As a lover of true crime novels and mystery fiction, I often think to myself, “I should work in this field, man! I should become some sort of criminologist or detective and get out there, sleuthing bad guys.” And then I read a book like Stanton E. Samenow’s Inside the Criminal Mind, and I am confronted full-force with my naiveté. Samenow, a clinical psychologist, has researched criminal behavior for his entire career. Starting in his twenties and continuing today into his seventies, Samenow interviews, evaluates, and treats offenders.
Far from a true crime story, where the brutality is shrouded in the mystery of motive and emotion, Samenow clinically lists his case studies, quoting the criminals where possible, and citing what he continuously calls “their errors in thinking.” Samenow argues that it is these errors in thinking, not growing up in bad neighborhoods or past abuse, that cause criminal behaviors.
This is certainly not what I was expecting from a book on the criminal mind. For a book from a psychologist, it feels decidedly un-psychological. There’s no examining childhoods, there’s no seeking motives, and he doesn’t work with criminals to move past their anger. Originally published in 1984, updated in 2004 with a focus on drugs, and updated again in 2014 with terrorism (Samenow stays current, clearly!), Inside the Criminal Mind goes against everything I was taught in my basic Sociology 101 course and argues that there is a criminal personality, based on certain patterns of thinking recognizable in all career criminals across different types of crime from different backgrounds.
This seems, at the very least debatable, to those who think environmental factors play a role in crime. At most, it seems dismissive to the entire ‘nurture’ half of ‘nurture’ vs. ‘nature.’ If you grow up in a bad neighborhood, where bullets are whizzing by your windows and half the kids in your class join gangs or deal drugs, pressuring you to do the same, it seems like crime is the social norm rather than a deviant behavior. Samenow argues that since some siblings succeed despite being raised in an abusive home, or since not all kids raised in bad neighborhoods become criminals, there must be a criminal personality at work. Criminals, he says, seek external factors to blame.
After reading Samenow’s entire book, I’m not convinced that his theory of a criminal personality makes any sense at all. Even though he seems to have polled a large number of criminals in his life, the majority of the book is made of anecdotal evidence—individual stories of criminals which display his personality issues, and descriptions of the crimes they’ve committed. None of the people presented fit his theories perfectly, and many have major exceptions. I would love to have been presented with some larger case studies about his style of treatment, and that information may be out there and just not available to me.
What is clear by the end of the book, however, is that Samenow may not be trying to convince me, or sociologists or other psychologists, that thinking is responsible for a criminal personality. It seems like he wants to only convince criminals themselves of this. And Inside the Criminal Mind succeeds in its treatment plans, where it illustrates with much more humanity than in earlier chapters how taking responsibility for one’s actions can lead to more positive behavior in the future. The chapters on the current state of rehabilitation in prisons, contrasted with his system of treatment, brings some heart to what has thus far seemed to be a heartless book.
I picked Inside the Criminal Mind up in the midst of the Serial Podcast, after listening to Adnan’s disaffected denials for what felt like the millionth time, not of his participation in Hae’s death but in his control over anyone’s opinion of the crime. As my friends and I analyzed Serial on Facebook and in group texts, I realized I had no idea what a criminal sounds like. I didn’t know what made someone suspicious, or what made behavior usual. It seems to me like people all act in endlessly odd ways, for countless reasons. Even in Episode 11 of Serial, the forensic psychologist said that people do snap and commit crimes, which Samenow argues against in his book. He believes the criminal personality is always there, present in smaller actions and problem thinking. After finishing this, I’m still at my original conclusion–people act many different ways for many different reasons. Samenow may have brought up more questions for me, but he didn’t provide me with any answers.
Although I wouldn’t recommend this book for the squeamish, Inside the Criminal Mind is appropriate for anyone who wants to take a hard-line, unsympathetic look at the actuality of crimes committed in America, with heavy focus on criminal’s thinking rather than their background.