Thursday, 6 August 2009

The trouble with girls? A missed opportunity by the BBC

I just watched ‘the trouble with girls: Jailbirds’ on BBC. See it here:

Here are my thoughts. Please do read it all, there are important points made throughout.

About the program:
It was a very useful recording of 6 months of two repeat offenders’ lives (one white, 17; one black, 20), but it was another abject failure to help the nation understand what is going on behind their false joviality, multiple drug addictions, petty criminality and quick anger.
In a way it could be described as voyeurism, as a program producer making money out of letting the middle classes stare curiously at the criminal classes (I don’t really think ‘dispatches’ types of documentaries are high on the viewing scale for the working classes and the criminal underclass). But I won’t dwell on this cynical view: let’s get back to an analysis of what was shown.

What was the moral of the story?
Many will have interpreted it as more evidence of the widespread existence of disrespectful and repulsive benefit cheats. Indeed I feel the producers dwelled too much on the girls’ descriptions of Jail as a nice place to be (“Butlins with bars”), dwelled graphically and gratuitously on their drinking exploits, and the very few bits of commentary by the camerawoman/narrator at the start set the tone by describing days filled with drink, drugs, and dodging CCTV.

However: my lasting impression was simply of two very depressed young girls who felt there was no hope for them in mainstream society, no hope of financial independence and no hope of happiness. They struck me as crippled by a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. All the statutory training and rehab programs were skipped because they felt it was so inevitable that they would end up in jail – and so there was no point in trying to break the cycle. They basically felt life was completely futile. In that context their cheery personas and episodes of positive resolve struck me as extraordinary and fantastic. But in that context also it was very easy to see how drug-induced escapism, and the criminality that accompanies it, are massive and hard to resist temptations.

About Shona
Shona, the black girl, was an interesting case. She was charismatic, a good reader, funny, and struck me as having a good level of intelligence/philosophical outlook. Watching her interact with the camera and with others, I could imagine her as a strict but irresistible and motivating shop floor manageress. However her only success was the length of the list of convictions she had notched up – mostly shoplifting, assault (when drunk), disturbing the peace. She was however keen to point out that she never mugs anyone, and she viewed shoplifting as acceptable - because it was covered by the retailer’s insurance (that savvy streak almost had me convinced)!

Why so angry, Shona?
Shona was extremely keen to uphold her reputation as a ‘bad girl’ i.e. physically aggressive and dangerous, not to be messed with, although she didn’t seem very comfortable with it in private. She was clearly ashamed to be seen crying, and was amazingly emotionless a lot of the time – the only emotion she was happy to display was anger. Why might that be?
Could it be something to do with being a non-white person in Doncaster, one of the racist far-right strongholds that are the shame of our country? Might she have grown up having to learn to live with racist abuse on a daily basis at school and on the estate? I think so, 110%, combined with a probable home life featuring mild physical and emotional neglect, being ignored and unsupported.

When you are feeling like dogshit because of the taunts you have been subjected to, and when this feeling persists over weeks, months, years, you find ways to cope with it better, or you break down. The most common coping recourse (for those who do not get help and love from their carers) is anger and aggression. If you feel so sad you could cry – just turn it into rage directed at someone else. Shout and rant – that way you won’t suffer the humiliation and self-disgust of crying again. In fact you will feel elation, briefly. Equally, if you act overtly aggressively to anyone who looks at you or starts to taunt you, they are likely to pick someone softer to abuse. Shona demonstrated this twice: once at the kid on the bike and his mates (even I was intimidated), and once at a passer-by in the cafe near the end.

In private video-diary footage you see Shona becoming upset about something, then immediately winding herself up with a kind of roar into a state of anger. I have seen this with a good number of ‘bad’ children. The boy I mentor once became upset because the fun we were having came to an end after 2 hrs. He switched from lovable and extrovert, to angry and introvert. The hoodie was flipped up, his eyes steered into middle distance, he shoved me when I approached him – and all this (it later transpired) because he wanted to carry on with the fun activity and I had said no! Sure enough, after 30 mins of kind words and attention he finally succumbed and cried his little eyes out and wanted a cuddle... the same boy who 30 mins before looked like a proper 'thug'.

I fundamentally believe that anger is an extension of sadness – not something in its own right. It grows out of the negative feelings we initially feel – but as they are basically unbearable feelings, rage is a natural and easy escape route. Add alcohol, skunk, or worse still cocaine (or worse still by a mile -crack cocaine), or even a heady mix of the above, and the few inhibitions these children have are bypassed.

Another thing I took away about Shona was her frank outburst about the effect her Dad’s departure from the family (for another ‘fookin fat oogly bitch’) had on her. Let me take this opportunity to state that I believe a father leaving the family is one of the most common and most crippling traumatic events a child can have to survive , and so it was nice to have this view vilified by Shona. Generally the kid blames him/herself and for a long time carries feelings of guilt and self-disgust in their lives. These are not exactly conducive to sociable behaviour, success in school and drinking in moderation are they?

About Abbie
Abbie, the white girl, seemed as unintelligent and perpetually optimistic as her incessantly grinning and completely incompetent father. She was able to laugh off any ordeal or boring task, make light of her homelessness and endless evictions from hostels. She was recorded as being outwardly happy when drunk. She genuinely struggled with life outside of prison and repeatedly and clearly stated she wanted to go back to prison so that she would not have the anxiety that the demands of ‘freedom’ clearly gave her. She was said to have been drinking to unconsciousness on a regular basis from the age of 13.

One thing I took away in particular was that the only time I saw her really upset, unable to laugh it off, was the scene in her dad’s man-hovel of a flat. Basically Abbie was visibly hurt at her Dad’s lack of interest and compassion, which I call ‘emotional neglect’, and couldn’t contain her tears. This will have been a pattern since the early years, and will likely be one of the sources of her awful self-esteem and drinking.

Another thing I took away (maybe the presenter was trying to get this across without saying as much??) was that white Abbie was repeatedly pardoned and not imprisoned for breaches of her release conditions... but black Shona repeatedly suffered just the opposite! This is anecdotal evidence for the already well-quantified problem in the British criminal justice system whereby black people are treated more severely than their white counterparts for similar offences. Perhaps Shona was offensive and mouthy in the court room, I don’t know – but the headline didn’t look good.

In about the only decent question the simplistic narrator could muster, she asked Abbie if drinking made her happy – she said it did... and when the presenter asked if she could be happy without drink, Abbie looked truly forlorn and said it was not possible.

Is it the drugs???
The program dwelled at tedious length on how much the girls drank, and smoked weed and crack pipes. I fundamentally believe that the link from drugs to criminality and violence is primarily that the drugs take the internal inhibitions and self-restraints away from us – not that they somehow cause violence in their own right. When we are high, we say things we wouldn’t otherwise say. The white English demographic is internationally famous for being incapable of expressing amorous intentions unless on the wrong side of several units of alcohol...and yet we suppose mere CHILDREN should be able to maintain their inhibitions when on a cocktail of drugs? This is base hypocrisy or at best a lack of rational thinking.

Having said that, my own experience of (adult, fairly balanced) people taking cocaine and other drugs, is that they become (in their addled brains) irresistible to women and invincible in a fight. Their irritating behaviour is generally likely to cause someone else in the pub (high on legal alcohol) to become so annoyed as to insult the drug user or start a fight. So in a way, over and above the inhibition-removal, drugs can be the source of violence – or rather the spark that ignites the fire that then burns extra hot because of the lack of inhibition.

Now when disturbed and depressed young people take drugs, it unleashes all manner of disturbing behaviour. Quick to anger even when sober, they are much more likely to become enraged, they will become more enraged than most people, and much more quickly. This is because they exist in a background state of sadness, resentment and self-hatred. Think of it as a volcano. For you or I, the magma rises and falls in our chambers, but only seldom erupts because the levels of magma are relatively low – so there is a lot of slack to take up. For disturbed children, the magma at the best of times is very close to the surface, and so any trigger events will cause an eruption, and taking drugs will just weaken and crack the surface - making the eruption easier.

In summary – yes, the drugs are a major part of the causative landscape, BUT they are not in their own right. The children take them to get some respite from the negative feelings that plague them day and night. This in turn locks them into a dependency as the drugs bring on the only happy feelings they ever get. It also shatters any sleep routine they might have had, which shatters their ability to concentrate and makes them more irritable when sober. It also brings on a need for high cashflows... the rest isn’t rocket science. The problem is the SADNESS AND THE HOPELESSNESS.

What the program exposed
At no point did we see anyone giving these girls what they so desperately and obviously (to me) needed:
1. Time with someone non-judgemental, who they can open up to and admit how abjectly depressed and hopeless they feel. Someone who they can feel actually cares about them, is interested in whether they succeed or fail, are in jail or not, are happy or sad. In short, what a ‘good’ parent provides for their child most of the time. Note that this is unlikely to come from the state, except for a few vocationally-driven individuals...and even then the kids don’t really open up to government workers – they lump them all together along with the police as ‘the bad guys’ and keep them at arm’s length. I say that this role can only be performed by the charity sector, by motivated and trained vocational people.

2. Close logistical support on the transition from custody to freedom, to ensure basic physical needs are met. These girls were portrayed as being ejected from jail and left completely to their own devices in the hours and days afterwards – other than appointments they were forced to attend as a condition of release (and therefore saw as a hated obligation, not an offer of help).

3. Time with a trained psychotherapist (art therapy for Abbie, she clearly liked to express herself through drawing), to work through the deep-seated underlying issues that are driving the sadness and self-disgust, that trigger and drive the drug-taking and onwards to criminality. Until these basic problems, what I like to call ‘emotional disabilities’, are addressed, the negative cycle will continue.

What the program should have shown, in my opinion.
1. They should have had testimonials from primary and secondary school teachers of the girls, describing what experiences the girls had, and how they coped academically, and when they first saw signs of disaffection.
2. They should have covered the ofsted opinions of the girls’ schools during the years they attended.
3. The presenter should have asked less dumb factual questions like “how many units did you drink last night” and more meaningful questions like “I can see you’re feeling really angry after not being able to find a job today – what is making you angry – is it the thought of never escaping from the rut you are in, never being looked on as anything other than a thief and a fighter?”, and things like “if you could start all over again, what would you be doing right now” and “what are you really good at”!
4. The program should have been punctuated by ‘experts’ briefly analysing a piece of the girls’ behaviour – to help people see the deeper subtleties behind the simplistic outwards symptoms.
5. 1. Seeing as Abbie’s Dad was happy to be filmed (tellingly, Shona’s was not!), they should have asked more about Abbie’s transition from a happy baby (all babies start off happy, trust me on that one) to an unconscious drunk 13 year-old. Not covering this is almost negligent on the part of the producers I think, in that it places the burden of Abbie’s behaviour on herself rather that her environment.

OK braindump is finished! Thanks and goodnight.