Compelled to Crime documents the lives of battered, African American women incarcerated in a New York City correctional facility. Chronicling the lives of women from low-income communities who have been physically battered, sexually assaulted, emotionally abused, and involved in illegal activity, the book illustrates the degree to which these women's devastated and deteriorating circumstances represents a socially constructed position--but one from which there is little escape.
Borrowing the phrase "gender entrapment" from the legal notion of the term--which implies a circumstance whereby an individual is lured into a compromising act--author Beth Richie uses gender entrapment to describe the process whereby African American women who are vulnerable to men's violence in their intimate relationships are penalized for criminal behaviors they engage in when these behaviors are logical extensions of their racialized gender identities, their culturally mediated gender roles, and the violence in their private lives.
The book documents in graphic detail the lives of these women--often marred by drug use, prostitution, and violence culminating in illegal activity. Richie charts the women's gender entrapment by considering a number of factors in their early lives--whether the women were privileged in their homes as girls and how such benefits actually might have handicapped them; their relationships with males; the presence or absence of childhood abuse--and how these factors contributed to their sense of vulnerability and fear of success later in life. Richie then analyzes how the women's circumstantial and emotional vulnerability in the early years sets the stage for theviolence in their intimate relationships with men as adults, and how the women's feelings of self-blame, emotional trauma, and desperation lead them--perhaps inexorably--into illegal, often violent activity.
Compelled to Crime also gives special consideration to the complicated set of reasons why some low income African American battered women resort to illegal activity. By contrasting their experiences with two smaller comparison groups, Richie offers important methodological and analytical contributions to the scholarship on gender, race, violence, and crime. In reaching her conclusions, Richie makes the disturbing point that in the end because these women are involved in illegal activity and hence labelled "criminal," they did not have access to services for battered women, sexual assault survivors, or other crime victims.
While African Americans consider how to accommodate participation in the feminist and black nationalist movements, Richie has taken on one of the most contested issues within the community: African American women battered by African American men. For her study, Richie concentrates on a group of 37 women detained at Rikers Island, who come from a background of poverty and physical and emotional abuse. Richie claims that their experiences represent the extreme of what many African American women undergo as a result of marginalization and hard choices. Throughout she emphasizes her theory of gender entrapment, whereby society provides these women-most of whom want to conform to societal norms-with no socially acceptable way to change their position, making incarceration almost inevitable. Many of the interviewees were determined not to speak out against African American men, believing that their partners already have fewer opportunities than they do. Others believe that, having participated in criminal acts, they are prohibited from taking advantage of social programs designed to help battered women. Although often academically dry and statistical, Richie's book still allows ample room for the women's compelling life histories. She does not, however, offer suggestions for solutions. Hope doesn't illuminate this book-just cold, hard facts. (Feb.)