Offenders often tell me they’d like to hear advice from someone who’s been where they are – a person who’s successfully turned his or her life around. So today I’m launching a new feature – Straight Talk – which I hope will do just that.
Dr. Paul K. Fauteck, Psy.D, is a forensic psychologist and retired expert witness for the Cook County Court system in Chicago. He’s also a reformed felon — the designated black sheep of a dysfunctional family who decided on a career in crime at 13 and quit school after he was caught stealing from football players’ lockers. He quickly graduated to auto theft and burglary, losing his first partner who was killed by the police at 18. Undeterred, Fauteck got involved with a gang writing counterfeit cashiers checks. By 21, he was doing time in federal prison.
When he got out four years later, Fauteck had $20, a GED and a challenging road ahead of him. He took a series of low-paying jobs, eventually finding some success as an advertising copywriter. Along the way, he got some therapy and came to understand the behaviors that had been holding him back. He also developed a keen interest in psychology, returning to school to earn his Master’s degree in 1976 and opening his own counseling practice. In 2001, he wrote the book he wished he’d had when he got out: Going Straight: An Ex-Offender and Psychologist Tells You Why and How. Reviewers describe it as a no-nonsense guide on how to move beyond the criminal mindset and live a productive life.
Recently I had a chance to talk with Dr. Fauteck about his experiences and what he’s learned from his work with other ex-offenders:
Let’s start out with a little background. What would you say got you started down the wrong path?
My family situation wasn’t the best. I was the scapegoat, the kid who wasn’t wanted. But I could always get attention or help as long as I was behaving antisocially. That said, I don’t want to give impression that I or anyone else can blame their circumstances for criminal decisions. Plenty of people grew up in the same or worse situations and didn’t go out and break the law. I had to take responsibility for that. I was angry at the world, and I didn’t feel comfortable in normal society. I wanted to be in charge. My idea of that was playing by my own rules, not society’s rules.
What made you want to change? Was there a turning point?
Well in truth I vacillated for a while even after I went to prison. I was not a model prisoner. I spent time in solitary. I even learned some new rackets. But it was dawning on me that this was a really dumb way to live. I was tired of people telling me what to do. Then, a few months before I got out, my father died. He was in his mid-70s. That hurt a lot because he was the only member of my family I felt I could love and respect. He’d always loved me in spite of everything. And here, the last place he’d seen me was in a prison waiting room. That’s when I said, that’s it. I’m not coming back.
A lot of offenders say they’re never going back, but nearly two-thirds are rearrested within a couple of years. Why is “going straight” so difficult?
I believe the biggest obstacle is the offender. I was certainly my biggest problem. I intended to be a good guy, but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know what to do.
Going straight is hard because it’s not just a matter of changing what you do. It’s a matter of changing who you are. There’s so much more to a criminal lifestyle than just breaking the law. You have a lot of attitudes beliefs, behaviors and associations that aren’t constructive. I didn’t know how to be straight. I had a short temper. I was wonderful at making excuses for everything. I was also good at deceiving people. I lost a lot of jobs just because of my attitude. I could always find someone else to blame, and I didn’t take criticism well at all. Most of the time, I was able to avoid swinging a fist at someone. But I did some very foolish things. I didn’t plan ahead. I didn’t know how to manage money. I didn’t know how to be normal American citizen. A lot of ex-cons are like that.
So how did you eventually change? What do ex-offenders need to do to turn their lives around?
There was stuff I had to learn over a long period of time. I was close to going back to the old ways and getting myself in trouble again so many times. I think it’s a miracle that I made it through.
One of the things I came to understand is that different criminals have different motivations, but in some ways they’re alike. They have these thinking habits that are likely to cause problems for society and for themselves. If I spend a lot of time sitting around feeling sorry for myself — worrying that I don’t have as much money as I should have and wallowing, for example — that can lead to some criminal behavior in the same way looking at pornography might affect a child molester. What I had to do was learn to catch myself in those “pre-decision” moments. When I first got out, I was so lonely and frustrated that I was angry all the time. I would feel anger building up in me, and I had to learn to stop and take a breath right then. I had to walk away. I had to say I don’t want to go back to that behavior. Too many people don’t catch themselves in that pre-decision state.
Are there other triggers or situations that ex-offenders need to avoid?
As I said, one of the worst things the ex-con has to deal with is loneliness. It’s difficult to just walk up to someone and say, “Hi, I’m an ex-offender.” But you always know people who will welcome you with open arms – the criminal element. You know where to find them and that’s not always the best thing. Sometimes other offenders can understand your situation, and that can be beneficial. St. Leonard’s House in Chicago has counselors who are former offenders, and their program works very well.
The problem when you put a bunch of ex-offenders together is this: they’re all trying to learn new ways to think and form new habits, but one of them is going to have that moment. It’s what Glenn D. Walters, author of The Criminal Lifestyle, calls the F—- It Moment. That’s the moment that you slip, and whatever you’ve been thinking about, whatever your plans were, none of it matters. That’s when you commit a crime.
People also backslide because they set themselves up. They don’t plan ahead very well. The criminal-thinking kind of guy will take off on a road trip without enough money. Or because of laziness he’s more prone to be unemployed. Then it becomes, ‘I got my last paycheck weeks ago. What else could I do? I didn’t have any choice.” I would say, “you had a choice to not wait that long before you dealt with the situation.”
Do you think ex-offenders today face different challenges than you did?
When I got out there weren’t a lot of programs to help convicted offenders, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. Now you have many more services. But in some ways I think it’s much harder for people than when I got out. These days, it’s so much easier to find out whether someone has a record. It’s also become the norm to think someone with a felony record is likely to re-offend. So it’s more difficult to find jobs and get a fresh start. One of the most important things an ex-felon has to do is to learn to discuss his criminal record, especially with potential employers.
What advice would you offer to someone just getting out?
Take advantage of the help that’s offered, but don’t expect people to do it for you. Don’t sit around waiting for a miracle. Going straight isn’t a one-time decision. Becoming a pro-social citizen is a process. It can take a while, depending on how deeply immersed a person is in criminal lifestyle, and how much of their existence is built around criminal activities. But it can be done, and it’s worth it.