Friday, March 27, 2009

Into the Darklands

Forensic psychologist Nigel Latta’s book Into the Darklands and Beyond: Unveiling the Predators Amongst Us is about working with sexual predators and other criminals as well as troubled adolescents (many of whom are well down that same path). Reading about the evil, sad and depraved I found a distinct relief after The Al Qaeda Reader because—unlike the narrow bombastic hatred of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri—Nigel Latta’s witty perceptiveness about the human condition was engaging itself and informed by an appreciation of the human so lacking in al Qaeda’s paeans to murder and mayhem.

Nigel Latta describes the book as a travel diary, which it is: a series of vignettes mostly (but far from only) about working with the troubled and the evil. Nigel Latta starts with a conversation with James, a man who expresses his desire to kill children. Here and elsewhere in the book, Nigel Latta conveys vividly both the sort of people he deals with and how he deals with them. As he explains, any relationship with the person he is dealing with is all he has: if he does not establish any at all, he has nothing to work with. Not that he takes interview reports all that seriously—he is not interested in the lies perpetrators have told previous interviewers. The trick is to ignore what they say: they reveal themselves in what they do: hence he concentrates on the trial records, the records of what actually happened. (Economists call that revealed preference.)

As far as he is concerned, niceness (or what people generally view as niceness) is not therapeutic: he spends a chapter on that.
Nigel Latta found his first murderer very frightening. The frightening thing was he found himself liking said murderer: a man regretful of the burden his past placed on a daughter he was worried about.

Nigel Latta had good parents and, at the age of 14, experienced a dead man vomiting into his mouth. (An elderly man had collapsed and the young Nigel was helping with CPR.) That experience gave him a benchmark for what was a bad experience. Generally, what he subsequently experienced as a teenager really did not rate as bad. Not compared to a dead man vomiting into his mouth.

Nigel Latta got into working with criminals due to a happenstance while doing his Master’s in Psychology. He was talked into doing his research report evaluating a program treating sex offenders. After participating in a weekend workshop on getting sex offenders to empathize with their victims, he was hooked. Within a couple of months, he was working as a therapist in the program.

His writing style is clear, engaging and vivid:
... politics is the organisational fluff that gathers in our collective navels. It feels important, but in the end it’s just lint and dead skin. (p.137)
I hate the suffocating gasp of political correctness. It is noxious weed choking the soul out of the world … It is bullshit dressed us as divinity and I hate it to the very core of my being. Political correctness is the modern-day Emperor’s new clothes. We all ‘oohh’ and ‘aaah’ but really all of any of us see is a butt-ugly naked guy (p.147)
... it doesn’t matter what comes out of your mouth, it’s what you hold in your heart that counts … Compassion is not something you say, it’s something you do. (p.153)
Originally I had wanted to call [my paper] ‘Taking the Fuck out of Fuck up’( p.299)
Common sense died somewhere in the late eighties. This was sad and as a working concept it will be greatly missed. … at about the same time, personal responsibility also quietly passed away. In this brave new world, common sense is but a memory and no one is really responsible for anything. (p. 319)
Problems are not excuses, even very bad problems. (p. 324)
I have never found it hard to figure out what to say. Mostly I just open my mouth and the stuff comes out. I have an enormous amount of faith in my jabbermouth. (p.326)
I’m not sure I believe in God, but I believe in souls, so God doesn’t seem that much of a stretch. (p. 329)
Sometimes Nigel Latta captures the eloquence of others, as in the social worker commenting on the suicide of an teenage girl who seemed to be getting it together:
'I think she saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but it was just too far away.’ (p. 303)
His therapeutic style is very much about being truthful even when it is not a nice truth: hence the pointlessness (or worse) of being politely false. Hence also his hatred of political correctness as it sugar coats the truth away: sometimes out of existence altogether. He is scathing on anti-smacking activism (p.320ff).

He is, however, rather keen on Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking.

As we travel with Nigel Latta, we meet Henry, a paedophile out of fear of his own homosexuality. Nigel Latta prescribes as treatment Henry going to a gay sauna and having sex and coming back and telling him about it. Henry, given permission to embrace his homosexuality, does: and stops molesting boys.

Nigel Latta tells us that parents should make it an absolute rule: never have a teenage boy (or a teenage girl with boyfriend) baby sit your kids: likewise no teenage girls who have boyfriends (p.263). The odds are not worth the risk.

We also get to meet many people who had truly vile and appalling childhoods. But he is very much of the view that you can choose what to make of your burdens—and destroying other people's lives has no excuse, no matter how troubled your own.

There are some absolutely charming moments, such as talking, on a mountain hike, about the joy of writing, and the need to write, to a trouble teenage kid who wrote poetry (p.294). Meeting a Quaker lady whose meeting had taken his suggestion that compassion was doing—that those who think “something should be done” should go and do—to heart and had gone out and done (Pp 300-1).

He explains the special curse of being vaguely recognisable (p.327). He discourses powerfully on the utter inadequacy of words to convey the intensity and nature of certain experiences (p.332). (It struck me that use and mention is another way of saying that the map is not the territory. Zen thought wrestles with not confusing the tool of words, even the tool of thought, with the experience itself.)

Nigel Latta has a chapter on the work of Parole Boards examined through a particularly disastrous release decision—a prisoner on Parole fleeing being recalled to prison who killed a father of two just to distract police (Pp.334ff). On the way, we become very well informed about the research on risk factors of re-offending. But Nigel Latta regards the entire operation of the Parole Board as being based on the wrong question. The question is not whether X is sufficiently low-risk of re-offending to release, it is whether X’s release is a reasonable gamble with innocent lives.

He is an honest empiricist, describing how he finds a psychic apparently startlingly accurate, despite his own presumptive scepticism (Pp 308ff).

And, having started the book with James, we end the book with him too.

Into the Darklands is all about meeting the Bad Man at one remove, through the eyes and actions of an engaging, memorable therapist. At the end, one finds one has been entertained, informed, engaged, disturbed and—if one has been awake and aware—had your view of things that matter moved: a fine book, full of wit, perception and wisdom.

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