Doctor, do I burgle houses because of my childhood?

Part II of my conversation with the brilliant Theodore Dalrymple, aka Anthony Daniels.

AV: At InHouse Records, we write and single-handedly distribute a music magazine and, unfortunately, because we cater to the prisoners, most of the time we need to cover genres and styles and artists that are currently popular with the prisoners. And the music, in my humble opinion, is often terrible. And as a contributor to the magazine, I need to contribute something that they will find readable. And I find it very difficult. I also have an interest in literature and languages, and I try to talk about these things as well. For example, there is a section in the magazine where we publish either a modest literary effort from a prisoner, or when those are lacking, I would use a quote by a famous author as a filler. Of course, I used the space to disseminate a little bit of D.H. Lawrence, Anthony Burgess, Nikos Kazantzakis, etc., in the hope that they would find the quotation interesting. One can hope. But musically, how would you slip in something slightly higher than what they’re used to

TD: Well, what are they used to? What is it now? Is it rap?

AV: Terrible UK rap music that glorifies violence and misogyny. You know, “I grew up in the ghetto and the ghetto is who I am” and that kind of thing. It’s the same. It all sounds the same to me.

TD: You mean it’s monotonous.

AV: Monotonous and uniform. Of course, somebody else would say, “Well, Baroque music sounds all the same to me,” but this hip-hop in particular, to my ears, is just more and more of the same. 

TD: Well, there are lots of people who like the same, whatever the same is. Is it possible to analyse the words, the lyrics?

AV: I was in charge of the Writing section of the magazine. In every piece I would analyse either a specific song by a UK artist or I would scan through an artist’s songs and look for specific literary techniques like metaphor, metonymy, rhyme, alliteration and so on. And sure enough, sometimes there is a bit of linguistic inventiveness, but the music is just terrible and the linguistic inventiveness is usually in the service of a terrible message. 

TD: Do you actually analyse the message itself?

AV: That’s a great question. In a way, I was probably self-censoring myself. On one occasion, I did write that I am yet to discover a rap song that glorifies the pleasures of reading. Most rap songs glorify other pleasures, but not the pleasure of sitting down and reading a book. There wasn’t any backlash, which probably suggests that nobody read my article. 

TD: Songs that say “I’m from the ghetto, that’s what I am” – is it possible to analyse that, even slightly philosophically? Say, ‘Well, actually, is it true that one is just where one comes from?’ If you could do it in such a way that you’re not antagonising them, but gently to suggest that it’s simply not true that you’re bound to be where you’re born or to do what everyone else does. It’s just not true. You see, one of the things I found – it’s true that I spoke to individuals, I didn’t write for prisoners as such –  but when I spoke to them I didn’t say anything to them that I wouldn’t say to you. I mean, there were a few that I wouldn’t say it to because they were of the real psychopath type. But they weren’t that many. Most of the prisoners are not that bad, at least in my prison they weren’t. And they never got angry and many of them said, ‘Well, yes, that’s right, really.’ And they would laugh, actually, at the stories they had been telling themselves. I had one chap, he said ‘Doctor, do you think I burgle houses because of my childhood? Do you think it’s got something to do with my childhood?’ And I said, ‘Nothing whatever.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Nothing whatever.’ He said, ‘Why do I burgle houses then?’ I said, ‘I think you are lazy and stupid and you want things which you are not prepared to work for.’ And he started laughing. Of course, once you got rid of all that rubbish, it was perfectly true that he had had a terrible childhood, that was true. And that often is the case. Not often, it’s usually true. Because many of them have grown up in a completely loveless world where everything is a matter of who does what to whom and what you can get away with. And you can even see the way that children are being brought up leads to that attitude to life. But it was perfectly possible to talk to them on an abstract level. Though they were not well educated, in fact they were very badly educated, they were capable of understanding. I can give you another example. Once a man came to me demanding drugs to calm him down. He said if I didn’t give him drugs to calm him down he would have to kill a sex offender. So I said, ‘Hang on a minute. Why would you have to kill a sex offender?’ He said, ‘Well, they interfere with little children.’ I said, ‘Well, they don’t all interfere with little children, but anyway, let’s talk about this. Do you have any children?’ I knew what the answer was likely to be. He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘How many?’ ‘Three.’ ‘All from the same mother?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you see these three children?’ ‘No.’ ‘Does the mother of your children have a boyfriend?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘One or several?’ ‘She probably has more than one.’ And I said, ‘And how is one or more of these boyfriends going to treat your child?’ And he got the point immediately. So I said, ‘You’re not a sex offender yourself, but you have created the conditions in which your own children are likely to be abused. Therefore, you are not in a very strong moral position to chastise sex abusers.’ And that was the last time I heard of any tablets to calm him down. He never asked for any again. But he got the point. Actually, he got the point very early. And it’s not a completely straightforward point. So these people are capable of understanding things. It’s not that they don’t understand. And that’s why, in a way, the very idea of rehabilitation – as if they’re suffering from an illness – is wrong. What they need, I thought, was more of a Socratic dialogue, if you want to call it that. I don’t know what you think.

AV: Of course, I agree with this general strain that runs through your writing – that ultimately it’s their decision to commit a crime that causes crime. And these endless excuses about the ghetto and my parents and my childhood…

TD: Well, one has to acknowledge that some people’s path through life is a lot easier than other people’s path through life. Some people are born in fortunate circumstances and other people are born in very unfortunate circumstances. But people born in unfortunate circumstances can overcome them and do overcome them. Not only has this happened, but it’s happened on a mass scale. So, it’s important to get that across. There’s a kind of dishonest fatalism about it all. On the one hand, they claim, ‘I can’t do otherwise.’ And on the other hand, they know perfectly well that it’s not true. But there are advantages to them in claiming…I mean it’s a dialectic between the person who says, ‘You were born in the ghetto and therefore you can’t help it,’ etc, etc, and they want an excuse for themselves. But both are actually not telling each other the truth. And I personally found that telling the truth in a straightforward way came as a relief to them. Just as I saw lots of women in the hospital next door who had been terribly badly abused, horrible violence and so on, and of course I was appalled by the violence of the people who had committed it, but I said to them, ‘Let’s look at how you are complicit in it, what you’ve done to bring this situation about. Because if we don’t look at that, you’ll never be able to do better.’ So, many of the women, for example, had associated themselves with people who they knew in advance to be bad.

AV: Of course. I still see it sometimes outside the Visitors Centre. 

TD: Yes, of course. It’s difficult, because people are saying, ‘Oh, then you’re blaming the victim.’ I’m not blaming the victim, I’m saying that the victim is a victim, but is not just a victim, is not only a victim. Now, of course, there are cases where people are just victims. If I go out into the street and someone shoots me dead, I’m just a victim. There’s nothing more to be said. But if I persist in associating with drug dealers and I’m shot outside the door, then, even though I shouldn’t be shot, I can’t say that it’s wholly out of the blue. We find it very difficult to be honest, I think, these days. And I think the study of criminology and sociology and psychology has actually put a kind of barrier between ourselves and our experience. 

AV: Resulting in less honesty?

TD: Yes.