Struggles with the Devil: Identity change among street children and young offenders in rehab in Brazil

First published: 09 May 2019 | Last updated: 20 May 2019

Drawing on ethnographic research carried out in a 12-step Therapeutic Community in Brazil, this presentation examines the process by which the young resident boys construct new meaningful identities for themselves. The literature on addiction and desistance from crime discusses the importance of changes in identity and self-narrative. Nevertheless, a dimension that is often overlooked is how treatment discourses relate with existing belief systems to shape new identities. At the Therapeutic Community the boys rework their understandings of self and the world around them and start to reinterpret their past based on what they are learning at the center.  The process for them, however, is far from a passive intake of the new program discourse. Each child actively draws meaning from pre-existing religious cultural belief systems to form unique identities. They often frame their process of change in terms of a battle between good and evil and speak of the Devil or other spirits tempting them or incorporating in them. It will be shown that it is through their existing belief systems and personal life experiences that the boys are able to give the program discourse meaning and thus internalize aspects of it to inform their new identities.


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Dr Gisella Hanley Santos