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Been a Heavy Life

Stories of Violent Men

Lois Presser

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Critical Perspectives in Criminology

front cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

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). ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

A great many people made this book possible. My helpers are dear friends and teachers: Bruce Arrigo, Deidre Ashton, Julia Chu, Todd Clear, Marilyn Croman, Reuben Danzing, Rob Danzig, Russel Durst, Eric Fieldman, Bernadette Fiore, Emily Gaarder, Elaine Gunnison, Cyndi Hamilton, Brooke Judkins, ...

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1. Self and Story

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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 of who 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. ...

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2. Offender Identities, Offender Narratives

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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? ...

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3. Thinking about Research Effects

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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. ...

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4. Research Methods When Research Is Being Researched

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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. ...

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5. Reform Narratives: Return of the Good Self

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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?”), ...

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6. Stability Narratives: Never a Bad Self

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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. ..

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7. Elastic Narratives: Creative Integration

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pp. 97-105

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. ...

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8. Tales of Heroic Struggle

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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. ...

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9. The Situated Construction of Narratives

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pp. 123-144

Rather than criminal, 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. ...

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10. The Power of Stories

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pp. 145-156

My research has demonstrated that story telling impacts 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. ...


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pp. 157-160


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pp. 161-178


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pp. 179-183

back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252092183
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252033582

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Critical Perspectives in Criminology