Can the Alexander Technique make a thief a better thief?
It seems logical that it could. Alexander Technique lessons have helped musicians play better. It’s helped office workers sit at desks and use their computer with less harmful tension. it’s helped actors take on roles requiring bizarre postural affectations without harming themselves.
A British Medical Journal study shows it can help all sorts of people work and play without suffering the kind of debilitating back pain that puts their career in jeopardy.
So is there any reason why a pickpocket, who needs all the dexterity he can muster, would not become more effective at his craft?
Or a second-story man, for whom balance and coordination are required to avoid falls from a window ledge that would cut his career short?
The answer should be obvious…
And yet Alexander Technique teachers are often uncomfortable with a question like this. The idea of the Technique facilitating evil acts is not one we like to contemplate.
Interestingly F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Technique, seems to have thought deeply about thieves – and, as he later says, criminals of all sorts, as well as addicts.*
In his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Alexander devotes several pages to the question of thieves, their mental state, and his insights on thieves’ state of mind. Most of what he said can be found in Chapter Five, “Applied Conscious Control”.
Alexander has some very interesting insights and it’s well worthwhile reading this chapter – perhaps more than once, given Alexander’s roundabout style of writing – but here is what I took from it:
First, lots of people who are not called thieves are, in fact, engaging in more subtle forms of thievery, for example misleading others in business arrangements. Indeed professional thieves, in Alexander’s view, may in some ways hold to a higher standard of behavior – as the expression “honor among thieves” suggests.
Second, a thief – or criminal of any kind – can often be be addicted to his lifestyle. Later in the chapter Alexander extends his analysis to addictions of all sorts. (My favorite is the Englishman who goes to China, takes up opium smoking and does fine with that, but then becomes seriously addicted to tea! Will we ever understand the Brits?)
Third, the problem with somehow getting a thief to stop stealing – or the addict to give up his addiction – is that it will take away the only means he has of applying his often considerable intelligence and skill. The usual ideas about punishment and rehabilitation are therefore not likely to work. The mental changes a thief needs to make, if he is to successfully drop the thieving habit, must “…be made gradually and slowly” because they place huge demands of “…re-adjustment in the psycho-physical self…”
Indeed, Alexander says, this period of re-adjustment “…may bring about such disorganization as may cause a serious crisis. During an experience of this kind, the person would for a period be in greater danger than ever”.
At this point Alexander refers to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, verses 24-26:
When an evil spirit goes out of a person, it travels over dry country looking for a place to rest. If it can’t find one, it says to itself, ‘I will go back to my house’. So it goes back and finds the house clean and tidy. Then it goes out and brings seven other spirits even worse than itself, and they come and live there. So when it is all over, that person is in a worse state than he was at the beginning.
What’s needed, in Alexander’s view, is an understanding of the nature of habit, and the necessity of helping the thief shift himself away from his dependence on what Alexander calls “subconscious guidance and control” towards “conscious guidance and control”.
He doesn’t say so explicitly, but I imagine Alexander would argue that his method provides a practical and effective way of making that shift.**
So, to get back to my original question, “Can the Alexander Technique make a thief a better thief?” the answer still might be “Yes”.
But might also be “Yes, although it could also increase the possibility that he will someday be motivated and able to switch to a more desirable profession”.
*Alexander’s interest in thieves could well be related to his early life in Tasmania, a dumping ground for British convicts during the 19th Century. Many were sent there for crimes of theft, including both his grandmothers and one of his grandfathers.
I’d love to hear you thoughts on all of this – not just as it relates to thieves, but to criminals, and to addicts of all sorts.
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