Been a Heavy Life

Been a Heavy Life: Stories of Violent Men

Lois Presser
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 200
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1xcj9k
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  • Book Info
    Been a Heavy Life
    Book Description:

    In this groundbreaking work, Lois Presser investigates the life stories of men who have perpetrated violence. She applies insights from across the academy to in-depth interviews with men who shared their accounts of how they became the people we most fear--those who rape, murder, assault, and rob, often repeatedly. Been a Heavy Life provides the discipline of criminology with two crucial frameworks: one for critically evaluating the construction of offenders own stories, and one for grasping the cultural meta-narratives that legitimize violence. For social scientists generally, this book offers a vivid demonstration of just how dynamic and contingent self-narratives are.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09218-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    BRUCE A. ARRIGO

    Ethnographic studies of “dangerous men” have generally taken us behind bars. Erving Goffman’s (1961) arresting critique of the confinement setting as a generative milieu for the exercise of power helped to spawn a series of monograph-length works recounting life, death, and survival behind prison walls (e.g., Jacobs 1978; Sykes 1971; Toch 1977). A second wave of penological analysis, still concerned with “everyday experience” behind bars, challenged the correctional system as an extension of the state’s regulatory ambit. For example, Irwin’s (1970, 1985) studies of the felon and the jail respectively ushered in a new era of incisive commentary. Crime control...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 SELF AND STORY
    (pp. 1-14)

    In this book, I report on the talk of men who murdered, raped, and assaulted others. I focus on how these men spoke ofwho they are.During in-depth interviews with twenty-seven men in and out of correctional institutions, in halfway houses, and on death row, I heard depictions of the self as morally decent and as engaged in a heroic struggle of some sort. It is crucial that we understand such talk. Violence is excused and justified through talk about the self in relation to others: for example, by saying that the victim has wronged one in the past...

  6. 2 OFFENDER IDENTITIES, OFFENDER NARRATIVES
    (pp. 15-30)

    How do offenders identify themselves to investigators? What immediate, contextual factors affect their claims of being this or that sort of person? And what do sociological and criminological theories predict about offender identities and narratives and contextual effects on them?

    Sociologists agree on two basicpremisesconcerning offender identities and offender narratives: that is, identities and narratives regarding one’s nonnormative behavior as it is defined in a given society (H. Becker 1963, 9). It is assumed that:

    1. Offender identities are socially constructed

    2. Offender narratives are socially constructed

    I myself have built these premises into my working definitions of...

  7. 3 THINKING ABOUT RESEARCH EFFECTS
    (pp. 31-45)

    Are researchers ever really spectators to the activities that they study? The image of researchers on the outside looking in is prevalent in most literature on methodology for social research. But it troubled me because, trained to see the social all around me, I thought social influence should extend to my research interviews. The narrative data I “collected” should, to some extent at least, be a product of the interview and not a sole-authored work of the narrator.

    In this chapter I describe how I came to investigate the situated production—call it co-production—of narrative data in the research...

  8. 4 RESEARCH METHODS WHEN RESEARCH IS BEING RESEARCHED
    (pp. 46-61)

    Early on I was helped in my methodological decision making by the conventions of qualitative sociology. Some very general tools for working can be taken for granted. For example, the qualitative sociologist typically uses nonprobability sampling. If the researcher intends to conduct interviews, the interview format tends to be open-ended. The analysis usually emphasizes the perspectives of those whom one is studying, but also incorporates one’s own perspectives into analysis and documentation, the latter being the reflexive position described in chapter 3.

    At the design stage, then, I had the welcome feeling that my research methods were for the most...

  9. 5 REFORM NARRATIVES: RETURN OF THE GOOD SELF
    (pp. 62-70)

    Change or consistency in one’s moral self over time was a major theme of the men’s stories. This theme is not surprising given the use of narrative in explaining oneself (Ricoeur 1984) and thus establishing a cohesive self over time (Linde 1993; McAdams 1999), and cues to crime or sanctions that I gave the men (e.g., “How did you get here?”), however neutral and universal I believed them to be at the time. At two archetypical extremes, I heardreform narrativesandstability narratives.¹ These are broad ways of discussing the trajectory or journey one’s moral self has traveled over...

  10. 6 STABILITY NARRATIVES: NEVER A BAD SELF
    (pp. 71-96)

    Seven of the twenty-seven narrators told stability narratives. Whereas reform narratives are about desistance, stability narratives are about steady moral character. The protagonist was presented as a moral or good person, if not in the exact moment of offending then in one’s life generally. The protagonist had consistently abided by subcultural values—standards of behavior—and/or was dependably good in the conventional sense—or at least as good as other people.¹

    In reform narratives, the difference between the protagonist or past self and the narrator was emphasized. Not so in stability narratives, where that difference was presented as more or...

  11. 7 ELASTIC NARRATIVES: CREATIVE INTEGRATION
    (pp. 97-105)

    Elastic narratives emphasized moral stability butalsoincluded reform talk. The reform talk in elastic narratives was sparse or else shallow, so that the narrative was evidently not “about” reform.

    In characterizing the reform talk in elastic narratives as shallow, I mean two particular things. First, accounts of one’s crimes were contradictory, vague, or both. Quite often, one’s life, including but not limited to one’s reform, was broadly described (for example, one previously enjoyed a “fast” lifestyle that was condemned) but specific crimes were neutralized. Second, desistance, like offending, was attributed to vaguely stated factors. In addition, desistance was conceptualized...

  12. 8 TALES OF HEROIC STRUGGLE
    (pp. 106-122)

    Besides moral decency, a second major theme in the narratives was heroic struggle. Whether a stability, reform, or elastic narrative was told, some struggle or struggles figured into it. Struggle was part of the men’s storied identities.

    Framing one’s life in terms of struggle gives it meaning—indeed, a highly celebrated sort of meaning. Gergen and Gergen (1988) observe that struggle is a universal theme of life stories. I heard of protagonists nobly struggling, alone, against particular, and particularly formidable forces, to achieve their goals.

    Popular culture routinely depicts the good, usually male protagonist battling hostile forces, which all but...

  13. 9 THE SITUATED CONSTRUCTION OF NARRATIVES
    (pp. 123-144)

    Rather thancriminal,as he has been labeled, Ralph narrated himself as simply shrewd. Likewise, he was shrewd in talking with me and called attention to that situated shrewdness. The interview was a vehicle for narrating himself as a certain person. So it was with all of my research participants. Their narratives were constructed in important ways in the interview (Presser 2004). In this chapter I will clarify and offer examples of these mechanisms for theco-production of data.I will demonstrate how moral decency was established, stigma defied, and heroic struggle carried out through these mechanisms.

    First, the fact...

  14. 10 THE POWER OF STORIES
    (pp. 145-156)

    My research has demonstrated that storytellingimpacts stories. In this chapter I reconsider the impact of stories on violence, thus relating storytelling to violent behavior. The power of stories and storytelling leads me to recommend redirection for criminological research and for public policy and interventions, including correctional interventions. But first it is necessary to take another look at heroism as a key plot in the men’s stories. The gendered nature of the heroic tale and the gender gap in violence signal the importance of cultural constructions of power, agency, and autonomy, to violence, which in turn suggests that narratives...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 157-160)
  16. References
    (pp. 161-178)
  17. Index
    (pp. 179-183)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 184-187)