discussion, fantasies, murder, prison, rehabilitation, review, writing

The Murderer and the Manuscript

Amazing story in the New York Times about the winner of a mystery-novel contest who is in prison, serving a minimum of 30 years for murder.

“Just before Labor Day in 2011, Toni Kirkpatrick, an editor at Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, picked up her phone and called an unfamiliar number with a Southern California area code. She was hoping to deliver good news to a man named Alaric Hunt, the newest winner of a debut-detective-novel writing contest, jointly sponsored by Minotaur Books (another St. Martin’s imprint) and the Private Eye Writers of America. The contest has a good track record — a past winner, Michael Koryta, a 21-year-old phenom, has since published 10 successful thrillers — and it also comes with a substantial prize: a $10,000 advance and a guaranteed publishing contract for the book that has been submitted.”

Cuts Through Bone

criminal justice, poverty, prison, racism, review, stereotypes, violence

Some Thoughts on Neurocriminology

Adrian Raine’s article “The Criminal Mind” has been buried in a pile of must-reads on my nightstand for months now. When it was first published in April 2013 in The Wall Street Journal, I was too busy with the release of my book. And frankly, I was also a bit afraid. Last night, though, I finally unearthed the article and read it.

Of course I knew from my own research that neurocriminology receives far more funding than environmental psychology of violent behavior, but I’ve always been wary of it. I thought that to look at the brain as the cause of criminal behavior was misleading and dangerous. Why? Crime and incarceration affect a disproportionate number of people of color. The conclusion that the make-up of one’s brain causes a person to become a criminal may suggest to some that African Americans are by nature more violent than white people. It would bring us precariously close to the 19th-century pseudoscience of Phrenology, which claimed that we could recognize a criminal by his physical features. Furthermore, I was—and still am—worried that the increasing focus on the physical traits of criminals lessens our interest in crime-causing factors in the environment, factors that can potentially be changed. We can fight poverty, the easy accessibility of guns, bad schools and a dysfunctional family background, but our brains? Good luck with that! I also wish society would take at least some responsibility for people’s actions.

Raine’s article, however, does justice to the complexity of the issue. A Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Anatomy of Violence (Pantheon, 2013), Raine concludes that “genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behavior.” A child who is predisposed to violent behavior due to his genetics does not necessarily become a criminal; there are plenty of environmental factors that can make up for neurological “handicaps.” Proper nutrition may play a role, for example: Raine writes that studies have shown that Omega-3 supplements in the diets of young offenders reduces serious offending by about 35%. And even if a child’s brain doesn’t show any abnormalities at birth, exposure to environmental toxins, physical abuse and emotional deprivation—a lack of love and a supportive social environment—may alter his brain chemistry, causing him to commit acts of violence. As a result, an initially healthy brain can turn into one that causes impulsiveness, a trait that has long been recognized as a leading cause of violent behavior. Lead is neurotoxic, according to Raine, damaging the prefrontal region which regulates behavior. “Rising lead levels in the U.S. from 1950 through the 1970s neatly track increases in violence 20 years later, from the ’70s through the ’90s.” He concludes, “No other single factor can account for both the inexplicable rise in violence in the U.S. until 1993 and the precipitous drop since then.” Continue reading

literary journalism, outsiders, reading, review, stereotypes

Of Long-Winded Female Writers and Role Models

hairpin copy

Just out on The Hairpin (very fitting considering the title of this blog):

One recent morning I awoke cranky and tired due to one too many Cosmos and a third night of insomnia. My first book was published a few months ago and I naively thought I would finally have some time to relax, some time for “pure happiness.” But it suddenly seemed like the real work had only begun. For months now I’ve been struggling with… let’s call it exhaustion. Yet again the difficult question loomed: how do we writers experience and accept obstacles without being buried alive?

As I sat on the couch griping, my husband tossed me The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), an old-time New Yorker writer of the kind they don’t make anymore. Or if they do, theNew Yorker doesn’t publish them.

“You’ll love it,” he said. This would not be a workday, I resolved guiltily. I grabbed the book and one of the cats and went back to bed, sulking.

I was surprised to catch glimpses of an answer to my question in Brennan’s short sketches of life in New York, the city she called “half-capsized (…) with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.” Somehow her short profiles of the invisible, the fragile, the mean, the lost and the lonely—the seen-but-immediately-forgotten—lifted my mood. They are the types we run into on the subway or at the bodega, mostly bypassing them, the way we try to bypass our own opaque emotions. In Brennan’s work a broken heel, a sudden rainstorm, a collapsed stranger, provide a window into her complex inner and outer worlds.

Read more…

Among Murderers, literary journalism, review

Among Murderers on LONGREADS

“Job Readiness,” chapter 7 of Among Murderers, is this week’s Member Pick on my favorite literary journalism aggregator, LONGREADS. (Love the illustration by Kjell Reigstad, by the way!) Here’s my introduction to the feature:

“A few years ago I set out to learn how New York’s reentry organizations help former prisoners navigate freedom. I talked to clients and staff and observed programs at nonprofit agencies with Pollyanna-ish names like STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees), CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) and the Fortune Society. The Fortune Society is New York’s most prominent and comprehensive reentry agency. It offers substance abuse treatment to ex-offenders, as well as computer, cooking, fatherhood and ‘job readiness’ classes. Fortune, as it is commonly known, also runs a halfway house in West Harlem nicknamed the Castle. I clearly remember the first time I visited the Castle, its schist rock facade sparkling in the sun. With its miniature lookout towers, its arched windows and the bright crenellations that top some of its walls, the Castle resembled a Gothic bastion. One could easily imagine a muddy moat separating those who had committed serious transgressions—those who had been stigmatized and locked away for most of their lives—from the rest of the world.
“To shed light on the struggles of the 700,000 men and women who are released from U.S. prisons each year, I followed three residents of the Castle for several years. Angel Ramos, the protagonist of my book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, spent 29 years in prison for strangling a young girl in an abandoned building in East Harlem and for trying to kill a co-worker. At the Castle, the 47-year-old befriended two older men, Bruce and Adam, who had also spent several decades locked up for murder. Over the course of more than two years Angel, Bruce, Adam and I spent a lot of time with each other. I accompanied Adam when he bought his first winter coat in 31 years and visited different ethnic restaurants and cafés with Bruce. I helped celebrate Angel’s ‘first’ birthday and was there when, on Halloween, the halfway house residents turned the Castle into a haunted house. Together, the men and I explored the neighborhoods of their youth. We talked about murder, remorse, shame, love, loss and prison. (Sooner or later our conversations inevitably returned to prison, where the men had spent most of their adult lives.)
“One of the most revealing experiences the men shared with me was their seemingly endless track through New York’s job readiness programs, a requirement to qualify for housing subsidies, welfare and the agencies’ employment referrals. This is what I saw.”

Read an excerpt here.

Among Murderers, review

Review in The Times Higher Education

An insightful (and flattering) review of Among Murderers by Glasgow criminologist Laura Piacentini, published today in The Times Higher Education. I couldn’t be happier!

“When it comes to the world of imprisonment, never let it be said that commentators have exhausted all possible areas of exploration, or that nothing “new” can be said. Studying the prison world requires conscious determination, vigilance of emotions and nuanced understandings that crime and punishment are layered with symbolic sociological meaning. The prison is a peculiar site where modalities of power are nefarious yet subject to complex shifts between captives and custodians. We are interested in prisons because of cultural imperatives towards order, social control and, indeed, re-establishing the purity of people who are the most hidden and “leper-like” in society: prisoners. But what of life after prison?

“Reading Sabine Heinlein’s Among Murderers: Life after Prison was a real pleasure. This is an ambitious book in which the author aims to provide much more than a descriptive story of fractured lives scarred by incarceration. Moreover, she asks the searching questions that have taxed sociologists for decades: how do people who have been anonymous and remote from the social world for many years learn to re-enter it and live conventional lives? A second, dominating theme of this book is: what constitutes successful rehabilitation in the minds of murderers released from prison?

“The academic gaze that is cast over the prison world is often none too subtle in indicating the presence of profound suffering, torment, struggle and isolation. Heinlein’s particular skill is to apply a beautifully literary narrative to the still-hidden world of three former offenders.”

Continue reading…

Among Murderers, review

LARB Review

This Memorial Day got even better: Today Jillian Steinhauer’s excellent essay about my book Among Murderers was published in the LA Review of Books, and I am jumping up and down with joy (literally). Here is my favorite excerpt from her insightful review (but you should really read the whole piece!):

“Murderers. One of the most crucial aspects of Heinlein’s book is its swift deconstruction of that eye-catching word used in its title. Who or what makes a murderer? The same term has been branded by the state onto Angel, Adam, and Bruce, but the natures of their crimes are vastly different. Angel fits the traditional definition best, having killed a friend with his bare hands. Adam, on the other hand, took part in a robbery gone wrong: one of his accomplices shot and killed two guards. Bruce got into a fight with a man who harassed his friend: he shot the aggressor, aiming for the shoulder but hitting the chest instead. To assume that because these men are all convicted murderers, they share certain qualities or DNA is a mistake. To assume that because they’ve all killed someone, they are horrible people, is too. What seems to unite them more than anything else is the fact that they’ve all spent decades in prison, an experience that’s changed their lives just as much as the crimes that brought them there.

“This is, in fact, the biggest triumph of Heinlein’s book: the ability to turn “murderers” — gregarious and attention-seeking Angel, contemplative and insecure Adam, reserved but resilient Bruce — into people. She doesn’t shy away from discussing the murders or her own feelings about them, including when she learns the unsettling truth about Angel’s crime, but she manages to do so while keeping us involved and, even more impressively, invested. By the end of the book, we know quite thoroughly what Angel, Adam, and Bruce have done and how they have or haven’t grappled with it, but by some combination of artful storytelling and the unstoppable human inclination toward happy endings, we still want them to succeed. We don’t want them to end up homeless, or commit crimes and land back in prison; we’re rooting for them, even though they’re murderers.”