Criminal Memory and the Myth of “Getting Away With It”

In the suburb where I grew up, I can still picture the house of a […]

In the suburb where I grew up, I can still picture the house of a younger friend in the cul-de-sac, the split-floor entry, the metal banisters, the dirty carpet. I even especially remember the parent’s bedroom, and the mirror on the door, and I remember it because this is where their kid and I would take turns saying cuss words. We’d stand in the empty house, fourth grade or so, and try out the ones we knew—which, to no surprise, was most of them—watching our faces in the mirror as we said them. It’s funny to think about that now, but also strange how lurid that memory even now seems to surface. The things we do in privacy…

899416a4c187e248abd640fbe9535976For whatever reason I was thinking about memory, and the staying power of certain past moments, many that seem this inconsequential. What is it that some memories go, no matter how much we will for them to stay, and others stay that seem painful, or seem not to matter at all? And I remembered an essay I read from the great psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, called “On Getting Away with It.” He talks about the power of these particular issues in human life, of “getting away with something, of avoiding what are deemed to be the inevitable consequences of certain actions.” He says these moments are issues because, “if the human subject, as described by psychoanalysis, is a split subject, in conflict, by definition, with himself and others, then getting away with it…is not an option.” In other words, we remember times when we’ve gotten away with something, mostly because our inner-conflicts have not, therefore, been resolved.

“Getting away with it.” Where do we find people saying this? Where does the heist take place, and what have we nicked? Generally, it seems that we have escaped some fate or consequence. If we’ve “got away with” never having kids, we imply that we understood the consequences of what having kids meant, and got to live without it. If we’ve “got away with” an extra day of paid vacation, we got the pleasure of skipping out of work, without the deserved infraction of an unpaid wage. If we’ve “got away with” an affair, we’ve enjoyed the fruits of passion without the price of monogamy. “Getting away with” anything is costless freedom—it is a kink in the chain of cause-and-effect.

But Phillips asks if we ever really get away with anything:

‘I won’t be punished’ is both a fear and a wish. Because the other thing getting away brings up, or brings on, are the authorities; if you get away with it, does that mean the authorities don’t really love you, don’t really care about their rules, are in fact quite unable to enforce their rules, are secretly complicit with your breaking them—in short, are not all that they are cracked up to be, cracked up to be by you and yours? If you get away with it, is God impotent, absent or negligent? Cynical, or just biding His time, letting you sweat and boast, but leaving you unsure? After all, when do you know, when do you really know, that you have got away with it, that you can finally relax? Or perhaps God is merciful, or sympathetic, or think you deserve time out, or time off, or whatever He can do with time to make it kinder. Whatever it is, getting away with it is going to make you think, perhaps like nothing else, about the authorities. They are never more present than when you seem to have slipped their attention. When I am having the all too common fantasy of getting away with it, I am thinking about the rules, and how they work and if they work, and what happens to me if they don’t.

Psychologically, Phillips is giving Paul’s Romans 2 recitation, that the secret crimes that only you know about are enough to bring the courtroom in. While “getting away with it” maybe the time where the courtroom is absent, in its absence it is most (inwardly) present. Sometimes, therefore, the punishment sits privately within for years and years, with no avenue for reconciliation. Unlike moments where the punishment has been dealt swiftly with the crime, there is no “sense of an ending.” The payment-loop is not closed and so, “for however long, you are on the open road of unpredictable consequence,” like this 63-year-old woman:

crime-and-punishment-final-cover-1w6mctg…You could say that external punishment, or at least external acknowledgment—being found out—would have freed you from the burden of guilt and enabled you to void it, to evacuate it by some kind of penitence and reparation. It was a mistake, an error, a falling short of an ideal, and it could have been in some sense recognized as such, and corrected. When someone admits such things in analysis they want to bring their getting away with it to an end. A patient describes in quite lurid detail how, as a ten-year-old child, she stole a friend’s gloves and buried them in the back garden; she describes it with such trepidation and terror that you might think—and we, as analysts, would think—that she had, at least unconsciously, committed a terrible crime. But the terribleness of the crime has been subsumed for her by the terribleness of having never been caught. She left a mystery in the world; her friend’s gloves were lost unaccountably, and even though the world may have mostly forgotten them, this sixty-three-year-old woman has not. The world went on making sense for her because she knew how it happened; but everyone else involved was left with what she called ‘a hole in the net’…you are living a version of a private language. You know the crucial thing, the essential fact; you are not the person supposed to know, you are the person who knows.

…[No one else] will ever know unless they (the sufferers) tire of getting away with it; unless, for some reason, as with the patients I mentioned, a time comes when it seems essential to speak about the experience of getting away with it, which, in itself, brings that experience to an end, in its terminal and irrevocable breach of a hard-won and often hard-worn privacy.

Here is where memory meets law, and begins to make sense, not just from a psychoanalytic frame of mind but, dare I say, a pastoral one. What does one say to a Legion, plagued by the voices of crimes that, in their secrecy, cannot be righted or paid for? How does one reach into the recesses of memory and feel where one has not gotten away with it? It seems that if a minister, or a friend, could do so, it would be there that the weight of such secret guilt could be alleviated by a God who says you have not gotten away with anything, but that all has been paid for. Only then could an undefinable consequence be given the gift of an ending.



2 responses to “Criminal Memory and the Myth of “Getting Away With It””

  1. Howie Espenshied says:

    Fascinating post.

    What role might a “seared conscience” play in all of this. We all seem to know people who appear remorseless about current (let alone past) indiscretions.

    Do they still secretly suffer from the same desire to be found out? Or is there a Romans 1 “God gave them over” type conscience that so suppresses the truth that a person can get to a place where they no longer seek their own guilty verdict?

    I’m not suggesting there is a such a person, I’m just curious to know.

    • Ethan Richardson says:

      Howie, that’s an interesting thought. I would think, yes, that remorseless indiscretions are still waiting to be, yearning to be, found out, however subconsciously. Like Augustine said famously, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” On the other hand, I have to think that the case with all our inner-criminals, that there are–with all of us–both a desire to be found out, and a desire to justify what one has decided consciously to do. Look no further than Walter White…

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