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How memoirs justify deviant behavior from crime to sex to politics

Justifiable Conduct

Self-Vindication in Memoir

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Erich Goode

"Erich Goode's Justifiable Conduct is a deeply considered and wildly fascinating look into the craft of memoir. This book should be required reading for those who read, write, love, or loathe memoir. This important contribution to a genre that has become a heated topic of debate, in both literary circles and popular culture, is a must read."
Emily Rapp, Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design; member of the MFA faculty at the University of California, Riverside; and writer

How do memoirists make their work interesting, daring, exciting, and unorthodox enough so that they attract an audience, yet not so heinous and scandalous that their readers are unable to empathize or identify with them? In Justifiable Conduct, renowned sociologist Erich Goode explores the different strategies memoirists use to "neutralize" their alleged wrongdoing and fashion a more positive image of themselves for audiences. He examines how writers, including James Frey, Susan Cheever, Roman Polanski, Charles Van Doren and Elia Kazan, explain, justify, contextualize, excuse, or warrant their participation in activities such as criminal behavior, substance abuse, sexual transgressions, and political radicalism.

Using a theory of deviance neutralization, Goode assesses the types of behavior exhibited by these memoirists to draw out generic narratives that are most effective in attempting to absolve the actor-author. Despite the highly individualistic and variable lives of these writers, Goode demonstrates that memoirists use a conventional vocabulary for their unconventional behavior.

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Excerpt

Read the Preface (pdf).

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Reviews

"Justifiable Conduct is an engaging, consistently insightful, and invariably lucid book. Goode’s focus on autobiographical memoirs is very much in keeping with what is at least a minor movement in sociology: taking narratives of various sorts more seriously than we have in the past. He makes a powerful case that deviance remains a powerful framework—a concept that ties together a range of now seemingly disparate phenomena. By organizing his observations around the idea of ‘accounts,’ he substantively analyzes how autobiographies share their effort to neutralize attributions of deviance. In short, this book is fun to read, helps revive a field more than due for revival, and advances an important concept."
Robert Zussman, Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

"[Goode] demonstrates wide knowledge of confessional memoirs throughout history from at least as far back as Augustine.... [He] provides a lot of arresting information and deepens what we already know. Anger, thrill, and surprise await around every corner."
Metapsychology.com

"Goode examines memoirs written by a number of well-known 20th-century Americans who, on the whole, have committed deviant acts and subsequently attempted to justify, on the page, what they did.... With his careful approach, Goode...hopes to draw parallels among these memoirists.... Largely, Goode succeeds in elucidating common threads among the autobiographical accounts of these diverse figures.... Summing Up: Recommended."
CHOICE

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Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments

1. Introduction
Charles Van Doren, “Herb Stempel Was the First to Agree to the Fix”
Jim Bouton, “If We Explain We’re Shooting Beaver, They’ll Understand”
The Transgressive I, the Exculpatory Account

2. Autobiography and Memoir
Memoir and Autobiography
The Memoir Explosion
Literal Facticity: Does It Matter?
James Frey, “I Honestly Have No Idea”

3. Autonarrating Transgression
The “I” and the “Me”
Vocabularies of Motive
Is to Explain to Condone?
The Presentation of Self
Accounts
Techniques of Neutralization: Theory or Concept?
To Whom Are Self-Exculpations Addressed?
In Sum: Neutralizing Deviance

4. Criminal Behavior
Joe Bonanno, “This Is How I Earned My Living”
Edward Bunker, “What Else Could I Do?”
Jack Henry Abbott, “If You Behave like a Man, You Are Doomed”
Jordan Belfort, “$12.5 Million! In Three Minutes!
Accounting for Crime

5. Substance Abuse
Pete Hamill, “This Is What Men Do”
Susan Cheever, “Drinking Was Part of Our Heritage”
Steve Geng, “I Was Romanticizing Lives of Crime”
William Cope Moyers, “I Was Doomed to Fail No Matter How Hard I Tried”
Accounting for Substance Abuse

6. Sexual Transgressions
Roman Polanski, “Everyone Wants to Fuck Young Girls”
Kerry Cohen, “My Parade of Boys Continues”
Melissa Febos, “I Took Aim and Flicked the Whip toward Him”
Kirk Read, “I Wanted to Be Shirley Temple”
Accounting for Sexual Transgressions

7. Political Deviance
Elia Kazan, “I Was Notorious, an Informant, a Squealer, a Rat”
Norman Podhoretz, “The Theory Circulated That I Had Gone Mad”
Malcolm X, “I Never Have Felt That I Would Live to Become an Old Man”
Cathy Wilkerson, “The Intention Was Not to Cause Carnage but Chaos”
Accounting for Political Transgressions

8. Accounting for Deviance
How They Account for Themselves
Searching for Common Threads
Looking Back

Reference
Index

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About the Author(s)

Erich Goode is Sociology Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University. He has published ten books, including Moral Panics (coauthored with Nachman Ben-Yehuda), The Paranormal, Deviant Behavior, and Drugs in American Society; seven anthologies; and articles in magazines, newspapers, and an array of academic journals. He is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, and he has taught at half a dozen universities, including the University of Maryland, New York University, and the University of North Carolina.

Subject Categories

Sociology
Biography/Memoir/Autobiography
Law and Criminology

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