Can’t Catch A Break

[Summary | Excerpts | Reviews | Press]

9780520282780_SeredOur new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs and the Limits of Personal Responsibility is now available through University of California Press, Amazon and other bookstores.

We are thrilled to announce that Can’t Catch a Break received the ‘Distinguished Book Award’ (2016) from the Western Social Science Association.

Click here for the latest updates on the women of Can’t Catch a Break.


The book presents the work Maureen Norton-Hawk and I have been doing for the past six years following the experiences of a group of women post-incarceration in Massachusetts. Through interviews and ethnographic fieldwork we accompanied the women as they navigated a variety of programs, services and life events. Most of the book is made up of the women’s stories and how their stories evolved over time.

Each chapter focuses on a particular woman as she moves among  home, the streets, rehabilitation programs, correctional institutions, hospitals, clinics and shelters; among happy, sad, abusive and deeply caring relationships with friends, family and romantic partners; and among churches, Twelve Step groups, therapists and therapeutic treatment of various sorts.

The publication of the book is not the end of their stories. We continue to spend time with some of the women and as we do we learn more about their lives – both the challenges they face and the strategies they use to address those challenges. It is important for us to convey to readers that these women are not “objects of inquiry” but real human beings who, like all of us, change their attitudes and their circumstances over periods of years, months and even days. Follow these links for updates on the women of Can’t Catch a Break.

“First Updates”    “Christmas 2014 Updates”    “Late Summer 2015 Updates”

New Years 2016 Updates”  “Summer 2016 Updates”  “January 2017 Updates”

“Summer 2017 Updates”

Also see “Eulogy for Junie”  “Eulogy for Nicole”  “Orange Frosted Hostess Cupcakes (Eulogy of Linda)”   “Eulogy for Elizabeth”

Table of Contents

1. “Joey Spit on Me”: How Gender Inequality and Sexual Violence Make Women Sick
2. “Nowhere to Go”: Poverty, Homelessness, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility
3. “The Little Rock of the North”: Race, Gender, Class, and the Consequences of Mass Incarceration
4. Suffer the Women: Pain and Perfection in a Medicalized World
5. “It’s All in My Head”: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic
6. Higher Powers: The Unholy Alliance of Religion, Self-Help Ideology, and the State
7. “Suffer the Children”: Fostering the Caste of the Ill and Afflicted
8. Gender, Drugs, and Jail: “A System Designed for Us to Fail”
Conclusion: The Real Questions and a Blueprint for Moving Forward


From the Introduction:
When Francesca came bursting onto the scene at the drop-in center for poor and homeless women she brought a quick spark of energy into the circle of worn-out faces and worn-down bodies slumped in armchairs, nodding off while watching the Jerry Springer show and waiting for the shelters to re-open at 4:00. Outspoken, energetic and full of plans, she declared how terrible it is that Boston’s “Mayor Menino stands by while so many people have to live on the street.” With a few tosses of her long, shiny hair, Francesca announced her dream of opening and running a facility that “welcomes everyone.” Five minutes later she swept out the door into the August heat with a promise to “buy Pepsi for everybody,” and Ginger resumed her desultory search through a pile of donated toiletries, Elizabeth carried on weeping into a handful of tissues and Vanessa went back to scratching her arm and poking around in the trash in hopes of finding a cigarette stub long enough to take outside and light up.

A week later Francesca returned to the women’s center. Flashing her brand-new bright turquoise acrylic nail extensions, she pulled a sequined mini-dress and a pair of 1960s style “go-go” boots out of a bag. With the recession of 2007 shutting down employment opportunities for undereducated and unskilled workers, she had taken one of the few jobs she could get — waitressing and dancing at a local strip club. Thrilled with the clothes and even more thrilled with the admiration from the male patrons, she was nevertheless firm that she would not have sex with the customers — she wouldn’t even let them kiss her on the cheek. But by late fall her situation became tense. At the club, she said, “the owners expect the girls to have sex for money.” As time went on, she began going out on “dates” and drinking more heavily as a way to put up with the pressures of the men at the club. “It is starting to get out of control.”

Just a few months later Francesca injured a ligament in her leg. Unable to go on dancing, she was fired on the spot. Initiating what would become our routine over the next five years, Francesca called us. We picked her up a block away from the club and drove her to the apartment of an old boyfriend who was willing to let her stay with him at night but would not give her a key or allow her to stay in the apartment by herself during the day. Now a regular at the women’s drop-in center, she maintained her outward tough “I don’t take crap from anyone” style but began to confide to us that she felt afraid and vulnerable. “All I do is walk around all day – I have no place to go.” Her arthritis had become increasingly painful (the joints in her fingers looked miserably swollen) and “I have a pain in my throat that my doctor thinks might be throat cancer. My father died of cancer.” Often on the verge of tears, she even considered suicide. “I just can’t catch a break anywhere.”


“The majority of the forty-seven of the women we first met in 2008 began their lives in working class families. Most were sexually abused as children. Nearly all witnessed their mothers’ being beat on or yelled at by husbands or boyfriends. Several women became addicts through prescribed pain or anxiety medication in the wake of an illness, injury or a botched medical procedure. In their twenties most scraped by in the unstable occupational sectors of the working poor: food service and nursing homes, and raised their young children with sporadic financial contributions of male partners and public assistance. Poor health eventually made it impossible for nearly all of the women to hold down jobs, leading to homelessness and vulnerability to violence and exploitation. Several remember pleasant childhoods with strong and positive family relations, but found their lives spiraling downward as adults when in a period of a few years their parents died and they could not afford to keep up the rent or mortgage payments. Almost all of the project participants have used drugs, in their words, “to numb myself” – particularly in the context of engaging in sex work in order to feed themselves and their children.

“All of the project women have been incarcerated, typically for a few months at a time and typically for prostitution, shoplifting (often of small cosmetic items), possession of small amounts of drugs, accessory in a crime committed by a boyfriend or husband, in several cases public drunkenness, and – most frequently – violation of the terms of probation or parole associated with a minor charge. (Only one of the forty-seven women in the project was incarcerated for a crime against another person.) Incarceration leads to loss of custody of, and often loss of contact with, their children. Coming out of prison with no money, no home, their children gone, and a criminal record that makes them unemployable, the women became dependent upon men, public services and the underground economy.”

“Over the past five years we have seen the same women sober and high, homeless and housed, employed and unemployed, in a supportive relationship and abused by a boyfriend, enthusiastically attending church and stigmatized by church members, involved on a daily basis with their children and out of the children’s lives, sick and healthy, happy and despondent. Sometimes they tell us how well things are going: perhaps they finally got housing, a kind boyfriend, sobriety, charges dropped, health care, surgery, better medication, food stamps, visits with children, a part-time job, a wonderful new caseworker, or reconciliation with estranged family members. We have learned over the years that how well things are going one month or one year is unlikely to predict how things will go later down the line. An individual sometimes will look and sound and act like a poster child for the category “working poor” as it was used during the Clinton administration: A worthy, productive, hardworking soul who with a bit of help will climb the rungs of America’s economic ladder. The same woman a year earlier or a year later will look and sound and act strung out, down and out, “shit out of luck” – the unworthy, unproductive “welfare queen” or “crack whore” who cares more about dope than about jobs or her children. That these transitions are so commonplace suggests to us that the line between scraping by and not scraping by has become exceedingly fragile in contemporary America.”

Awards and Honors

CAN’T CATCH A BREAK received the Distinguished Book Award 2016 from the Western Social Science Association.

CAN’T CATCH A BREAK was awarded Honorable Mention for the Betty and Alfred McClung Lee Book Award of the Association for Humanist Sociology. The Award Committee particularly pointed to “the exhaustive fieldwork and for the ways [we] expose the myriad problems that women who have been criminalized face. The committee believes that the book will make a long lasting contribution to our discipline.”

For CAN’T CATCH A BREAK, Maureen Norton-Hawk and I received the 2016 Suffolk University Dean’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship.


An academic book has rarely captivated me to the extent that I feel compelled to stay up late at night reading it. Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk’s Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility represents an exception to the rule. Through beautiful writing and stunning narratives, Sered and Norton-Hawk follow the lives of 47 formerly incarcerated women in Boston. Many of these women continue to struggle with drug addiction, homelessness, and sexual victimization upon release from prison. While the women often went through bouts of “recovery,” many continued to find themselves repeatedly relapsing, cycling through the “institutional circuit,” and perpetually delegated to the “caste of the ill and afflicted.” The women’s heart-wrenching stories reveal that, like most Americans, they bought into the myth of the American Dream and the dogma of individual responsibility. They are either morally corrupt due to their bad choices or they are perpetually sick due to innate physical, mental, and emotional deficiencies. What is missing from the women’s narratives, as well as our larger discourse on women’s incarceration, is an understanding of how incarcerated women are often victims of gendered oppression and structural inequities that work together to trap them in a hopeless and never ending cycle of deprivation and suffering despite their repeated efforts to overcome life challenges. –Vera Lopez, published in Division on Women and Crime, American Society of Criminology, Spring 2016

… Can’t Catch a Break is a nuanced examination of how systemic racial, gender, sexual and socioeconomic oppression shapes the lives of this group of women and their interaction with the criminal justice system. The book challenges the cult of individual responsibility, the valorization of the doctrine of choice and the American Dream upon which these notions are based…. Sered and Norton-Hawk unsettle the researcher/researched dichotomy by refusing to be disembodied researchers, separate and distanced from those they are studying. Respectful relationships and authenticity were key components of this project as was researcher self-reflexivity. In Can’t Catch a Break, the authors’ voices are at times explicitly present, allowing the reader insight into how they experienced the relationships with the participants, and navigated their own assumptions, opinions, biases and privileges. By writing themselves into this book and engaging in the participants’ lives in meaningful ways, Sered and Norton-Hawk illustrate integrity and credibility, a stance that is undoubtedly related to the fact that even after completion of the five year study, many of the participants continue to maintain contact. This is a refreshingly authentic book that does not fall into the academic trap of constructing this community of women as mad, bad, victims or villains. The participants themselves—as well as the complex array of institutional actors, practices and discourses (and the researchers!)—are portrayed in their multifaceted complexity, from which a searing critique of the “American Dream” and cultural practices of individual responsibility and choice is levied. – Shoshana Pollack, published in Punishment and Society  September 2015

In Can’t Catch a Break Sered and Norton-Hawk offer the reader a vital glimpse into the chaotic, desperate, and depressing lives of the women that have been criminalized by our ill advised war on drugs. The number of women in prison, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, has increased eightfold since the eighties. Only rarely do those outside of the various systems that police the poor, get to see beyond the numbers appreciate the blending of health problems, homelessness, poverty and drug addiction that afflicts the lives women we spend billions to jail and imprison. The vivid portraits the authors paint are compelling, making us all ask, as the authors do, “have prisons become the way that America deals with suffering?  A must read. — Meda Chesney-Lind, Ph.D.,Professor and Chair of Women’s Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa

… The authors bring together an impressive breadth of research to offer a comprehensive view of the many challenges faced by disadvantaged women: violence, poverty, oppression, health and mental health struggles, addiction, incarceration, and the deluded preachings of religious self-help groups. The central message of the book is that we as a society cannot rely on personal choice as an explanatory framework for human suffering. We cannot personalize the political as we commonly do through criminalization and medicalization. Pain and affliction are not consequences of individual choice, but rather result from larger structural and societal institutions of sexism, racism, and classism. Sered and Norton-Hawk acknowledge that some choices are poorly executed, but that this alone is not the cause of these human conditions. Privileges such as perseverance and resourcefulness are gradually depleted in the face of so much adversity. The authors have done a nice job of reinforcing these ideas with compelling stories drawn from their extensive interaction with the women. In fact, the book is sufficiently engaging that I finished it on one leg of a domestic cross-country flight in the U.S. Can’t Catch a Break is a thorough yet concise testament to the social inequalities that drive mass incarceration. The book would be a powerful addition to coursework in criminology, women’s studies, psychology, social work, and public health.  –  Dana DeHart, published in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books January 2015

… Sered and Norton-Hawk have staged a brilliant confrontation with these issues. Their book is beautifully written. It is deep, consequential, and completely accessible, the perfect primer on the contours and content of gendered, class vulnerability. … The authors look at each institution—medical, religious, carceral, etc.—through the story of one Boston woman. Each story shows how this woman’s life—her multiple and continuing attempts to get health care or find housing, for example—illuminates the dead-end policies governing these efforts and their outcomes.  Sered and Norton-Hawk avoid simple snippets of decontexualized voices and instead feature in each chapter a single, embodied voice, of a person whose specific history we learn along with  her narrated present and her vision of her future. In the hands of Sered and Norton-Hawk, the politics of personal story insist that the reader consider the woman storyteller as real and whole, a person who must be heard. The authors give her space and allow her a history so that her story is round and complicated—not salaciously sensationalized à la Oscar Lewis’s “culture of poverty” renditions (such as in his 1966 book La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty, San Juan and New York). … One fully voiced woman after another claims personal dignity; sometimes the reader catches this claim as the teller is in the midst of excoriating herself. At the same time, each storyteller illuminates the limits of her claim, as she explains the institutional arenas that structure and severely constrain her possibilities. … The punishments concocted for these women, many of them pregnant or mothers, lead to certain failure.  Arguably, in the US this outcome has become as necessary as racial slavery was for defining and ennobling whiteness and worthiness. The Boston women and their counterparts around the nation have become crucial to the project of defining legitimate mothers, citizens, and voters. Their existence and treatment function as tenebrous yet public messages regarding who has the  right to longevity and who does not; who has the right to education, the right to work, the right to just compensation, and the right to a roof over her head. Sered and Norton-Hawk’s book   is an activist demand for the full personhood of the Boston women and their human rights. – Rickie Solinger, Women’s Review of Books May / June 2015.

… Implantation of ‘‘Gender’’ into state bureaucracy, social authorities, and police practice would seem to have been the latest idea of academic theorists for a better world. But Boston sociologists Starr Sered and Norton-Hawk, who are teaching at local Suffolk University, give a bitter view on gender practice in everyday life for social minorities in the United States. The authors have interviewed women down from the streets, who had to work with ‘‘gender programs’’ in social authorities in the Greater Boston Area. Interviewees came from ‘‘black’’, ‘‘Asian’’ and ‘‘white’’ backgrounds. ‘‘Gender’’ means, for uncoordinated social authorities of the Greater Boston, that all female clients must be offered special limits of self profession because of their social living conditions. This approach also implies that women may be sorted into clusters, because all of them lost individual needs—their ‘‘gender’’ gives all necessary information. A combination of ‘‘abused in childhood’’, ‘‘minority’’ and/or ‘‘drugs’’ end in an undisputable perception that all relevant persons were disobedient to authorities but able to understand all advice by social officers. A discussion of other problems doesn’t take place any more. So, illiterate women are confronted with written orders. If they don’t obey, they prove the gender-cluster conditions of being disobedient. Enforcement into families aren’t used any more, because families are interpreted as gender-defining and conforming instances for young females. Women who had been abused by relatives are blamed for their fate if they fail in life. Social officers base their tactics on some academic research from past years about minorities in the US. Starr Sered and Norton-Hawk show how social authorities ‘‘stabilize’’ failed females in their work. At first, they send them to doctors, who abstain from an individual anamnesis. They don’t need it, because the gender cluster gives explanations for everything. The doctors prescribe Ritalin and other antidepressants. Women can only escape from this circuit of prescribing, controls and bans, if they change their ‘‘gender’’. This means, women pay for dangerous cosmetic surgery, e.g. liposuction, so they transform their bodies from fat to thin. Obese women are seen as the most unreliable group—unwilling to control their body and so unable to perform any job. Giving consideration to the idea that the reasons for obesity might be out of an individual’s control and competences isn’t necessary in a gender-based social system. If the woman has transformed her body from fat to thin, she has changed her gender from ‘‘unable’’ to ‘‘reliable and responsible entrepreneur’’—and the police is coming around, calling her a prostitute and danger for public security. Moreover, these attempts to escape from total control and overwhelming gender prejudices can be seen as antisocial behavior by social authorities. Neither police nor social advisers see that a gender-changing woman has never left its home yard. The former key conditions for changing life, which had been instruments of social work for decades, aren’t relevant any more. Moreover, political will for financing street work disappears. Gender theory and Gender practice have moved into an alliance with neoliberalism. And the founders of academic gender research are looking away. Just one instrument is still in use by the state: the prison. All persons who are failing in self control are sentenced to jail. They aren’t victims of social conditions or a failed state/social bureaucracy any more; they are self-determined antisocial aliens in a world of free gender choice. This book is more than a local social study. It is an advice for academic researchers to never forget the gap between theory and practice. One may wonder whether Starr Sered and Norton-Hawk have become too close to their research topic. But even this doesn’t diminish the worth of this study. A useful list of literature and a great index complete the book. –Florian G. Mildenberger, published in Sexuality and Culture, March 2015

In this passionate, deeply researched study, Suffolk University sociologists Sered and Norton-Hawk argue that prisons have “become the way that America deals with human suffering,” especially the suffering of women, who are being incarcerated at ever higher numbers. The authors, who closely studied 47 formerly incarcerated women in the Boston area for 5 years, examine both how women land in prison and how fragile their lives are after release. They discuss the inarguable connections between being abused and getting arrested. Reaganomics and welfare reform, Sered and Norton-Hawk argue, have had disastrous consequences for these women, both before and after incarceration. In particular, lack of stable housing makes women who have been imprisoned more dependent on men. In the study’s most original chapter, the authors argue that the therapeutic and mental health services available to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, rather than directing attention to how society has stacked the deck against marginal women and suggesting political solutions, teach that people’s problems are the result of their own unhealed trauma. This compelling and important book deserves to be widely read.-Publisher’s Weekly

…a moving ethnography about the struggles of 47 women who were forced into homelessness, unemployment, drug dependence, and frequent incarceration by the structural violence of poverty, racism, and gendered violence.  Such women suffer physical and psychological illnesses caused by nightmarish abuses, but they continue to dream of living the middle-class lives they grew up aspiring to or even enjoyed in the past.  Although the majority of the women in the study were white, the authors curiously suggest that the concept of “caste” is a more suitable description of the race-class-gender intersectionality of oppressions that combine to destroy the lives of impoverished women.  Some privileged members of society avoid the needy under the assumption that poor people must have individually made bad decisions and should take individual responsibility to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  The authors conclude by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. to suggest that the Violence against Women Act signed by President Bill Clinton has failed to adequately protect poor women from structural violence and that there is still a need for better legislation to “regulate the heartless” exploiters of abused women.  Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. –B. Agozino, Virginia Tech, CHOICE, March 2015

…The authors demonstrate the cycle of violence in which poor women become trapped, showing a terrible irony: Often attempts to escape violence, either as children or in abusive relationships, lead women into situations where they experience greater violence—in institutions, on the streets, and again in abusive relationships. The authors then give an innovative explanation as to why… The authors convincingly show that the fragmented way we attempt to help poor criminalized women is not working. The rhetoric of personal responsibility obscures real structural inequalities and individualized treatments and approaches will not cure the structural barriers that these women face. –Veronica Horowitz, Criminal Justice Review, March 2015

… This work brilliantly takes the reader on a journey through the lives of nine women, allowing us to experience their marginalization as we have a proverbial ‘‘front-row seat’’
to their cycles of domestic abuse, incarceration, homelessness, illicit and nonillicit drug addiction, foster care, and mental illness….is vital to social work education specifically on the macro level because it highlights the need for research on why women like the ones in this study find themselves in cycles despite the plethora of programs and policies specifically designed to treat and rehabilitate them. –Brittney Hannah, Affilia, April 2015

…This is an important book for both scholars and students to read. For scholars it provides a comprehensive examination of the social problems we seek to understand and urges us to ask the right questions about what we as a society are willing to accept. For students it provides informative statistics along with eye-opening examples of what life is really like for those struggling within and against powerful government and social institutions. – Laura Valcore, Social Science Journal June 2015

Through their astute and incriminatory analysis of the institutional circuit, Sered and Norton-Hawk conclude that their original goal of understanding why many Americans persist in  circumstances that cause them to suffer should be shifted to understanding why America allows so many people to suffer in the caste of the ill and afflicted. They are to be lauded for the rich data they bring to bear on the experiences of a difficult-to-reach population in the institutional circuit over time. … The book serves not only as a call to social action but also as a call for more research on the experiences of marginalized women on institutional circuits across the country. Overall, Can’t Catch a Break is an excellent book written in an engaging manner that is accessible to undergraduates but that will also interest scholars of inequality, criminology, social justice, poverty, violence, and social control. –Stacy DeCoster Contemporary Sociology April 2016

… The book is engaging to read and would be relevant to undergraduate and graduate students in courses on gender and crime or corrections, as well as those who are simply interested in understanding how social inequalities fueled the mass incarceration phenomenon over the past few decades. The women’s stories effectively leave the reader asking if we should have any hope for a more equal future. Thus, the text appropriately concludes with a “blueprint for moving forward,” which aims to start a much-needed discussion among social and criminal justice policy makers and researchers about the way things are and have been for far too long. –Shannon Jacobsen, Gender and Society, September 2016


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Color Drenched Acts of Resistance, a short article about the gorgeous painting on the cover of the book:

…Sered cuts to the heart with precision, as she does so often throughout the book. Beyond interpretations of line, color, drip, and context, what captivates is the image’s undefinable power: inviting yet defiant; strong despite, and owing to, its imperfections. Just like the women this book profiles.

Can’t Catch a Break, an interview with University Press about my difficulties in writing the book.

A short clip from our book launch, where we talk about our struggles to decide how to refer to the women we have come to know and write about:

The “Page 99” test for Can’t Catch a Break. “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”