By Kathleen McCarthy
Be Inkandescent magazine
When Karen Lynch (pictured right) was sworn in as a police officer on the mostly male San Francisco police force in 1981, she had already had a lot of experience with the police.
She grew up as the only child of an often-single mother who was in and out of mental hospitals. Her mother suffered from bipolar disorder, and she caused a lot of suffering, some of which ended with police intervention.
Though her mother resented police, to Lynch cops were always allies who helped bring order to her chaotic childhood.
Looking back now, Lynch feels her childhood actually prepared her to be a police officer. In her book, Good Cop, Bad Daughter — Memoirs of an Unlikely Police Officer, she recounts how being raised by a bipolar mother and a tribe of hippies gave her the perfect training to become a cop.
“My mother’s bipolar disease caused her to lash out at others, including me, violently,” Lynch says. “I learned how to calm her, and that in turn gave me skills to deal with unstable citizens at work.”
Refereeing her mother’s arguments with her boyfriend developed her domestic violence mediation skills. Traveling around the world with her mother during her manic episodes taught Lynch how to get along with people from all walks of life, and how to adapt to constantly changing situations.
Using her wits to avoid being raped when she lived for a time in a Children’s Home made her realize that she “could think fast and mask my fear,” two invaluable policing skills.
Joining the Force
But joining the San Francisco Police Department when it began hiring women and minorities in the wake of a court order had its own hurdles. Lynch had to work around — or win over — male police officers, including one who told her: “Women have no place in police work. You’ll only get yourself killed, or worse still, some man will get killed saving you.”
Once she graduated from the police academy, Lynch worked as a street patrol officer for nine years before becoming a homicide investigator for the SFPD. After 29 years of police work, and a bout with breast cancer, she retired to become a full-time writer.
A native San Franciscan and proud Cal Bear, she and her husband, Greg, have been married for 25 years, and they have three children.
Scroll down for our interview with Karen Lynch.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about “Good Cop, Bad Daughter.” What inspired you to write it, and what reaction have you received from your police friends and colleagues?
Karen Lynch: After finishing treatment for breast cancer, I decided 29 years of police work was enough. The cancer experience made me realize how short life really is, and I wasn’t sure (okay, who is?) how much longer I might have. My family did not know the whole story of my childhood, or how I had become estranged from my mother, and I wanted them to understand that cutting ties with her had not been easy.
My family was extremely supportive, and I was honored that one of my academy classmates, who is the current chief of police in San Francisco, wrote a blurb for the book jacket. Not everyone is portrayed favorably — but I’m fairly sure the officers who are “villains” in the book will never bother to read it, and of course, their names have been changed.
Be Inkandescent: As an only child, once your father left, you were completely dependent on your mother, who was harmful to you and others. You say that if you knew she were evil, you would be justified in leaving her, but if she were mentally ill you would be “a bad daughter” if you abandoned her. What did you decide?
Karen Lynch: I wrestled with whether or not my mother was in control of her choices. It seemed to me that if she were ill, and not in control of these choices, I should have more empathy for her than if she were simply a mean person. In the end, I believe she was a little bit of each.
Though she was clearly mentally ill, she exacerbated her condition by refusing treatment, throwing away her medication, and drinking large amounts of alcohol. When she drank, she knew she would set off a “manic” episode, and because she enjoyed the high, she would deliberately set off an episode.
Once she was manic, she no longer needed the alcohol to stay there. During these times, she didn’t consider what might become of me, and since she had isolated me from any relatives, I either ended up in Children’s Homes, staying with friends, or even — on one occasion — briefly homeless.
Ultimately, after years of therapy, I decided I had to choose for myself, and the next generation. My very wise therapist told me, “The best gift a child can give his parent is to live a happy life.” Once I became a parent myself, I saw the truth in that statement, and I knew I could not have a happy life as long as my mother was in it. But I won’t say it has been an easy choice. My mother and I have reconnected and disconnected more times than I can count.
Be Inkandescent: You discovered as a child that when your parents had exciting news, it was never good news for you, and you came to hate surprises. Yet you ended up in a profession where unpredictable people and exciting, but often bad, situations are routine. What makes these situations easier to cope with as a police officer?
Karen Lynch: The funny thing about life is that we have the ability to get used to almost anything, even things we find uncomfortable. After my chaotic childhood, I thought all I ever wanted was security and stability, and in some ways I have achieved that.
My job has always been secure from an employment point of view, and I have been married for 25 years. But I unconsciously chose a profession where I frequently had to deal with chaos and operate on adrenaline. I suppose on some level, the adrenaline high was familiar and my “normal.”
Be Inkandescent: During your police training, you discovered that “there was little that could not be mastered once the recruit learned the insider secrets,” and that once you did, you were “invincible.” Can you give us some examples of this?
Karen Lynch: From the first day of pre-training, where the female officer teaches us an alternate method for getting over a six-foot wall, I learn that there are little tricks that make everything easier and less painful.
During physical training, “Blockie” teaches me to tense my abdominal muscles before being hit with the Medicine Ball, so it’s less painful. Later, at the shooting range, a classmate shows us how to pad our armpits to prevent bruising during shotgun training. There are always tricks to things, and because, in general, women are not as strong as men, we can benefit by finding our own ways to effectively accomplish tasks.
Be Inkandescent: In both the police academy and in your training on the street, you were under the authority of men who wanted you to fail and who made it incredibly hard for you to succeed. Tell us about some of those experiences and what you learned from them.
Karen Lynch: To be fair, there were an equal, or perhaps greater number of men who were rooting for me to succeed. This is not a “victim/poor me” tale. That’s why I included scenes like the one where I am losing steam during the platoon run, and Mark grabs my hand and pulls me along, urging me not to “fall out.”
But yes, many of the old guard, as I call them, did not believe women belonged in police work, and they resented us for even trying. In the end, I appreciated that the path to police work has not been an easy one.
Ultimately, I concluded that police work is not a job you should take if you can be easily bullied out of doing it. When you work the streets, you will be called names you’ve never heard before, you will be punched, and if you are unlucky, you may be stabbed or shot.
Fortunately, by the time I was through training, I found a partner who was supportive, and as time went on, there were more and more men who appreciated having women on the force. Ironically, some of the men who were the most opposed to female cops now have daughters on the force. It’s tempting to say, “I told you so,” but I think they finally figured it out themselves.
Be Inkandescent: What’s your top leadership lesson for other women, especially those in a male-dominated industry?
Karen Lynch: In Daniel Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence, he describes a study where children who were new to a school were more readily accepted when they stayed back and observed how the other children played together before joining in. This seems to be a good policy for adults as well.
If you are put into a leadership position, spend a good deal of time observing how the group interacts with each other. Who are the natural leaders? Who is disruptive? Get the leaders on your side. Ask them for advice and counsel. People do not like a new boss to walk in and bark orders. While as a boss, you may later choose to change some of the dynamics in your unit, you need to learn what is working before you change what is not working.
Be Inkandescent: What aspect of police work has tested you the most?
Karen Lynch: By the end of my career I was becoming worn down by the seemingly endless gang-related shootings in the housing projects. I empathized with the mothers who had sons the same age as mine, and when they lost their children to gang violence, there was really no way to comfort them. Even when we made an arrest and got a conviction, the mother would never get her son back, and that was all she wanted.
The hardest part of the job is emotional. Though most cops retire without ever firing their weapons in the line of duty, most of us suffer from some form of PTSD. You stuff your emotions for a couple of decades, then you retire and attempt to rejoin civilian life. It takes some time to process everything you have seen, and not everyone can do that in a healthy way.
Be Inkandescent: You recount being robbed when you were a college student working in a drugstore, and being asked by police to identify a suspect. Can you give an example of how your experiences with police officers growing up helped you identify with victims and caused you to interact with them differently than many of your colleagues?
Karen Lynch: The drugstore robbery happened while I was in college, at Berkeley, and by then I had had numerous interactions with police. Because my mother had been arrested and taken to psychiatric wards quite frequently, I was often escorted or contacted by police. While my mother deplored cops because they took away her freedom, I viewed them as the voice of reason in my chaotic world. For me, they were rescuers, and represented all things stable and civilized.
All of these experiences allowed me to understand how victims feel when sitting in the back of a police car. On more than one occasion, the cops were not particularly kind to me. I always remembered how it felt to be the powerless one in the backseat of the patrol car, and I treated people the way I would have wanted to be treated.
Be Inkandescent: During your police training, you kept your family history from your police friends and colleagues. But when you finally told a male colleague, his response was, “You went through all that and you graduated from college and the police academy? Most people would have just used it as an excuse to give up.” What was it about you that made you choose to succeed rather than give up?
Karen Lynch: Without the kindness of strangers I would not be alive today. Somehow from the beginning, I knew that in order to survive, I needed to get an education, find a career, and escape my mother. That was my plan, and I stuck to it. Perhaps I fared better than some because my first three years were relatively stable. Our lives became unpredictable once my mother kidnapped me away from my father.
No matter how crazy things became at home, I stayed very focused on school. School felt like my safe place. When we started seeing all the school shootings in the news, I felt especially bad for the children for whom school was their only safe place. How very sad to lose the illusion of that one safe haven.
In the end, my mother’s ex-boyfriend, Jim, rescued me, though he was not in a financial position to do it. He was a generous, kind man, and when he learned I was homeless at 15, he allowed me to live with him until I graduated from high school. I didn’t have any idea of the legal risk he was taking. We hear so many stories of older men taking advantage of younger people. We don’t hear so much about people like Jim who risk everything to help one child.
Be Inkandescent: In the book’s acknowledgments, you thank the person who told you to write this book “for your children.” Did your children know about your childhood, their grandmother, and your police training before they read the book? How have they reacted to it?
Karen Lynch: Our children are now 23, 20, and 14, so they are old enough to read the book if they choose to, but like most children, they are not especially interested in their parents. Each of them knew enough about my past not to be terribly shocked by what’s in the book, though I’m sure there have been a few surprises. All of them have been very supportive and proud that I have found a new interest to pursue, mid-life.
For More Information About “Good Cop, Bad Daughter”