Criminologist or Criminal? Liminal spaces and trauma
[**trigger warning- this post contains depictions of extreme violence that you may find causes distress**].
A recent incident by a journalist has left me reeling in terms of mental heath. I have decided to share this writing here and welcome contact from fellow survivors. I will not be debating abolitionism or having to justify or defend myself. This is my life. I have been through extreme trauma numerous times and it is not fruitful for me to explain myself.
I am grateful to be here and I hope that sharing my story can help others.
Feminist epistemologies place value on disrupting dominant ways of knowing. Personal experience and struggle can serve as transformative sites of meaning-making. I have lived experience of sex work and of organized crime. In 2018 I endured two crown court trials, both as the wife of the defendant and as a victim. This blog post will interrogate the complexities of occupying such liminal spaces and the role of emotion as a way of knowing.
I have been involved with the sex industry for almost twenty years, having worked as a lap dancer for five years and being involved in activism and research. This has provided me with extensive experience of occupying a stigmatized and liminal space. I am well versed in impression management and how one’s identity is spoiled through conflation with the sex industry (Goffman, 1963; Ahearne, 2015). Working in the night time economy from the age of 17 years old also gave me my initial experiences of serious organized crime. I was employed as a club promoter for night clubs before I turned eighteen and entered the world of strip clubs. I have also experienced secondary stigma for being married to a man who has been in prison and was also given a custodial sentence in a firearms case. This stigma sticks to my body and has rendered my body as a site of spatial exclusion and disgust (Grosz, 1994).
Recently (October 2020) a journalist decided to once again publish spent convictions of over 20 years causing me extreme mental health distress. Much more needs to be done in terms of journalism and safeguarding vulnerable people. People kill themselves as a result of unethical journalists. As a social scientist I am disgusted by their lack of ethics.
In 2017 I was the co-victim of an organized crime gang (OCG) and in 2018 I attended crown court as a victim and later in the same year with my husband as defendant. As such I belonged nowhere and instead occupied a haunting liminal space. My experiences were too messy, chaotic, risky and real to be neatly packaged for criminology and academia. I felt broken and isolated.
Much has been written about the advantages and challenges of ‘insider’ qualitative research; that is, contexts in which the researcher identifies as a member of the social group or community that is being studied (Greene, 2014). Participatory paradigms build on this to prioritize lived experience, or ‘practical knowing’ over other forms of knowing, placing explicit value on this insider position as integral to conducting effective research that interrogates ethical issues and negates problematic power dynamics (Heron & Reason, 1997). However there is little writing that has adequately discussed how researchers may personally benefit from their participation in qualitative and/or insider research, or indeed how the research itself benefits from this dual-relationship (Ross, 2017). The personal challenges I have navigated both in the primary experiences themselves, my research, and in the sense-making has been beneficial to my conceptualizing of complicated criminological matters.
Reflexive practice has risen up research agendas and feminist epistemologies have argued that knowledge is contextually specific and the researcher’s biography affects what they find out and what we know (Stanley and Wise, 1993). Research is not undertaken in a vacuum, and researchers cannot claim to be occupying a neutral default position (Hammond & Kingston, 2004). Central to much feminist research methodology is acknowledging and stating the position of the researcher as part of and influencing the research process (Sanders et al, 2011). O’Neill argues that feminist research works with the complexity of women’s lives and helps to create the academic and practical spaces for women’s voices to be heard, and in turn for them to feel validated and involved (O’Neill, 2001). O’Neill asserts that we need to engage with the depth and complexity of women’s lives to understand women’s lived experiences and their forms of resistance, so that we might better address policy change (O’Neill. 2011). For O’Neill a ‘politics of feeling’ privileges emotions, feelings and meanings in accessing ‘lived experiences’ and ‘lived cultures’ (O’Neill, 2001).
Criminology has historically been androcentric, and many of the claims to positivist objectivity have been at the expense of women’s voices and ways of knowing. The narratives of OCGs and drug reform are male-centred. My experiences as a woman victim of male violence/ members of an OCG urge me to remind people that women and children are often the collateral damage in organized crime. Women are the silent victims; our bodies are sites of violence in order to coerce and control male partners. As a feminist criminologist I experienced criminology as a form of secondary victimisation during this time. The linear narratives presented to me by academics, underpinned by various theoretical frameworks, reflected nothing of my own experiences.
As a woman who has had threats of being raped, being shot, being stabbed, to have acid thrown over me, I realised how sterile and disjointed that criminology can be from the realities of organized crime. I carry my trauma with me every day.
I have always found writing to be a cathartic process, and it was through exploring my experiences with words that I have started to utilise my experience to conceptualize more broadly. Processing trauma is a time-consuming project.
Victim or Villain?
In 2017 I endured five months as the co-victim in an ordeal that was originally given the charge of Blackmail. I was working as a lecturer in Sociology and living a dual identity as somebody whose life was at risk. My husband was imprisoned in the 1990’s for his role in a high profile case and so going to the police was not an option. Partly this was due to the ‘no grassing’ culture that seeks to silence victims, and in part because my husband would not be seen as a worthy victim or a reliable witness. Criminals, or former criminals, are denied the role as full citizen who are worthy of state protection. As such I suffered in silence and could not reveal to anybody including close family and friends what was happening.
I was under acute stress from being threatened by members of an OCG and I made the decision to try and take my own life. My husband reported me as a missing person, and the call handler could tell that this was an unusual case. When I was located by the police they insisted that I spoke to the police psychiatric nurse. Shortly after this, CID were involved. I felt cut off from the world, there is stigma attached to being a victim, engaging with the police, and of the dangers involved. There is also a strong stigma attached to mental health. We refused to give statements for days, despite CID having daily visits to us. Criminology does not show OCGs for what there are: dangerous predatory men who exploit the vulnerable. Much like the grooming of children, such men rely on silence and compliance to achieve their aims. Extorting money makes better business sense than selling drugs because they do not need a product; their threats are their labour.
Criminology is sterile and santized with too many people thinking they have absolute answers. They don’t. The world is messy. It is ok to not have all the answers.
I am not an abolitionist, I do not wish to de-fund the police. This does not make me popular in criminology circles, but I am here to advance knowledge and to share my story.
The police were varied in their approach to us. Although polite and professional, some clearly were unsure of our credibility. My husband’s criminal record hung in the air, and he was often not seen as being a worthy victim. We were presented with Osman warnings where police have intelligence that there is serious threat to life, and in August 2017 we were taken into police protection (protected persons status) for a period of 3 and a half weeks in Scotland until I decided to come home. I could not go through with it. I am aware that as I write this, it is like I am talking about someone else. This is probably dissociation from my PTSD. It is the only way I can deal with what has gone on.
There is no literature in criminology which adequately expresses the terror that I felt every second of the day. My house was arson-assessed by the fire brigade, we had a panic alarm that went straight to the police, I saw shadows everywhere I looked. My husband wore a stab-proof vest and any time that my husband left the house I was sure he would be shot. This is the reality of organized crime and my habitus (Bourdieu, 1979).
To have my experiences re-hashed and minimized by a journalist, all over the papers, has been the worst thing for my mental health in decades. I have cried every day since the publication, had help with acute mental health, and am surrounded by the love of family, friends and peers. And I thank each and every one of you.
It is no surprise that I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. The layers of trauma that I have experienced due to male violence, sexual and physical, throughout my life accumulated during this time. My hair was falling out, I lost an extreme amount of weight and developed gastro problems including ulcers.
I grappled with suicidal ideations everytime that I was alone. A month after returning home from protected persons status I received a lectureship to teach Sociology and therefore had to perform the role of the academic whilst being terrorized my members of an OCGs’ family and friends. My house was broken into by a member of the OCG who threatened us to ‘drop the charges’ and the wait for the crown court trial was an unbearable period. Many friends and acquaintances dropped us because we were ‘grasses’, we had broken the cardinal rule to never speak to the police. However as a feminist I was determined I would not be silenced by men. As a working class woman who has struggled to get to university, receive my Ph.D and get a lectureship, I was as angry as I was scared. I did not come this far to be crushed by a group of men.
Playing with Fire
Due to the fear of facing such extreme threats of violence, my husband acquired self-defense sprays. We did not realise that they are illegal and are legislated under the Firearms Act. My husband was arrested before this crown court trial and charged with the possession of a pepper spray, which constitutes a firearm and on other charges which were later dropped 2 years later (but thank you to the journalist who decided to rake all this up years later).
My house was raided for three and a half hours whilst my husband was in the police cells. I felt like my heart was being ripped from my body. I have never felt so violated in my entire life as the time where 13 police officers including armed police and the dog squad degraded my house. I was watched whilst going to the bathroom and felt I was being raped by the state. I was a prisoner in my home and it seemed to last for days. There is no academic literature which deals with these real issues of crime. The police used torches to search in my garden, and the aftermath of having the belongings of my house upside down. The melted ice in puddles all over the kitchen floor, where the police had been looking for drugs in my freezer. In the aftermath I sat cross legged in the middle of my kitchen, a stranger in my own home.
This meant attending crown court with my husband as defendant in November 2018. Placed behind the perspex screen with close family and friends, I felt like I was drowning in full sight of everyone. My body and mind could not take any more pressure. I had stopped eating, was unable to sleep without tablets, and my hair had turned grey. Grasping my friends’ hands I almost collapsed when the judge sentenced my spouse to a suspended sentence. Here I was, victim and villain in the same year, in the same crown court building. A victim of feeling unsafe and abandoned by a system that is meant to protect us. It was eleven months after this that the other fictitious charges were dropped. For three years my life was in limbo due to the criminal justice system. This is a burden not discussed in the academic literature and not easily described to outsiders. It is easy to explain why your career has not advanced due to a maternity break, or health related reasons. It is something else entirely to explain how you have gone through several serious legal issues in the space of a few years.
Gangsters move in silence not violence
We were told by a member of an OCG that “Gangsters move in silence, not violence”. This is symptomatic of the patriarchal society that we live in. Silence is a tool used by men to wield control. The ‘almost violences’ (Ahearne, 2016) that are used as menacing forms of symbolic violence, that loom and keep order by threat of their very presence, mean that victims will comply. Victims are silent because children are threatened, and the bodies of women are used as literal sites of oppression. To threaten to rape me was a vivid act of symbolic violence and masculine domination, a way of coercing a woman into staying quiet. An outward act of violence would have drawn concern and attention.
I had never felt more distant from the discipline of criminology. A realm where abolitionism was being preached by those sanitized by academia. By those who saw crime as being in the past tense, they can not account for the constant threats from behind the prison walls. I felt brutalized not only by the dual experience of the crown court system, but by a discipline who prioritised the ‘pains of imprisonment’ over the pains of lived reality. Where victimology was a niche side show, and once again the experiences of women were diminished and discredited. Women’s voices need to take centre-stage, they need to be prioritised, and the raw unedited stories must be given legitimacy.
Judgements are made surrounding whether a victim is ‘worthy’ or not, was I the right kind of victim? I am someone with a spoiled identity (Goffman, 1963) from both my former occupation, my proximity to the ‘dangerous’ body of my husband, and therefore I am seen as having fault or blame. The language of risk and vulnerability are a key part of criminological debates (Sibley, 2018) and those seen as negating their own risk by actively engaging in ‘risky’ behaviours are held accountable. By refusing the extreme protection that the state offered me in the form of protected persons status, I was considered to be the narrator of my own risk. I refused to embody passive victimhood and comply with the risk-management of the state. It is dangerous for a woman to reject the protections that are awarded to her, but as Brown rightly asserts, vulnerability is used as a mechanism of social control (Brown, 2012).
The ideal victim (Maglione, 2017) might be a much contested fixture in writings of criminology, but the idea of ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ are false dichotomies (Cuneen, 2010). Writings on victimology have tended to construct people as either ‘offender’ or ‘victim’, with little attention to the profound difficulties that underpin these classifications. My husband resides in both of these categories, and the complicated nature of this liminal identity posed multiple problems when engaging with the criminal justice system. The police are not a homogeneous group, and some officers were sceptical about my husband’s victimhood. This leaked down to me and led to stigma by association, and secondary victimisation. As a feminist academic, it was a grave source of frustration that I was constantly being judged by the actions of men.
Living through the terror of being targeted by an organized crime group had a deep impact on me. Yet when I returned to literature in order to make sense of my experiences, I was met with scholarly struggles that I could not relate to. Whether I am called a victim or survivor is not an issue (Van Dijk, 2009), what is an issue, is that there are few spaces where I can speak openly within academic circles. Voices that reject or question the academic legitimacy of semantic fields, are not welcome. Victim-labeling is a non-issue for me, I would rather the academy focuses on why so few people with experiences of organized crime are recognised in the writings. I am a human being with complex and seeping identities and values, like anybody else. Whether I feel forgiveness or the need for punitive measures depends on the day. This does not mean that I am less of a criminologist, on the contrary, this valuable personal knowledge means I am constantly interrogating the nuances and hidden areas of debate. I have spoken openly about my experiences to other academics, and the tension that I navigate between being victim-survivor and criminologist are not unusual.
Emotion work in lived experience
Emotion in research is important, it is how we explore distressing and complicated concepts (Javaid, 2019). I do not approach criminology from the sidelines with my knowledge neatly compiled from semi-structured interviews, but I bleed into criminology from my many lived experiences. Emotions can be a powerful research tool, they lead us to ask difficult questions and to challenge injustices (Mann, 2019). I felt guilty for the burning anger that grows under my skin, but it is that authenticity that makes me a criminologist. Why is the default position for successful research the cold ‘rationale’ scholarship? Where are the many voices of the survivors, the defendants, those who are usually written about? Why is there a monopoly on who produces knowledge? This project is a critical feminist endeavor that seeks to mobilise a larger cohort of women’s writings.
Koobak and Tharpor-Bjorkert argue that naming the place from which one speaks is a feminist act that has become a foundation stone of feminist epistemology (Lykke, 2014). The authors draw from Rich’s ‘politics of location’ (1984, 1986) to argue that feminists must reflect on and have responsibility for how they ‘inhabit, reproduce and transform’ (Ibid). The space from which we come from (hooks, 1990) is the space of theorising, the personal struggles that lead us to become the researchers of today. Our identities are constantly in flux, and we inhabit a range of identities that inform our theoretical positioning and our research in practice. Acknowledging and owning one’s motivations, experiences, perspectives, expectations are important for understanding how the qualitative researcher produces accountable knowledge (Letherby, 2014).
I am not separate from the field of criminology. I am a part of the topics that I teach, and my emotions are a valuable asset in the teaching of criminology and the (re) conceptualising of women’s voices in the field. This positionality can be hard to wrestle with, and I have often felt like an outsider. I experience dissociation as part of having Complex PTSD but I also experience dissociation from being my private self and my formal role of academic. My narrative is embodied and it weighs heavy. I feel it in my chest, the tight spasms in my stomach. I could find very little academic literature on the intensive emotional work that is required to exist in academia as someone who has personal experience of OCGs. The management of my emotions has been a tiring form of emotional labour; I have had to perform the role of the professional academic when facing threats to my life (Hochschild, 1975). It is impossible to express the difficulty involved in this process. Regulating my own emotions during this process has been a struggle. To show visible signs of distress inside a work setting brings discomfort to others and a questioning of your professionalism.
The main purpose in this article is to say that I am here, and that there are many other women like me. Our voices and experiences matter, and feminist epistemology argues for the need for a re-conceptualisation of autobiography and the discipline. The article is autobiographical in that it draws upon my life. I have found academia an incredibly difficult place to be because it does not value first-hand experience and people who demand to tell their own story. I do not want to be spoken for, or over, I am qualified to write my own story. Attention to these issues clearly demonstrates that autoethnography is relevant and should be central to a criminological and sociological approach.
I do not claim to be an expert in the field, but I am an expert of my own life experiences. The academy must place more value on lived experience and on narratives that disrupt the status quo and challenge the discipline. Ahmed (2017) refers to being a ‘feminist killjoy’ and it appears that the same exists within criminology. Those who reject dominant ways of thinking and knowing are maligned and rejected. I do not claim to speak for all survivors of male violence, or all wives of former prisoners, or all former strippers, but I do strongly assert that such narratives are strong ones with value for the discipline. I recommend that criminology allows more people to speak for themselves, and to be able to do so in noisy, fractured, provocative ways. By placing value on new ways of story-telling, we place value on women’s writing and those who come from non-traditional academic backgrounds.
As always I stand with all survivors of male violence. Much love and light.
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