New book explores hidden
We say we despise crime and criminals, yet our most popular books and movies
are preoccupied with the subject. Our society uses prison as the universal
punishment, yet many of those incarcerated don't find it to be so bad. Martha
Duncan, a criminal law specialist at the law school, confronts these contradictions
in her new book, Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons: The Unconscious Meanings
of Crime and Punishment. Duncan takes a new look at criminals versus
noncriminals, prison versus freedom, and uses her insights to turn accepted
notions upside down.
meanings of crime, punishment
Duncan asserts that despite our protests to the contrary, we "often
enjoy, love, even admire, criminals. We spend a great deal of time watching
movies about criminals, reading stories about criminals, talking about criminals,
being fascinated by them, and in a certain sense, identifying with them."
To Duncan it's obvious there's some intriguing psychology at work in our
love-hate relationship with criminals. She posits a host of reasons we are
drawn to them: Sometimes, we rationalize our admiration because the criminal
is opposing a tyrannical system. Our literature is filled with such figures,
from Robin Hood to Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. In other instances,
criminals represent an almost childlike freedom we wish we had. We see this
idea embodied in such fictional characters as pirate Long John Silver in
Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and in Shakespeare's thief
Falstaff, according to Duncan.
Why is it so important for us to identify with such characters in our literature
and in real life? Duncan explains that "the psychoanalytic concept
of narcissism throws some light on this question." As infants, she
said, "we believe in our own omnipotence." In later years, when
we discover "our essential helplessness and aloneness," we "defend
against this narcissistic wound by the mechanism of denial-by creating a
fantasy that obliterates the unpleasant reality." In many instances,
we idealize criminals and lawless behavior to deny our own nature as limited,
"Criminals, by their very existence, perform psychological functions
for noncriminals," said Duncan. "Criminals gratify our antisocial
impulses, reassure us of our comparative innocence and assuage our guilt
through vicarious punishment." Duncan writes, "criminals are far
from being an unequivocal evil; they are, in fact, necessary for us to be
what we are."
Her view of imprisonment is equally compelling and unexpected. Duncan asserts
that "alongside the negative vision of prison as a living hell, an
island of the damned, or a place where men rot under their rocks and yearn
for freedom, many prisoners and nonprisoners exhibit powerful positive associations
Duncan first questioned conventional notions about prison after reading
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle. "When I read that book it
seemed to me that the men inside the prison were happier than the women
outside the prison, which was paradoxical," she said. "And I wondered
if there were more positive images of prisons in other memoirs."
Duncan began researching prison memoirs, which constitute a huge body of
literature from around the world, and discovered abundant corroboration
of her ideas. Through prison memoirs and images in literature, she found
that "prison is viewed as a refuge from life's trivia, a 'cradle on
the sea,' an academy, and a place where time stands still." For instance,
Malcolm X recognized several of prison's positive aspects, citing his time
behind bars as a key factor in enabling him to get an education, said Duncan.
In his autobiography he asks: "Where else but in a prison could I have
attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much
as 15 hours a day?"
Others describe prison as a place where they discovered the only close friendships
or family-like relationships of their lives. While prison does impose isolation,
said Duncan, "those who share this isolation see themselves as forming
relationships of an emotional power unequaled in the world outside."
All these unrecognized and unintended consequences of prison have much to
say to our criminal justice system and its theories of prison as a retribution,
a place of rehabilitation, or a deterrent to crime, said Duncan.
"The whole underlying assumption of the use of imprisonment to punish
is that it will deter people from committing crimes," Duncan said.
"I think I've shown that for some people, prison is not a deterrent
but an inducement. That's not to say that criminals can't be deterred from
breaking the law," she added. "But my analysis does suggest the
need to adopt a more complex view of criminal motivation, a view that takes
into account the existence of inner conflict and of prison's sometimes potent
Duncan first became interested in lawbreakers during her days as a graduate
student in political science at Columbia University. At that time, she traveled
and lived in northeast Brazil studying peasant movements, including some
that were engaged in illegal activity. In addition to a Ph.D. from Columbia
and a law degree from Yale, Duncan also was a research candidate in psychoanalysis
at the Psychoanalytic Institute at New York University Medical Center.
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