This unpublished paper was presented at the 35th Annual Conference of the FEP- European Federation of Psychoanalysis, entitled “Ideals”, Vienna 15-17 July 2022
(London) Full Member of the British Psychoanalytical Society and President of the International Association for Forensic Psychotherapy
The 35th annual EPF conference in 2022 was entitled Ideals and the focus was on Ego Ideals and Ideal Egos:
The Ego-Ideal provides for the regulation of the relationship between the Ego and the Ideal Ego. And through the Ego-Ideal originating from the Other, symbolization arises. Thus, the Ideal Ego as an image belongs to the imaginary register, while the Ego-Ideal as the result of an also linguistically mediated identification with a significant Other belongs to the symbolic register (we will refrain here from discussing the relationship between Moi and Je). These differentiations relate to the question of how ideals can serve the formation and maintenance of libidinal and object-related goals or how they can be used for goals on the level of defending primary narcissism in both individuals and groups which are potentially destructive. Following the evolution of psychoanalytic theories on ideals since Freud we can ascertain that for everybody ideals help to structure psychic life, but they can also become tyrannical and tormenting, while on the other hand a lack of ideals can lead to feelings of disorientation, emotional emptiness and despair. (Blass, H. Abram, J. Glód, E. (2022) Introductory statement, EPF Conference Programme 2022)
‘Changing the Game’, is the name of a group therapeutic intervention conceived by Paul Kassman, developed together with me, Carine Minne, and specifically designed for gang members. Despite coming from different professional backgrounds, we came together to trial the project, which adapts therapeutic approaches to address the specific needs and challenges presented by gang members. We both wrote up the pilot project as a chapter in Kahr’s (2018) book on New Horizons in Forensic Psychotherapy
This paper will not go into the details of just how many young people, mainly male but increasingly also females, are enticed into this world of violence and knife crimes and killing and being killed. In London and other cities, it is mainly young black men that are affected – because they come from the disenfranchised communities – NOT because black people are more violent by nature, a white myth that continues to be propagated. Other disenfranchised and traumatised communities are also represented.
How do clinicians (mainly white) understand the gang mentality and in what way can clinical understanding provide helpful interventions? The idea that one would attempt to understand what leads someone to become a gang member, and even soar through the promotions from ‘younger’ to ‘older’ or ‘don’ or ‘OG’ (Original Gangster)is potentially arrogant unless one is familiar with the background cultures and socio-economic circumstances. Trying to understand and provide interventions can also be misconstrued as being ‘soft on crime’.
The reality that today’s gang members almost all come from marginalised and disenfranchised communities cannot be ignored. It’s a done to community; it’s a done for community; it’s a disempowered community’ as reflected by a lack of many local community leaders who advocate and organise effectively to address local sentiments and priorities. People in such communities are then feeling left out, left behind and paradoxically dependent on the very sources of those negative cognitions. This leaves them feeling as if they are ‘others’ and not really belonging to mainstream society. This ‘othering’ narrative is particularly noticeable today in England, as different groups of people from various communities, migrants and Muslims, to name just two examples, in addition to gang members, are left feeling ‘othered’ in society. Gang members are even further ‘othered’ within the secure estate in prisons. If you are marginalised and disenfranchised, you do not have available to you the hopes and aspirations that the rest of society takes for granted. Even though your grandparents may have come from abroad with hopes and aspirations, something has gone badly wrong for many of these young men and women. They are faced with insurmountable obstacles, in the form of poverty, over-crowding in poor housing areas with high churn adding to community instability, dependence on benefits, no jobs, debts, shame, discrimination, stereotyping, and all this within the context of inevitable family breakdown and dysfunction, with prominence of mental and emotional difficulties amongst the people, adults and children, not to mention the epigenetic influence of slave trauma.
Gangs as we consider them, exist within the most deprived communities of our cities. As tempting as it may be to draw comparisons between our urban street gangs and other ‘gangs’ such as the Bullingdon Club, (an Oxford university all male dining club for privileged under-graduates that several of the British Tory party politicians were members of) the social and emotional experiences of the members of these two groupings could not be more different. Perhaps the only features these two types of ‘gang’ have in common is the sense of belonging, and loyalty, to the gang and secondly, the synergistic effect that gangs can have on behaviours that would never be considered if one was not a gang member but acting alone. There is perhaps an irony that several members of one type of ‘gang’ are in charge of setting up methods to manage the other type of gang, the urban one. It may be that a gang mentality at the centre of politics would need to be addressed before any meaningful plans to ‘deal’ with the problem of urban gangs are drawn up. Otherwise, there is a high risk of repetition rather than reparation. Are these really symptoms of communities where gangs exist or are these causes? From a politico-sociological perspective, one could express concern that if there is an ‘Americanisation’ of one social structure (loss of welfare state), then maybe the marginalised youth will also ‘Americanise’ their behaviours, often influenced by ‘urban’ American popular culture which glamourises the ‘bling’ of conspicuous consumption and higher rates of violence and use of guns. It is known that the urban gang problem in the United States of America is on a much larger scale than in the UK and we should learn from the American experience.
Urbanisation in the USA led to mobile and unsettled communities in combination with the further impact of mass migration from Europe. Those mobile communities were leaving behind what was familiar to them and they were faced with cultural dislocation. African American communities from the southern states were also moving to more northern urbanising states, having already suffered traumas of trans-generational slavery, segregation, lynching and bringing the impact of these traumas with them. Perhaps one way to imagine the experience of these communities one hundred years ago is to consider the equivalent today.
For example, we have Somalian and Congolese communities in the UK, having experienced and/or witnessed the most unimaginable traumas prior to coming to live in the UK. More currently, we have troubled and traumatised Syrian people still trying to flee their war-torn country, Afghanis, Yemenis and others easily forgotten with our preoccupation with the war in Ukraine and more mass migration of traumatised people.
Everyone needs a sense of identity and of belonging. If the experience is of not having a stable and secure family structure, or a stable and secure community, then there will be a need to create stability and security in other ways. One way is to ‘team up’ with those ‘others’ in similar predicaments and create an alternative family and community. The group of individuals will then form, as is known from group and organisational dynamics, the necessary hierarchical structure with leaders and followers. Given the amount of trauma already experienced by most of the gang members, the group dynamics will be fraught with survival difficulties, triggering a need to fend off any threats, real or perceived. Other similar groupings of what are now gangs, become threats, in the shape of sources of rivalry. The rivalry gets focussed on particular members, size of the group, income sources and territory. This might explain the intensity of the violence between gangs with disregard for any ‘collateral damage’. The community where gangs are born has now got the ingredients similar to a war zone – angry young people, filled with energetic rage, the source of that rage being located in the rivals (the mirror) and not towards the real source, the ‘segregation’ of the poor still present in society. This is a potentially escalating problem because some of those refugees of today may need to turn to gangs in order to be able to survive, if they too experience feelings of being ‘done too’ or ‘othered’. Saying this is risky as such a statement could be pounced upon by the anti-migrant ‘gang’ as evidence for not allowing any of these ‘migrants’ (a dehumanising term) into ‘our’ country.
There are also the effects of the broader gang culture and the hype presented to youngsters via the contemporary social media and the marketing available.
Studies have shown the high degree of mental disorders in gang members
60% of a sample of 315 high-risk young offenders in 7 London boroughs have been assessed by Youth Offending Teams as presenting with emotional or psychological needs through the ASSET risk assessment tool. Particularly shocking are the following figures from this sample of 315:
33% witnessed domestic violence
30% experienced bereavement
30% experienced abuse (physical, emotional and/or sexual)
15% experienced parental mental health issues
15% experienced parental drug abuse issues
15% experienced parental alcohol abuse issues
Another study (Coid (2013)) examined the prevalence of mental health issues among a nationally representative sample of 4664 young men, including gang members and found the following diagnostic criteria were met in those belonging to gangs:
86% Antisocial Personality Disorder (57 times higher than compared to non violent men)
59% Anxiety Disorders (twice the rate of non violent men)
29% Psychoses (4 times higher than non violent men)
34% had actually made suicide attempts (13 times higher than non-violent men)
Interestingly, the only psychiatric diagnosis that had lower rates amongst gang members, compared to non-violent men was depression but could this be that the depressive symptoms are ‘buried’ beneath the gang persona?
These young people are actually a doubly traumatised cohort, traumatised by their developmental experiences and further traumatised by their gang experiences, the gang having been their attempt to find a ‘cure’ for their ailment as described by Rosca (2022).
THE GANG NARRATIVE
Probably the most important part of our approach together with these young men was being able to present and demonstrate an understanding of gang culture. This was one of the striking differences with offering a therapeutic approach to other groups of people. Before one could be accepted as having anything to offer, one had to be ‘issued’ with a ‘hood-pass’ in order to be allowed ‘in’. This was something I, Carine had not experienced before but that Paul was very familiar with. Once ‘in’, then the gang narrative could be voiced and heard safely as the essential starting place for these young men’s mental troubles to gradually be aired within that context.
What the gang promotes for these young men is a set of codes, values, expectations and behaviours in keeping with all of these. There are clearly recognised rules and rewards for following those rules, either through promotion within the ranks and/or financial rewards. There are specific violations and consequent sanctions, often severe, such as having to carry out an atrocity to ‘prove’ your worth, or a stabbing, shooting, beating or even a killing. Within the gang there are specific roles arranged along strict hierarchical lines, in keeping with a group that has a formal leader and dependent underlings. In gangs, the leaders are known as ‘Olders’ or ‘Dons’ and the underlings as ‘Youngers’. Within the gang structure, individuals often assume roles, which match the particular skills and attributes, which they bring to the group. Some have particular skills in selling drugs, or organising criminal endeavours whilst others are ‘Soldiers’ or ‘Shooters’. They easily access, and make use of, particularly in recent years, of social media for ‘marketing’ purposes and propaganda. This, in the shape of You Tube videos and Gangsta Rap, for example, not only normalises the gang experience, but also idealises it. Gangsta Rap was really a hi-jacking of the original Hip Hop culture, which revolved around breakdancing, and dj’ing, veering an inner-city youth culture into a more ominous and risky direction. Gangsta Rap portrays a gritty, criminalised and deadly violent urban experience that is selling the gang image as reality, revolving around ‘Rep’ which has a dual meaning both as a noun (Reputation) and a verb (‘Repping’ or representing). Maintaining your rep and ‘repping’ the gang or the gang’s territory becomes the daily goal and currency and must be protected at all costs. Indeed, it is horrifying to see how this hype has been glamourised and is now fashionable.
Once joining a gang, the young person gives up their ‘government name’ and is given their new identity with a gang name. The gang name, akin to what is commonly known as a nickname, is usually based on some physical, behavioural or psychological characteristic of the person. For example, a large and muscular person with low impulse control for violent outbursts could end up with a name such as ‘Thrasher’. Once ‘Jimmy’ becomes ‘Thrasher’, he has to work hard to maintain his ‘Rep’. This means he also has to work hard to suppress his ‘Jimmy-ness’. A new identity is born but it is constantly under threat from external and internal stressors. Fear, shame, remorse are forbidden emotions and the manufacturing of a ‘protective psychopathy’ is crucial. The young person is then in daily training to not care, in a sense, manufacturing psychopathy. This means, for example, that if one of them is stabbed or shot, their first and immediate response is no longer “Oh my God, I’ve been shot, I’m going to die” but rather something like “What? That shit had the nerve to shoot me? Doesn’t he know who I am?” followed by an immediate plan to repair the now damaged ‘Rep’. We heard in our group from a notorious gang leader who, described how, shortly after being shot, he was back behind the wheel of his car, driving despite the severe pain he was in with haemorrhaging, to maintain his visibility and prominence in the local area, and to send the message out that he was still fully operational despite the shooting. If he had not done this, his ‘Rep’ and that of his gang would have been possibly irreversibly damaged and the death of the gang. Alternatively, he could have lost his ‘Rep’ within his own gang and been replaced as leader or ‘Don’.
THE SOCIAL NARRATIVE
It is important to refer to these young people’s social narratives, those family and community influences they were immersed in before entering a gang. Many of them grew up in communities with experiences of immigration, only one, two, or three generations away meaning they grew up in ‘dual’ cultures prior to their gang lives. They experienced their migrant parents’ or grandparents’ cultural influences within the home from countries of origin, Caribbean or African mainly. These influences relate, for example, not only to food, music, icons and language, but also family relationships and expectations in terms of respect and deference to elders or church members. The second culture is a British, often marginalised, way of life outside the family, often in socially deprived social housing complexes. Our pilot group members were confronted repeatedly with racism, one example only being the much more frequent ‘stop and search’ by the police of young black men compared to young white men.
I shall not in this paper refer further to all the other blatant racist exposures from football hooliganism to certain political voices that you will most certainly be familiar with. It is the more subtle and chronic forms of racism they all reported experiencing on a daily basis before being in gangs, such as sitting on a bus and noticing the white woman sitting next to them holding on to her bag more tightly and shifting away, because they are black. Or entering a shop and noticing the uniformed security person focussing on them and following them around with the automatic assumption that they were up to no good – because they were black. This is reminiscent of what many of us think was long extinguished, this attitude of “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” posters on the doors of landlords with rooms to let in London, right up until the 1980s.
The communities are also filled with stories of hopes and hopes dashed. For example, a common narrative is one that goes like this. Little Jimmy was a very bright child who was top of his class. However, despite his obvious capabilities, he lacked a bridge to allow him to envisage himself becoming a success within a professional environment. He and his family lived in poverty on a social housing estate. In his mid-teens, in the absence of sufficient local youth clubs, after school clubs and general guidance, the lure of a gang experience was a temptation. He was involved in gang offending and was arrested and sentenced to prison. The local community’s response was “Did you hear about little Jimmy? What a shame. What a waste.” This is a common community narrative. There are far too many little Jimmys.
THE THERAPEUTIC RELATIONSHIP
The best way for me to describe the impact of the pilot therapeutic intervention with the group of 10 men is one of a shift from being a gang Ideal Ego to a group Ego Ideal. I should point out that these men had already experienced being either for a few months or a few years, within this prison, HMP Grendon, run along therapeutic community lines.
The men in the prison were told about a specific series of ‘pilot’ group sessions for gang members and signing up to it was entirely voluntary. Very soon, ten men signed up to join. All ten were serving sentences of between 10 and 30 years for extremely serious crimes of violence, including murders. The meetings, which lasted two hours weekly for (initially) three weeks were held in a private large room on one wing of the prison. Men from other wings were escorted to that wing to be able to attend. The space was completely confidential as no prison officers were allowed and this was agreed beforehand. All the men arrived on time for the first session and sat in the circle of chairs. Most of them were dressed in casual prison tracksuits and sweatshirts. Noticeably, they mainly sat in slouching positions turned away from facing the two of us. After we introduced ourselves, the first thing they asked us was if we worked for the government. Once we clarified that we did not work directly for the government (although Carine’s NHS (public health system) salary is a ‘government’ paid one) and we were not reporting to anyone, their postures relaxed. Paul described in more detail his own reasons for having developed this intervention, his knowledge base, personal and academic, and Carine’s experience of working therapeutically with young violent men.
Constricted within the “hype” and scripts presented by gang culture, it seems that many individuals who have fallen victim to the inevitable prison sentence which often follows gang membership lack the space to truly explore and express how they really feel about the reality of life in a gang. For example, despite the idealised concept of being backed up and surrounded by a ‘crew’ who you would trust to fight, shoot or kill to protect your status, alongside that of the gang’s, the parallel reality is also one of spending time around a set of violent, severely anti-social men, who you could never trust around your money, and particularly never trust around your girlfriend or “baby-mother”. The conversations started and did not stop for the whole two hours. Many group members complained that their narratives had been rejected as not ‘fitting’ with the expectations of other therapy groups, which they attended. They felt that they were told that they presented with the ‘wrong type of trauma’! Being presented with situations and scenarios, which they recognised from their own experiences gave them an opportunity to speak freely within their own narratives and galvanised the conversations. Without the need to explain or ‘translate’ in terms of the implicit values and reasoning associated with gangs, gave the group a sense of being heard as well as listened to.
Everyone attended the following week and the one after. The group requested additional sessions, which we negotiated with the prison in order to bring together the themes that had emerged during the three pilot sessions and this was agreed. A day conference was arranged at the prison to which stakeholders and other interested bodies were invited, as an opportunity to present the findings of the pilot. Instead of Paul and myself lecturing to the invited audience, 9 out of the 10 men stood up on the stage and presented their own accounts of having been in a gang, their index offence and what they had gained from the pilot. The 10th member who was still too shy to present in public nevertheless stood on the stage at the end with the other 9 to be acknowledged at the end of the presentations.
We subsequently held a session with that group of men to obtain their own feedback of the pilot sessions and their experience of presenting in public. The most obvious positive feedback was the 100% attendance throughout the pilot. The most poignant feedback was the men saying that they had found, for the first time, a safe space in which they could talk about being a gang member and all its ramifications, particularly what lay behind the ‘hype’. They were able to talk about those suppressed and shameful emotions that hid behind the manufactured psychopathy. They felt that we genuinely wanted to understand with them and learn from them, in order to develop a focussed and meaningful, in-depth therapeutic intervention for them and others suffering similarly. The term ‘suffering’ was able to emerge in the short course that the pilot ran, a word almost anathema to their cultivated ‘Reps’. The third most welcome feedback was their own demands within the prison system to have made available the whole 10 weeks programme. This was achieved, mainly thanks to the men, and led to a waiting list!
What did we as a couple bring to this group? In our experience, the presence of a ‘parental’ couple, one who knew from personal experience the nature of their backgrounds and one who was experienced in listening and talking to violent young men, was crucial to this group of men. Nearly all of them had grown up without fathers in the home and all of them came from deprived and poverty-stricken backgrounds. Some had alcoholic or drug addicted mothers. Most of them had been emotionally and/or physically brutalised in early childhood and had suffered neglect. What was striking was that many of them had been A-Grade students at school, before their ‘breakdowns’ into gangs. These were bright young men that society was being deprived of.
What were their expectations? Initially, they were a little curious about who was coming and what we were going to bring but the expectation was restricted to thinking it was just going to be a “load of crap”. This assumption was understandable, given that their gang lives remained closed by their very nature and they expected us to be coming along arrogantly thinking we were going to teach them something. They had never before been offered a space specifically only with other gang members and specifically only for gang members. They had never before experienced someone being interested in accepting, understanding and hearing their own narratives. Rather than coming along to “teach” the group how to think, or how to reflect pro-social behaviour and values, we were able to ask the right questions, the answers to which allowed us to non-judgementally dismantle the hype that lay behind their gang personas, using interpretations.
How did the gang experience get enacted within the group? At the very start of the first session, during the course of the personal introductions, we noticed that there were further postural shufflings, some men sitting straight and confidently, others sitting more tensely with their hands wringing. The latter tended to request permission to talk, via unspoken eye contact, from the former. The four gang leaders within the therapy group had managed to establish a mini gang hierarchy with the others as gang ‘youngers’. This was pointed out to the group each time we observed it and by the second meeting, the gang had been able to become a group, with only brief moments of gang hierarchical re-positionings, which they then caught themselves doing and would immediately rectify.
How was a therapeutic group then established? Right from the start, it was crucial for us to help the gang members frame the conversations they wanted to have. The agenda was theirs and not ours. They swiftly realised, via repeated interpretations, that we did not require or expect them to join, or pretend to join, our ‘gang’, this group. This group space was for them as gang members. It was not for gaining a certificate towards parole or for getting brownie points within the prison. It was purely their time to talk about themselves to each other and with us present to frame what they said and interpret as and when this was therapeutically of benefit. Paul and I did have differences in our approaches, Paul’s being more psycho-educational or didactic, preparing and bringing hand-outs and Carine’s being more psychoanalytical, experiential. What was interesting for us was finding ourselves meeting in the middle with the help of the group. Indeed, another feedback they gave us after the pilot was that they didn’t think the group would have worked with only a Paul or only a Carine. For them the couple, with their differences, was what enriched the experience.
The main aim of our pilot was to provide a group therapy that had an understanding of the specific gang culture and gang issues that arise. After acknowledging and exploring the gang mentality, then the aim was to tentatively and sensitively begin to look behind this mentality and find the frightened traumatised young men. Once these could be found behind the locked door of the gang persona, then the treatment would have a chance to provide a solution of a different kind to the one the gang mentality provided. This is in keeping with Hopper’s 4th Bion basic assumption, of “incohesion”7, especially relevant to
people affected by trauma where mental work is avoided as the suffering could overwhelm. The main issues addressed were the typical ones found as described by Hopper (1997), where he addresses disturbed mental processes in general group therapy. With this group of men, these issues could only be accessed via this tailor-made-for-gang entry. The main issues that arose were, not surprisingly, maladaptive interpersonal relating styles, mainly those along controlling/controlled and threatened/threatening clusters. Impulsivity and affective disturbances were prevalent and related to their difficulties with affect regulation. The whole spectrum of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms eventually emerged, and we had to remain acutely sensitive to helping them understand that feeling worse meant becoming mentally healthier. Powerful examples of these symptoms being suffered were vividly described. One member, a gang leader, spoke of being in a car full of edgy men, all of whom were carrying guns and secretly praying for the police to turn up and bring the situation to an end in order to avert an unnecessary shootout. Another remembered becoming incontinent of urine during a gang fight. One member described walking around the high security prison he had just been remanded to after his arrest for killing and was noticed by another prisoner smiling and humming to himself. The other prisoner said to him “What the fuck are you smiling and humming for?” He realised that he was in a deep state of relief, that for the first time in years, he did not have to keep looking over his shoulder in case he was about to be shot. He was happy to be in prison, even though he knew this was going to be for decades. He had that feeling of “It’s over now. That’s it. I’m done”. Most of them had experienced suicidal thoughts.
The outcome we hoped for entailed dismantling the ‘hype’ of the gang persona, which we saw as the gang member’s ‘solution’ to earlier difficulties arising, from experiences in their external environment and internal worlds. Creating a safe space where their individual narratives could be heard and emotional honesty cultivated for their vulnerabilities to be shown without judgement or loss of face. The remorse when they spoke of their victims, dead or alive, was palpable in the room. They used their victims’ first names and imagined what their victims’ families and friends must think of them, probably wanting the death penalty for them. The dismantling also of the idealisation of money and the close link between money, exhibiting wealth, and self-esteem was vital. This was not easy when, for example, one member would say, “look, I can get £2K in a day flipping ‘food’ (drugs) and you’re telling me I should go to a building site and earn minimum wage”. Despite this, they longed to be regular members of society, with jobs and families. Several of them had fathered more than one child and felt deep sadness about not seeing them, becoming an absent father to them, a personal and painful experience they all shared, and especially, despair about the shame their children would feel by having them as a father. They desperately wanted to find ways to make up for this. Most of them held deep regrets about their lack of education. Some had managed to retrieve this in prison, one was completing a biochemistry degree and another was reading philosophy. All of them knew of one person from their communities of origin that had become successful in a regular non-criminal way and this provided not only a source of envy but also one of hope. All of them except one wanted to retrieve their ‘government named’ selves that lay underneath the rubble of their gang personas. The one who didn’t had not yet been able to manage dismantling his gang persona and remained attached to the ‘hype’. However, I have recently heard that he is now out of prison working a regular job and using his government name. One of the most powerful messages this group of men gave us was that they felt they had been taken seriously and that we had not turned up only to play football or do some DJ-ing with them. They wanted to contribute to the project developing in order to help other youngsters from their broken communities not to get into gangs, losing their own lives as well as taking others. In our view, they were the best but most ignored reference group in those bodies designed for tackling the gangs’ problem. We look forward to further developments of this project as three are now in the community and part of my ‘advisory board’ planning to work together in the communities with children before they get caught up.
Kahr B. (2018). Changing the Game: A therapeutic intervention for gang members in New Horizons in Forensic Psychotherapy. London, Karnac Books.
Rosca (2022). A Day in the Life of a Gang Member. International Journal of Forensic Psychotherapy, Vol 4 Issue 2. Oxford, Phoenix.
Coid J. W. (2013). Gang membership, violence, and psychiatric morbidity. American Journal of Psychiatry. 170(9): 985-93.
Hopper E. (1997). Traumatic Experience in the Unconscious Life of Groups: A 4th Basic Assumption. Group Analysis, 30, 4, 439-470
Carine Minne, Londra
British Psychoanalytical Society
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