Through the Looking-Glass

Review of My Six Convicts by Donald Powell Wilson. (Pp. 336. 15s.) London: Hamish Hamilton. 1951.

British Medical Journal, 23 August 1952, p. 430 

The author of this exceedingly entertaining book is a professor of psychology who was given an assignment to carry out psychological research in an American penitentiary. To do his work he enlisted the assistance of six of the inmates, men whose careers and personalities are gradually brought to light in the course of the book. Through the friendly relations he was able to form with them he got to know a good deal about the inner and secret life of the prison and the connexions of the prisoners with organized crime outside. In fact, we get to hear practically everything about Professor Wilson's life in the prison with the exception of the nature and results of his own research.

   When he passed the gates of Fort Leavenworth, Professor Wilson seems to have stepped through the looking-glass. He gives a vivid and illuminating account, for instance, of the topsy-turvy notions of criminals on the subject of ethics and of their highly complex conventions of behaviour. He also gives us sidelights of an astonishing kind on the conduct of clinics for the treatment of addiction, on the sexual mores of American college girls, on the smuggling of prostitutes into and out of gaol, and many other sensational topics. From the way in which the book is written it is not always entirely clear how much the author wishes to be taken in an entirely serious and literal way and how much of the more vivid colouring may be taken as embellishment. However, even if some of what he has to relate has been improved in the telling, his reflections on the field of social anthropology he has chosen to describe are balanced, realistic, and interesting.