New book explores hidden
meanings of crime, punishment

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.

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, mortal creatures.

"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 to incarceration."

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 allure."

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.

-Elaine Justice

Return to the January 13, 1997 Contents page