McLean case is chance to practice compassion

May 03, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

The family of Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean says the prospect of a felony conviction, financial ruin and political shame has all but overwhelmed Baltimore's third-highest elected official.

It already has been reported that Mrs. McLean has attempted suicide three times since the Christmas holidays, and has threatened to kill herself on several other occasions. She remains under close observation at Sheppard Pratt Hospital after taking alcohol and an overdose of prescription medicine April 14. But her family says few people realize the degree of her personal devastation, the severity of her self-reproach and the depth of her despair about the fallout on relatives and supporters.

"She feels that there is no redemption and no recovery," says a family spokeswoman. "She feels that she let her family down and let her constituents down. Emotionally, she is incredibly fragile right now, a shell of her former self. It is overwhelming to see her."

I met with representatives of Mrs. McLean and her family at their request last week. Although family members have avoided public statements since December, they have become increasingly concerned that her depression is, as the spokeswoman put it, "lethal."

In 1992, Jacqueline F. McLean became both the first black and the first woman ever elected comptroller of Baltimore. She ran mainly on her record as a successful entrepreneur, promising to infuse the office with business sense and to champion the cause of minorities and women.

But as the nation spiraled into a prolonged recession in the early 1990s, the business owned by James and Jacqueline McLean -- a travel agency -- ran into financial difficulties. Facing bankruptcy, they eventually were forced to sell the firm to repay many of their outstanding debts.

Last December, though, Mrs. McLean took an indefinite leave of absence from her city post amid allegations that she had stolen more than $25,000 in public funds and had tried to steer a $1 million city lease to a building she owned with her husband. In February, a grand jury indicted her on five charges related to those matters. Trial is scheduled June 8. Mrs. McLean has pleaded not guilty.

Family members agreed to talk to me about her current circumstances provided I not publish their names. Why talk at all? Because they have become appalled at the public's lack of compassion.

And why not feel compassion for her? Isn't she a human being, regardless of what she may or may not have done? More important, aren't we human?

Says the spokeswoman, "As a society, we should not want this story to end with Jackie killing herself -- and that is a very real possibility. But if she succeeds, that defeats us all, it is a blow to our own humanity."

I agree. Mrs. McLean's recent attempts to take her life remind us of a larger issue, a continuing tragedy that goes way beyond her case: We have become a very vindictive people, intent on wreaking vengeance on wrongdoers, on punishing them to oblivion.

We are wringing compassion, humanity, the opportunity for rehabilitation out of the criminal justice system. And, I believe the senseless violence sweeping through our cities and the escalating criminal records of the typical offender are the result.

Mrs. McLean's case seems to have enraged the public. Her family says she feels isolated and besieged. Trying desperately to give her a reason to keep going, Mrs. McLean's family tells her that she can use her experiences to help others. They suggest that she can talk about the pitfalls of ambition and success, particularly for women of color.

Says the spokeswoman, "She can share her insights about how successful women, especially minority women, don this mask of strength, competence and infallibility and how they can be trapped by that mask -- become unable to seek help, admit to flaws, face defeat. Beneath her 'Jackie mask,' Jackie remained very vulnerable, and insecure. She is a very intelligent woman. She has a lot to offer."

Maybe we can learn from this. Attempted suicide looks to me like her final attempt to remind us that she is human. I'm sorry we needed the reminder. Perhaps we can use her case to practice compassion.

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