Book review: The Girls in the Gang

Glennis Dennehy and Greg Newbold

2001, Reed, New Zealand

Reviewed by Shelley Kennedy

Senior Design Analyst, Department of Corrections

Reviewer biography:

Shelley started with Corrections in November 2014. Currently she is leading a project on safety and support for gang associated women at risk of violence when they leave prison. Prior to Corrections she spent a number of years at the Ministry of Social Development in the policy, research, project and team management areas. Shelley’s academic background is in sociology and social policy.

Already a ground breaker in 2001, this book remains very relevant today. Its unique perspective on women in gangs within the New Zealand context continues to fill gaping holes in our understanding in this area.

A year earlier Glennis had completed her thesis where she interviewed ten female gang associates on their perspective of gang life. Surprisingly, it was the first research into women in gangs in New Zealand, with little having been written elsewhere either. Greg Newbold, Glennis’ primary thesis supervisor, co-authored this book and together they reframed the thesis.

At about 200 pages, this book is focused on women and their place in gangs. It provides insights into the family context, what attracts women to gangs in the first place, their day-to-day lives, roles, relationships, violence and abuse, and how they negotiate the ‘gang world’. Stories differ for individual women, but their exits out of gangs are similar; an interesting and important find of the research.

This is both an accessible and easy read and a robust piece of research and writing. Telling us something about our society as a whole, it doesn’t try to hide the complex societies we know gangs are. Rather, it shines a light on a key, but generally overlooked, sub-group within gangs (i.e. women), to reveal what they see, their worlds.

These are stories we need to know about and share more broadly. It is a solid sociological piece of work, although limited by the numbers of women interviewed. This in itself illustrates something about gangs, i.e. how difficult it is to access people within what are generally ‘closed’ societies.

Glennis didn’t just write a book on women in gangs, or a thesis on women in gangs, or even tell us something about our own society; she also had a direct, lived experience of being a gang associate. In the book’s preface, Glennis shares her own story of eventually escaping the gang life she was caught up in. I found that to be a hard read, as it illustrated how painful and life threatening some of those ‘real’ experiences are.

This book provides a unique perspective on women in gangs, and women in gangs within New Zealand. I have read a significant amount of local and international research material this year for my project work, and this writing was referred to a lot. The material is consistent with international material written well over a decade later, which maintains its relevance. And, for those working in this country, it has added relevance by being about New Zealand society. However, I would be interested in what a similar research study would reveal today, and to see where and if things have changed.

I was fortunate to work with Glennis, who joined our project team’s prison forum visits around the country, earlier this year. Many staff and prisoners we spoke with had read and been influenced by her book; and the team and I learnt a lot in the process.

In a field with a dearth of research, this book is invaluable. It broadens the knowledge and understanding of both gangs and of domestic violence, and brings the two together.

For anyone interested in more than the run-of-the-mill look at gangs, or wishing to understand something of how women are impacted on, and impact, the gangs’ world, I suggest they seek out this book.

As a postscript, this book also contains the first published history of gangs in New Zealand.