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Justifiable Conduct

Self-Vindication in Memoir

Erich Goode

Publication Year: 2013

How do memoirists make their work interesting, daring, exciting, and unorthodox enough so that they attract an audience, yet not so heinous and scandalous that their readers are unable to empathize or identify with them? In Justifiable Conduct, renowned sociologist Erich Goode explores the different strategies memoirists use to "neutralize" their alleged wrongdoing and fashion a more positive image of themselves for audiences. He examines how writers, including James Frey, Susan Cheever, Roman Polanski, Charles Van Doren and Elia Kazan, explain, justify, contextualize, excuse, or warrant their participation in activities such as criminal behavior, substance abuse, sexual transgressions, and political radicalism.

Using a theory of deviance neutralization, Goode assesses the types of behavior exhibited by these memoirists to draw out generic narratives that are most effective in attempting to absolve the actor-author. Despite the highly individualistic and variable lives of these writers, Goode demonstrates that memoirists use a conventional vocabulary for their unconventional behavior.  

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xvi

Half a century ago, during my first semester of graduate school, I enrolled in a course taught by Robert King Merton—then the most eminent sociologist in the world—entitled, as I recall, “Analysis of Social Structure.” The inaugural lecture was packed, as virtually all of his were, with fifty or sixty students in rapturous attendance. ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

I am grateful to the memoir authors I interviewed—some face-to-face, some on the phone, and some via e-mail—for a different but related project: David Carkeet, Donna Gaines, Steve Geng, Richard Goodman, Jeff rey Hammond, Marya Hornbacher, James Lang, Larry O’Connor, Emily Rapp, Richard Shelton, and Gordon Shepherd. ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-13

Though narrating life stories is a universal human enterprise, such tales are expected to unfold in a certain way and according to certain conventions. Memoirs represent accounts rather than reflections of reality. And yet, they offer a stand-alone dimension of reality. The reality they present is the constructed account. ...

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2. Autobiography and Memoir

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pp. 14-42

When did autonarration—the chronicling of one’s own life stories, or memoir and autobiography—begin? The origin of such complex social practices and institutions is usually lost in the mists of time; moreover, what the question means is not as straightforward as it seems. ...

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3. Autonarrating Transgression

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pp. 43-63

The deviance concept, born in the 1920s out of research on urban decay and disorganization, remained a mainstay of the sociological curriculum for decades. But by the 1970s, radicals and Marxists began questioning the concept’s viability (Liazos, 1972; Taylor, Walton, and Young, 1973). ...

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4. Criminal Behavior

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pp. 64-93

Crime memoirs provide an abundance of insight into the author’s interpretations, motives, and feelings about illegal behavior; in turn, the writer’s imagized audience provides a spur to those interpretations. When Jack Henry Abbott tells us about his abuse at the hands of the criminal justice system, ...

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5. Substance Abuse

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pp. 94-112

Of all the popular “deviance” memoir genres, perhaps alcoholism elicits the least justificatory and the most redemptionist stance. Few alcoholics proclaim that they wish to remain compulsive, destructive drunks; nearly all, by the time they pen their life stories, have stopped their heavy drinking, most have stopped drinking altogether, ...

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6. Sexual Transgressions

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pp. 113-144

Sexual activities provide a rich, fertile greenhouse of specimens of transgressive behavior; in few areas of social life can a member of virtually any society engage in so many varieties of normative infringements. Though some critics, most notably Alexander Liazos (1972), have complained that sociologists of deviance devote too much attention to sexual violations, ...

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7. Political Deviance

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pp. 145-167

Odds are that a randomly chosen infant born into an American family will grow up to hold political views that more or less fit into the ideological mainstream: a not-too-strongly committed Democrat or Republican, a liberal, a middle-of-the-roader, or a conservative—somewhere along that spectrum. ...

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8. Accounting for Deviance

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pp. 168-184

C. Wright Mills intended “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive” as an analysis of “observable lingual mechanisms of motive imputation and avowal.” The very act of explicating motives for our actions itself has motives; the reasons why we do things are separate and distinct from the reasons why we explain the things we do and the way we explain the things we do. ...


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pp. 185-192


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pp. 193-199

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About the Author

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pp. 221-221

Erich Goode is Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Stony Brook University. He has published ten books, including Moral Panics (coauthored with Nachman Ben-Yehuda), The Paranormal, Deviant Behavior, and Drugs in American Society; seven anthologies; and articles in magazines, newspapers, and an array of academic journals. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9781439910276
E-ISBN-10: 1439910278
Print-ISBN-13: 9781439910269
Print-ISBN-10: 143991026X

Page Count: 220
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 842875114
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Justifiable Conduct

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Deviant behavior -- History.
  • Conduct of life -- History
  • Deviant behavior in literature -- History.
  • Autobiography.
  • Sociology -- Biographical methods.
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