Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Shared Embodiment and Shared Conversation: Compassion in Clinical Forensics

Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Shared Embodiment and Shared Conversation: Compassion in Clinical Forensics

Article excerpt


In this paper we present a case of a therapist working with a challenging patient in an even more challenging context, that of a maximum-security prison. We use this case to explore philosophies of compassion and how we might apply them. Particularly, we explore the phenomenology of embodied compassion as presented by James Mensch, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Immanuel Levinas to describe how compassion can be understood as a visceral human response to the suffering of others. Given the narrative metaphors offered and utilized thoroughly by Mensch, we explore compassion through the phenomenology of dialogue as well, as presented by Mikhail Bakhtin. In this section we describe how language informs the meaning of suffering deeply, and in a way that furthers our understanding of embodied suffering and compassion. We conclude with recommendations for therapists and philosophers who wish to study compassion or practice these philosophies more thoroughly.

Vignette: The Story of "George"

The psychologist sat in his office in the medical wing of a maximum-security prison and rubbed the bridge of his nose as though trying to wring out the fatigue-inducing day. As he wrote the last of his clinical notes before taking a longed-for lunch break, the nurse knocked on his door before entering.

"There's a patient presenting in crisis, doc," she stated quietly, looking at the psychologist carefully to note his reaction.

"Oh? Who is it?" inquired the psychologist in a concerned tone.

"It's George from K House." she replied, looking away.

"Oh," he replied with a heavy sigh. "Well, I'm just finishing my clinical notes for the day, so when you see him in the waiting room, please bring him to me."

The psychologist tried to return his concentration to his work, but found he could not. An uncharacteristic dread suddenly flood through his body. George had never presented in crisis before, and while it concerned the psychologist that he was doing so now, he couldn't help but feel disgust in the presence of this particular patient. George presented with mild negative symptoms of schizophrenia such as alogia (George sometimes had difficulty speaking), apraxia (George had a hard time completing simple behaviors at times, like remembering to shower or tying his shoes), and blunting of affect (George expressed his emotion in a nearly flat monotone manner). Because of these symptoms, George's hygiene proved wanting, his shirts perpetually stained a yellowish-brown and reeking of mildew and sweat. Yet, as disturbing as George's lack of hygiene often appeared, the psychologist had become used to working with schizophrenics with similar symptoms. Those patients did not bother him as George did. So what was it about George that unearthed these unwanted emotions? As a twice-convicted pedophile George would occasionally try to re-live his sexual conquest of children in the therapy room stories very difficult for the psychologist to hear. Early in their sessions together, George would tuck his penis between his thighs and rub his thighs together as he talked about his crimes, a behavior the psychologist repeatedly confronted. George would justify his exploitation of these children in terms of his psychological symptoms, despite the fact that his symptoms proved unrelated to the nature of his crimes both in the courts and in the eyes of the psychologist. Surely, this was what frustrated the psychologist so. Taking a deep breath, he stood up from the desk built for someone of much less than his height and stepped out of his cramped office into the medical waiting area. George sat alone, shifting self-consciously. The therapist motioned for George and waited as he slowly stood up. Turning, the therapist went back into his office and sat down in his chair.

A few moments later George shuffled in, his eyes on the ground, the front of his t-shirt greasy with sweat, his prison browns rumpled and stained. He slumped into the chair, shifting his eyes to the left, avoiding eye contact with the psychologist. …

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