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Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany

0 Comments 🕔17.Sep 2015

John Borneman’s Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany provides a detailed and rich anthropological examination of the rehabilitation process of individuals who have sexually offended children in Germany, and does so against a backdrop of German policy and social mores governing how such individuals are to be handled. While much of what Borneman documents in his ethnographic examination of therapy groups in Berlin has strong parallels in many other Western countries, the fact that in Germany the treatment of sexual offenders is both a “legal right and duty” (58) and that “preventive detention” is considered unconstitutional (unlike in my country, Canada, where it is common) provides an interesting twist to the analysis. The book is well-grounded in modern German social history, with a special emphasis on the implications of the reunification of East and West Germany for understanding both perpetrators and emerging views of sexual offenders and their rehabilitation.

The book is written in an unusual style, with both a detailed prolegomenon that presents two fascinating case studies, and a non-conclusion that he titles “Loose End,” which is a series of “odds and ends” (191), observations on theory and method which he felt important to touch on but which would digress from the theoretical argument of his book if he did so in detail. I actually found some of these little essays to be fascinating and some of the strongest parts of the book, and I hope that he is able to develop them in greater detail elsewhere. That said, in between these two are chapters that expertly weave theory and data together in a way that makes for compelling reading.

The data for his study are derived primarily from observations of out-patient treatment centers and examinations of offender files. Drawing on the theoretical work on ritual of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, he argues that rehabilitation can be understood as a form of secular ritual, “from accusation to arrest, admission of culpability, trial, imprisonment, treatment, release from prison, and social reincorporation or indefinite surveillance” (59). Along the way he also brings into play foundational ideas in anthropology, such as the incest taboo and the concept of the “self.” The dominant theoretical strand, however, is really driven by the psychoanalytic approach he adopts, one which is not common in Western forensic psychology. Accepting the ideas that there can be a “true” self and the existence of a psychic interiority, he argues, “If the goal is to contribute to changing the deeper motivations of the offender so as to make a repetition of the crime highly unlikely, rehabilitation must aim toward a psychic change of the self” (215). This, he suggests, would be a more effective approach than that current vogue in forensic psychology which focuses on cognitive behavioral modification, “a simple model of the motivated and culpable person or agent who needs only to understand the norms and make a behavioral adjustment.” (214). “Offenders,” he continues, “remain basically unchanged except for agreement to obey the social norms” (214).

All in all, this is a highly innovative perspective on sexual offender rehabilitation, full of rich case material and framed by a challenging theoretical argument. However, I am not at all certain that it will have much impact in treatment circles, as the psychoanalytic approach runs counter to the evidence-based empirical emphasis of much of forensic psychology. And there are far too many places in which Borneman states unequivocally what research in an area has concluded or demonstrated while providing no citations or indication of controversies in the field (and these exist, at least in those areas he touches upon with which I am familiar). Quite possibly, the author was not really interested in having an impact there, as he seems reluctant to engage with the forensic psychology of rehabilitation in anything more than a cursory way. Cognitive behavioral approaches to treating sexual offenders have actually been highly effective in reducing recidivism, for instance, which lessens the impact of his argument about the need for a transformation of the “self.” But he also eschews any significant engagement with cultural forensic anthropology. My own work on sexual offender treatment is largely relegated to an endnote where he notes that “Although there are many similarities in context and treatment in both Canada and Germany, important differences in our objects of study and theoretical framings preclude some more detailed comparisons” (229, n. 22). While it is true that my study was inside a prison and his in the community, in two different countries, and we certainly have different theoretical orientations (I admit here that I am not enamored by the return of psychoanalytic anthropology!), as I read his book I continuously marked in the margins dozens of places where direct comparisons or contrasts could be made. Little use is made of other important work in this area by Lorna Rhodes and Roger Lancaster, among others. So it seems to me that Borneman is not talking to mainstream forensic psychologists, nor is he talking to contemporary anthropologies of prison and sex offender rehabilitation. In the end, I am not sure who he is talking to, but I cannot help feel that there is a lost opportunity to contribute to both fields.

Yet, I still think that this is an essential read for anyone working in or researching forensic treatment. The ethnographic detail and case studies alone are worthy of serious consideration. The theoretical argument may not hold for some readers, but Borneman’s work should inspire us all to continually, critically re-examine the role or goals of the treatment of sexual offenders. Are we content with behavior modification, educating offenders in the essence of moral habilitation, or do we wish to pry deeper into their psyches in an effort to change them at a more fundamental level? Borneman’s work challenges us to consider the merits of the latter.

Reviewed by James Waldram, University of Saskatchewan

Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany
by John Borneman
University of Chicago Press
Paperback / 280 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9780226233918

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