The Feared Self and The Desired Self Revised

In his final post before release from prison, Kris MacPherson reflects on the transition he is about the face. 

Ciao a tutti! It’s been a little while since my last blog post (June 2018, to be exact) and I apologise for the hiatus. That being said, my blogless sabbatical has not been totally unproductive. For example, the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA) published my first article as the lead feature in the October 2018 edition of the journal Advancing Corrections (MacPherson, 2018). I also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book Degrees of Freedom (MacPherson, 2019, in press) edited by James Mehigan and Rod Earle. This publication celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of The Open University (OU) and features students who have earned degrees while incarcerated. As I am sure you can imagine, I felt elated to be considered for such work. In fact, I like to think of these opportunities as share dividends from my long-term investment with the Bank of Desistance, metaphorically speaking.

Excitingly, my liberation date is drawing near (Thursday 19th September 2019) and the most crucial aspect of my own desistance journey is about to begin. For example, I am about to experience a momentous shift, crossing the Rubicon from an incarcerated individual who merely theorises about desistance to someone who actually practices desistance as a way-of-life. In this way, I ponder whether it is hypothetically viable to categorise these as ‘Desistance a priori’ (knowledge of desistance based on reason/logic) and ‘Desistance a posteriori’ (knowledge derived from practice/subjective experience)? In other words, we seemingly come to conclusions a priori through the notion of desistance as a theoretical construct and postulate that the information gained from such knowledge to be logical. On the other hand, we appear to comprehend desistance and its interrelated aspects at micro and macro levels a posteriori thanks to the subjective experiences and idiosyncrasies of those undergoing such journeys.

Therefore, I can apply these ideas due to the fact that I explore the theoretical depths of desistance through logic culled from studying and reflecting on the literature (as most academics do). As I have stated previously (MacPherson, 2017), I wonder whether one can be classified as a desister while still in custody if that person has achieved some measure of Maruna and Farrall’s (2004) ‘primary’ and ‘secondary desistance?’ I also wonder how much I can truly know about desistance as praxis if (a) I have no experience of desistance in the context of ‘free society’ and (b) I have yet to put theory fully into practice?

Although I have pondered such notions throughout the long years of imprisonment, it is only now beginning to seem tangible. I suppose one ‘good’ thing about prison is that it foists upon the inmate (or some at least) a physical and temporal space conducive to prolonged periods of soul-searching and reflection. Whether and how individuals can use this space as such is another matter. Intriguingly, episodes of reflection and introspection seemingly reinforce assertions by Schmid and Jones (1991) that incarcerated individuals experience a ‘heightened state of reflexive analysis’ and ‘self-dialogue’.

My own introspective process vis-à-vis desistance shifted from assessing whether ‘going straight’ was the right thing to do towards the realisation that it was the only option left open to me if I wanted to stay out of prison. Indeed, the past eight years of incarceration, combined with academic immersion, have connected the desistance dots and provided a clearer picture of my own journey and where I need to go in order to achieve some semblance of rehabilitation. As this prison term ends, I think about the way I was when I arrived and how I feel now. The strange question I am starting to ask myself is whether fate or God returned to prison in order for this final piece of transcendence to occur?

Funnily enough, Richards and Jones (2004) argue that in order to “transcend the prison experience, a person must honestly understand who he or she is and who he or she wants to be, and do the work to accomplish that change” (cited in Behan, 2014: 26). This appears to parallel Paternoster and Bushway’s (2009) notions of the ‘desired self’ and the ‘feared self’; concepts which respectively refer to the ideal person the desister wants to be and the type of individual he/she fears they might become if they do not carry out that transformation. Indeed, the significance of this cannot be overstated in the desistance journey. As Paulo Freire (who also served time in prison) might have argued:

…[Desistance] affirms [criminalised] women and men as beings who transcend themselves, who move forward and look ahead, for whom [recidivism] represents a fatal [legal/criminal] threat, for whom looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future

Freire, 2005[1975]: 84 [amended by the author]

But what catalyses the ‘feared self’ and what enables imagination of the ‘desired self’ in potential desisters? Baumeister (1991) alludes to the ‘crystallization of discontent’ (cited in Paternoster and Bushway, 2009) to describe the process whereby ‘offenders’ become disillusioned with crime through linkage of negative experiences of offending and a cost/benefit “reassessment of what is important to the individual” (to paraphrase McNeill et al. [2012]). In my own personal experience, this is spot on. In the past, I viewed prison as a space where one could accumulate ‘criminal capital’, a process describing the social interactions that reinforce and sustain criminal behaviour and identities (Bayer et al., 2009). Moreover, the very fact that one has served a custodial term can accrue criminal capital amongst like-minded individuals in the offending orbit – in prison as well as the community.

In my own experience of incarceration in Scotland, people accrue this capital primarily from profit-driven schemes like drug dealing (see also: Crewe, 2006) and situational-specific acts of violence. In this context, the money begets power, which, in turn, leads to the capital required to utilise others as criminal proxies. In the past, I experienced some measure of ‘carceral desensitisation’, which, I suspect, was a by-product of the pro-criminal attitudes and values I projected at the time. However, I began to worry about where my life was heading around the time I received my current sentence.

Worryingly, my Grandmother always used to say that I would end up murdered or serving life in prison. In response, I feigned sangfroid. However, these predictions spooked me a little bit, especially since I knew people who had died violently (and had a few close calls myself). I didn’t know it at the time but this was the period when my ‘feared self’ begun to take root. My burning desire to avoid this fate at all costs powered me through the long days and nights in prison. I didn’t really have a clear picture of who I wanted to become; all I knew was that I didn’t want to fulfil my Grandmother’s prophesy. She’d gone through enough in her life.

Indeed, I had to navigate a carceral minefield fraught with hostile and emotional personalities (for example, see: Crewe et al., 2013) while also analysing my past and asking myself many hard questions. Moreover, I had to resolve the painful conflict in relation to my Dad’s death and come to terms with the fact that it fractured my psyche, which is something I had always refused to do during my ‘offending years’. Expressing emotions was completely anathema to the brick wall I had constructed around my heart. Nobody in my family adequately communicated to one another about what happened to my Dad, a fact that was exacerbated when the Coroner advised us that my Dad’s body wasn’t fit to view in the funeral home. This poured petrol on to the psychic inferno raging inside me because I couldn’t even say ‘goodbye’, which, in turn, afforded me no opportunity for closure (if that is even possible under the circumstances).

The gargantuan levels of pain and ignorance I accumulated after my Dad’s death may have catalysed my subsequent pro-criminal outlook. At that time, my desired self was to be a professional criminal while my feared self was ending up like my Dad. Ironically, the person I wanted to become back in the day is now the individual I fear I could become if I don’t get my act together. In other words, my (previous) desired self has morphed into my (present day) feared self. When I am released, I intend to implement my new desired self by initiating and sustaining pro-social networks (especially in academic circles), keeping my distance from old peers and haunts, spending a lot of time teaching and nurturing my son while searching for gainful employment to support both of us. In this way, it could be said that these aspects will collectively amount to my proposed desired self.

To be honest, I am pretty optimistic about all of the above except finding work –with good reason. I am 37-years-old and have no employment history and a short but serious criminal record. Moreover, I have not one molecule of confidence vis-à-vis presentation at job interviews; in fact, I am terrified at the whole process. This may seem irrational but I worry that I will stand out in a negative fashion, like getting things wrong on the first day or else feeling as though people know about my past. Worryingly, the Scottish Government (2015) reported that eighty per cent of people in custody were unemployed prior to arriving in prison; on the other hand, the Ministry of Justice (2018) claim that seventy-five per cent of businesses in the United Kingdom would not hire people with previous convictions. This makes my fragile confidence in relation to finding stable employment even more fraught with anxiety.

Encouragingly, it seems we could learn a thing or two from our European neighbours on this issue. For example, Morgenstern (2011) emphasises the importance of re-socialisation as a constitutional right in Germany. In Holland, the notion of re-socialisation is also embedded in the Constitution, stating that the individual should be prepared as much as possible for his/her re-entry back into society (Boone, 2011). Intriguingly, Boone further points out:

The essential aspect of the ritual [of re-entry] is the unexpected testimony of the conventional part of society, who imputes normality on the ex-offender (Maruna, 2001: 161). This ritual reinforces the offender’s necessary confidence in the desistance process and that of his direct environment and society in general.

Boone, 2011: 63

In Spain, people can challenge employers in court on discriminatory grounds if the individual was refused work on the basis of a criminal record (Larrauri, 2011). On the other hand, Herzog-Evans (2011: 8) points out how France’s highest court made a judicial ruling that “An employee had a right not to divulge his criminal past and that his being made redundant based on his lying was null and void”. Moreover, France’s legal system provides the opportunity to present one’s case to a court of law in order to be legally classified as a desister, which is granted if the court is so satisfied (Herzog-Evans, 2011). All of this gives me cause for optimism but I know there is still much to be done.

Before I sign off, I would like to acknowledge all of the people who are enabling the continuing construction of my new academic persona. In fact, I feel that I have deconstructed my criminal identity through my writings and gorging on an eclectic range of books and research papers but this wouldn’t have come to anyone’s notice had it not been for the fact that others are acknowledging my transformation and helping me put theory into practice. Perhaps more importantly, being a Dad has plugged my heart back into my empathy socket. For a long time, I believed empathy was a weakness but I now realise that it is what makes us decent human beings and connects us with the emotions of others. This is undoubtedly a protective factor against offending behaviour. That being said, I don’t believe one can truly rid oneself of the triggers of offending; rather, it seems people recognise the stimuli that induces them to offend and take subsequent steps to avoid them, at least in my own experience.

It appears that academia has opened a wormhole from which to escape the criminal justice/penal nexus and to be surrounded by like-minded people. I hope that this (as well as my son) will provide the foundation to construct my own future far removed from the lifestyle I have previously known. The last thing I want to do is let my son down; he deserves better and I know better than that. As Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better!”


  • Bayer, P., Hjalmarsson, R. and Pozen, D. (2009) ‘Building Criminal Capital Behind Bars’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 124(1): 105–147.
  • Behan, C. (2014) ‘Learning to Escape: Prison Education, Rehabilitation and the Potential for Transformation’, Journal of Prison Education and Re-entry, Volume 1(1): 20–31.
  • Boone, M. (2011) ‘Judicial Rehabilitation in the Netherlands: Balancing Between Safety and Privacy’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 3(1): 63–78.
  • Crewe, B. (2006) ‘Prison Drug Dealing and the Ethnographic Lens’, The Howard Journal, Volume 45(4): 347–368.
  • Crewe, B., Warr, J., Bennett, P. and Smith A. (2013) ‘The Emotional Geography of Prison Life’, Theoretical Criminology, Volume 18(1): 56–74.
  • Freire, P. (2005[1975]) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th anniversary edition), translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, New York/London: Continuum Books.
  • Herzog-Evans, M. (2011) ‘Judicial Rehabilitation in France: Helping with the desisting process and acknowledging achieved desistance’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 3(1): 4–19.
  • Larrauri, E. (2011) ‘Conviction Records in Spain: Obstacles to Reintegration of Offenders’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 3(1): 50–62.
  • MacPherson, K. (2017a) ‘Desistance: an inside view’, see: (Accessed 2nd November 2017).
  • MacPherson, K. (2018) ‘Transformation Through Education? An Epitome of a Hook-for-Change’, Advancing Corrections (6th edition): 10–19.
  • MacPherson, K. (2019) ‘The Light to Fight the Shadows: On Education as Liberation’, in Mehigan, J. and Earle, R. (eds.) Degrees of Freedom, Polity Publishing [in press].
  • McNeill, F., Farrall, S., Lightowler, C., and Maruna, S. (2012) ‘How and why people stop offending: discovering desistance’, Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services. Available at:
  • McNeill, F. and Schinkel, M. (2015) ‘Prisons and Desistance’, in Jewkes, Y. and Bennett, J. (eds.) Handbook on Prisons, Portland, Oregon: Willan.
  • Ministry of Justice (2018) Employing Prisoners and Ex-Offenders, London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Morgenstern, C. (2011) ‘Judicial Rehabilitation in Germany: The Use of Criminal Records and the Removal of Recorded Corrections’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 3(1): 20–35.
  • Paternoster, R. and Bushway, S. (2009) ‘Desistance and the Feared Self: Toward and Identity Theory of Criminal Desistance’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Volume 99(4): 1103–1156.
  • Schmid, T.J. and Jones, R.J. (1991) ‘Suspended Identity: Identity Transformation in a Maximum Security Prison’, Symbolic Interaction, Volume 14(4): 415–432.
  • Scottish Executive (2015) ‘Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974’, Scottish Executive, 20th May 2015 [online]. Available at: (Accessed 10th April 2017).

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