'Workin' It: Women Living Through Drugs and Crime'

By Jeff Austin

Book cover"When I was growing up, my mother wanted me to grow up and meet a nice guy, marry him and have babies and be happy."

With these words, Margaret shares her memories of a distant American dream, a dream deferred by abuse, drugs and crime.

But Margaret and the other four women of Workin' It: Women Living Through Drugs and Crime (Temple University Press) are not looking for pity. They are straightforward and surprisingly articulate in describing their lives as inner-city hustlers, revealing how they came to be where they are and where they hope to go.

Margaret, Charlie, Virginia, Tracy and Laquita are all drug users involved in regular criminal activity: prostitution, burglary, shoplifting, robbery, drug selling, petty theft and various kinds of fraud. The women talk frankly about their drug use, their sexual and criminal activities, their childhoods, their school and work experiences, their neighborhoods, their personal relationships, their fears and future goals, and the ordinary trappings of their lives.

"This is an attempt to look at these people in a very intimate kind of way," said author Leon E. Pettiway, associate professor of criminal justice at IUB. "When we know them and understand their circumstances and backgrounds, we can have a greater appreciation of the troubles and difficulties in their lives. Hopefully, we'll come up with social and criminal justice policies that are much more humane and much more compassionate."

Like Pettiway's earlier book, Honey, Honey, Miss Thang: Being Black, Gay and on the Street (1996, Temple University Press), the accounts presented in Workin' It originated in research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse while he was a faculty member at the University of Delaware. Pettiway and his field staff spent 18 months in 1990-91 collecting data from 431 individuals, including criminals who use drugs and those who do not. Life history interviews were conducted with 48 individuals, some of whom were part of the larger sample.

"I think that the real power is in the telling of the story," Pettiway said. "There is a certain amount of resilience that comes from simply telling one's story. You see this in the rural black experience in America. Storytelling and talking about the hardships of life were ways that people energized themselves to get through all kinds of adversity."

Pettiway acknowledges that his decision to simply let the women tell their own stories runs counter to many approaches in criminal justice research.

There is a tendency in criminology to treat the data generated by research on men as fundamentally true for women as well, he said. By allowing female law-breakers to describe their lives in their own way, Pettiway underlines not only their differences from men but also their differences from each other.