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Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America Hardcover – March 18, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The Abu Ghraib prison abuses, widely condemned as violations of American ideals, were actually as American as apple pie, according to this scattershot study. Cusac, a journalist and communications professor , surveys the American enthusiasm for confinement, pain and humiliation as instruments of legal and social control, from colonial-era stocks and ducking pools to today's supermax prisons and amped-up stun guns (she includes a litany of cases of kids and old ladies tasered by cops). Abandoning a mid–20th-century consensus favoring humane rehabilitation for miscreants, Americans since the 1970s have embraced a view of crime as the product of individual evil, she contends, with harsh retribution the appropriate response. For this view she blames religion—specifically the Christian Right, citing everything from spanking manuals to the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which recommends the death penalty for theft and homosexuality. Cusac's disorganized, repetitive argument treats developments in policing and penology as atavistic cultural phenomena largely unrelated to concrete social concerns; she spends far more time analyzing movies like The Exorcist and Carrie than discussing postwar crime rates. The result is a sometimes insightful but often unbalanced and distorted take on our supposed gluttony for punishment. (Mar. 18)
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"This book is a bracing indictment of our culture's obsession with pain and revenge.  In chronicling the history and current reality of punishment in America, Anne-Marie Cusac exposes our collective loss of compassion to damning effect."—Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States
(Sister Helen Prejean)

"Anne-Marie Cusac was there first, years ago, as a journalist tracking America's growing addiction to punishment and pain.  Now she describes how that obsession with brutality threatens our very ideals as a people, how the bearer of cruelty may be a victim of it as surely as its target.  Hers is a book as illuminating as it is terrifying."—William F. Schulz, former Executive Director, Amnesty International USA
(William F. Schulz)

"Anne-Marie Cusac’s Cruel and Unusual digs deeply into American history and culture to explain the extravagant cruelty of the punishments visited on criminal offenders. H. Rap Brown in the 1960s famously observed that 'violence is as American as apple pie.' So, says Cusac, is the gratuitous infliction of pain on wrongdoers. The black and white moralism of American Protestantism has given Americans an unusual ability to tolerate the sufferings of others, especially if those others have behaved immorally (as, by definition, most offenders have). Cusac has opened up a wide new field of exploration into the origins of American criminal law and punishment."—Michael Tonry, University of Minnesota
(Michael Tonry)

"Cusac illuminates the causal connections between culture and punishment, and her comparison of corporal punishment in the colonial era with contemporary practice yields powerful insights."—Amy Dru Stanley, University of Chicago
(Amy Dru Stanley)

"Cusac's analysis should provoke a sense of deep concern: concern that contemporary punitiveness in America will damage our institutions, our political system, our culture."—Austin Sarat, Amherst College
(Austin Sarat)

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