Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Criminal Psyche

A month ago, The Criminal Brain was my subject. Since then I have been thinking about something I learned years ago, an insight into the making of a criminal. The Keynote speaker at a Mystery Writers of America Edgar-Week Symposium was a gentleman from The Fortune Society, an organization that defines itself like this:

The Fortune Society is a nonprofit social service and advocacy organization, founded in 1967, whose mission is to support successful reentry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities.

The speaker at the symposium was an executive of the Society who was also an ex-convict. A man of about sixty, he described his life before he found The Fortune Society. He had been raised in New York City in several different foster homes, in many of which he was abused physically and sexually. As soon as he turned twelve years old, he started to run away from those toxic environments and from orphanages that were similarly horrifying. At the age of eighteen, he told us, he was “released to the streets of New York” without any preparation, support, or continuing guidance. Within a short time he was arrested for robbing a gas station. He spent the next twenty-five or thirty years in and out of jail for robbery, his final conviction as an accessory to murder, after he robbed a convenience store with a fellow ex-con who shot and killed the proprietor.

The Fortune Society’s counselors turned him around in his middle years. Eventually, he became one of those counselors himself. By the time he got to the stage of the MWA Symposium, he was an executive of the organization and very proud to tell us that he had a daughter who was starting college that year.

During the Q&A after his presentation, a member of the audience asked him if he had, in prison or as a counselor at the Fortune Society, ever met a violent criminal who had not been abused as a child. He said,”No.” He hadn’t. Not ever.

For the rest of that day-long symposium, cops, lawyers, FBI agents, criminal psychologists paraded across the stage, speaking on panels, telling us how to make our works of crime fiction more authentic. One or another member of the audience asked that same question of all of them: have you ever met a violent criminal who was not abused as a child. All of them, even the toughest New York cops, said, “No.” They hadn’t.

This is not a bleeding heart “they’re-depraved-on-accounta-they’re-deprived” argument; no rationale that society needs to go soft on criminals. It’s about insight. First and foremost about the possible causes of the kinds of crimes that get harshly punished in our society. (Unlike the unjustly lenient desserts doled out to greedy crooks who steal with a pen or a computer.)

Also, knowing this might help us crime writers infuse our bad guys with a dollop of childhood realism.

Annamaria Alfieri

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