We should force criminals to confront their moral failings

A general view inside the former Reading prison (Getty Images)

There are two principal reasons for enjoying (if that is the right word) the writings of Theodore Dalrymple, a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist: he is a very good writer, with a superb “ear” for prisoners’ dialogue; and he has absolutely no truck with bureaucracy, psychobabble or a society largely given over to “therapy.” These comments arise because I have been reading his most recent book: The Knife Went in: Real-Life Murderers and Our Culture (Gibson Square Books, £16.99).

The title itself tells us much about his view of moral responsibility for one’s actions. Murderers, like the rest of us, habitually dissociate themselves from their actions, as if the “knife” that killed their victims acted on its own magical impulse. Although the author does not suggest he has any religious belief his attitude is completely in accord with Catholic teaching: we have to own up to our moral failings; it is only by doing this that we can be healed.

“Psychobabble”, as defined by Dalrymple, is “the use of confessional language in which nothing is confessed, a way of talking about oneself without revealing anything.” This tells us everything about the moral self-indulgence of society, which traps people (especially those who have committed flagrant crimes) in their own failures and sins from which they cannot be released because they are “victims” of their circumstances.

Dalrymple provides an amusing anecdote to illustrate this: a serial burglar once asked him if his crimes had anything to do with his childhood: “Absolutely nothing whatever”, he replied. The answer took the burglar aback. “Why did I do it, then?” he asked. “Because you’re lazy and stupid and want things that you won’t work for.” To his credit, the burglar laughed, realising he had been rumbled and implicitly acknowledging the truth of what Dalrymple had said.

Not all prisoners were capable of accepting the truth about their behaviour. Some of them, the author observes, were so “well-defended, as psychotherapists put it, against the assaults of truth” that they would explode if spoken to in an honest and straightforward way.

Again, the author is surely right in his comment that our society’s hysterical fear of paedophilia is linked to “neglect, overindulgence and violence” in the way children are raised today.

It is only in reading a book like this, with its mordant humour and its remorseless honesty, that one comes to see how far we have fallen in our society from a robust understanding of human nature and of our personal responsibility. Alongside Dalrymple’s honesty, he can also show genuine as opposed to fake, understanding and sympathy for the prisoners: “It is disconcerting to find oneself liking a person who has strangled someone with his bare hands, but this happened to me often in my career as a psychiatrist and prison doctor”, he observes.