An essay on identity work and desistance

This guest post comes from Paul Growcoot.

Paul studied Philosophy at the University of North London and graduated in 1996. He then moved to northern Italy where he worked for 14 years as a teacher of English for foreign language students. Returning to the UK in 2009 he continued to teach academic English to oversees students at Bradford University and the University of Huddersfield until 2013 when he decided to work freelance.

Then in May 2017, after a period of mental illness and where he had struggled with addiction, he was given a 10-year prison sentence. Although he wanted to appeal the conviction, his barrister believed there were no grounds, so he wrote his own application and was granted leave to appeal in December 2017. Then in September 2018 and represented by a new barrister, his conviction was quashed, and he was subsequently released.

From January to May 2018 he studied a Desistance from Crime module under Adam Calverley at HMP Hull with the Learning Together Program. He believes that this was the single best opportunity given to him during his period of incarceration. And that it has helped him to desist from the behaviours and associations leading to the situation that got him convicted in the first place.

The following is the final essay from the module:

“In the end, for us all, the way we behave is determined by the story we find ourselves in. A person becomes what they believe.” (Steve Chalke, 2015: 46)[1]

This essay will attempt to provide an overview of the “phenomenology of desistance” (Maruna, 2001: 8). After a cursory look at the philosophical heritage of the ‘self’ we shall examine Maruna’s redemption script theory to see how desisters “develop a coherent, pro-social identity […] to account for […] their criminal pasts” (Ibid: 7). Also, by blending cognitive transition theory (Giordano et al, 2002) with Vaughan’s (2006) internal narrative theory we will begin to psychologically unpack the incremental phases in the transition from offender to desister. Simultaneously, we will look at Farrall & Calverley’s (2006) emotional trajectory of desistance to scrutinize the feelings underpinning this transition, concluding that ‘hope’ is a recurring theme throughout the process and is perhaps the single most important psychological construct for success (Martin & Stermac, 2010). Rather than treat the theories separately a synthesis is offered.

At the beginnings of Modernity John Locke (1690) explained the ‘self’ in terms of continuities of memory and consciousness.[2]However, David Hume maintained that the self was an illusion; when we search inside we find no object that we can call the ‘self’, just a rapid succession of bundled perceptions from which the fiction of identity arises (Hume, 1739-40).[3]  To save us from this potential solipsism, thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Brentano developed existentialism. They were inspired by Fichte,[4]  perhaps the first to recognise that the self only has meaning through its intentions and actions, “Not for idle contemplation of yourself are you here, not for brooding over devout sensations[5]– no, for action are you here: action, and action alone determines your worth” (Fichte, 1800; cited in Wilson, 1966: 60).

Then Nietzsche (1882) pronounced God dead[6] and mankind was condemned to freedom (Sartre, 1943); a Dasein[7]defined solely by its actions and “being-with-others”, but it is a fallen or inauthentic self (Heidegger, 1927: 225). Similarly, the self of the offender is inauthentic or in mauvaise foi[8]since they deceive themselves when they deny the consequences of their actions on others (Sartre, 1946: 33). The only way to redeem the authentic self is through ‘angst’ (Heidegger, 1927: 227). For the offender this could be through shock; being wounded through crime or given a long sentence (Cusson & Pinsonneault, 1986). It is through these flashes of authenticity that an openness to a better future begins to dawn. Hence there are two possible selves; the inauthentic or offending self, and the authentic or desisting self. There are, of course, further subtleties and nuances to this simplistic generalisation, such as the inauthentic desister, but the distinction serves our purpose here.

Similar to an addict who has hit rock bottom (Laub & Sampson, 2001; Giordano et al, 2002) the first cognitive transformation a would-be desister undergoes is “a shift in the actor’s basic openness to change” (Giordano et al, 2002:  1000). It may have been forced upon the individual by external factors but the “‘up front’ work [is] accomplished by [the] actors themselves” (Ibid: 992). This rational choice to change (Clarke & Cornish, 1985) is the initial driver in identity transition, inspired by both the dread of what one might become and the hope of a pro-social identity. Paternoster & Bushway (2009) argue that the ‘feared self’ needs to be ‘knifed off’ (Sampson & Laub, 1993; 1995) and substituted with a more positive ‘possible self’. Therefore the ‘possible self’ acts as a motivation and the ‘feared self’ a deterrent (Paternoster & Bushway, 2009: 1107-8).

This openness to change is the dawning realisation that another future self is possible. Farrall & Calverley (2006) found that hope was necessary in sustaining motivation to achieve a successful pro-social identity. Rather than doom and despair (Maruna, 2001: 7), hope has been consistently recognised as a fundamental factor for successful desistance (e.g. Burnett & Maruna, 2004; Maguire & Raynar, 2006; Martin & Stermac, 2010). This is consonant with the first phase of Vaughan’s (2006) internal narrative theory: discernment. Drawing on Archer’s (2003) notion of internal conversation, Vaughan tells us that “our emotions provide the first signals about […] that to which we are drawn or shy away from” (Vaughan, 2006: 4). Thus, the possible feared self of the ‘sad, lonely old lag’ is shunned in favour of the possible ‘respectable self’ of the good partner/parent/colleague.

This emotional debate acts as a vehicle to the second cognitive shift; a propensity to recognise and embrace “a particular hook or set of hooks for change” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000). These hooks are usually structural in nature; e.g. the job interview, meeting the benevolent partner/mentor. In the future they are often regarded retrospectively as ‘turning points’ (Sampson & Laub, 1993; 1995), but are indicative of a rapprochement between the actor and their desire to engage with hooks as well as what those hooks mean to them. As Uggen (2000) noted in his research into an offenders’ work program, it is both the availability of the hook and the offender’s readiness to ‘bite’ that are required for a change in criminal identity to initiate. Advocates of social control theory argue that informal controls, such as the good job or partner, naturally generate pro-social behaviour (Hirschi, 1969). And although it may be true that hooks for change foster transformations, eventually the actor must make a cognitive connection, through reflection, that the hook represents a change for the better (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000).

This is the second phase of Vaughan’s narrative theory: deliberation; a “review of the pros and cons of potential courses of action” (2006: 5). This process is both rational and emotional, including considering one’s position in relation to others. Hence the construction of a pro-social identity is dependant upon how one feels about one’s current identity and how one believes others feel about it (Ibid). As Farrall & Calverley note, “the ’emotional’ aspects of desistance are part of the feelings experienced by a wider social network of people other than the desister” (2006: 129).

The true enormity of the task begins to dawn on the would-be desister. Setbacks have probably occurred, perhaps even ‘relapses’; hopes are flagging as negative emotions such as regret begin to surface. Furthermore, the obstacles to achieving the social capital necessary for a ‘normal’ life become apparent, it is too early in the process for a sense of pride or achievement and they have little or no trust in the surrounding social controls or even themselves as a desister (Ibid). This intermediate part of the process, then, is an emotional ‘no-man’s land’, where the individual is at their most fragile and vulnerable. It is when the informal control or “scaffolding that makes possible the construction of significant life changes” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000) is most vital.

With perseverance the would-be desister arrives at the third cognitive shift; the forging of “an appealing and conventional ‘replacement self’ that can supplant the marginal one that must be left behind [… so that] it becomes inappropriate for ‘someone like me’ to do ‘something like that'” (Ibid:  1001). Maruna tells us this is a “process of freeing one’s ‘real me’ […] of ‘finding the diamond in the rough’ [which is] frequently described in terms of empowerment from some outside source”[9](2001: 95). Significant others, such as a mentor or a partner, can enable the desister with ‘positive stroking’[10]and encouragement so they can take on a ‘liminal’ identity.[11]It is often only when someone believes in them that they can begin to believe in themselves (Ibid: 96).

These informal controls provide the would-be desister with the tools to fashion a “skeleton script” (Rumgay, 2004: 409) or “cognitive blueprint” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1055) for a replacement self. According to Farrall & Calverley (2006) this liminal phase of primary desistance[12]is accompanied by the onset of shame and guilt as they begin to acquire the necessary psychological distance to confront their old, offending self. These negative emotions are negotiated and neutralized with a ‘necessary prelude’ plot device, i.e. something they had to go through to get to where they are now and “although the […] ‘knifing off’ concept remains, ‘making good’ involves more self-reconstruction than amputation” (Maruna, 2001: 87).

Also, in this phase the proto-desister is offered, and accepts, opportunities (e.g. jobs) and they begin to feel trusted. Guilt gives way to pride as they start to achieve their objectives via conventional means. This emotive process reinforces desistance and helps them avoid further criminal behaviour (Farrall & Calverley 2006). Through re-biographing, and the construction of a cognitive blueprint for the future self, the final phase of Vaughan’s personal narrative emerges: dedication. “At this stage, one decides to re-order the panoply of concerns and interests one has in order to allow a novel commitment[13]to emerge (2006: 5, my emphasis). Hence agents begin to see offending activities as incompatible with their new identity. This dedication, then, is a complementing of the social restraints provided by the mentor or partner above with “enhanced internalized control from adherence to newly found commitments” (Ibid).

This leads us to what Giordano et alcall “the capstone” of identity transition (2002: 1002). The fourth and final cognitive shift involves a change in the way the agent identifies with deviant behaviour; it becomes incongruent with their new, desisting self. In the vernacular; after ‘talking the talk’ they now begin to ‘walk the walk’ of a fully-fledged desister. They make the transition from liminal, primary desistance to concrete, secondary desistance, “assuming the role of a non-offender” (Maruna & Farrall, 2004: 175). Finally, the agent dons the vestments of a desister, acquires their ‘airs and graces’ and ‘graduates’ to the normal, moral, conventional world.

Lofland tells us that “transformed deviants tend to become not merely moral but hyper moral” (1969: 283). Once the offending identity has been discarded the struggle then becomes one of finding meaning and purpose as well as legitimacy in the eyes of others. The only way to “find ‘inner peace’ and a sense of accomplishment was [by] helping other ex-convicts change their lives” (Maruna, 2001: 102). By exchanging the role of mentee for that of mentor and emulating an individual who had been their ‘hook for change’, they take on the generative role of a ‘professional ex-‘ or ‘wounded healer’ (Ibid). This is the final piece of the redemption puzzle; they have developed “a coherent, pro-social identity for themselves” (Ibid: 7). In fact, this kind of neutralization is crucial “for the negotiation of stigma and rejection of the […] ‘offender’ label” (Hulley, 2016: 1776).

In this final stage feelings of hope begin to re-emerge but rather than the vague aspiration of a ‘better future’ their hopes become more specific (e.g. promotion, marriage, children). Regrets about the past become more pronounced but agents start to talk about their criminal identity in the past tense (Farrall & Calverley, 2006). However, this shame about their chequered past is also worn as a badge of honour as they embark on “fighting the good fight” (Maruna, 2001: 99) of the zealous proselytizer, ensuring the next generation does not follow in their deviant footsteps. Maruna asserts that the “moral hedonism of the redemption script” (2001: 105) allows desisters to brazenly dignify their crimes instead of hiding them away like a guilty secret. By finding a “silver lining” and fabricating “positive illusions” the individual is less prone to depression and better able to adjust to their new identity and maintain their motivation to desist (Ibid: 106). Acting as a ‘wounded healer’ also helps them heal themselves, positively reinforcing their desisting identity through feelings of reward and improved self-esteem.

In conclusion, rather than a sudden and schizophrenic denial of the offending identity to simply ‘become’ a new person the would-be desister undergoes a gradual metamorphosis (Maruna, 2001: 87). First there is an openness to change and a discernment between a feared and a pro-social self. This is followed by the recognition of hooks for change and a deliberation between the choices. Next a blueprint for a desisting self is identified to which the agent then commits. Finally, in a ‘transvaluation of values’ (Nietzsche, 1886) their attitude to offending shifts diametrically and they take on the generative role of a professional ex-offender.

Hence the journey is far more protracted and complex than social control theorists have postulated. However, they point out that narrative theory tends to be retrospective “which may present a distorted account of the nature of human agency in the desistance process” (King, 2014: 59). The individual tends to become the ‘star of the show’ when re-biographing occurs. Granted, the importance of structural relationships cannot be denied, and when the agent is prone to relapses during the intermediate phases of the process they can be vital in maintaining motivation.

But the desistance journey is primordially bound up with how the individual feels. The beginning is characterised by hope at a brighter future while the middle is an affective wasteland when external bonds are needed the most. In the penultimate phase shame and guilt are felt which in the final phase give way to pride, achievement and, eventually, the re-emergence of hope as the agent is reintegrated into society. It is how would-be desisters cope with this emotional trajectory that determines their success in attaining desistance (Farrall & Calverley, 2006). Hope is the single most influential feeling running through the process and the more that society fosters it in the desister the more chance they have of success.[14]In a final irony, perhaps the hardest task for the desister is not convincing society they have reformed but convincing themselves that they can.

Reference List

Archer, M.S. (2003) Structure, Agency, and the Internal Conversation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berne, E (1961) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy: A Systematic Individual and Social Psychiatry, New York: Grove Press.

Burnett, R. & Maruna, S. (2004) ‘So “Prison Works” — Does It? The Criminal Careers of 130 Men Released from Prison under Home Secretary Michael Howard’, in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 43 (4): 390-404.

Chalke, S. (2015) Being Human: How to Become the Person You Were Meant to Be, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Clarke, R.V. & Cornish, D.B. (1985) ‘Modelling Offenders’ Decisions: A Framework for Research and Policy’, in M. Tonry & N. Morris (eds.) Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cottingham, J. (ed.) (2008) Western Philosophy: An Anthology, 2ndedition, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Cusson, M. & Pinsonneault, P. (1986) ‘The Decision to Give Up Crime’, in D.B. Cornish & R.V. Clarke (eds.) The Reasoning Criminal, New York: Springer-Verlag.

Farrall, S. & Calverley, A. (2006) Understanding Desistance from Crime: Theoretical Directions in Resettlement and Rehabilitation, Berkshire: Open University Press.

Fichte, J.G. (1800) The Vocation of Man cited in C. Wilson (1966) Beyond the Outsider, London: Pan Books.

Flynn, N. (2012) Criminal Behaviour in Context: Space Place and Desistance from Crime, Abingdon: Routledge.

Giordano, P.C., Cernkovich, S.A. and Rudolph, J.L. (2002) ‘Gender, Crime and Desistance: Toward a Theory of Cognitive Transformation’, in American Journal of Sociology, Volume 107 (4): 990-1064.

Heidegger, M. (1927) Sein und Ziet, 7thedition, Tübingen: Neomarius Verlag. Translated from German by J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (1962) Being and Time, New York: Harper & Row.

Hirschi, T. (1969) Causes of Delinquency, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hulley, J.L. (2016) ‘”While this does not in any way excuse my conduct…”  The role of treatment and neutralizations in desistance from sexual offending’, in International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Volume 60 (15):  1776-1790.

Hume, D. (1739-40) A Treatise of Human Nature, in Oxford University edition by D.F. and M.J. Norton (2000) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kant, l. (1785) Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten [Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals]. Translated from German by H.J. Paton (1948) in The Moral Law, London: Hutchinson.

Kafka, F. (2005) ‘The Metamorphosis’, in N.N. Glatzer (ed.), The Complete Short Stories: 89-139, Croydon: Vintage.

King, S. (2014) Desistance Transitions and the Impact of Probation, Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Laub, J.H. and Sampson, R.J. (2001) ‘Understanding Desistance from Crime’ in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Volume 28:  1-69.

Locke, J. (1690) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in the standard critical edition by P.H. Nidditch (1975) Oxford: Clarendon.

Loftland, J. (1969) Deviance and Identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

McAlinden, A., Farmer, M. & Maruna, S. (2017) ‘Desistance from Sexual Offending: Do the Mainstream Theories Apply?’, in Criminology & Criminal Justice, Volume 17 (3): 266-283.

Maguire, M. & Raynor, P. (2006) ‘How the Resettlement of Prisoners Promotes Desistance from Crime: Or Does It?’, in Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume 6 (1): 19-38.

Martin, K. & Stermac, L. (2010) ‘Measuring Hope: Is Hope Related to Criminal Behaviour in Offenders?’, in International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Volume 54 (5): 693-705.

Maruna, S. (2001) Making Good: How Ex-offenders Reform and Reclaim Their Lives, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.

Maruna, S. & Farrall, S. (2004) ‘Desistance from crime: A theoretical reformulation’, in Koelner Zeitschrift fuer Soziologie und Socialpsychologie, Volume 43: 171-194.

Nellis, M. (2009) ‘The Aesthetics of Redemption: Released Prisoners in American Film and Literature’, in Theoretical Criminology, Volume 13 (1): 129-146.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1882) Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, Chemnitz: Schmeitzner. Translated from German by J. Nauckhoff (2001) The Gay Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1886) Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Translated from German by W. Kaufman (1966) Beyond Good and Evil, New York: Random House.

Paternoster, R. & Bushway, S. (2009) ‘Desistance and the “Feared Self”: Toward an Identity Theory of Criminal Desistance’, in Journal of Law & Criminology, Volume 99 (4): 1103-1156.

Rumgay, J. (2004) ‘Scripts for Safer Survival: Pathways Out of Female Crime’, in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 43 (4): 405-419.

Sampson, R.J. & Laub, J.H. (1993) Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points through Life, London: Harvard University Press.

Sampson, R.J. & Laub, J.H. (1995) ‘Understanding Variability in Lives Through Time: Contributions of Life-Course Criminology’, in Studies on Crime & Crime Prevention, Volume 4 (2): 143-158.

Sartre, J.P. (1943) L’Etre et le Néant. Translated from French by H.E. Barnes (1957), Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, New York: Philosophical Library.

Sartre, J.P. (1946) L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme, Paris: Les Editions Nagel. Translated from French by P. Mairet (1948) Existentialism and Humanism, York: Methuen & Co.

Uggen, C. (2000) ‘Work as a Turning Point in the Life Course of Criminals: A Duration Model of Age, Employment and Recidivism’, in American Sociological Review, Volume 65 (4): 529-546.

Vaughan, B. (2006) ‘The Internal Narrative of Desistance’, in British Journal of Criminology Advance Access, published October 13, 2006:  1-15.


[1]Steve Chalke was a Baptist minister before founding the Oasis Trust in 1985 which has pioneered community initiatives in the UK and around the world. The author of over 40 books, Steve was awarded an MBE for his services to social inclusion in 2004.

[2]Try telling that to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis (Kafka, 2005). After waking in his Prague apartment to find himself newly endowed with an undulating carapace and an array of thin, spindly legs that look barely capable of supporting him he exclaims “What has happened to me?” (Ibid: 89). Also, compare this notion of the self with a trans-gender person’s process of gender reassignment, although the consciousness is the same their identity has definitely changed.

[3]David Hume is credited as the prototype Occidental Buddhist for bringing an Oriental slant to Western philosophy (Cottingham, 2008: 285).

[4]Immanuel Kant’s disciple. Interestingly, Kant’s (1785) Categorical Imperative (Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law) foreshadowed Sartre’s moral anguish; evident when Sartre writes “one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing” (1946: 33). Through the self-deceit of saying ‘but everyone will not do it’ the criminal implies the universal truth that he denies. “By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called ‘the Anguish of Abraham”‘ (Ibid: 34).

[5]A reference to Descartes’ ‘armchair’ philosophy and also, perhaps, the fact that his mentor Kant never left his home town despite admitting that the influence of David Hume had “roused him from his ‘dogmatic slumber”‘ (Cottingham, 2008: 40).

[6]One can almost imagine Nietzsche with his white coat and stethoscope gravely looking up from his patient after failing to find a pulse.

[7]‘Being-in-the-world’ — Heidegger’s (1927) Dasien also encompasses many other forms of being and is related to how the self defines itself in its struggle for meaning; in the world, in and of itself, and in relation to others.

[8]Mauvaise foi is usually translated as ‘bad faith’ though Mairet renders it as ‘self-deception’ in his 1948 translation of Sartre’s ‘Existentialism and Humanism’.

[9] “The offender’s epiphany [comes when] a wiser and more caring person than themselves does or says something that leads them to believe that they could be better men than they have hitherto been. They may be overcome by a deep sense of personal unworthiness, but they acquire a new sense of responsibility” (Nellis, 2009: 142).

[10]C.f.Transactional Analysis theory (Berne, 1961).

[11]A ‘liminal’ identity is neither offending nor non-offending; it is seen as an interim identity. This is “the ethereal imagining of a new self and the aspirational commitment to pro-social goals but [before] the corporeal realization of this new self through the active commitment to pro-social roles” (McAlinden et al., 2017: 278, my emphasis).

[12]Flynn (2012: 15) tells us that “desistance writers are interested in why most offenders vacillate and lapse in and out of criminality (primary desistance) but eventually abandon crime for good (secondary desistance)” so that practitioners can extrapolate the psychological mechanisms at work in order to employ them in social controls. Whether this is possible in practice is a separate debate.

[13]Another important Sartrean concept is that of engagement (translated by Mairet as ‘commitment’). “When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind — in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility” (Sartre, 1946: 33). This causes the state of anguish alluded to above.

[14]Particularly HMPPS which needs a root and branch overhaul of its culture if it hopes to break away from its current mendacious and misanthropic insouciance.

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