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Autobiography and narratives of crime and deviance

The use of autobiographical accounts in criminological research is a long- established practice. Clifford Shaw’s The Jack Roller: A Delinquent Boy’s Own Story (1930) is typically cited as the first, significant landmark work to use an offender’s self-narrative as a source of criminological data (Jupp, 1989: 74-6). It is an idiographic approach (focused on the life details of a specific individual) that nevertheless seeks to uncover the wider social and cultural contexts within which offending behaviour emerges. In other words, the autobiographical narrative serves as a source of illustrative facts about crime and deviance that can be taken as valid indicators about the social processes involved in offending behaviour (Maruna and Copes, 2005: 222). The ‘explanatory attributions’ (accounts of why he acted as he did) offered by the narrator are taken at face value by Shaw (Maruna and Matravers, 2007: 428), and placed on a par with other data that might be used to support or refute a given hypothesis about the causes of crime.

This approach, not uncommon in later qualitative research, appears to conform to Atkinson’s (1998: 59) dictum that ‘The storyteller should be considered both the expert and authority on his or her own life, and as such can be credited as a source of reliable data. Treating autobiographical narratives in this way is beset with epistemological problems (Denzin, 1989: 50-4). First, however well-meaning, individuals are eminently capable of misattributions about the relevant causes and contexts underpinning particular patterns of behaviour, and as such any explanatory attributions offered cannot be taken as unproblematic - an individual may identify factors shaping their actions that in fact had little or no sway over their behaviour. Second, all such accounts are forms of subjective sense-making, and as such tell us about the individual’s particular, partial, situated (and sometimes contradictory and shifting) sense of their own experience, rather than revealing objective truths of the kind prized by positivist social science (Hunter, 2009: 152-3). This subjective character of self-narratives does not, however, invalidate them as sources of valuable criminological data, provided they are treated precisely as subjective and situated forms of sense-making. This approach underpins the recent revival of interest in offender autobiography, especially in psychosocial criminology (Gadd and Farrall, 2004; Gadd and Jefferson, 2007), which makes effective use of texts as sources of insight into cognitive and affective dynamics and the individual’s self-relations and self-understandings. Likewise, I adopt a position of ‘epistemic neutrality’ when confronted with claims made by the authors of autobiographies considered in this study. I do not wish to offer assessments as to their ‘truthfulness, in the sense of judging whether the claims made are factually correct or supported by corroborating evidence. Instead, my interest lies with how these claims (about what happened, why an individual acted as they did, how they felt about it, the consequences they experienced and so on) form part of a narrative strategy that the story-teller uses to account for themselves in the face of a public audience rendered sceptical and hostile. As Riessman (2001: 697) notes ‘storytelling is a relational activity that encourages others to listen ... and to empathise’ and as such provides a powerfully social vehicle for ‘connecting’ with others and challenging their preconceptions about the deviant self.

The psychosocial approach mentioned above is undoubtedly valuable and worthwhile - I’ve previously analysed self-narratives in precisely this manner (Yar, 2011). However, in this study I take a somewhat different approach towards autobiographical texts. Rather than reading autobiographies as psychographic texts (ones that offer insights into the author’s psychology), they are treated as forms of public selfpresentation addressed to a (real or imagined) audience. In other words, my interest here is not so much in the psychic dynamics or self-relations of the individuals concerned (what goes on ‘in their heads’) as with the public performance of self and identity. The texts under consideration here are, as already noted, not interviews offered to researchers under conditions of anonymity, but quite the opposite; they are published works through which their authors seeks to give a public accounting of their past actions, in order to re-present themselves in response to their equally public and widely mediated depiction as ‘cheats’, ‘dopers’, and ‘criminals’. In essence, following Goffman (1990), these autobiographies are treated as concerted forms of ‘impression management’ performed on a mass-mediated public stage (Scheff, 2006), and oriented towards dealing with the stigma conferred by public discrediting. The concepts of self-presentation, stigma and ‘spoiled identity’ will be considered in some detail in the following chapter, and related specifically to the kinds of disgraced sports stars that serve as this book’s focus.

A final issue related to autobiography warrants discussion, namely the importance of narrative structures and patterns in story-telling about the self. Denzin (1989: 69) argues that self-narratives ‘freeze events and lived experiences into rigid sequences’ so as to render them intelligible for readers, and do so by offering a thread that links past, present and future via pivotal events (actions, decisions, accidents, interventions, and so on). As Bamberg and McCabe (1998: iii) put it:

With narrative, people strive to configure space and time, deploy cohesive devices, reveal identity of actors and relatedness of actions across scenes. They create themes, plots and drama.

The plotting or structuring of a persuasive narrative, argues Burke (1945: xv), contains a set of recurring elements:

Any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer to these five questions: What was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).

The narrative structure will be punctuated with pivotal moments that unify and make sense of ‘what happened’ - what Denzin calls ‘epiphanies’:

interactional moments and experiences which leave marks on people’s lives ... In them personal character is manifested. They are often moments of crisis ... The meanings of these experiences are always given retrospectively, as they are relived and re-experienced in the stories persons tell about what has happened to them. (1989: 70-1)

In the autobiographies we shall explore, such epiphanies recur with regularity, and are central in the authors’ efforts to explain their misdemeanours and appeal for understanding and sympathy. Pivotal moments serve to make sense of deviant actions taken and bad choices made under difficult circumstances, thereby going some way to presenting those actions and choices as comprehensible, inevitable or inescapable.

These texts also follow a recognisable narrative ‘arc, one closely embedded in human culture’s most enduring patterns of storytelling - what Joseph Campbell (2012) famously called the ‘monomyth’ or ‘hero’s journey’. The life stories of sports heroes (fallen or otherwise) closely follow this sequential template. Whannel (2001: 54-5) identifies the typical sports star narrative as including most or all of the following elements, sequentially arranged:

The emergence of a striking talent . the accomplishing of extraordinary feats ... public celebration ... circulation of star image ... displays of arrogance . a failure to deliver . public doubts . erratic behaviour . public scandal . failure . the hero redeemed . forgiveness.

The self-narratives of our protagonists share a remarkable similarity in their pattern of ‘rise, fall, and rise again’ - a process of self-creation, destruction and radical renewal that mirrors in contemporary form the classic ‘hero’s voyage’ that is configured by death, resurrection, and concludes with apotheosis and atonement (Leeming, 1998). Sparkes (2009: 119) suggest that this

narrative type ... can be classed as a ‘romance’ in which the hero faces a series of challenges en route to his goal ... and eventual victory ... and the essence of the journey is the struggle itself.

He further suggests that such stories of triumph-over-adversity reflect a more general ideology of modern bourgeois culture, in which the unique and ‘self-made’ individual is the central and ideal protagonist. Recuperating a popular and readily recognisable romantic individualism into the narratives serves, as we shall see, as a powerful element in their rhetorical power to sway readers and pave the way for a possible public redemption of the stigmatised self.

 
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