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Thursday, August 5, 2010

T3 - Write What You Know?

I don't necessarily agree with the old adage, "You can't write what you don't know." Now, you might write what you know better than how you write what you don't, but you can still accurately portray aspects of life without having lived them. I might have book knowledge of schizophrenia, but I don't have schizophrenia. I can still write about it.

Where I'm going with this is that we often have criminal behavior in our books, yet I would wager that most of you have have not been down that road yourself. So what do you then base your knowledge of criminal behavior on? Some action perpetrated against you or someone you know? Something you saw on TV and hoped would translate well into your work in progress?

I can't say I haven't done that, but I always fall back on psychology to help me out. (DISCLOSURE: I'm not a lawyer!!!)

From what I can understand, sane people commit crimes for two main reasons: they are selfish or selfless. Even though the criminal system doesn't put much stock in a person's motives unless most of the evidence is circumstantial, once a writer gets the motive down pat, writing just about any criminal behavior believable.

Motives are the causes/reasons that induce a person to form the intent to commit a crime. It's not the same thing as intent, which is the purpose of the crime. For example, my husband's truck was broken into yesterday morning while he was fishing the mouth of the Eel River (thus, the impetus for this post). Since we assume the criminal was a homeless man, the motive was to stay warm because he took a very nice and expensive Gore Tex wading jacket on the back seat. The intent was to vandalize the truck by breaking out the back window.

The way we figured the event out in our heads, this was a selfish criminal act, because we assumed the homeless person took everything for himself. But it could have been selfless if he was stealing that jacket for his little son living in one of the broken down vans in a makeshift village in that area. This is the same reason why a person would steal to feed or clothe their families.

I've really tried hard to think of some crime Even criminals who just kill to kill or steal for the "good times" are working from a selfish motive. The revelry serves a purpose in their life even if the actual criminal act didn't have much of a function. White collar crimes of embezzlement and fraud come from a selfish arena mostly, but a write could easily throw in a different, altruistic motive and have the reader actually hoping the criminal doesn't get caught!

(Just as aside, earlier I made a point to italicize that this applies to sane people only. Those with mental instabilities or retardation might commit a crime and not even realize they are doing it. The Latin phrase that translates "the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty" is where the idea of mens rea, or "guilty mind," comes from. A mentally disturbed individual might have an actus reus, or the act of the crime itself, but not a mens rea.)

But I'm curious. Can you think of any crime that doesn't fit one of these two motives? Fair warning...I'll do my best to refute you in the comment section! :)

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Miss Sharp said...

Hi Jeannie,

I admit to cheating here; I googled to help me form my point, but I did find a good link to help us in this debate.

So I'd like to offer another possible motive which is a genetic disposition toward certain behavior.

They say a specific gene controlling behavior hasn't actually been identified but my defense for that is the fact that people sometimes do have propensities toward addictive behaviors such as alcoholism and gambling, and there are a lot of mysteries surrounding genetics that have yet to be explained.

So...if someone has a propensity toward stealing they are not absolutely being selfish or selfless, are they? Someone with a propensity is still sane but they might lack self-control.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

interesting, miss sharp. i wonder if we're disputing semantics. i said motives would fall into two categories. i wonder if you're bringing up what might fall into the "intent" category. a genetic predisposition to stealing might be a genetic predisposition to that particular intent? (i SO do not know this, just speculating.) but there has to be an antecedent for every behavior (check out behavior therapy and the almighty ABCs of behavior)...and i have a hard time believing that a person would just steal for the heck of it...unless they are kleptomanic, and them that falls into the excluded category of not mentally sane. something would motivate them to steal, wouldn't it?

great discussion....i'm going to check the link out further.

SM Blooding said...

Huh! I can't think of anything yet...but you just wait. I'll let it simmer and see if I can't come up with something later.

Good post.


Miss Sharp said...

Well Jeannie, it appears that google is your friend, too! Even if you don't need it. ;)

"In criminal law, motive is distinct from intent. Criminal intent refers to the mental state of mind possessed by a defendant in committing a crime."

So there we have it, just as you said. Mental state belongs solely in the intent category.

Hard to believe criminal behavior is really so simple at its roots. Selfish or selfless, it seems so black and white but that's what it apparently boils down to.

Are you going to press charges re. your husband's truck break-in? Is it possible to forgive someone and still pursue legal remedies at the same time?

P.S. If you can stand another question - have you already done a post on nature vs. nurture?

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

miss sharp - thanks for the additional link. we're not pressing charges about the break-in, although we're going to fill out a police report through the mail. there's nothing they can really do...we don't know who did it.

i haven't done a nature/nurture post yet b/c it's such a catch 22. i think it's a result of BOTH. some might have more nature than nurture, or vice versa, but they both play a role. that's like the question, "which came first? the chicken or the egg?"

oh....i'm always open to questions. :)

Unknown said...

I agree with the dual motive model, my MC was an avid shop lifter as a teenager even though her family was wealthy. Her motives were self destructive, she wanted to feel that rush, she needed to feel alive. I also want to work a bit of experience with auto theft into the back story, but I'm not sure how it would have come about.. still steeping that idea : )

Miss Sharp said...

Regarding the chicken or the egg, scientists have actually solved that one!!!

Chickens had to come first because the proteins in a chicken's ovaries form the eggs!

(If we apply that equation to the nature/nurture problem, methinks the balance is tipped toward nature, yes?)

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

lol, miss sharp. would that it were that simple. i'm glad you drop by my blog.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and thought provoking post. "Crime and Punishment" is one of my fave raves; Raskolnikov thinks he's murdering for purely intellectual reasons but his unconscious betrays him and at the end he becomes a saint. I did some stealing and dealing in my youth. My motives were one thing on the surface and another underneath. Still I relate to William S. Burroughs when he said "junk wins by default" i.e. there's nothing better to do for a young and decadent fellow: that certainly was part of the motivation for my friends and I.

When I worked for the District Attorney's office there was a popular memo that circulated from time to time - the Nietzche quote concerning the abyss gazer and the abyss - it became popular to refer to criminals as "animals" (kind of insulting to animals I always thought) and "monsters"...

Anonymous said...

"Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
Friedrich Nietzsche

maybe a warning for novelists writing about "monsters" as well....

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

marc - i like that quote, and think he definitely had insight into the ways of the world. i appreciate your insights.

Melissa Sugar said...

This is a great post and an interesting topic.

As an attorney, former chief asst. DA for 20 yrs & now a criminal defense attorney; I've seen crimes.My hubbie has been practicing criminal defense for over 35 years has become quite an expert in sanity hearings.

My first comment (and I realize that you are far more versed personality disorders etc., so I'm speaking of definations soley in the legal sense.A klepto,I agree steals for the mere rush they get from the act. A kleptomanic has never been reason enough, without some other disorder, to qualify as legally not sane or incompetent to stand trial,or in any other way escape culpability. This person can ordinarily distinguish right from wrong and are aware of the consequensences of their act. Therefore they are "Mentally Sane" by legal defination. This disease could very well mitigate the punishment or sentence handed down by the judge if they are found guilty.

If you're asking if we can come up with the motive behind an offender's criminal act that falls in neither the "selfish" or "selfless" category" you've given a great example using the burglary of your husband's truck. I often have to explain to the vicitm of a home invasion the elements of a burglary haven't been met (certain instances). The elemsents are as follows.
1. The breaking and entering ( meaning unlawful entry w/o owner's consent)
2. into the dwelling, vehicle, structure of another, whether moveable or inmoveable
# 3 is the most problematic to explain. For example, using a situation similiar to your own; suppose that a person unlawfully enters your home: if they do so with the intent to steal from your (regardless of whether they follow through with the theft- because the intent was formed before entering and if they are caught before able to complete the intent it does not negate the intent) then they have commited a burglary. Now suppose that it is a cold homeless man who only wants to take a hot shower and warm up. He does not have the requisite intent to commit a theft or felony even though the law may consider stealing your hot water a theft. Now lets suppose that he breaks in to punch you. This is still not enough because he did not have the intent to commit a theft or felony therein b/c simple battery is a misd.
You're right,motive and intent are different. The law in MOST states doesn't require the state to prove motive,,it's not an element. Intent is always an element. Motive isn't required in court, but obviously is required in every work of good fiction or else we wouldn't have any motivation to read.

Intent can be either general intent or specific intent depending upon the elements required. It's more difficult to prove the crime of attempted murder than murder IN COURT. Sounds backwards I know. Why is is harder?
Murder, whether it is first degree or second degree normally has elements like below:
1 A homicide is the killing of a human being
2.with the specific intent to kill OR specific intent to cause great bodily harm OR
3. Is committed while the perpetrator is engaged in one of the enumerated felonies, whether he has the intent to kill or not

* Juries are instructed that " You may infer that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of his actions. It is easy to argue to a jury that if a person has a gun and fires it that the natural and probable consequence is death or serious bodily harm

Now look at attempted murder
1 Attempted murder requires the state to prove that the offender had the specific intent to kill (but omits the OR specific intent to cause great bodily harm) it is much harder to prove specific intent to kill than to prove specific intent to kill or cause bodily harm.
I have more, but I have babbled too long. I apologize but your article and question is very thought provoking. I love your site and look forward to reading much more of your work.

Thank you

Melissa Sugar said...

You mentioned something about rooting for the criminal to get away with the crime. What comes to mind would be a mother kidnapping her child from an abusive father who won custody. This clearly falls in the "selfless" category. I can think of times I have rooted for the criminal,while I was a prosecutor & as a defense attorney. I will probably catch he** for this but here goes. Sometimes kids make mistakes. For example say a 21 year old has 3 drinks at his college grad party and he recklessly chooses to drive. Voluntary intoxication is never a defense. I hate to think that one mistake could ruin a kids life. A DUI conviction can prevent him from entering post grad level school, cause him to lose a job, prevent him from entering the military etc. Yes I realize he could also have killed someone and I DO NOT CONDONE DRINKING AND DRIVING, but when i first began prosecuting my first jury trials were misdemeanor DUI's and I worried given the makeup of our very liberal jury pool. My mentor taught us to appeal to the jury on a much different level than we would if a murderer or a hardened criminal were on trial. He taught us to never act outraged but to simply point out that the kid made a mistake and now he must accept responibility. "But for the sake of God there go I or there go you" Most people have driven at one tme in their life when they should not have. Most of us are lucky we escaped those adoloescent years w/o getting caught and w/o hurting ourselves or others.
I just thought that maybe a crime like DUI is one that neither falls within your category of being committed for selfish or selfless reasons. It is committed out of stupidy and intoxication and not thinking at all (selflessly or selfishly) but the stupidity and intoxication do not rise to the level of defense or mitigation. Do they fit here??
Another time I found myself really rooting for the defendant to win:the law requred me to prosecute a young college boy for " Carnal Knowlege of a Juvenile" called statutory rape in most states. The boy,19 the law states:
1 Carnal relations between a person over the age of 17
2 when the victim is under the age of 17
3 and there is intercourse between the two, with the consent of the victim
4and the age difference is greater than two years
so technically it is a crime but in this case the circumstances bothered me. The offender was 19 the girl was 16. Even though the law says "Lack of knowledge of the juvenile's age is not a defense" it bothered me, she looked to be over 25, she had a fake ID that said she was 19. He asked her how old she was & she lied to him& showed him the fake ID(she admitted this). It made me wonder about my boys. When my 13 and 8 year old boys start dating how far do they have to go to determine a girls age? If she has a fake ID and looks older do they need to demand a birth certificate? ask her parents? ask the doctor who delivered her? How far? I mean I believe the law was designed to prevent sexual predators from preying on kids. These days a 16 year old girl can look much older. Just a question that really worries me. If convicted this young man faced mandatory prison sentence of a minimum of 3 years and up to 10 and would forever have a felony sex conviction and have to register as a sex offender. and because it's a general intent crime as opposed to specific all that is requred is that the offender INTNDED THE ACT- SEX, NOT THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE ACT Many times these crimes of carnal knowlege involve 16 year old girls and 19 year old boys and the girls mother knows and allows it and then gets mad and demands prosecution after condoning it. Ponder that and let me know. Another one I am sure to catch hell on, but I deal with this daily and sometimes it gets to you.

Love your blog and find it very informative and useful.

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

Hey Jeannie,

Where would vengeance crimes fall on the list do you think? There seems to be elements of both, particularly if the criminal in this case is committing his crime because of a wrong done to another. The example that comes to mind is the John Grisham novel where the father takes vengeance on his daughter's rapists.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

melissa - wow...heavy stuff you've brought up. DUIs, to me, would fall into the selfish category...even though they weren't thinking of the actual consequences of their act of getting drunk and driving. not maintaining an appropriate level of alcohol consumption to me shows lack of control and poor judgment, as well. wouldn't that be classified as indulgence (i.e., selfishness)? just throwing this out, of course.

as for the young boy accused of rape - i don't get how he was charged. am i being obtuse? he went through more than reasonable amount of suspicion and investigation (asking for her driver's license? whoa!) and then had consensual sex with her. maybe i'll catch he## for this as well, but it seems there wasn't really a crime committed in anything bu the technical sense of ages/numbers. i would have rooted for him too.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

lisa - i think vengeance crimes are more selfish. when talking about selfless crimes, it's more to protect (safety) or bring comfort (food, warmth). i can see the argument that by killing a daughter's rapist that this would ensure her safety, thus falling under a selfless crime. but my thoughts are that the real reason behind killing the rapist would be to get revenge. maybe the father just grew crazy thinking about what the rapist had done to his daughter. killing the rapist would be a way to alleviate that craziness - to find a balance. that's still selfish, b/c its more about the father than about the daughter at that point. if the rapist explicitly threatened, "i'm going to re-rape your daughter," then i could see how killing him would be more selfless to protect the daughter. but most of those vengeance crimes are committed when there is no actual threat of additional violence (at least that's the way it's played out in the movies). but very thought-provoking comment! thanks for chiming in. i welcome your thoughts on what i wrote.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.