Criminals, cockroaches, rats, and I have something in common: we all spring to life at night. It’s as if, once the sun had set, someone magically fired up a little backup generator in our brains, and we suddenly became energized, hungry, and full of life.

I also share something personal with those critters. We’re fringe creatures, out there alone a lot, but we adapt and survive. Growing up in Detroit, I knew from an early age that audacity and imagination were a natural fit with criminal ways. And I knew that I could get away with a lot. This escalated from simple vandalism and shoplifting to smash-and-grabs at night. It had a certain bonding experience in it—something like when a family shares supper together—only much more exciting.

When I reached 16, I knew that my game had to change. I could hear the cops’ warnings echoing in my brain: Just wait till you’re seventeen! You’re gonna be ours, without getting released to your mom anymore!”

But the warnings didn’t really stick. I didn’t get the message until the real blow came, at Wayne County Juvenile Court, when my friend and fellow garage-burning arsonist was sent to the juvenile home—what the generation before us referred to as “reform school.” I, on the other hand, was given one last chance. I’m still not sure why.

With my partner in crime gone, my neighborhood didn’t seem quite the same. I had already dropped out of junior high school and knew I was standing still. I had to find a better way before I landed in prison and turned bad for good. That line of thinking led me to the US Army, Vietnam, and the Rangers, then on to the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department in Detroit, as a police officer. Both jobs gave me ample opportunities to get an adrenaline fix and to use creative thinking—the very things that had drawn me to a life of juvenile delinquency. And they gave me something else, too. The real missing ingredient: the opportunity to develop self-discipline. It was sublimation, really—channeling my instinctive impulses into socially acceptable forms. And the one thing, more than any other, that made this possible was self-observation. This ability to step outside and look at myself began with fleeting glimpses of where I was headed if I didn’t make some changes. Then I began doing it consciously, and the more I practiced it, the more ingrained the habit of self-observation became.

Narcotics cop Bob Ankony

Inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were the words “Know thyself.” I decided I’d better take the ancient Greeks up on it. That quest propelled me from a GED to a PhD in criminology—that and the fact that graduate courses are taught at night, when my criminal-rat-cockroach gene really kicks my functioning into high gear. I was still moved by the same impulses, though with a much-needed bit of redirecting. The same drives that made me a decorated Ranger and police detective could just as easily have taken me to prison and an early end, leaving only sorrow and broken things in my wake. I was lucky, and I owe much of that luck to the Army, my parents, all the cops who ever tried to shake some sense into me, and a family court judge who, long ago, decided to give me one last chance.

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AuthorRobert Ankony