LiveJournal’s Writer’s Block feature recently asked:
Do you think that criminals should be able to profit from selling their memoirs, after serving jail time?
I have no idea what prompted this question, unless someone thinks Casey “Not Actually Convicted” Anthony is holed up in a bunker somewhere scrabbling for a few quires of paper at a time or has found out the hard way that O.J. “Convicted, But Not of That Crime” Simpson’s memoir isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. (Perhaps he can help an acquitted mother out?) But what interests me about it is that, in the U.S. at least, it’s a genuinely bemusing question.
In a way, it seems almost un-American to prohibit anyone from selling anything, especially something as personal and generally-presumed-to-be-one’s-own-work, Going-Rogue-notwithstanding as a memoir. Because, well, this is America, land of FREE MARKET CAPITALISM! and also BREAD AND CIRCUSES! Which, I suspect, is why publishing one’s memoirs after serving time for some offense against the public welfare isn’t currently prohibited here. (Attorneys are, however, prohibited from profiting from the sale of a client or former client’s tales of hir dastardly deeds, in one of the very few rules of professional responsibility that prevents us from making any money.)
Most of the “nay” answers on LiveJournal are aimed at further punitive measures, rather than any compassion for victims or their families; currently “no, criminals suck and shouldn’t have any rights” is beating “no, haven’t the victims suffered enough?” by at least three to one. Which is itself not un-American.
But I can feel for the victims and their families, because while we tell ourselves that a criminal conviction (and sometimes restitution) is adequate compensation for the victims of violent crimes and their loved ones, the fact is that this just isn’t true. There really isn’t any such thing as “compensation” for victims, much less “justice.” After suffering at another’s hands, one’s life is simply never the same, and no amount of legal machinations can make it the same. Crime victims have to learn to live with what happened to them, just like every other survivor of a human tragedy. Upping their risk of being slapped in the face with the perpetrator’s misdeeds in the form of a book signing event at their local B&N just seems like adding insult to injury.
That said, there are different kinds of “criminal’s memoirs,” too. A book in which a convicted person explains why zie is still totally innocent, or in which said person explains how prison made hir see the light before it was too late, is qualitatively different from a book in which a convicted person exults in teasing us all about whether or not he did it. I’m not convinced one can ban the latter without infringing unduly on the creation of the former – which, unlike the latter, arguably have some valid social didactic purpose.
What I’d like to see in this wholly hypothetical case, but which I doubt I ever will (because FREE MARKET CAPITALISM! AMERICA! WOOO!), is a system in which parolees are allowed to write about the crimes for which they’ve been convicted, but the profits of any published works go to a crime victims’ compensation fund. Will this discourage parolees from writing about their experiences? Most likely. But it seems the least onerous way to mitigate the damage done by those who exult in their crimes (or acquittals) while simultaneously offering the repentant an opportunity to make things right (by in essence donating their work to help crime victims). And, since “should convicted persons be allowed to write books?” is such a non-issue, “eh, kind of” works perfectly as a non-solution.