Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Charles Barber wants to know how convicted criminals imagine their lives as a movie.
But he won’t stop there; he wants to know who the main characters would be, what the exposition, pinch, midpoint, rising action and climax are, and most importantly, what would change about the movie if the person could do it all over. This information is critical to showing that his clients, residents of a New Haven, Conn. halfway house, are in fact complex, multidimensional people.
In a world of legal and clinical services, that’s something often forgotten.
“The system never asks these sort of questions of them,” Barber said.
For this reason, Barber’s fall seminar, Psych 331: The Narratives of Illness and Recovery reflects a new trend in mental health research.
Barber is a new face to students at the University this year, as he serves double duty as Visiting Writer to the College of Letters and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department. But the school is not new to him.
“I’ve actually been around Wesleyan all my life,” said Barber, whose father taught here and who previously taught a course in nonfiction writing for the English Department in 2007.
He’s also been a regular at the Wesleyan Writers Conference the last few summers, so he’s come in contact with Adjunct Professor of English Anne Greene, who is also Director of Writing Programs. He’s also worked with Professor of Psychology Lisa Dierker and Research Professor of Psychology Jennifer Rose.
Barber’s novel-in-progress, about a depressed detective who heals himself through solving a crime, crosses back and forth between his personal and professional interests.
“That’s what writers do,” Barber said. “They use whatever material they can get.”
Barber expressed interest to various Wesleyan faculty members in teaching his own courses based on his dual curiosity in psychology and writing. After some discussion, his Narratives class as well as COL 201: Writing Nonfiction were developed. The author of two books on the syllabi (2005’s “Black Chair: A Memoir of Mental Interiors” and 2008’s “Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation”), Barber teaches classes that reflect the pattern of his career.
“‘Narratives’ addresses mainly first-person accounts of people who have suffered from mental illness and trauma,” Barber said.
Barber’s recent work with in-depth, qualitative interviews, such as those conducted by the Connection Institute for Innovative Practice, of which Barber is Director, cover brand-new ground and provide him with experience for the teaching of his class.
The Connection Institute, a Connecticut nonprofit, is a behavioral health institute and community justice provider that maintains halfway houses and other programs across the state. Those houses serve as parole residences for state prisoners, mostly males in their 20s and 30s, who serve the last three to six months of their sentence out of jail.
Because the goal of such houses is to find employment for convicts and ex-convicts while keeping them substance-free, Barber and the Connection Institute are deeply interested in rehabilitation. The current state of research, however, poses a problem.
“In criminal justice literature, there’s a pretty good academic research base of understanding about who, how, and why people refrain from criminal behavior,” Barber said. “But it’s cloaked in jargon and rarely shared with offenders or people who have committed acts themselves.”
To combat that issue, Barber’s and the Institute’s series of interviews, referred to as the Second Story initiative, will be based on concepts such as generativity, which is the concern for guiding the next generation that stems from a sense of optimism about humanity, and self-agency, which is the degree to which someone feels in charge of their own story and behavior. He hopes that this research will collect new kinds of information not currently addressed by other institutions.
“[This research] gleans all kinds of material that nobody ever asked these individuals about,” Barber said. “The system never asks these sort of questions of them. The transcripts of the interviews show them as full dimensional people in a way that all the clinical and legal services they’re involved with don’t.”
So far, the research seems to demonstrate positive progress.
“The results reflect the capacity of growth and change in the midst of difficult circumstances,” Barber continued. “[Such research] builds upon previous work by criminologists and sociologists, which shows that offenders and former offenders who score higher on measures of generativity and self-agency have much lower rates of criminal recidivism.”
Barber wants to engage residents in their own recovery by asking them to take a leading role in their life stories and giving them access to their results.
“One of the things I’m interested in doing with this study is sharing the results fully with the participants,” he said.
Barber explained a possible system based around a password-protected website that the interviewees can access both during and after their stay at the house. As part of the interview initiative, residents will create their own relapse plans.
“It’s pretty easy for them to stay free of drugs and crime when they’re in the facility, but it’s after they leave when things get touchy,” Barber said.
Residents will write a letter to themselves about what they can do to steer clear of drugs and criminal behavior; after being discharged, they can look back on what they wrote.
“This project ties in with the work that I’ve done for a long time, both in psychiatry and creative writing, which has to do with the elements of how people get better,” Barber said.