Dr. Carter's Blunt Trauma

The chief medical examiner dissects the media while offering her theories on life in her autobiography

In her new autobiography, Dr. Joye M. Carter describes herself as armed and dangerous in an educational sense. The same, however, cannot be said for My Strength Comes from Within, Carter's own book.

As chief medical examiner of Harris County, Carter is better known for her scalpel and corpse-side manner than her pen or her life-affirming insights. Judging by the prose in this paperback, she's in no danger of giving up her death investigator's job for a writing career.

It has been almost six years since Carter took over the position that had been occupied in celebrity fashion since the 1950s by her controversial predecessor, Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk, known for his courtroom flamboyance, his blood-splattered white buck shoes and, unfortunately, some botched autopsies.

From the beginning, Carter's hold on Dr. Joe's old job has been a precarious one. There have been near mutinies by some staff members over what they perceived as Carter's high-handed management style. Two employees terminated by Carter filed whistle-blower lawsuits; she won one and lost one. In February the State Board of Medical Examiners fined Carter $1,000 for allowing an unlicensed pathologist to perform autopsies. She has also had numerous run-ins with members of Harris County Commissioners Court and former district attorney John B. Holmes, who retired at the end of last year.

But Carter has always emerged triumphant, if somewhat bloodied, from the battles. That resilience undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact she has done a more-than-admirable feat in dragging the antiquated medical examiner's office into the 21st century, albeit kicking and screaming. Nor has it hurt that she's a pretty good forensic scientist in her own right. Carter had been an underdog candidate for chief M.E., but Holmes backed her because of her reputation for handling the meat-and-potatoes work of autopsies involving gunshots and stab wounds.

There is no question that the story of Dr. Joye M. Carter is a compelling one. If it weren't, so many media outlets, including the Houston Press (see "Approaching Death at the County Morgue," by Steve McVicker, August 19, 1999), would not have covered it extensively. In addition to her fascinating profession, Carter became the first black female chief medical examiner in the United States when she took the Harris County position.

However, don't expect her book to reveal many details about her most intriguing cases or the people and places she has seen along the way. The inside stories that would give her autobiography so much potential are in short supply. Despite her claims to the contrary, Carter chooses to dwell on what irritates her. The 250-page book has 32 chapters, each titled with a question. And many of those are merely annoying inquiries she often fields from the public.

For example, Chapter 10 addresses the paramount issue, Why do you wear your hair like that?"It is difficult to believe that this question about hair comes up during a professional scientific talk," writes Carter, "but it does." Chapter 17 exposes her innermost family secret: Is your father a doctor? (No.) Chapter 19: Is your mother proud of you? (Yes.) Chapter 24: Do you read Patricia Cornwell novels? (No.)

In Chapter 27 Carter ponders What is your pet peeve? She begins her answer by revealing that she is always amused by the question because it "contains the word 'pet' since my enthusiasm for dogs is hard to contain." That's apparent from the book's cover: a photograph of Carter with one of her dogs. The publishing company's name is even Biblical Dogs of Houston -- it was unknown at deadline if that is Carter's own vanity press.

As for peeves, the pathologist goes on to say that among her least favorite things are "the need for constant education," covert signs of racism and, of course, the media.

Although Carter insists that she refuses to dwell on negatives, one of the longest sections of My Strength Comes from Within is Chapter 15: How do you cope with negative portrayals in the media?

"I don't fret about the media," writes Carter, "and, I must say, that in Houston, Texas, I laugh about it." She then proceeds to fret about it.

"I am often quoted, saying [sic], 'The medical examiner's office is one that people love to hate,' " she writes. (For the record, a Lexis-Nexis computer check was done of the almost 300 stories mentioning Carter since 1991. None contains the aforementioned quote.) She goes on to say that as one of the few females to head up a medical examiner's office in a major metropolitan area, she is "good material" for media coverage, apparently oblivious to the fact that every big-city chief medical examiner is good media material, regardless of gender or ethnicity.

In her book, Carter also enlightens the media on what isn't news, and what's not important to the average citizen.

"Certain deaths are political," she writes, "such as deaths of individuals who are in police custody or individuals who die because something went wrong in the hospital. These issues are relatively non-important to the greater masses, yet through the manipulation of journalists, they become a front page item."

Yep -- those damn reporters. To think they believe people actually care about issues like the use of deadly force by police and gross negligence at medical institutions.

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