Vivid, authentic, this is the autobiography of a delinquent—his experiences, influences, attitudes, and values. The Jack-Roller helped to establish the life-history or "own story" as an important instrument of sociological research. The book remains as relevant today to the study and treatment of juvenile delinquency and maladjustment as it was when originally published in 1930.
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A Delinquent Boy's Own Story
By Clifford R. Shaw
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1966 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
VALUE OF DELINQUENT BOY'S OWN STORY
The subject matter of this volume is limited to the case-study of the career of a young male delinquent, to whom we will refer as Stanley. The case is one of a series of two hundred similar studies of repeated male offenders under seventeen years of age, all of whom were on parole from correctional institutions when the studies were made. The author's contact with Stanley has extended over a period of six years, the initial contact having been made when Stanley was sixteen years of age. During this period it has been possible to make a rather intensive study of his behavior and social background and to carry out a somewhat intensive program of social treatment. The case is published to illustrate the value of the "own story" in the study and treatment of the delinquent child. As a preparation for the interpretation of Stanley's life-history, which comprises the major portion of this volume, a brief description of the more general uses of "own story" material, along with illustrations from a number of different cases, is presented in this chapter.
The life-history record is a comparatively new device of sociological research in the field of criminology, although considerable use has been made of such material in other fields. The life-record itself is the delinquent's own account of his experiences, written as an autobiography, as a diary, or presented in the course of a series of interviews. The unique feature of such documents is that they are recorded in the first person, in the boy's own words, and not translated into the language of the person investigating the case. While the use of the life-record requires considerable refinement, it has already demonstrated its value, not only for research into the factors contributing to delinquent conduct, but also for the more practical purposes of social treatment.
Healy and Bronner were among the first students of the problem of delinquency to stress the importance of life-history material. In their case studies the child's "own story" is secured as part of the routine investigation, and has proved to be of great value both in the analysis and treatment of their cases. Since the publication of Healy's original studies, Drucker and Hexter, authors of Children Astray, have made extensive use of this sort of material, particularly with reference to diagnosis and treatment. W. I. Thomas, in his study of delinquency among girls, has also made considerable use of life-history material. Although the autobiographical excerpts which he presents in The Unadjusted Girl are somewhat fragmentary, they are by far the most illuminating materials in the volume.
During recent years a number of interesting and illuminating autobiographies of delinquents have been published. The value of these documents, however, is greatly diminished because of the absence of supplementary case material which might serve as a check on the authenticity of the story and afford a basis for a more reliable interpretation of the experiences and situations described in the documents. As a safeguard against erroneous interpretations of such material, it is extremely desirable to develop the "own story" as an integral part of the total case history. Thus each case study should include, along with the life-history document, the usual family history, the medical, psychiatric, and psychological findings, the official record of arrest, offenses, and commitments, the description of the playgroup relationships, and any other verifiable material which may throw light upon the personality and actual experiences of the delinquent in question. In the light of such supplementary material, it is possible to evaluate and interpret more accurately the personal document. It is probable that in the absence of such additional case material any interpretation of the life-history is somewhat questionable.
It should be pointed out, also, that the validity and value of the personal document are not dependent upon its objectivity or veracity. It is not expected that the delinquent will necessarily describe his life-situations objectively. On the contrary, it is desired that his story will reflect his own personal attitudes and interpretations, for it is just these personal factors which are so important in the study and treatment of the case. Thus, rationalizations, fabrications, prejudices, exaggerations are quite as valuable as objective descriptions, provided, of course, that these reactions be properly identified and classified. W. I. Thomas states this point very clearly in the following quotation:
There may be, and is, doubt as to the objectivity and veracity of the record, but even the highly subjective record has a value for behavior study. A document prepared by one compensating for a feeling of inferiority or elaborating a delusion of persecution is as far as possible from objective reality, but the subject's view of the situation, how he regards it, may be the most important element for interpretation. For his immediate behavior is closely related to his definition of the situation, which may be in terms of objective reality, or in terms of a subjective appreciation—"as if" it were so. Very often it is the wide discrepancy between the situation as it seems to others and the situation as it seems to the individual that brings about the overt behavior difficulty. To take an extreme example, the warden of Dannemora Prison recently refused to honor the order of the Court to send an inmate outside the prison walls for some specific purpose. He excused himself on the ground that the man was too dangerous. He had killed several persons who had the unfortunate habit of talking to themselves on the street. From the movement of their lips he imagined that they were calling him vile names and he behaved as if this were true. If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.
WHAT THE DELINQUENT'S "OWN STORY" REVEALS
In our study and treatment of delinquent boys in Chicago, we have found that the "own story" reveals useful information concerning at least three important aspects of delinquent conduct: (1) the point of view of the delinquent; (2) the social and cultural situation to which the delinquent is responsive; and (3) the sequence of past experiences and situations in the life of the delinquent.
THE DELINQUENT BOY'S POINT OF VIEW
The boy's "own story" is of primary importance as a device for ascertaining the personal attitudes, feelings, and interests of the child; in other words, it shows how he conceives his rôle in relation to other persons and the interpretations which he makes of the situations in which he lives. It is in the personal document that the child reveals his feelings of inferiority and superiority, his fears and worries, his ideals and philosophy of life, his antagonisms and mental conflicts, his prejudices and rationalizations. As Burgess has already indicated, "In the life-history is revealed, as in no other way, the inner life of the person, his moral struggles, his successes and failures in securing control of his destiny in a world too often at variance with his hopes and ideals."
Healy has already emphasized the importance of understanding the emotional attitudes, mental conflicts, and the ideational life of the delinquent child. The importance which he attaches to the life-history record in the study of these subjective aspects of delinquent conduct is suggested in the following quotation:
No study of delinquents that is either scientific or practical from the standpoint of treatment can be undertaken without getting at the facts which can only be obtained through the individual's own story well guided by sympathetic questioning. It requires more technical understanding and training than perhaps any other part of the study.
The "own story" affords the only means of acquiring knowledge of many facts concerning outside situations as well as factors in the mental life which may be active elements in producing that which we are studying, namely, the tendency to delinquency. There is a much richer psychology concerned with inner mental life, memories, ideations, imageries, etc., with their emotional backgrounds than is dreamed of during an ordinary examination of a delinquent young person. And this is not material of theoretical or academic interest; it is most useful in its practical bearing upon what ought to be done in the case.
Some of this material is so deeply buried that it requires considerable skill on the part of the inquirer to overcome inhibitions and forgetfulnesses so that underlying fundamental truths of the situation may be brought to the surface.
In order to illustrate the value of the "own story" in the study of the feelings and attitudes of the delinquent, a limited number of excerpts from the life-records of delinquent boys are presented. Case 1 is that of a fourteen-year-old boy who was brought to the juvenile court repeatedly on charges of habitual truancy from home, picking pockets, and shoplifting. His career in delinquency began at an early age in the form of truancy. While truanting from home he became a member of a gang of older boys who were engaged in shoplifting and picking pockets. In the light of the total case history it appeared that the early truancy from home was directly related to the family situation. As revealed in the following excerpt from the boy's "own story," one important aspect of the situation was the intense emotional attitude of hostility which developed in relation to the stepfather.
Case No. 1.—When I was eight years of age all my troubles started. My father died and I cried and was lonesome for a long time. He was my best friend and stood by me and I could not sleep for thinking about him. I worked with him in the store after school and he gave me things to eat and money and lots of things. I didn't have any brother or sister so he gave me everything.
About five months after he died my mother married another fellow. This fellow came in and started to run my father's store. This fellow had three kids and he brought these kids to my father's house to live. Two of his kids was boys and one was a girl. The boys was three years older than me and the girl was the same age as me.
This fellow told me I was too little to work in the store and his boys would take my place. That made me sore and I went to my mother and she said for me not to say anything. I started to have fights with this fellow and his kids. It made me sore when this fellow let his kids have everything and me nothing.
Everything changed and I started to be sad and unhappy. My mother always took this fellow's part against me. She liked me, but she didn't want to make any trouble with him. I had a fight every day with this fellow and his kids because they got candy in the store and I couldn't get anything.
One day after school I went to the store and started to wait on a customer. This fellow said, "You let Bill [one of his own kids] do that and you get out of here." That made me boil inside and I cussed them, and this fellow chased me and I ran away. I stayed out of the house all night and slept under a neighbor's doorstep. It rained in the night and I got wet and cold. The next morning I didn't go home but went to school and my mother came there to get me. I told her I didn't like anything at home and wouldn't go back. Finally she took me home and this fellow bawled me out and I cussed him again, and then he beat me with a strap for cussing him and running away. Then trouble started for sure.
I wanted to run away but they tied me to the bed. Then this fellow's kids would come along and laugh at me and point their fingers at me. That made me red hot and I started to kick and curse them. This fellow came running into the room from the store and slapped me. Then I began to get afraid of him. He was big and strong and I became so afraid of him that I wouldn't say a word. I started to be lonesome and spend my time away from home. All the time I thought about my father and how things was at home before he died. I hated everything and felt like killing this fellow and his kids. Every day I thought how I could kill them. I couldn't get the idea out of my head. I thought about it at night and all the time when I was by myself.....
Things got worse and I started to stay away from home most of the time. The first time I stayed away one night, then two or three nights and finally a whole month.
When I stayed away a month the police found me and took me to court, but I was sent home. But I couldn't stand it there. Everything made me mad and I felt like killing this fellow, so I ran away many times and was finally sent to the Chicago Parental School.....
I was paroled from the school after five months and was to live at home. I hated them more than ever when I came back. They was the cause of all of my trouble and now they thought I was a criminal. This fellow thought his kids had it all over me. When I saw them in my father's store and eating candy, it made me want to kill somebody. I can't tell you how mad I got at them. I couldn't hold my feelings back. I felt they didn't have any right to have my father's things.
At the end of the first week I had a fight. I refused to sweep out the store when this fellow told me to, and he bawled me out. I couldn't do anything for him because of the way I felt about him, and he made me do the dirtiest work. When I wouldn't clean the store he got sore and started to grab me, but I ducked and ran away. This time I was gone for three months. I didn't want to ever go back. When I was away this time I got in with two guys downtown and they started me in to picking pockets and making the stores (shoplifting) in the Loop.....
The following case is presented to further illustrate the value of the "own story" in the study of personal attitudes. This short excerpt reveals the boy's attitudes toward his own delinquent experiences. From his own point of view his delinquencies assume the character of a very stimulating and fascinating game.
Case No. 2.—Every morning the bunch would come past my home about school time. We left home at this time to make our parents think we were going to school. It was easy for me for my mother was working and didn't know much about me. We would sneak a ride on the elevated railway, climbing up the structure to the station, to the Loop. After getting downtown, we would make the round of the big stores. If we couldn't steal enough candy and canned goods for lunch, we would go without lunch. I do not know of anything else that interested me enough to go without a meal but "making the big stores" did. I do not know whether a good thrashing would have cured me or not, as I never received one for stealing, just the one my father gave me when he was mad. But anyway the shoplifting experiences were alluring, exciting, and thrilling. But underneath I kind of knew that I was sort of a social outcast when I stole. But yet I was in the grip of the bunch and led on by the enticing pleasure which we had together. There was no way out. The feeling of guilt which I had could not overbalance the strong appeal of my chums and shoplifting. At first I did not steal for gain nor out of necessity for food. I stole because it was the most fascinating thing I could do. It was a way to pass the time, for I think I had a keener adventurous spirit than the other boys of my age, sort of more mentally alert. I didn't want to play tame games nor be confined in a schoolroom. I wanted something more exciting. I liked the daredevil spirit. I would walk down between the third rails on the elevated lines in the same daring spirit that I stole. It gave me a thrill, and thrilled my chums in turn. We were all alike, daring and glad to take a chance.
When we were shoplifting we always made a game of it. For example, we might gamble on who could steal the most caps in a day, or who could steal caps from the largest number of stores in a day, or could steal in the presence of a detective and then get away.
We were always daring each other that way and thinking up new schemes. This was the best part of the game. I would go into a store to steal a cap, be trying one on, and when the clerk was not watching walk out of the store, leaving the old cap. With the new cap on my head I would go into another store, do the same thing as in the other store, getting a new hat and leave the one I had taken from the other place. I might do this all day and have one hat at night. It was the fun I wanted, not the hat. I kept this up for months and then began to sell the things to a man on the West Side. It was at this time that I began to steal for gain.
THE DELINQUENT'S SOCIAL WORLD
A second aspect of the problem of delinquency which may be studied by means of the "own story" is the social and cultural world in which the delinquent lives. It is undoubtedly true that the delinquent behavior of the child cannot be understood and explained apart from the cultural and social context in which it occurred. By means of personal documents it is possible to study not only the traditions, customs, and moral standards of neighborhoods, institutions, families, gangs, and play groups, but the manner in which these cultural factors become incorporated into the behavior trends of the child. The life-record discloses also the more intimate, personal situations in which the child is living; that is, the attitudes, gestures, and activities of the persons with whom he has intimate contact. With reference to this point, Thomas states:
Perhaps the greatest importance of the behavior document is the opportunity it affords to observe the attitudes of other persons as behavior-forming influences, since the most important situations in the development of personality are the attitudes and values of other persons.
Excerpted from The Jack-Roller by Clifford R. Shaw. Copyright © 1966 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
I. Value of Delinquent Boy's Own Story
II. History of Stanley's Behavior Difficulties
III. Stanley's Social and Cultural Background
Stanley's Own Story
IV. Starting Down Grade
V. The Baby Bandhouse
VI. Getting Educated
VII. The Lure of the Underworld
VIII. Mingling in High Society
IX. Out, but an Outcast
X. Hitting the Road
XI. Back to My Pals
XII. The House of "Corruption"
XIII. Summary of Case and Social Treatment
Discussion. Ernest W. Burgess
I. Places of Residence, Male Juvenile Delinquents, 1926
II. Places of Residence, Adult Male Offenders, 1920