This guest post comes from Dee Wilde-Walker who is a former shop steward, management trainer, consultant supervisor, psychotherapist and offender… in that order. She is now exploring how she can use her knowledge and experience to creatively contribute towards improving society as a desister.
Many moons ago, Marilyn Ferguson wrote a book called “The Aquarian Conspiracy” in which she compared the types of thinking behind a variety of existing social memes (follow the link above for an explanation of the term) with the likely changes an Age of Aquarius would bring to collective thinking. It’s been years since I read it but one story she told stays vivid in my memory. This is what I recall:-
Someone had decided to do research on the social backgrounds of successful people working in New York’s Wall Street. Whilst all the usual educational suspects put in an appearance, there was also a surprise. Two or three of the most successful traders, it turned out, had emerged from the slums of Chicago – they had been born into deep poverty and yet had still managed to succeed. The researchers were fascinated by this and dug a little deeper to find out more about this anomaly. What they unearthed has significance for anyone interested in desistance: the reasons underpinning this success could be traced back to a single teacher working in their slum school who, with personal encouragement, had taught her pupils anything was possible.
This remarkable tale, complete with all the mistakes of my memory, holds the key to anyone interested in desistance on both sides of the criminal justice divide. In the few weeks since I’ve stumbled across desistance, as both subject and possibility, I’ve watched a probation officer tweet about sessions they’ve had with clients experiencing a breakthrough in their rehabilitation and the satisfaction they felt as they were able to shift from offender management to desistance support. I’ve also watched a desister tweet about the moment when a probation officer enabled them to achieve their own breakthrough. In both cases, the common denominator was shared humanity between the two. In psychotherapy, this is called the ‘therapeutic alliance’ and means that the issue ceases to be yours or mine but becomes ours. It’s a shift that brings two heads to a shared problem rather than the perpetuating the old-style ‘blame game’ where the potential desister loses whilst the criminal justice system, personified within a single practitioner, wins.
Current memes around criminal justice – particularly when focussed on harsh punishment – suffuse our present ‘operating systems’. The divide between the offended society as a whole and the individual criminal can be so wide that it seems impossible to bridge. That these bridges are being built, here and there, are testaments to the capacity of some to step outside such memes and bring humanity to bear upon the situation. The idea of desistance challenges and confronts punishing ideas by opening up new possibilities and inviting, rather than demanding, change.
We all suffer from these negative social memes and what they do is to destroy trust. This social perspective means ‘criminals’ become the great collective unwanted deserving of exile. Having experienced this condemnation personally, from my offence through the police, courts, prison and probation, the message I internalised was that society saw no value in me at all. My response to such institutionalised attrition was to become suicidal – if society thinks I’m so worthless, my thinking went, then the only socially responsible act available to me was to die. That I am still here stands as a tribute to all those professionals who were able to step beyond this and bring their own humanity to bear on the situation I was presenting to them. Each of them, in their own individual way, communicated through their words and actions, that there was something valuable about me which they thought worthy of life. Like the teacher working in the slum schools of Chicago, they offered an alternative way of thinking about our circumstances through their capacity to be human as well as professional.
Clearly, not every pupil goes on to become successful on Wall Street in much the same way as not every criminal chooses desistance. What is important is that the choice is there. Not all of us are cut out to rise to dizzy heights in order to be successful. What is interesting is that some of us are and, in manifesting our own personal potential, we open up the cracks in traditional memes enabling others to slip past the clashing rocks of systemic attrition. At the present time, desisters appear to be exceptions to the meme and I speak out because I want to contribute to a society where it becomes the norm. To achieve that we, as a society, are going to need to change our values.
The problem for desisters is the audience attached to punishment. In speaking out, I can ‘hear’ the collective eyebrows-raised and the question “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that?” In some instances, I’ve even known this to be written down! My response is this; ‘I am someone who knows what it is to be poor and denied access to a justice system that was supposed to treat everyone equally but didn’t turn out that way.’ That the vast majority of ‘criminals’ emerge from the poorest communities is well known and is frequently accompanied by social failures in other areas, such as education, work and emotional literacy. These particular values belong to middle-class assumptions about life that frequently bear little or no resemblance to the lives of those they seek to govern. Whilst my own background may be middle-class, the experience of poverty gave me a taste of what occurs within a community attached to these traditional memes. I fell outside the assumed protection of the law until it seemed that the only route available to me, in order to deal with the problems I was experiencing, was to behave in a way that was criminal. This is not to say I was right and it’s certainly not how I would choose to be. What I am suggesting is that such experiences are common for those who aren’t born into middle-class privilege and they heighten the abyss between the offender and society. Seeking authentic and effective resolutions to the issues of crime and recidivism means that we have to get down to where the problems actually are, addressing them in real terms and not with some pretty theory detached from an offender’s authentic reality. In addition, I suspect that any lessons learned from such initiatives would benefit the whole of the community because they would be required to address the social issues that contribute to these problems.
In listening to desisters, society opens up its mind to the real causes of crime rather than the hypocrisy of always blaming offenders it preferred did not exist. The real issue is we prefer crime didn’t happen but the reality is that it does. What seems to occur, from my experience, is that society then transfers our preference for no crime on to the people who commit them. We don’t want them to exist instead. The problem here is that it seems our preferences start wandering into murderous territory because we are seeking to eliminate the person, not the crime. If society is entertaining murderous thoughts about offenders, what chance has a desister within such social memes?
That it is possible for a slum school teacher to inspire her pupils to great heights of social success indicates that there might be ways out of this traditional thinking that imprison us all.That it is possible for a forensic psychiatrist to personally introduce attitudinal changes, transforming his patients in the process, points to the same possibility. We can’t go back and change the past, as one officer appeared to require during my own probation, but we can change our attitudes to the future.
This piece is a good example. It was commissioned by those with an active interest in exploring desistance. Here, even as a beginner in this subject, I am able to walk through the doors of open minds. Whatever obstacles we encounter as we travel further down these new ways of thinking, there is one quality likely to be keeping us company; the feeling of gratitude. Whilst I, as a desister, may have a lot of ideas and opinions on the subject, to be invited to share them is the psychological equivalent of being released from this prison-of-the-mind into a society actively supporting my efforts at redemption. That is an awful lot to be grateful for.