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BOOK REVIEW – Gang Life


May 5, 2014
By Robert Lunney

Gang Life

AUTHOR: Mark Totten

A review by Robert Lunney, Chief of Police (Ret.)

The author of , Mark Totten, is a Professor of Criminal Justice at Humber College, Toronto and a front line social worker for 25 years. His second book on this topic is a brutal, no holds barred description of the lives of 10 gang members, male and female. Remarkable for its candor and revealing of highly personal experiences, the stories offer insight into the life of these dwellers of an underground culture walled off from the experience of normal society.

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Many individuals gravitating to gang life are born into circumstances beyond their control, falling easy prey to gang associations that offer them a substitute for a conventional upbringing. The direction of their lives is driven by poverty, birth defects, substance abuse, lack of family support and victimization in childhood or adolescence.

There is usually more than one contributing factor. They fall victim to alcohol and drug addiction or resort to drug dealing in lieu of employment. Sexual assault is another common thread, with the gang member as either victim or predator. The author traces their experience through degradation, violence, life threatening incidents and in a few cases, a kind of redemption through employment and the possibility of a stable relationship.

This book is a fascinating journey through territory that is known to police, but seldom explored. Policing may be a subset of sociology but in the busy, action-oriented world of the police officer there is seldom time or inclination to ponder the causes contributing to the sub-culture of the criminal underworld. Crime gangs are looked upon as adversaries, nothing more and nothing less. Compassion and understanding is offered to the victim; seldom to the perpetrator.

Aside from assembling intelligence, police spend little time constructing a sociological profile of their opponents. While occasionally a relationship may develop between an officer and a gang member, this is rare and usually brief. Notably, in the many references to brushes with the law experienced by the 10 gang members, the descriptive is impersonal and lacking in any touches of humanity on either side – two different worlds indeed.

Professor Totten’s earlier book on gang land experience is entitled <Nasty, Brutish and Short – The Lives of Gang Members in Canada>. His latest work is recommended reading for any police officer seeking greater insight into the life experience of the gang banger, the conditions that shape their lives and the environment that both nurtures and entraps them.

Gang Life, Author Mark Totten, James Lorimer & Company Ltd. Publishers, Toronto 2014 ISBN 978-1-4594-0625-4