriage counseling, she said, and she began to see a therapist as well. Both say the benefits of the couch were limited. The marriage had deteriorated to the point where others might have called it quits, but neither was ready to give up. Marilyn began to believe that if Dominic could resolve his relationship to his own history, their unhealthy bond would improve—yet in all their hours of therapy, he never once mentioned what Laverne did to him. “He’s running from everything: Laverne’s mental illness, his dad not being in the picture, just not having much happiness as a child. That’s one of the reasons why he got off the bus and said, ‘I’m going to marry you and make you my wife.’ He wanted family,” she says. “I would say to him, ‘Dominic, we have to deal with this, you just can’t keep running and running and running.’ ”

Finally, an idea came to her. “I said to him, ‘If you’re not going to talk to me about it, you’re not going to talk to your therapist about it, why don’t you put your thoughts down on paper? Do something that will help you settle down.’ ”

Called No Momma’s Boy, the memoir that resulted from that process is a gripping account of an adult man’s reconciliation with his past. After a couple of publishers’ rejections, he self-published it in 2007, and since then he and his wife have traveled the country talking about overcoming adversity and selling the book. “It is important that I should tell you this: I forgave her,” Dominic told me in the summer of 2008, speaking of his mother. He said the book had brought forgiveness into his marriage as well. “It’s made our communication better,” Marilyn agreed enthusiastically. “The book has brought us closer together. Because we’re always together now. I mean, constantly!”

But just a number of weeks after that interview, they both admit, his cycle of explosive rage resumed.

The couple have weirdly different explanations for the troubles. But both are euphemistic, avoiding the fact of the violence as much as possible. “The issue that Dominic and I have—I guess, more important, my issue—is lack of communication,” she says. “Communication is his business. So he’s nonstop. Where he’s an extrovert, I’m the introvert.”

Dominic tries to clarify. “Here’s the bottom line,” he says. “I now have to accept full responsibility for everything that’s gone wrong. But what’s been a source in the marriage of great frustration for me, and my wife would be the first to tell you this, is that she doesn’t say ‘I love you.’ And so for me—for me! For another man, that might not be a problem—but for me, that’s something that would drive me up a wall.”

So you hit her because she wouldn’t say “I love you?” I ask.

“The only thing we’re going to say is, there have been times in our marriage when things have gotten out of control. There’s no doubt about it. And here’s why I’m sorry: Because I’m the leader of the family. And the leader’s supposed to set a tone, a foundation, and I completely dropped the ball. Completely.”

When I try to bring up the incident itself, Carter shakes his head. “We’re not discussing that evening,” he says.

That evening, the one that brought all this to the surface, was October 22, 2008. According to Marilyn, it started in the morning, after she took her son, who suffers from epilepsy, to a neurological exam. The doctor suggested lowering his anti-seizure medication. As usual, Marilyn called her husband with the report. Unsatisfied, he demanded to speak directly to the doctor, but she had already left there and declined to return. “That may sound minor to anybody else, but it might take me a week between my schedule and the doctor’s schedule for us to hook up with each other,” he explains. “So I became enraged. And quickly—that’s why I accept full responsibility, because it was during the phone call that I started saying things I shouldn’t say to her: ‘Dumb,’ ‘stupid.’ That’s why I’m accepting it all. Because the whole backdrop starts with me.”

Throughout the day came more angry phone calls, and he returned to Pomona “with an attitude,” she recalls.

He agrees. “Everything else and the kitchen sink comes into play,” he says.

Because of the legal situation, they won’t address exactly what happened next. But this much is not in dispute: Marilyn called 911 and calmly reported her injuries. “He hit me several times in my face, my back, my stomach, all over my body,” she said, adding that her husband was now heading south in his Mercedes-Benz. When the police arrived, she filled out a report and signed it under oath. They took her to the police station, where she filled out another report, which she also signed, then posed for photographs documenting her injuries.

Just two weeks later, she recanted her many statements with a letter to the D.A. “My husband never put one hand on me,” she wrote. “I panicked and said my husband did it because I also thought he was having an affair.” She blamed her injuries on an unnamed “day laborer.”

Nevertheless, over her objections, he was arraigned on third-degree assault charges, a misdemeanor, in Rockland County, where not one household receives NY1. He was unrecognized, and his case went unnoticed. According to his local lawyer, a solo practitioner named Martin E. Gotkin, the Rockland D.A. was extremely generous, offering another ACD. “My client rejected that offer,” Gotkin said.

Making matters worse, Dominic also bragged that Judith Kaye, New York’s former chief judge, and outgoing Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau were “personal friends,” an outburst the judge took as rank intimidation.

“I was screwed if I took the deal, because then Cuomo, who is running for governor, is going to look at my background, every other political reporter’s background, may have found this shit and then leaked it. So these are the things that I was up against,” he says.

A week before the bench trial was to begin last fall, Dominic instructed his lawyer to take the deal. Only now the D.A. was asking for 100 hours of community service on top of the ACD. “To which I said, ‘No, we’re going to trial,’ ” he tells me. Then, the day before the trial, “Page Six” broke the news of his case, and his predicament became a tabloid feast. An hour before trial, his lawyer accepted the second deal but instead was offered a third: a plea to simple harassment, plus community service and domestic-violence classes. The ACD was off the table.

The guilty verdict came down in November. Judge Arnold P. Etelson deemed Marilyn’s story about a “day laborer” beyond “preposterous.”

In January, Dominic’s NY1 contract expired and the station declined to offer a new one. For his old friend Steve Paulus, it was a painful but necessary decision. “It’s sad,” Paulus tells me. “I miss him, but this is something he has to figure out.”

Before sentencing, family members reported two further incidents of violent behavior, generating more bad press. (Both say the fights were noisy but not physical.) “It was crazy,” he says. “I lost my head.”

A few weeks ago, as he headed for sentencing, Dominic was prepared for the worst. “I’m not feeling good,” he wrote me in an e-mail that morning. “I have no idea what will happen, and in my heart I know there is a real possibility I can go to jail.” Dominic had apparently irritated Judge Etelson when the press wasn’t looking by accusing him of racism. He was hollering, over and over, “I’m being railroaded! This is America! I’m a black man in America! I’m being railroaded!”

The sentence was harsh. As part of a ruling so peculiar it will likely be overturned on appeal, Judge Etelson sentenced him to undergo psychiatric counseling and to take unspecified medications to reduce his violent tendencies. Additionally, he ordered Dominic to attend 52 weeks of domestic-violence classes and imposed a restraining order to keep the Carters apart for up to two years, a very unusual step. Addressing Marilyn, he said, “This is not a private matter—your life is at stake.” Then he sent Dominic to county jail for 30 days.

Dominic turned in my direction and mouthed to me across the room, “I told you.” Court officers circled him with their handcuffs as tears rolled down his cheek. Without looking at him, Marilyn, who had made a plea for leniency, stood and left the gallery.

Later, she told me that Dominic had gone “ballistic” before court that morning, accusing her of having wanted to see him in jail for years, which she denied. “Even in the final hours, he’s still berating me,” she says. For a while she threatened to let him face the music alone, but ultimately she relented and accompanied him to the sentencing. She admits she can’t shed her feelings of guilt, but she now recognizes that the fault isn’t hers. “I keep saying this: This did not have to happen. But those demons that he’s carrying were turned on me. I truly believe he wasn’t striking out at me, he was striking out at his mother all these years, no doubt about it. And I got tired of being his mother.” Mostly now she describes the marriage as over. “I’m done with all that,” Marilyn told me late last month; last week she waivered, saying, “After I get some semblance of my life back and get Dominic back on track, then we can address the marriage.”

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I sat across from Dominic one last time, in a cinder-block visiting center at the Rockland County Jail. It had been startling to see him shuffle into the room, unshaven and wearing a bright-orange jumpsuit. Oddly, he seemed at peace. He had decided to serve out the jail time in part because he lacked money for bail. “People think because you’re on television you’re a millionaire,” he says. He was released last Tuesday for good behavior.

“This is all behind me now,” Carter writes in an e-mail. “I am taking domestic-violence classes, and they are very helpful. I’m writing a new chapter in my life. I’m very sorry for what my family has been through. I’m looking forward to jump-starting my career in the immediate future. I’m also looking forward to a successful appeal.”

But the other reason he was content to be behind bars was to deal with the demise of his marriage, which has him oscillating from anger to despair.

“I should have ended the marriage a long time ago. But I love my wife,” he says. “She was the rock. She couldn’t show emotion, but she made it possible for me to shoot to the top.” Tears fill his eyes, but he quickly tightens up. “The problem is, I went to the top and she didn’t know how to handle it.”

He still hasn’t figured out what happened.

Anchor Down