Writing about crime

One of the less pleasant aspects about living in South Africa is that I get to think a lot about crime. There’s the vigilance when out in public (and also at home), the horror stories in the media and then the reports on how bad things are. Just this past week we had that disturbing report that of 1,000 men polled in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, 25% admitted to having committed rape at some point in their lives. The study received reasonable coverage in the media and has now been relegated to everyday conversation over the dinner table or over tea with colleagues. Everyone seems to agree that it’s shocking, frightening and disturbing.

We’ve also had some good news with the dress-rehearsal for the World Cup soccer tournament, the Confederations Cup, making us believe for however short a moment that we have a soccer team to be proud of. But even here, the tournament has been marred by theft from one of the teams, the Egyptians, who vehemently deny allowing prostitutes up to their rooms, and thus indirectly inviting a robbery.

Today’s Cape Times has an interesting piece by Joanne Hichens, who recently edited a collection of crime fiction short stories called Bad Company. Fresh from attending a Crime Stories Colloquium in Johannesburg, she writes:

I can’t remember who said that we’re living in a perpetual state of hyper-arousal, alert to the possibility of crime in everyday life. But isn’t it true that when it happens we are all to some degree vicariously traumatised?

When she gets home she finds that her neighbours’ Mercedez was hijacked the day before and some of her other neighbours email an all-too-familiar question: What must we do to protect outselves? Her answer:

“In a country where crime is routine, the way to protect ourselves, as the colloquium showed, is to cross the divide, to talk and to listen, to risk knowing. Crime is seldom a random dance. Perhaps it could be described as a clash of realities. The criminal’s story is as important as that of the victim in understanding the complexities of crime in all its forms.”

And, perhaps fittingly, that’s what I’m doing at the moment. Reading (and editing) a ‘criminal’s’ story. The level of abuse this young woman (the ‘criminal’) suffered as a child is shocking, disturbing and frightening. Reading her story also makes me realise some of the illogical logic of crime. To those who are already weak and disempowered, the most likely target will be those who are similarly weak and disempowered. Children and the elderly are two unfortunate targets.

I also know that equipping myself with knowledge about the “other” is anxiety-provoking. Realising the extent of people’s desperation and ‘damage’ makes me far less likely to take risks with my possessions or my safety. But it also makes me want to know more. Cape Town is a complex city and the more I learn about it, the more I want to know. Writing about crime gets to the point of a lot of what’s wrong with this city (and with South Africa as a whole).

So I’m both discouraged but also strangely encouraged in the sense of getting this book edited and into the pipeline of publishing. I think it needs a lot of work but it’s a good story. I’ll let you know what happens.


6 Responses to Writing about crime

  1. sandy says:

    I remember attending a psych conference several years ago. The presenter (someone prolific, whose name I am blanking on) made the case that it is physical neglect, in childhood, that is such a major determining factor associated with crime as an adult. You would think it is physical abuse, and while this contributes, it was the neglect aspect that played a much bigger role. Violent crime, too.

    I can recall doing an evaluation on an adolescent who was in and out of juvenile court. The adolescent seemed frighteningly vacant in the eyes, unresponsive. I felt unable to make a connection. I read the social background and was shocked to read a caseworker’s report outlining severe emotional neglect – as an infant, left in the crib for hours and hours at a time, picked up only to be fed and diaper changed. An alcoholic caregiver. It suddenly made sense to me.

  2. Courtney says:

    definitely keep us informed of your work – it sounds fascinating! Having previously lived in Detroit, and living now in what is a bit of a high crime area,I know there i a line between regular anxiety about the subject and fascination…

  3. doctordi says:

    I’m still in shock about that rape statistic. It’s going to take me a while to process that one.

    In Cold Blood is great for illuminating that illogical logic in the ‘criminal’ mind. And I can certainly understand that sense of being repelled and compelled all at once – I think there’s a real need to understand, and a real horror of being able to.

  4. Pete says:

    Sandy – That makes a lot of sense and quite easy to throw our hands up when we see the level of damage that exists out there. Always interested to hear your stories.

    Courtney – I think the anxiety fuels the fascination a bit but sometimes it’s just so wearying. I want to live in a ‘normal’ country for a while where security is not such a consuming concern. Not sure where I’d choose, but the US would not be the first (or second) choice!

    Di – Very well put about being repelled and compelled at the same time. (Reminds me of a horror movie – I don’t want to watch but I HAVE to!)

  5. litlove says:

    I remember reading somewhere that rape is a state of mind – an ability to objectify the other and remove their humanity. I’ve also read it described as profoundly silent. It’s what happens once all the talking stops, and if there isn’t any talk, you’re that bit closer to it as the sole means of expression. (I believe it’s George Bataille who says this). So for many reasons, and on many levels, the book seems like a very good idea. Good luck with it!

  6. Pete says:

    Litlove – Thanks for that perspective on rape. I think this book would be a lot richer if she (the writer) was able to express a lot of that violation but as it now she tells us rather than describing it to us. I’m not at all confident that this book will get to publication as it is now, but it’s still a very interesting record of a therapeutic relationship between a prison psychologist and an inmate, and I’m just helping to clean it up. I’ve told her that this will require a few drafts but I don’t think that was what she wanted to hear!

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