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Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons

Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons: The Unconscious Meanings of Crime and Punishment

Martha Grace Duncan
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 284
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  • Book Info
    Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons
    Book Description:

    An ex-convict struggles with his addictive yearning for prison. A law-abiding citizen broods over his pleasure in violent, illegal acts. A prison warden loses his job because he is so successful in rehabilitating criminals. These are but a few of the intriguing stories Martha Grace Duncan examines in her bold, interdisciplinary book Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons. Duncan writes: "This is a book about paradoxes and mingled yarns - about the bright sides of dark events, the silver linings of sable clouds." She portrays upright citizens who harbor a strange liking for criminal deeds, and criminals who conceive of prison in positive terms: as a nurturing mother, an academy, a matrix of spiritual rebirth, or a refuge from life's trivia. In developing her unique vision, Duncan draws on literature, history, psychoanalysis, and law. Her work reveals a nonutopian world in which criminals and non-criminals--while injuring each other in obvious ways--nonetheless live together in a symbiotic as well as an adversarial relationship, needing each other, serving each other, enriching each other's lives in profound and surprising fashion.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2110-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    While Morton Sobell was serving a thirty-year prison sentence as a co-conspirator of the Rosenbergs, his wife, Helen, observed that the two of them were actually happier than many couples living in freedom. Sobell agreed, but cautioned his wife against expressing such an idea to others, lest it be misunderstood. People, he thought, “would say we were nuts, or even worse. Anyway, happiness is never as easy to explain as unhappiness.”¹

    Recognizing that his and his wife’s response to his imprisonment was paradoxical, Sobell feared that other people would reject their experience as invalid—a theme we see again in...

  5. PART ONE Cradled on the Sea:: Positive Images of Prison and Theories of Punishment

    • CHAPTER 1 A Thousand Leagues Above: Prison As a Refuge from the Prosaic
      (pp. 9-23)

      Toward the end of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novelThe Cancer Ward,Oleg Kostoglotov is released from the hospital where he has been confined and goes to buy a shirt in a department store. While looking over the shirts, he hears a man ask the clerk, “Do you have a size twenty-five shirt like this one, with a size fifteen collar?” Oleg reacts with horror and righteous indignation to the small-mindedness that he feels this question reflects: It staggered Oleg like an electric shock. He turned in amazement and looked at this clean-shaven, smooth man in the good felt hat, wearing a...

    • CHAPTER 2 Cradled on the Sea: Prison As a Mother Who Provides and Protects
      (pp. 24-31)

      The student of prison memoirs cannot fail to be startled by the repeated characterizations of prison as a peaceful and safe place. In some instances the idea can be understood by reference to the relative quietude of life inside, but the theme is equally salient where there is no such basis in reality. Thus, notwithstanding that he had earlier listened in anguish to the sounds of a gang rape, during an interval outside of prison Blake writes to a friend:

      You know what’s in my mind? The joint. I thought I was getting off free from that experience. I thought...

    • CHAPTER 3 To Die and Become: Prison As a Matrix of Spiritual Rebirth
      (pp. 32-37)

      InThe Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn writes of prison: “[T]he day when I deliberately let myselfsink to the bottom and felt it firm under my feet—the hard, rocky bottom which is the same for all—was the beginning of the most important years in my life, the years which put the finishing touches to my character.”¹ Solzhenitsyn thus describes in positive terms the condition of having lost everything: the appeal of having something firm under one’s feet, as one can fall no farther, and the state of equality with one’s fellow man.

      This passage illustrates the association between prison and the...

    • CHAPTER 4 Flowers Are Flowers: Prison As a Place Like Any Other
      (pp. 38-43)

      While serving time on death row, Edgar Smith was often asked to explain why he read and made other efforts to improve himself. In his prison memoir, he answers this question as follows: “There is perhaps nothing more frightening to me than the prospect of finding myself stuck for the rest of my life in some dreary small town, working in some gas station or hardware store for sixty dollars a week.That would be going from one prison to another, from a cell to a cage, and I have had enough of prisons and cages”¹ For nonprisoners, the defining...

    • CHAPTER 5 Methodological Issues
      (pp. 44-47)

      Before considering the implications of the foregoing analysis for criminal law, it is important to discuss two questions: (I) given the elusive relationship between text and meaning, how can we be sure that the interpretations presented here are legitimate? and (2) are the authors whose works we have examined representative—either of criminals or of people generally?

      There is, of course, some risk in assuming that a writer means what he says in any straightforward sense. When he writes, for example, “Those gates, man, they’re inviting,” or “[H]ere one is a thousand leagues above the pettinesses and wickednesses which occupy...

    • CHAPTER 6 Positive Images of Prison and Theories of Punishment
      (pp. 48-55)

      This study, which thus far has focused on the prisoner’s subjective experience of imprisonment, will now undergo a shift of perspective. It endeavors to explore some implications of the preceding analysis for the three traditional theories of punishment: deterrence, retribution, and rehabilitation.¹ These theories, which are really justifications for punishment, are necessarily advanced from the viewpoint of society rather than the prisoner.²

      Deterrence theories are based on the idea that fear of a threatened punishment may dissuade a person from committing a crime. Legal theorists customarily distinguish between specific deterrence, which is the effect of a punishment on the person...

    • Epilogue to Part One
      (pp. 56-56)

      At one point in her prison memoir, when describing her friendship with “Sunshine,” nineteen-year-old hijacker Tamsin Fitzgerald writes: “We talked about a farmhouse with fields and woods and about how strange happiness is. She always says, ‘But if I hadn’t come to prison, then I never would have met you.’”¹ As this quotation suggests, the positive images of prison are but one manifestation of the strangeness of happiness. And yet, it is not really so strange after all that many have found contentment, even joy, in penal confinement. For “[m]an lives, not nakedly or directly in nature like the the...

  6. PART TWO A Strange Liking:: Our Admiration for Criminals

    • Prologue to Part Two
      (pp. 59-63)

      From beloved prisons, we turn now to romantic outlaws. As we do, our perspective changes from convicted criminals describing punishment to law-abiding citizens describing criminals. Like the beloved-prisons theme of Part One, the subject of romantic outlaws represents a paradox, for the law regards the felon as ignominious; it assumes the convict will be held in dishonor. Indeed, the stigma that is believed to flow from conviction of a particular offense is one factor courts consider in determining whethermensrea(a guilty mind) shall be required for that crime. Yet, criminals—even serious offenders—are not invariably the objects of...

    • CHAPTER 7 Reluctant Admiration: The Forms of Our Conflict over Criminals
      (pp. 64-69)

      In Wilkie Collins’s mystery novelThe Woman in White,the sober and mature heroine, Marian Halcombe, finds herself deeply attracted to Count Fosco, whom she has known for only a few days. Although she does not yet realize on a conscious level that he is a psychopathic criminal, her unconscious mind may sense his depravity. This would help to explain why she finds her attraction to him perplexing and disturbing. As she writes in her journal: “I am almost afraid to confess it, even to these secret pages. The man has interested me, has attracted me,has forced me to...

    • CHAPTER 8 Rationalized Admiration: Overt Delight in Camouflaged Criminals
      (pp. 70-101)

      A courageous idealist, an instrument of fairness and right, and at the same time a violent outlaw—such is the type of admired criminal that we will consider first. Unlike the criminals we will examine in later sections, these lawbreakers evoke admiration from people who despise the law, which they view as cruel and oppressive. Under what circumstances are noncriminals likely to perceive the law as illegitimate and, consequently, to experience conscious admiration for the lawbreaker? In the story of the admired criminal par excellence,The Adventures of Robin Hood,one condition tending to diminish the law’s legitimacy is foreign...

    • CHAPTER 9 Repressed Admiration: Loathing As a Vicissitude of Attraction to Criminals
      (pp. 102-115)

      In Guy de Maupassant’s novellaBall-of-Fat,a group of men and women are traveling by stagecoach through occupied France. Among them is a prostitute nicknamed “Ball-of-Fat.”¹ Early in the novella, she wins the other passengers’ grudging respect for her ardent patriotism. When the passengers stop for the night, a Prussian army officer threatens to detain them indefinitely unless Ball-of-Fat will share his bed. Fiercely anti-German, at first Ball-of-Fat is adamant in her refusal—a stance which some of the other travelers fail to comprehend. One woman remarks to another:

      “Since it is the trade of this creature to accommodate herself...

    • Conclusion to Part Two: This Unforeseen Partnership
      (pp. 116-118)

      In Part Two I have pursued three interrelated goals: (1) to show the pervasiveness and conflictive nature of our admiration for criminals; (2) to explore the bases of our admiration for criminals—not only the articulated, conscious explanations but also the unacceptable, darker sources of the criminal’s appeal; and (3) to uncover the high regard for criminals that is hidden beneath such defense mechanisms as loathing, repudiation, and persecution.

      In choosing to focus on our admiration for criminals, I have not intended to deny the negative side of our ambivalence toward criminals, nor have I sought to minimize the terrible...

  7. PART THREE In Slime and Darkness:: The Metaphor of Filth in Criminal Justice

    • Prologue to Part Three
      (pp. 121-122)

      Philosophers have long proclaimed the essential role of metaphors in generating meaning. Words that say one thing and suggest another are necessary for the growth of our thought and may be an inevitable aspect of language itself.¹ Nevertheless, metaphors can hamper understanding when we lose sight of their status as tropes and take them for reality.²

      One of the most common metaphors in our culture is that of the criminal as filth. References to criminals as “dirt,” “slime,” and “scum” pervade the media and everyday conversation. Yet, despite the familiarity of these figures of speech, scholars have devoted little attention...

    • CHAPTER 10 Eject Him Tainted Now: The Criminal As Filth in Western Culture
      (pp. 123-146)

      Early in Dickens’s novelA Tale of Two Cities,during the first trial of Charles Darnay, an intriguing scene occurs. The British attorney general has been attempting with circumstantial evidence to show that Darnay passed state secrets to the French. He has just asked the witness, Mr. Jarvis Lorry, when he has seen the prisoner before. As Mr. Lorry answers him, the following dialogue ensues:

      “I was returning from France a few days afterwards, and at Calais, the prisoner came on board the packet-ship in which I returned, and made the voyage with me.”

      “At what hour did he come...

    • CHAPTER 11 Projecting an Excrementitious Mass: The Metaphor of Filth in the History of Botany Bay
      (pp. 147-170)

      In 1786, having lost its American colonies, which had previously served as a repository for British criminals, and being plagued by overcrowded prisons, from which typhus threatened to spread into the surrounding communities, the British government decided on a remarkable course of action: the creation of a penal colony at Botany Bay, on the eastern coast of Australia.

      Although it was not the only attempt at a solution to the penal crisis—the penitentiary also developed during this period—the “thief-colony” on the far side of the world would play an important role in the British criminal justice system for...

    • CHAPTER 12 Stirring the Odorous Pile: Vicissitudes of the Metaphor in Britain and the United States
      (pp. 171-184)

      Laws against vagrants criminalize a lifestyle that many people find aesthetically offensive, in part because of its association with filth. For example, a county court in New York State characterized vagrants as the “sordid individuals who infest our stations such as the dirty, disheveled, besotted characters whose state is but a step short of intoxication.”¹ In a similar vein, a 1941 Supreme Court opinion describes vagrants as follows: “They avoid our cities and even our towns by crowding together, in the open country and in camps, under living conditions shocking both as to sanitation and social environment.”²

      Besides being actually...

    • Conclusion to Part Three: Metaphor Understood
      (pp. 185-187)

      In these pages I have endeavored to explore the metaphor likening the criminal to filth—to penetrate its origins and unravel its vicissitudes in criminal justice policy. In the course of this exploration, I have sometimes treated the metaphor of filth as a cause, at other times as a symptom of a deeper dynamic. Viewing it as a cause, I have argued that the metaphor of filth has functioned as a powerful determinant of criminal justice policies. In particular, it has led to a view of criminals as contaminated and contagious. This perspective, in turn, has promoted an emphasis on...

  8. Conclusion: The Romanticization of Criminals and the Defense against Despair
    (pp. 188-194)

    In the essays that form the core of this book, I have explored three central paradoxes of criminal justice: beloved prisons, romantic outlaws, and a metaphor that renders criminals as attractive filth. In this final chapter, I will discuss themes present in all three essays, themes that we—like travelers looking back over the country we have crossed—are only now in a position to survey.

    A pervasive theme, perhaps the most general one, is that of complexity: the highly differentiated and paradoxical nature of our feelings about crime and punishment. More specifically, I have tried to show that the...

  9. Appendix
    (pp. 195-196)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 197-242)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-262)
  12. Index
    (pp. 263-272)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 273-273)