Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Sociologist's EyeReflections on Social Life$

Kai Erikson

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780300106671

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300106671.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM YALE SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.yale.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Yale University Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in YSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 16 May 2022

Becoming a Person

Becoming a Person

(p.267) Becoming a Person
The Sociologist's Eye

Kai Erikson

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the process of socialization, of becoming a person—the way we become aware of the social world we are a part of and learn to participate in it. It first considers the lessons of early childhood and how a child learns a particular language before discussing George Herbert Mead's views on childhood learning. It then analyzes the processes that occur when people are removed from the larger social order and confined to total institutions and “becoming a person once again,” also known as “secondary socialization” or “resocialization.” It suggests that, whether one is speaking of “becoming a person” in the early years or repeating some part of that process later, members of a society live by an informal grammar.

Keywords:   socialization, social world, early childhood, language, George Herbert Mead, childhood learning, total institutions, secondary socialization, resocialization

I NOTED EARLIER THAT WE HUMANS ARE born relatively early in our developmental cycle compared to other creatures with whom we share the earth. Our bodies and brains have a lot of maturing to do before we appear on the scene as fully functioning components of human society. The process of maturation begins in the warm pocket of caring adults that I earlier likened to an extension of the womb—that contained space into which infants are born and where they are originally nurtured. But the process continues well into life.

Learning the Score

To say that the newly born of our species evolve into social (and thus human) beings is to say that they become ever more attuned to the flows of social life swirling around them and learn to act in concert with others. Expressions like “becoming attuned” and “acting in concert” might suggest too musical a metaphor over the long term, but they offer a place to begin. The cultural rhythms by which a people live, Émile Durkheim might have suggested, is something like an orchestral score: every player has a somewhat different contribution to make to the overall effect. There has to be enough leeway in that arrangement for individual expression and improvisation, since we are learning who we are as individual presences at the same time we are learning how to collaborate with others in the wider social context. But the larger ensemble is coordinated at least to the extent that those of us who are part of it come to share understandings on such matters as key, tempo, pitch, and the like. Everybody in the (p.268) ensemble has to know the score even if—as we shall see later—he or she devotes a lot of time and energy to withdrawing from it, deviating from it, or actively resisting it. And, as we always have to remember, the score itself will vary from location to location and from class to class.

Storytellers of many lands tell of occasions when abandoned infants were raised by wolves or bears or other warm-hearted beasts and were then returned to the societies from which they came. These are wondrous tales, full of another kind of wisdom, but, alas, they have no basis in fact. There have been several cases on record, however, of human infants who managed to survive into childhood without experiencing any meaningful contact with parents or other adults, locked away in attics or closets or basements and kept alive without word or ceremony. Those children were unable to talk or communicate in any other way, which is certainly not surprising, but, more than that, they appeared at first to be unable to see or hear. They were initially thought to be deaf and dumb, in fact, and sometimes even blind. But their problem lay elsewhere. Their eyes could record images perfectly well, but their minds did not know what to make of them. Their ears could register sounds, but their minds could not figure out what they signified. Those sad creatures simply did not know how to process or make use of the information their sensory organs were supplying to them because human beings must become participating members of a social order to make sense of the world around them.

This process is an essential part of the human story, then. But what is it? How does it work? Many specialists in the social and behavioral sciences have tried to visualize that process. I will not try to do justice to any of those theories in what follows, but one can get some sense of their range if I describe two variants that lie at opposing ends of a continuum.

At one extreme is the classical Freudian vision, exaggerated somewhat here to make a point. The human infant bursts hungrily into the world, bristling with instinctual needs. It is greedy, impulsive, and full of libidinal urges. The social order, in turn, goes to work with the very first breath the infant draws to curb those impulses and to inhibit those needs. In that view, becoming a social being is the process by which the requirements of social life are imposed upon that aggressive bundle of energy, and the human career that follows is marked by a life-long struggle between an assertive individual and an imperious society. These are the pains Freud was referring to in his important book Civilization and Its Discontents.

(p.269) At the other extreme (again with more than a trace of exaggeration) is a vision shared by sociologists and psychologists in the early years of the 20th century such as William James, George Herbert Mead, and Charles Horton Cooley. It is found in the work of Émile Durkheim as well. An infant slips gently into the world, a genial lump of protoplasm, eager to know the ways of its elders. Its mind is an empty vessel into which the stuff of society is poured.

Most American sociologists would now take a position somewhere in the mid-range of that continuum, recognizing that neither of these exaggerated visions can reflect what we have learned about child development. It is fair to say that the human animal does not come into the world with many programmed drives, the inborn instructional manuals that other animals do. But that certainly does not mean that the vessel is empty. Human infants begin life with a number of built-in tendencies and attributes that need not detain us now, and they become active participants in the process that follows rather than passive recipients.

Becoming a social being, then, has to be seen in part as a negotiation between child and society. From birth, the child observes and studies and explores the world that opens up in ever wider arcs around it. The instruments it uses for that probing are eyes, hands, mouth, ears; and the lessons being learned have to do with the shape of things, the texture of things, the color and movement and sound and tone of things. And at the same time, of course, the widening world—a surrounding made up at first of parents and other members of the family but later to include playmates, classmates, teachers, figures appearing on television screens—is flooding the child with urgings of a hundred other kinds.

Sociologists on the whole can be said to lean toward the James-Mead-Cooley end of that continuum. This is partly because the weight of evidence tilts in that direction, but it is also partly because our contribution to an understanding of child development is to consider the ways the social order works its way into a child’s self. In the end, becoming a person is the process by which the innate tendencies of the child and the looming presence of society are brought into a kind of synchrony, and it is the latter that sociologists generally take to be their natural subject matter.

The Lessons of Early Childhood

In our society (in all societies, probably) childhood is seen as a period during which young people play in a rather aimless fashion until they are old (p.270) enough to get involved in the real business of learning. Their apprenticeship in the ways of the adult world begins early when they go off to school to begin their exposure to reading and writing and arithmetic, or when they go off with adult relatives to learn the ways of cooking, harvesting, curing hides, tending cattle, laying traps, or the steps of important ceremonies. Serious stuff, that.

The fact is, though, that infancy and early childhood may well be the most intense years of learning in the human life cycle. Indeed, children have learned a good part of what they are ever going to before the formal age of instruction even begins. They have already absorbed a rudimentary map of the family structure and their place on it, and have begun to absorb what will be revealed in time as an elaborate moral code. They have learned a language, far and away the most complex skill they will ever be asked to master. This all adds up to an amazing accomplishment. In some ways, the schooling and tutoring yet to come is little more than a refinement of knowledge the child has been introduced to by the age of three or four.

The most important psychological question to be asked in this connection, of course, has to do with the workings of the mind. How is all this learned? How can an organism that is by any definition still developing take in and retain so much information?

The basic sociological question, though, has to do with what the lessons are that one learns so early in life. Sooner or later a child will learn to tie shoelaces, feed livestock, conjugate verbs, or act properly in important rituals. Sooner or later a child will learn a few elementary things one should and should not do. Do not put your finger in the light socket. Do not stare at the medicine man. Here’s the proper way to pick up a baby or start a fire or skin a muskrat. A good part of that content is conveyed through well-studied mechanisms like reward, punishment, and other deliberate attempts to instruct. But much of it does not involve any active tutoring at all. It is a process almost like osmosis, in which the teachers do not know they are teaching and the students do not know they are learning.

An infant begins life with few immediate needs. It must have nourishment. It must be separated from its own wastes. It must be in contact with adults, upon whom it is wholly dependent. It must have some form of stimulation. Infants “know” how to inform adults who make up their immediate surround about those needs. A gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach or a discomfort of some other source triggers a cry loud enough to attract adult attention. For (p.271) the infant, this is simply a reflex action, at least to begin with. Those adults, however, respond to those alarms in a number of different ways, reflecting both their own personalities and the cultural ethos in which they live. These can be the first lessons of life. I am speaking here of hints, inklings, intimations—the opening moments of what will be a long and intricate process through which infants learn something about the prevailing tone of the world they are entering. Its emotional temperature, let’s say.

We do not know much about such matters, but we do know that those early lessons can be so well learned that they actually affect the body’s chemistry. Children everywhere feel pangs of hunger at times of day appointed by the culture they are learning the ways of, and in a similar way children everywhere have been known to gag at the sight or smell of edibles their elders view with disgust, or salivate at the sight or smell of edibles their elders view as unusually tasty. Nor are we speaking of states of mind here. These are measurable physiological reactions. Whether one’s mouth waters when looking at a serving of roasted beetles depends on the cultural setting in which one grows up. Whether one is struck by the beauty of someone whose forehead is a mass of self-induced scars also depends on cultural contexts. These are among the things a child learns in the early years without ever having been taught.

Let us turn now to two other bodies of knowledge that we are all exposed to early in life and remain a part of our basic social repertory for the rest of our time on earth. None of it is taught. Unless we stop to think about it, none of us even know that we know it.

On Learning a Language

One of those bodies of knowledge a child acquires early in life is language. Learning a first language is not like learning a second, as was evident in the case of those abandoned children, because the act of acquiring language is one of the ways children learn to perceive the world around them and to sort out information about it supplied them by the senses. The great psychologist William James, whom I have already mentioned more than once, wrote a century ago that the world children see when they first look out at it is a “blooming, buzzing confusion”—a swirl of commotion, a wash of colors, a blur of sounds. The young, he noted, have to learn how to pick individual details out of all that confusion. James of course knew that human infants who have (p.272) not yet mastered language can nonetheless see and hear and touch things: they can make out shape and pattern, color and motion, texture and grain, and they can discriminate sounds of differing pitch and timbre. So can other animals that know nothing at all of the nature of language. But the young mind does not yet know how to order those varying sights and sounds into a coherent landscape, and it learns to do so at least in part by dividing the blur into discrete objects by creating concepts about them, by naming them. When we assign a name to something, we bracket it, set it apart from its background. In effect, we instruct our senses to freeze the moving scenery for a moment so that we can see or hear or smell or in some other way get a fix on a part of it. Walter Lippmann, a thoughtful commentator on the American political scene as well as on American culture more generally, put the matter flatly several decades ago: “For the most part we do not see and then define, we define and then see.”

One of the most remarkable persons of our time was a woman named Helen Keller, who became both blind and deaf in infancy, a terrible combination. When still a child, she was placed in the care of another remarkable woman named Anne Sullivan who had been brought into the Keller household to see if she could find a way to reach through the wall of silence that surrounded the young Helen. Sullivan tried everything she could think of, and then one day, as Keller later remembered it:

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream splashed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—the thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!…

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange new sight that had come to me.

This is a rare insight, for Keller was experiencing something that is normally known only to infants who are far too young to understand the process or to remember it. “Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.”

(p.273) Adults are sometimes allowed a glimpse at that process. I can remember the day in a high-school biology class when I first saw the tiny organisms our teacher was pointing out in the blur of movement visible through a microscope. My vision had not been made sharper by that exercise, but my powers of discrimination had. I saw things that I simply could not make out but a moment earlier. Many persons reading this paragraph will remember, as I do, how difficult it was at first to make out particular words in the continuous flow of utterances that make up an unfamiliar language. Native speakers of a language do not produce words or sentences. They issue streams of sound, and it is the task of the listener to insert the pauses and the punctuations that break the stream into sentences and the sentences into words. The ear can only hear a flow. And once we have learned to make those discriminations—to see the organism, to recognize that “mamereesttresjolie” has to be re-heard as “ma mere est tres jolie”—we wonder why it took us so long in the first place.

That is how things are with children at first. They organize the world around them cognitively in the process of developing a vocabulary and learning a language. So language is not simply a means of communication. It is a way of sorting out the things of the world, of giving order to reality. Every human society, every language, accomplishes that task in a somewhat different way, and to that extent, organizes reality in a somewhat different way. It should be noted in passing, moreover, that most languages vary in usage, if only slightly, from one social class to another or from one region to another, and that those differences, too, will be reflected in the way speakers make sense of the world around them.

A fairly simple example, by now famous enough to rank as a stereotype, has to do with the manner in which the continuous materials of nature, spread across an unbroken vista, are divided into pieces of reality. There is a form of precipitation common to lands of the north that speakers of English know by a single term, “snow.” Some English speakers (skiers, for instance) take into account that “snow” can have a number of different qualities, so they coin adjectives to mark the differences between them. People who live north of the Arctic Circle, however, use a number of different nouns to refer to the range of substances we gather into that broad designation “snow.” These are not just variations on a common theme. They refer to realities as different in the experience of the people who live in those lands as grizzly bears and timber wolves are in ours, and their welfare depends on such discriminations. Hugh Brody, a (p.274) wise and seasoned anthropologist, spent many years among the northern Inuit, and he notes that there are a number of terms in Inuktitut for what English speakers know simply as “snow.”

These include snow that is falling, fine snow in good weather, freshly fallen snow, snow cover, soft snow that makes walking difficult, soft snowbank, hard and crystalline snow, snow that has thawed and refrozen, snow that has been rained on, powdery snow, windblown snow, fine snow with which the wind has covered an object, hard snow that yields to the weight of footsteps, snow that is being melted to make drinking water, a mix of snow and water for glazing sledge runners, wet snow that is falling, snow that is drifting and snow that is right for snow house building.

This does not mean that speakers of English are forever destined to know a different reality than speakers of Inuktitut. You and I can presumably be taught the difference between one form of snow and another, as Hugh Brody himself was, and, moreover, we would not even have been able to make out the meaning of the comment above if we were not capable of making similar distinctions. Still, the language we speak does not equip us at first to “see” the northern landscape as the Inuit do. Our words do not parcel out the things of nature in that way. Speakers of English can journey across Europe translating “apple” into “pomme” and then into “apfel” or “manzana” or “mela” whenever they cross a national border without shifting into another mode of perceiving things, but that is not the case when they cross over an invisible border into the land of the Inuit, where there is no root word for “snow” and the white cover one can walk on easily has a different name than the white cover that makes walking more difficult. Brody also notes:

The same principle applies to the words for fish in Inuktitut. There are terms to mean arctic char, arctic char that are running upstream, arctic char that are moving down to the sea, and arctic char that remain all year in the lake, as well as words for lake trout, salmon, and so on. There is no word that means “fish.” Similarly, there are Inuktitut words for ringed seal, one-year-old ringed seal, adult mail ringed seal, harp seal, bearded seal, and so on. There is no word that means “seal.”

That is the sense in which language helps us apprehend what the world out there looks like and feels like as well as the way it is spoken of.

(p.275) Here is another example. If you take a child of four or five to see a giant redwood, stretching to the very skies, she will know it as a tree. If you show her a Japanese bonsai in a flower pot smaller than she is, she will also know it as a tree. That is a remarkable feat of abstraction. What features do those two growths share in common? How can a child know that they belong to the same category of being? Here is another child of four or five. Show him a Chihuahua—a scrawny, hairless creature, looking vaguely like a shaved rodent—and he will call it “doggy.” Show him a Saint Bernard, a huge, shaggy, lumbering creature—to him the size of an adult buffalo—and he will call it “doggy.” These children have no idea in the world why it makes botanical sense to place a redwood and a bonsai in the same class of living matter, or what anatomical similarities place a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard in the same species. To be able to see across those enormous differences in size and shape and to recognize the kinship of such pairs as these is quite something. It is accomplished, at least in part, through the use of language, and at a very young age.

“Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?” asks Hamlet. “By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed,” Polonius replies. Hamlet: “Methinks it is like a weasel.” Polonius: “It is backed like a weasel.” Hamlet: “Or like a whale?” Polonius: “Very like a whale.” Well, Hamlet is playing with Polonius here, and Polonius, in his turn, is trying to be agreeable. But something similar happens in real life as well. A cloud is but a cloud, a puff of mist, a bit of concentrated moisture. Many of the things of nature, though, are like clouds to the untutored eye, and it is the task of culture, the task of language, to give them identity and shape. And why? So that those who participate in a social order can experience them alike and coordinate their activities in respect to them.

The Pygmies of the Ituri Rain Forest offer another example of what we are dealing with here. The same Kenge who roused Moke from a deep sleep in the middle of the night once drove to the edge of the forest with Colin Turnbull, the anthropologist from whom we learned the story in the first place. Kenge had never been out in the open countryside, where the eye beholds an almost endless vista, because he had spent the whole of his life in the shelter of trees where it is rare to be able to see further than a few feet ahead. Turnbull pointed to a group of water buffalo grazing a mile or more away, and Kenge broke into laughter because he could only see a cluster of miniature creatures looking like ants a few yards from where he was. Kenge may have had the sharpest eyes in Africa, but they had never been trained to see things at a distance and to make the necessary (p.276) allowances for assessing the true size of things. Objects that take up no more than a tiny fraction of one’s field of vision are bound to seem tiny when one has no experience of horizons that extend any further than a clearing in the forest. The lens through which he was looking, then, was shaped by social and cultural criteria as well as by optical ones, and the same would be true if we were asked to see the shapes of the Ituri Rain Forest in the way Kenge did.

All this makes it easier to understand why those children raised in closets and attics were unable to see what we “sighted” people can. Their optic equipment was presumably in good working order, but it is the image in the mind and not the image on the retina that sees a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard as creatures of the same kind or char moving upstream and char moving downstream as creatures of a different kind.

Mind you, I have drawn my examples of the process I am dealing with here from the simplest level possible—the way language helps us shape our perceptions of objects in the natural world. I do not even know how to speak of the way language helps us arrange the experiences of life into moral categories or into aesthetic ones. But I do assume that in the same way that language plays an important role in instructing the senses how to see objects out in the surrounding landscape, language plays an important role in helping us distinguish right from wrong, beautiful from ugly, tasteful from crass. This is not to say that the moral sense is a product of language, but to note that its forms have linguistic contour. Children have an understanding of much of this long before their first day of formal instruction. It is a mighty thing.

George Herbert Mead on Childhood Learning

Theorists who have thought about the nature of human development often divide the years of childhood into distinct developmental stages. Those schemes are quite different in their points of emphasis, but they share in common an interest in the inner life of children as they mature over time. A number of sociologists would add the name of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) to that list. He was a philosopher and social psychologist who taught at the University of Chicago during the same years as the pioneer sociologists we met earlier. What made his approach distinct was that he was less interested in the way the young mind develops over time than in the way the social world out there works its way into the child’s awareness. In that sense, the questions he raised lent (p.277) themselves to the study of the social order more than to the study of the individual mind. Like many important theories, this one should be appreciated not for the technical accuracy of its observations but for its ability to open up new conceptual territory.

Mead suggested that children work their way through a sequence of phases as they grow. He did not see them as developmental stages in the child, as other theorists like Jean Piaget did, but he spoke of them as general periods through which young people pass.

The first is a time of imitation. Human toddlers are endowed with endless curiosity, as all young creatures appear to be, and as they develop better motor skills and learn more about the world around them, they not only watch carefully what others are doing but try to imitate it, either in imagination or in actual conduct. As often than not, they do not really know what the activities they are copying are meant to accomplish, so it is the shape and the rhythm of those activities rather than their formal content that the children are attracted to. A mother, deep in thought, hand cupped under her chin, looks over at her child and notices that he has assumed the same posture. He is not really thinking that intently. The time for deep reflection has not yet come for him. He is rehearsing, getting a feel for adult life. A father opens his newspaper, looks over at his child, and notices that she is staring at the real estate section. She is not reading. She might not even know what that is. She is practicing an adult activity. And much the same thing happens, we may assume, when children are first exposed to the gestures and mannerisms appropriate to the culture or class or gender they are a part of—the spacing of an encounter, for example, or how loudly one is invited to talk.

The second is a time of play. I pointed out earlier that play may be the most serious work an individual is ever asked to do, and an important part of that work is to act out the roles of other people one encounters in the course of everyday life—parents, teachers, mail carriers, physicians—or characters of an altogether different kind one meets on television screens, in books, or on the shelves of a toy store. In one sense, playing the part of somebody else or something else is scarcely more than an advanced form of imitation, developing a feel for social life by copying the mechanics of adult behavior. In another sense, however, it can be a great deal more. Mead called this “taking the role of the other,” and he meant by the term that children are not only learning the outer contours of the behavior of others but trying to enter the minds of those others (p.278) in an effort to imagine what life must be like for them. In doing so, Mead added, they are also imagining what they must look like to the people whose roles they are playing.

This is a very abstract activity. We are speaking of small children here, quite early in the process of becoming social, who see themselves as objects in someone else’s line of vision. When children, talking about themselves, announce solemnly that “Sammy is tired” or “Mary wants a glass of water,” they are looking at themselves in the way they sense that others are looking at them. Those expressions can take on moral overtones, too. “Mary is a b-a-d girl,” she says of herself in a disapproving tone of voice, perhaps wagging her finger for emphasis. “No, Sammy mustn’t do that,” says he, slapping himself slightly on the wrist. The voice is borrowed from someone else, but the subject is oneself. The child is learning who she is or how he should act by looking at the image they see reflected in the eyes of other persons. Charles Horton Cooley, a contemporary of Mead’s, called this “the looking glass self.”

The third is a time of games. In play, Mead suggested, children act out the ways of other people, and in doing so see a reflection of themselves. But games are a good deal more complicated and involve a different form of rehearsal for life in society. Play is improvisation. Games, on the other hand, involve sets of rules that have to be observed by all the participants if the activity is to work at all. Mead thought that games were perfect miniatures of society, the master metaphors of social life. In his view, a game can only be played successfully—the social life can only be conducted successfully—when everyone involved plays the roles of everyone else in that social scene simultaneously. Mead found baseball to be an especially compelling example of what he had in mind, but readers more familiar with cricket or soccer or some other complex game can transpose as necessary. A ground ball is hit toward the shortstop, whose name, we will say, is Tinker. Tinker must keep his eye on the ball in order to field it, but, even so, he can “see” what everyone else on the field of play is doing. The first baseman—Chance, say—is moving in one direction, while the second baseman—Evers—is moving in another. And if there are runners from the other team on base as all this is going on, Tinker senses what they are up to as well. This is a very intricate choreography. Mead supposed that Tinker is able to keep track of all this movement not just because he understands the flow of the game so well intellectually but because he is playing everyone else’s position in his own mind even as he plays his own. He knows what Evers is doing because he (p.279) knows what he would be doing if he were in Evers’s shoes. He knows what the runner coming down the base path is doing because he has been there himself. In other words, said Mead, Tinker is mentally playing every position in the field—taking the role of all those other players—as he focuses on the task before him. And when he picks up the ball hit in his direction, he turns toward the spot where his teammates are expecting it to be thrown even before he directs his gaze there because he can count on them to act as he would have if he had been in their position. Even though he was looking the whole time at the ball coming his way, the play had taken shape, as it were, before his eyes. And the same thing has been happening, meantime, to everyone else involved as well. This may sound a bit mystical, but it is a relatively simple—and a very human—process.

The baseball game, Mead suggested, serves as an excellent analogy for the workings of social life everywhere. We know the roles of all the other players in our immediate world because we identify with them, can imagine ourselves in their places, and thus have an idea how they will behave in the social arena. That does not mean that we can take their places, of course, or even do a plausible job of impersonating them. It only means that each of us has a sense of who the people around us are and where they stand in the social order. And that is how we know who we are and where we stand in the social order as well. Robert Burns once wrote a famous couplet:

  • O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
  • To see oursels as others see us!

Burns was musing about a mental process quite different than the one we are dealing with here—he was watching a louse making its way up the back of a woman’s bonnet as he sat behind her in a church pew—but Mead would suggest not only that we do have that power but that the workings of the social order depend on it. Since we are able to imagine what the world looks like from the vantage point of others, we have at least a basic understanding of how we look to them. That, Mead thought, is how we develop a sense of self, how we learn to situate ourselves in the dance of life. It works somewhat like radar (although Mead, who developed these thoughts a century ago or more, knew nothing of that invention). We humans send exploratory probes out into the social world around us, and we learn from the signals that bounce back both where we stand (p.280) in relation to everyone else and what we look like to them. We learn to see ourselves as others see us (if not always accurately).

So children have mastered a considerable body of knowledge before their formal education even begins. The process of socialization continues into the years of schooling and all the other experiences that contribute to the shaping of the young. But we will pause for a moment to raise three last-minute thoughts before we move ahead.

First, I suggested a few pages ago that Mead should be understood as a philosopher offering us an abstract metaphor on social life rather than as an ethnographer offering us a report on child play. It seems quite unlikely that he spent very many afternoons observing children like those of Kasia and Piotr in playgrounds not far from his university office in South Chicago. That was not what inspired him to write about the shape of child play or about carefully choreographed baseball games. But he was a colleague of Thomas, Znaniecki, and other Chicago sociologists who were then studying the nature of contemporary social life, and he was surely aware that the rules of “the game” were different in the black ghettos that were already beginning to take form near the center of the city, or in the affluent suburbs like Lake Forest that were then appearing at the outer edges of the city. And, of course, the same would have been the case if we added Boston’s West End, the mountain hollows of Appalachia, Ohio’s New Burlington, or any of the communities we have encountered in the book so far.

Second, even in places where the rules seem to be widely shared, there are always those who want to conform but find that a difficult course to follow—who drift off into worlds of their own, who never quite know how to shift into the same gears as others, who can never quite understand how Tinkers and Evers and Chance were able to pull it off. They tend to be few in number, and in our society they are likely to be diagnosed as suffering from a form of mental disorder.

But many persons who can be said to deviate from the score do so as a matter of choice, and they tend to be every bit as familiar with the score as their compliant fellows—if not more so. She who quietly opposes or actively resists a set of rules is likely to have a clear sense of what they are. He who dissents from the ways of his community or his society knows them particularly well. Those who rebel or withdraw usually know the lay of the land they want to leave behind, the ways of the society they want to replace. Conflict, too, takes (p.281) place within a network of rules and expectations. Among those who develop a particularly keen sense of the “role of the other” are antagonists in other forms of engagement, or anyone else trying to anticipate the moves of an adversary. Joseph Conrad put the point beautifully in his 1916 novel The Secret Agent. His two adversaries were a knowledgeable police officer and an experienced criminal, and he portrays them as “making countermoves in the same game.” “Products of the same machine, the one classified as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways, but with a seriousness essentially the same.” To comply and to dissent, to conform and to rebel, to accept and to reject, to be an ally or an adversary, all take place within an arena that is itself at least somewhat scripted.

Third, and more important by far for our purposes: Mead drew his conclusions from the realm of abstract reasoning rather than from the realm of actual observation, as we noted a few moments ago, and we can say now that he vastly underestimated the degree to which both the play of early childhood and the games of later childhood involve a considerable amount of testing and experimenting with the teachings of the adult world. That was true even in Mead’s day, long before the age of television and other mass media—never mind video games, cell phones, and all the other forms of social networking available now. What happens in the playgrounds of our time, we learn from William Corsaro and others, is even more unlike what Mead imagined. Children of an early age come together in playgrounds and other gathering places with a shared sense of how things are and how things ought to be—the basic score, we can say—and they act it out, develop a feel for it, in play and in games. It is a form of rehearsal, in one sense—a way of coming to terms with that script. But this is not a docile acceptance of those lessons from the adult world, a dutiful recital of them. It is a time of improvisation and innovation and even invention at the same time, an adaptation that draws on both the teachings of the elders and the learning that comes from being a part of what Cordero calls the “peer culture.”

Becoming a Person Yet Again

Learning the score is a life-long process. It begins the day of one’s birth and is at its most intense in the early years of childhood. The human career in modern times, however, often presents situations in which persons have to become adjusted to radically different life circumstances—so much so that (p.282) the experience looks and feels like becoming a person all over again. This process is known in the social sciences as “resocialization” or “secondary socialization” or “adult socialization,” and it refers to the urgent need, usually in adulthood, to learn to move to an altogether different set of social rhythms. Throughout human history, individuals have had to weather abrupt transitions as they move through a familiar round of life from its beginning to its end—graduating from childhood to adulthood, for example, and from a single state to a married one. But these transitions are part of a predictable sequence, and they are celebrated by rites of passage that mark their location in the procession of the life cycle. The forest people whom Moke and Kenge lived among or the farming people of Kasia and Piotr’s time knew lives of such continuity that the very thought of becoming a person all over again would rarely if ever come to mind.

This process can take a number of different forms. It will be useful for our purposes here to distinguish two. The first is when persons move across cultural or national borders and have to come to terms with new customs, new ways of life, and, often, new languages. We saw a fairly extended example of this when we traced Piotr and Kasia’s journey from a village in Poland to a neighborhood in South Chicago. The second is when persons remain within the same social and cultural universe but find themselves in the position of having to move, often on short notice, from familiar surroundings to unfamiliar ones—either because they elect to or because they have to. I am not just speaking here of shifts in occupation or in residence, but of being wrenched out of familiar social niches into spheres in which one feels alone and alien. One hears stories every day of families that have lived for generations on farmlands that now need to be abandoned, of individuals from every walk of life who fall out of the bottom of things and find themselves homeless or abandoned or without any real sense of belonging to the world they grew up in. Such changes can be profoundly traumatic for those who experience them, naturally, but the shock and the disorientation that follows is made all the more complicated by the fact that the persons involved now have to find their way across a largely unfamiliar social terrain.

The reverse trip can require wrenching readjustments too. To move out of the ranks of the homeless into the ranks of the steadily employed can be a joyous thing, but it is easily forgotten that offices and industrial plants and wheat fields and construction sites are social worlds with their own customs and codes that have to be learned like any other.

(p.283) Lost in Translation

Eva Hoffman was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1946, and emigrated to North America at the age of 13. She became a remarkably perceptive writer in her new language, English, and so has found a way to pass on to us telling insights into the process by which somebody with a distinctly Polish sensibility, expressed in a distinctly Polish cadence, shifted over into a new reality as she learned a different language and a different way of seeing things. It was not easy, as we learn from a memoir entitled Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language.

Unlike Kasia and Piotr Walkowiak, who arrived in the new world from Poland half a century earlier, Eva’s family settled into what was for them the unfamiliar cultural milieu of Western Canada. Her landing was not cushioned, as the Walkowiaks’ had been, by living in a Polish-speaking neighborhood as she began to learn the rhythms of the new world. It is reasonable to guess that the Hoffmans spoke Polish at mealtimes and in moments of family leisure during the early years of their time in Vancouver, but Eva had to relate to everybody else in her immediate surrounding by the use of English words. She had no trouble learning the dictionary meaning of what to her were unfamiliar, lifeless words. Indeed, she may have known their meaning far better than most native speakers who absorb them thoughtlessly in childhood. But the use of those terms resulted in what she later called a sharp “disconnect” with “the forms of the world” in the “here and now.” She felt as though she was in “exile,” by which she did not mean separation from homeland—which is of course what emigration had done to her—but being separated from reality, from the human community altogether.

At first, she thought in Polish, which is to say visualized in Polish, sensed in Polish, but the words that made up her reality were not easily translated into other terms. Learning that the English word for the piece of furniture on which one eats breakfast is “table” does not do it. Those words are not replaceable labels—we shall henceforth call this “a table”—but sounds, expressions, that give the object its life and its true nature.

Let’s say that we are walking with her to the edge of a body of water flowing in easy curves along a valley floor. “What is that?” we may ask by way of testing her knowledge of English. “River,” she says without a trace of hesitation. And what do they call it in Polish? we ask, and she provides what is for us (p.284) an unpronounceable sound. But we are missing the point. For her, “the words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue.” The word for river in her Polish

was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold—a word without an aura…. It does not evoke.

The new term cannot substitute for the old. It cannot reflect the same reality that the old one did. And for that very reason, the old words simply disappear—“atrophy,” “shrivel” are the English words she selects when trying to convey to us later what that experience was like. When she looks at “a river,” she is looking through a lens formed by the new word: “it is not shaped, it remains a thing, absolutely other, absolutely unbending to the grasp of my mind.” And she later adds, “this radical disjoining between word and thing drains the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances—its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.” The “problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified.”

In Vancouver still, the Hoffman family has a brief visit with a neighboring family. Vocabulary, again, is not the problem. Eva knows what words mean. Afterwards, though, “my mind gropes for some description” of the people she just visited,

but nothing fits. They’re a distant species from anyone I’ve met in Poland, and Polish words slip off them without sticking. English words do not stick onto anything. Kindly or silly? The words float in an uncertain space. They come from a part of my brain in which labels may be manufactured but which has no connections to my instincts, quick reactions, knowledge…. A verbal blur covers these people’s faces, their gestures, with a sort of fog. I can’t translate them in my mind’s eye.

There is the language of spacing to learn as well, and Hoffman remembers: “I learn my reserve from people who take a step back when we talk, because I’m standing too close, crowding them. Cultural distances are different, I later learn in a sociology class, but I know that already.”

Looking back at her experiences in Vancouver, she recalls that “it was here that I fell out of the net of meaning into the weightlessness of chaos … an (p.285) infuriating beating against wordlessness, against the incapacity to make oneself understood, seen.” Speaking later of a time then long past, she remembers realizing: “This language is beginning to invent another me.” She was becoming a person yet again.

How does one stop reading the exterior signs of a foreign tribe and step into the inwardness, the viscera of their meanings? Every anthropologist understands the difficulty of such a feat, and so does every immigrant.

It should go without saying that we have been listening to a remarkably gifted informant here, sensitive to the feel of words in a way that most persons who share the experience she is describing are not. So this is a rare look into an important matter, and if she expresses a stronger sense of urgency than most of us would, that makes the message all the clearer and sharper.

Total Institutions

Among the most difficult transitions from one social circumstance to another in our society are those that occur when persons are removed from accustomed places in the social order and transferred into establishments that require a marked shift in patterns of life from them. One of the most remarkable sociologists of the past century, Erving Goffman, called these “total institutions.” They are total because they separate individuals from the rest of society and because they provide a setting in which most of the activities of everyday life take place. People eat and sleep and work there; they play and worship there; they carry on all the other undertakings of life there. Prominent examples in our society would include prisons, mental hospitals, and religious retreats such as convents and monasteries. Some of these institutions—prisons, for example—are involuntary. Others, like religious orders, are not only voluntary but sometimes eagerly sought. The movement of individuals into and out of these places provides a sharply-etched portrayal of the process of becoming a person once again, and I will discuss it in some detail now not only because it is an important and telling aspect of social life but because it can serve—here comes that word again—as a parable, a defining instance of less drastic versions of the process.

Total institutions operate by different assumptions and rules than is the case for other establishments in the social world around them, and to that extent they (p.286) are like enclosures within a larger countryside. When newcomers enter those enclosures the gates seem to close behind them—literally in the case of prison inmates, symbolically in the case of individuals taking religious orders. They are about to pass through a kind of decompression chamber in which they will be divested of old habits and ways, old roles and identities, and issued new ones better suited to the reality they are about to enter. The purpose of the decompression chamber is not simply to transform the newcomer from one kind of social being to another—from citizen to convict, from schoolgirl to nun, or, to add another example, from civilian to soldier—but to effect a major change in the way the newcomer thinks and behaves.

During that period, the newcomer is dispossessed (“stripped” was the term Goffman used) of most of the outward markers of self—clothes, hair styles, jewelry, and sometimes even names. They are given standard haircuts and issued standard clothing so that they will begin life in the new setting looking as alike as possible in at least those respects. In some religious orders, initiates are given new names altogether, but even in prisons and military posts, where new arrivals retain their civilian names, they are issued identification numbers that serve as designations every bit as important as names.

Goffman called this “mortification,” and like so many of the terms he drew from his extraordinary vocabulary, it has more than one meaning. To “mortify” means to humiliate, to reduce in stature, and that is certainly one of the purposes of the stripping process, even if the reasons for humbling somebody about to enter prison are different from the reasons for humbling somebody about to enter holy orders. To mortify also means to subject somebody to disciplinary austerities, which fits the case here as well. And, finally, to mortify means to “deface” people, to remove the identifying features—hair styles, clothing, adornments—that give them individuality in look and expression.

The mortification process serves several purposes, the most important of them being to place the newcomer in a different master status. For a while, at least, the fact that you are now a convict or an inmate or a postulant overshadows the other identities that once situated you in the social order. The questions “who are you?” or “what are you?” can no longer be satisfactorily answered by declaring that “I am a Martinez woman” or “I am a mechanic.” Those things continue to be the case, of course, but they are simply not that relevant to one’s present circumstance. They have slipped into insignificance (p.287) beneath the dominating fact that one is now something else. Old identities have been filed away to clear a place for the new.

Entering a total institution also involves a symbolic filing away of one’s past. Most of us in the everyday world have a good deal of control over the histories that other people know us by, if only because we supply most of the details that those histories are composed of. Kinfolk and schoolmates may embarrass us now and them by dredging up episodes that seem to us better forgotten, but for the most part we are the editors of our own life stories—who we are, where we come from, what has happened to us, and the like. We cannot create new biographical details out of thin air without running the risk of exposure, of course, but we can be selective in what we tell others or include in our dossiers. We are not required to tell others about our most shameful or discreditable moments. That is why I call us editors of our life stories rather than authors. I must be careful not to stray too far from established fact when I tell you where I was born or how celebrated an athlete I was, but I do not need to tell you about the times I wet my bed or was cruel to my sister or entertained thoughts that might give you reason to wonder how moral or how sane a person I really am. In a prison or mental hospital, however, those are precisely the moments from a life history that matter the most, and the files those institutions keep contain details of just that kind. The dossiers found in mental hospitals will normally focus on times when patients were out of control or hallucinating or being abusive to others, and are not very likely to include information on times when patients exhibited particular competence or behaved in ways that brought them credit. The life histories found in penitentiaries, too, will usually focus on the times when inmates engaged in illegal activity and are not likely to pay attention to the hours and days and years they spent working at jobs, raising children, repairing leaking faucets, and living like everyone else. The sheer fact that a person is now imprisoned or hospitalized, that is, selects out the facts that become relevant to his or her biography.

In general, then, when we undergo important transitions in the flow of our lives we go through a process from which we are likely to emerge changed—acting a bit differently, thinking a bit differently, and having a somewhat revised sense of who we are. For most of us, the process is nowhere near as dramatic as the one experienced by persons on their way to prisons or convents or some other kind of total institution, but the two paths are parallel nonetheless. (p.288) Students who enter college from very different life conditions will know what this process is all about, even if the transition they experience is a fairly tame specimen of the genus.

I plan now to provide two examples of the process I have been describing here, not only because they tell us something about this feature of social life, but because, once again, they serve as defining instances of a broader pattern. The first is a description of what can happen when someone leaves civilian society behind and becomes a member of one of the armed forces. It is based on my experience of many years ago, so it is not an accurate look at the modern military, but it illustrates a form of learning found everywhere. The second is a description of what can happen when someone leaves prison behind after a long period of incarceration and tries to re-enter normal social life. It is the story of a man named Harry King who decided to abandon a long career as a safecracker to join what he called “square-John” society. It, too, is of a time long past.

Becoming a Soldier: The Informal Grammar of Military Life

Compared to entering a monastery or a prison, induction into one of the armed forces appears to be a relatively modest business. Recruits are not being asked to shift into a new cultural setting in any important sense of the term, and most of them do not intend to remain there for more than a few years. They are not being required to learn new languages, either (although their vocabulary is likely to be enlarged in other ways!). Their private beliefs and values will remain for the most part unexamined. Yet the dominating assumption of “basic training” or “boot camp” is that those who undertake it might have to go into combat in a relatively short period of time, so it is a very serious matter. Changes of one’s inner being are not being asked for, then, but a sizable readjustment of the way one acts and thinks is.

Induction into the army has much in common with the initiation processes of other total institutions, so it fits the pattern of “mortification” described by Goffman well. Basic training involves an abrupt removal from old and familiar surroundings, an interruption of careers either anticipated or under way, and a separation from all those other persons who constitute one’s immediate surround. Old decorations of self (what Goffman called one’s “identity kit”) are systematically stripped away in military settings as they are in monastic and in (p.289) penal ones: civilian clothing that reflects a person’s individual taste or personality is replaced by institutional clothing that does not, hair styles are cropped from the heads of the newly arrived with about as much ceremony as fleece is shorn from the flanks of sheep.

When recruits first enter the army, they usually busy themselves trying to learn the rules governing what for most of them is a largely unfamiliar terrain. There are regulations to memorize and skills to learn: how to make one’s bed in the approved army way, how to march in unison, how to disassemble and reassemble a rifle, how to stand and walk and eat and dress, how to act when an officer comes into view. In the early days of basic training, then, it is a matter of learning what we might call the formal grammar of army life, how to live by the book. That experience is hardly unique to military camps, of course, so as you ponder this account remember that it is meant to serve as a parable of social life in general as well as the story of a particular setting in the larger human scene.

After a time, however, recruits come to a slow but sure realization that they are not actually expected to live by the book. The formal grammar of military life is impossible to observe all the time. You cannot regularly make beds so taut that coins bounce on them, no matter how sharply you are instructed to do so. You cannot always shine boots so well that drill instructors see their reflections in them. You cannot always stand at attention for the length of time you are ordered to. You cannot react to every one of the directions that pour over you by the hour. So you have to develop a feel somehow for what is crucial and what is not. You have to learn where slack is to be found in the system, where a certain slippage is tolerated. You have to figure out for yourself when an order means something exact and when it means something broader and more diffuse. You soon realize, in short, that there is an informal grammar of military life as well. It is not taught. It is not found in regulations. It is not even part of a folk-lore that can be passed from one generation to another, because the waves of recruits who preceded you to camp and learned those lessons before you have moved on to other destinations. But it is there all the same, a sense of how things are, and newcomers have no choice but to learn it for themselves. They must discover how to hear the hidden language in the process of listening to the surface language.

In the introduction to this book, I wrote briefly of the time I worked with a research team studying army squads that had lost one of their members to a (p.290) psychiatric ward. I was struck then by the fact that the soldiers diagnosed as psychotic by medical officials seemed to share an inability to move from the formal grammar of army life to the informal grammar. They were living by the book, trying to act precisely as they were told to. A drill sergeant said to one of them, “I want you to scrub that floor until your knuckles bleed,” and was then at a complete loss for words when he realized that the recruit was trying to do just that. “I want you to forget about home and concentrate on bayonet practice,” said another, and was then dumbfounded when the recruit to whom he said it went into a severe panic because the harder he tried to concentrate on the project of forgetting home the more readily images of home flooded into his mind.

The irony here is that doing exactly as one is told—following instructions down to the last detail, interpreting the words spoken to one as meaning exactly what the dictionary says they do—almost qualifies as a symptom of mental disorder! These recruits appeared disturbed at least in part because they could not do what their fellow squad members could: to understand what is written in the spaces between lines, hear what is said in the silences between utterances, and, in general, sense the lay of the land in ways that no travel account or map or set of regulations can.

The main point to be made here, whether one is speaking of “becoming a person” in the early years or repeating some part of that process later, is that members of a society live by an informal grammar. When children first try to learn the score, their minds have not yet fully matured and their command of the language is not yet complete, so it makes sense to suppose that the learning process may be a bit blurred because the mind going through it is not fully formed. The striking thing about this, however, is that the sanest and most mature of adults go through a process that is every bit as vague. When we are taught a new rule, we soon learn how wide a range of variation other people will tolerate around that mean. When we adopt a new way to behave, we learn how close our approximation must be to the model being set. We are dealing with a very complex matter here.

Examples are almost by definition hard to come by, since our topic is the indistinct edges of social norms rather than their logical centers. Every baseball player knows that the strike zone in any given game is established by the perceptions of the umpire rather than by diagrams drawn in official rulebooks. Every motorist knows that the prevailing speed limit on any given highway has (p.291) more to do with common sense and the habits of patrolling police officers than it does with posted rules. How many students read every word of the material assigned them with equal attention? Or arrive at every class at exactly the appointed time? To go back to the strike zone: baseball players who think only of official diagrams when at bat are not only playing the game poorly but acting illogically. Drivers who stick doggedly to the posted speed limits no matter what the flows of traffic around them are running a real risk. Students who do everything by the book, who understand only the formal grammar of academic life, are making their lives a great deal harder than is necessary and may even be drawing attention to themselves.

That, too, is part of learning the score. And I will close this discussion by leaving a question floating in the air overhead: How much of that kind of learning is reflected in the way children play and the way they participate in games?

Going Straight

So far, we have been dealing with the processes that occur when people are removed from the larger social order and confined to total institutions. It should be obvious by now that this kind of transition is generally accompanied by large shifts in behavior and mind-set. What may not be so obvious, however, is that to transfer into a prison or monastery or some other kind of total institution can require so complete an unlearning of old habits and ways—so complete a renunciation of old identities—that it becomes difficult to adjust again to the realities of what most people call “normalcy.” I am going to tell the story of a career felon who went through exactly that experience. This is an unusual example of what I have called “becoming a person once again” or “resocialization,” so it, too, can be seen as an exaggerated sample of a process found throughout the social order.

I will introduce my point, though, by relating the experiences of a group of women who returned to secular life after a period in holy orders. They had been novices when they entered a convent, of course, but they found to their surprise that they were novices all over again when they decided to rejoin society at large. They had expected to feel somewhat at sea when dealing with a world where people were involved in courtship rituals, competed for advantage in the workplace, and negotiated paths for themselves through the intricacies of social (p.292) life. They knew they were inexperienced in such realms. But they did not expect that their most immediate problems would revolve around tiny things. They were returning to the same social setting from which they had originally come, but they did not know—and could not have known—how much learning they had missed by taking leave of it for a while. They did not know how to shop or dance or handle money or engage in idle chatter. One entered a clothing store: “The salesgirl asked what size I wore, and I just stared at her. I didn’t know!” Another went for a job interview: “He asked me what salary I wanted, and I didn’t know anything about that.” A third was sitting in a tavern for what may have been the first time in her life when the bartender approached: “ ‘What’ll you have,’ he said, and I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know one drink from another.”

There are sadder tales than that to be told of persons leaving total institutions for life in the “real” world. Of former mental patients who are so uncertain how to act and what to say in the places they now find themselves that they look unbalanced and out of touch with reality even when entirely recovered from their illnesses. Of returning soldiers who feel so disoriented in civilian life that they drift off into homelessness or alcoholism or somewhere else out there on the margins of society without anyone understanding that their problem is one of social adjustment and not one of personal instability.

The story of Harry King is a sad one as well. He was born in the first decade of the 20th century and died in the early 1970s. He was a safecracker by profession, a “box man,” and as is the case for most individuals who follow such a trade, he spent a good part of his adult life in prison. The story he narrates about his career as a felon is a relic of times past, so it does not offer a reliable portrayal of the criminal world as it exists now. But the experiences he went through when he tried to return to normal life are exactly as we would find them today. A sociologist named William J. Chambliss met Harry, became his friend, and recorded his life history. The account was edited by Chambliss and appeared in a book that was originally entitled Box Man: A Professional Thief’s Journey, and was reissued a few years later with the title Harry King: A Professional Thief’s Journey.

Harry King began his career in crime as a boy, and so was a fifty-year veteran of that way of life when he concluded that the time had come to join “square-John society.” He had just completed a five-year sentence in the penitentiary—the “slammer,” the “joint”—and did not himself understand where the urge to (p.293) convert had come from. For Harry, going straight was almost like migrating to a foreign country. It was a move for which he quickly realized that he was poorly equipped. As a psychological matter, he had no feel for it. As a visceral matter, he drew no pleasure from it. As a moral matter, he felt no respect for it. And as a technical matter, he had no idea how to go about it. Like the former nuns we met a moment ago, much of the problem lay in details. In handling money, for example. “I never had any true evaluation of money,” he said into Chambliss’s tape recorder: “It meant nothing. I can remember when I would pay $250 for a suit of clothes [make that $1,500 in today’s money] and get them all greasy and throw them away. I didn’t care.”

It’s real hard for a thief to plan what you call by the month. If I got a buck in my pocket then I spend the buck. If I ain’t got it, then I look around for one. You’re trained that way for years…. That’s why we go broke.

Harry had tried to go straight a few years earlier, so he had advance notice of what it would be like:

I believe I would have gone straight then if so many people hadn’t tried so hard to help me. This is hard to explain. It seemed like every time I turned around they were trying to help me. Nothing could I do for myself. It was “Harry, open a bank account.” I couldn’t understand why I must have a bank account. I could go straight without a bank account just as easy as I could with one. So I opened a bank account to please them, but it didn’t make sense to me. It was “Harry, do this; Harry, do that; Harry, don’t associate with this kind; Harry, don’t associate with that kind.”

So he gave up the effort and was soon back in “the joint.” When he was released five years later Harry did go straight, even though, as we shall see, the effort was not without difficulty or pain. He came out of prison thinking that the ideal niche for him in society would have been to serve as a mentor to people like himself—to teach them what he had learned. It was a wonderful idea. He knew things that the pooled wisdom of all the criminologists on earth could not have matched, and he would have been a great tutor to other ex-convicts trying to make the same transition he was.

It was not to happen that way. But I am going to let Harry complete the story in his own words (although the excerpts below are not necessarily presented in (p.294) the same order as they are in his narrative) because he was wholly correct to suppose that he could explain the nature of the problem we are talking about here better than anyone else.

He wanted to be a teacher. He will be ours now.

When a guy comes out of an institution, especially an old-timer, adjustment to society and what you call a normal life is extremely hard for him. I don’t feel that the process sets in for about three months after he gets out. Then he begins to look around…. He’s trying to understand everything and do everything at one time. He’s trying to do his job and get rehabilitated at the same time, and it can’t be done very easily so he gets nervous, irritable, and he’s tired all the time mentally—maybe not physically, but mentally he’s tired all the time.

You must remember that, as a professional criminal, I was not a member of society, was not accepted by society, was rejected by it. So now I have to turn around and change my way of thinking and learn to think the way the people of society do.

I couldn’t get adjusted properly. I still thought in black and white. There was no grey, no “perhaps” or “maybe.” You do or you don’t, that’s all there was to it. No in-between of any kind. You liked a person or you didn’t like him. I still thought like a criminal…. Believe me, there’s nothing harder in the world to understand than square-John people. I understand my people. They’re a bunch of bums. I know it and they know it, but I don’t understand square-Johns.

When I used to steal, why we’d go and visit other thieves, my old lady and I, and we’d visit some other thief and his old lady and maybe there’d be six people then. And we’d sit up there and cut up—what we call “old touches,” that’s a phrase for discussing old capers, “cutting up old touches”—and we would get a great kick out of it…. And I cannot honestly say that I have found anything to laugh about since I became a square-John. Everything’s been so serious where I used to laugh a lot. I laughed when I fooled the bulls. I laughed when I pulled a good caper. I’d laugh when I’d sit with friends of mine and talk, and I was happy-go-lucky. But since I turned square-John, why it’s been all serious. It’s been fighting to understand and do like they do. I don’t know.

Harry’s story has a sad ending. He committed suicide not long after the last of these tapes were recorded. But we don’t need so dramatic an ending to emphasize how hard it can be to make the kind of transition Harry had in mind. He spoke the language of the country he wanted to enter and knew its ways, but he simply did not know how to act like the people he hoped to join or think like (p.295) them or understand what made them happy. In some ways, at least, he was as much a stranger as Moke or Kenge would have been. And in some ways he may have been more of one, because the people he lived among and wanted to join had no way of knowing how strange they seemed to him and thus it never occurred to them to make allowances for that fact.