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Nasty, Brutish, and Short: The Lives of Gang Members in Canada

by Mark Totten

Initially, it might seem ill-advised to have purloined the title for this book from the most famous passage in Leviathan: a rather modest work on Canadian social policy is, after all, unlikely to share many similarities with Hobbes’s masterpiece on statecraft. After reading Nasty, Brutish, and Short, however, one finds the use of these words justified: the humiliations, terror, and sometimes lethal assaults that gang members visit upon one another can be every bit as harrowing as those suffered by the citizenry of a violence-wracked nation.

Dr. Mark Totten, a social worker, consultant, and educator, spent 17 years interviewing 519 gang-affiliated subjects prior to writing the book, and while he is quick to condemn the crimes these people committed, he recognizes that it was misery and want that drove them to gang life in the first place. Almost all his interviewees come from staggeringly dysfunctional and impoverished backgrounds, often marked by sexual abuse, hardcore addiction, or fetal alcohol syndrome. In between telling their stories, he provides a capsule history of North American gangs, embarks on a province-by-province analysis of current criminal organizations, and proffers a useful primer on slang and tattoos. He convincingly demonstrates that gangs thrive where grave social ills already exist, and argues that it is much more cost-effective to treat these ills than to combat their end result with an ever larger police-and-prison state apparatus.

Much of the book is made up of the subjects’ letters, poems, and interview transcripts, which, however heartfelt, are often pitifully inarticulate. Totten’s own writing is academic in style, with some of the unwieldiness and repetitiveness that implies. And, in describing their suffering, he frequently refers to gang members’ “souls” and “spirit,” words more suitable for a theologian’s pensées or the lyrics of a soft rock power ballad, but which sit uneasily alongside such formulations as “bio-psychosocial perspective” and “negative health outcomes.”

While of undeniable worth to criminologists, legislators, and other academics, the casual reader may find Nasty, Brutish, and Short tough going for all the wrong reasons.