“Would you like to write a blogpost?”, Professor Fergus McNeill asked me. It could not be a better moment. I think that December 2015 has been, by far, the most inspirational period of my life. Oh sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I am Sofie Van Roeyen, a Belgian researcher conducting a PhD at Ghent University under the supervision of Professor Freya Vander Laenen. My PhD is about desistance in mentally ill offenders. I conduct qualitative research in which mentally ill offenders are central and the focus lies on the strengths and capacities of mentally ill offenders.
With the purpose of elaborating the conceptual part of my PhD, I thought it would be a good idea to go on a research visit to the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research in December. A wee month is very short, but it was perfectly intense. Meeting professor Fergus McNeill seemingly had a big influence on my thinking about desistance, and reinforced me to keep doing research the way I was doing it.
There are many things I would like to share with you, but I choose a topic that I am not used to writing about and that is quite personal: the connection between my respondents and me. Not me merely as a researcher, but me personally, as a human being. As the stories of mentally ill offenders themselves are the focal point of my research, I got the opportunity to talk with mentally ill offenders. As a researcher you are supposed to listen to your respondents and let them talk about their experiences. Approaching respondents as such sounds very respectful and is very respectful, but at the same time creates a feeling of imbalance. They share their deepest feelings with you, and in the end of the interview you thank them for their time and say goodbye. As a researcher, this is not the end because you start transcribing and analyzing the stories they share with you, to enable yourself to retell their integrated stories in an article and/or book. In contrast, as a person, this is the only moment you get so close to your respondents. In respect to all my respondents, and the imbalanced feeling I personally get, I am writing this blogpost. This is, I guess, a way to give something back to them.
People tend to differentiate themselves from people who offend or from people suffering a mental illness. In my opinion, this differentiation is not well-founded at all. Listening to the life stories of my respondents, it appeared not hard for me at all to understand their experiences. We all tend to experience the same kind of changes and desire the same things in life. One of my main findings is that my respondents do not want to win the lottery, but they just want a normal life. Their happiness lies in small, surmountable things. They try to construct a new narrative that gives meaning to their lives.
The best way to describe the similarities between my respondents’ stories and my own story, could probably be built around the metaphor of ‘home’. Home not as a static space which consists of four walls and a roof, but a dynamic concept, which ensures a secure feeling and where you experience feelings not tangible anywhere else. Hearing the talk of Sam King about identity and narratives in desistance in Lisbon (Portugal) at the ‘International Seminar – Juvenile Delinquency: Desistance Process, Identity and Social Bonds’ (10-11 December 2015), this idea got strengthened. Purely coincidental, he touched upon ‘home’ in his talk. For desisters, ‘home’ might relate to finding a sense of self and a sense of achievement and empowerment.
In 2015 I have gone through changes in different life domains. This personal journey made me realize the similarities between my respondents’ stories and my own story. I was on my way to find new meaning in life, a purpose to live. I felt valleys and peaks, and respectively felt sadness and happiness. I found myself for a long time in a liminal space, between unsuccessfully returning home and successfully finding my new home, searching for my security. The same spot where many of my respondents find themselves. At the same time, I think a lot of my social network members also identify themselves as being somewhere in this liminal space. Anyway, I am convinced that at some point in time everyone will be facing this insecure change process. The use of the metaphor ‘home’ as the similarity between my respondents’ stories and my own, is rooted in the beginning of November: new love. I was inspired by this change in my life to get to an in depth understanding of ‘home’. After all kinds of important life changes, I managed to find my home, and since then, it is the first time I really feel at home.
I think the key is to open yourself for the idea that we are all experiencing the same journey, which makes it easier for everyone to understand ‘the other’. In the end, we all want to find our home. To go through your own insecure change process, I guess, the start is to accept that such periods do exist on your journey. Happy New Year and good luck in finding your home in 2016!