Revenge: On the Dynamics of a Frightening Urge and its Taming

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The authors' aim in this book is to focus on revenge as a neglected and insufficiently understood psychological mechanism in a broad spectrum ranging from the many and varied revenge acts of everyday life to the extreme societal destructiveness of genocide.Are perpetrators always avengers? What is the destructive potential of ordinary people? Envy, narcissistic wounds and rage are important themes with links to our forefathers. Human affects are central for attachment, symbolization and memory. How we deal with trauma will have an effect on the outcome of the revenge spiral. There are also grey areas between revenge and limit setting; what do these areas look like?The authors develop models for horizontal and vertical relationships which are important for an open reflective mental space. Via the concept of "space creating" the book describes the creative space with its possibility for reflection. The dilemma of the professional helper, the consequences of listening to traumatic memories and revenge fantasies, so called "vicarious traumas" are also taken up. By the end of the book, the necessity of refraining from - and concrete ideas of what we can do to stop - revenge should have been made much clearer.

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CHAPTER ONE: The revenge motif

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T he revenge motif appears in a number of arenas and in different cultures. We need to be mindful of its existence in order to discover how common it is. We can then learn to recognize when destructive revenge spirals are developing. By extension, we thus gain a basis for stopping these spirals successfully before they have gone too far. We can also learn what function revenge plays and has played in various contexts. A short overview of revenge as a motif in literature, film, culture, religion, and at work is therefore given as an introduction to our study of revenge.

The revenge motif is often prominent in the literature of the ancient Greeks. The stories of Medea and the Trojan War immediately come to mind. The Oedipus myth is another example. Oedipus (which means “swollen foot”) is abandoned in the woods, with his feet tied together, when he is just a little baby in order to thwart the prophecy that he is going to kill his parents if he is allowed to grow up. In the best-known parts of the myth, Oedipus murders his father at a crossroads, without knowing that it is his father, and later marries his mother, without knowing who she is. Oedipus can thus be said to have taken revenge on his parents for their attempt to abandon and kill him. Oedipus is then punished by the gods, accepts his punishment, and becomes wiser and humbler in the two later parts of the trilogy.

 

CHAPTER TWO: The psychology of the revenge spiral—revenge or restoration

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I n this chapter, we take up the psychological mechanisms that can explain the emergence of both revenge fantasies and actual acts of revenge. We also present the revenge spiral, the model that we use to describe the mechanisms of revenge and also the opposite—to focus instead upon the restoration of the self. Can ordinary people become perpetra tors? Is the human being a potential avenger? There is a destructive potential in all of us, a shadow from our forefathers that can be brought to bear if we lack counterbalances.

Thoughts and fantasies about revenge generally arise out of the anger that is awakened after we have been put in an inferior position in some humiliating way. We can say that thoughts of revenge have their basis in a traumatic event built up by external violations and our internal vulnerability.

We are humiliated when our sense of self-esteem is hurt and our integrity is threatened. Most of us know how this feels. We feel misunderstood, upset, and to make it plain and simple, hurt. We are convinced that the other person wishes us harm, even if he excuses what he has done by claiming that he is just trying to be sincere. He might even claim that what he did shows thoughtfulness and concern for us. We do not believe him. Revenge fantasies start to form in our mind. Sometimes we misunderstand other people’s remarks or actions in a way that makes us feel humiliated. “Isn’t he trying to put me down with that tone of voice? Well, I’ll show him a thing or two.”

 

CHAPTER THREE: The grey zone between revenge and restoration

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T hrough the many discussions that we have had with others, we have understood that the revenge theme is a loaded one and draws immediate interest. People have also said to us many times, “Come on, now, there has to be a positive revenge”, or something else in that spirit, meaning that the revenge act can be justified. The one seeking revenge looks for an outlet for their intense feeling and a target at which to aim it in order to regain a good self-image. In certain cases, they offer an elegant performance in how to give someone a dose of their own medicine. They can sometimes find just the right words and thrive on a chance to be brutally honest. However, we believe that in the expression “positive revenge” people confuse revenge with other psychic phenomena such as limit-setting integrity, restoration, or other moral concepts such as justice.

We see an opportunity here to pause and reflect together with the reader on the nature of our position since—when the question comes up—it seems many people do not have a thought about alternatives to revenge. They think it would be associated with weakness. In the previous chapter on the revenge spiral, we tried to show that revenge acts never lead to a positive development (even if the act can lead to a feeling of relief for a brief moment). However, discussions can sometimes end up in confusion between revenge intended to harm the other person and restoration, where a person makes things better for themselves without intending to harm the other. We do not know how we ourselves would react in a hard-pressed situation. Would we be capable of turning into a perpetrator, or would we simply do the right thing and be a rescuer? What does a bullied child do to avoid becoming a bully himself? How can a person regain their balance in a well-considered, positive, self-assertive way?

 

CHAPTER FOUR: The destructive group

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T hus far, we have described the mechanisms of revenge on the individual level. Now we take a step further and turn our focus to the group. Many revenge spirals in society are connected to group psychological mechanisms. One example is the escalating violence between rival teenage gangs. The group phenomenon also plays a central role in everyday hostilities. It manifests itself in prejudices and the orthodoxy that can develop out of these. On the individual, relational, and societal levels, a complex interaction takes place between cruelty, trauma, and counterbalances. We refer to classical social psychological studies.

In order to understand conflicts and revenge-related phenomena between groups of individuals, we must first take a deeper look at how we as individuals are related to the group. It is a matter of understanding how individuals as individuals are influenced by the group and how the interaction between the leader and the group takes form.

Since we are examining revenge—a destructive phenomenon—we describe first and foremost the negative effects on an individual when they adapts themselves to a group. Needless to say, there are also good sides to adapting oneself to a group. For example, evolutionary biologists point at rational and “natural” explanations for this adaptation, which they argue has taken place because it favours the individual’s survival. It is also likely that many of the features that human beings have developed are there for the group’s best interest (Sober & Wilson, in Waller, 2002).

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Revenge on the societal level: large groups, ideologies, and political systems

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W e are painfully aware and informed of the violence that exists in our own and others’ societies. However, we are perhaps not equally as aware of how often this violence con tains aspects of revenge. In Sweden and in other countries, we see gang showdowns in the underworld that seem to be pure and simple acts of revenge. In our presentation, we switch back and forth between individual and large group levels since they affect each other. We will see this, for example, in traumatized societies, where revenge is given a place as something unquestionable.

A violent revenge spiral can involve even larger groups than discussed in Chapter Four. Antagonisms sometimes involve different ethnic groups within the same country and some times entire countries. There are many examples. The violence that broke out after Tito’s death in the former Yugoslavia has obvious signs of the revenge dynamic, where the avenged injus tices were either real or historically distorted. The genocide in Rwanda was also marked by revenge motives. For many years, we have seen the unre solved revenge spiral in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Why does the revenge spiral continue? Among victims and perpetrators

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I n the previous chapters, we have seen how revenge fantasies and revenge acts can be explained on the basis of real or perceived violations and our difficulties in handling our strong feelings. We have also seen how our human inclination to adapt ourselves to the group can make otherwise empathetic and well-functioning people commit destructive acts. Added to that, if we happen to live in a totalitarian and violent society or in a society at war, we are even more susceptible to primitive drives, such as revenge mechanisms. Now we swing back to the individual again in order to discuss shame and persecutory guilt as driving forces in the revenge phenomenon.

Though we might have a great awareness of atrocities in the present and the past, it is perhaps still hard for us to imagine being forced to endure savage cruelties, as in genocide, or even harder to believe that we would be capable of violent acts. Can any person whosoever become a part of a destructive revenge spiral? How does a perpe trator function, and how does he or she legitimize his or her violence? What is it that makes it so difficult to stop an escalating violence?

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Revenge in everyday life—relationships in couples

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T hrough our studies of extreme relationships between perpetrators and victims, as well as of large groups’ regression, we have gained insight into the way in which revenge is much more common and destructive in everyday relationships than we are ordinarily aware of. Therefore, we now take a step over to couples’ relationships. We aim to clarify the common underlying theme of what can result from the strong feelings of which we humans are capable.

Revenge is often concealed in subtle actions or in ostensibly legitimate responses to perceived attacks. A negative revenge spiral is created and neither of the parties is aware of it until it is too late. In a recent case in Sweden (summer 2009), strong feelings led to an overt action when a sixteen-year-old boy and his girlfriend of the same age murdered another girl their age in an act of revenge related to a jealousy drama. It is clear that perpetrators have a vulnerability within them that causes a dissolution of the difference between fantasizing about an action and carrying it out in reality.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Revenge from a gender perspective: abuse of women

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I n men’s violence against women, there is an individual perpetrator perspective that has connections to group ideologies pertaining to control of women. However, we can also see how psychological factors in individual men indicate the emotional background behind their development into perpetrators. We can observe the exten sive element of revenge in this background. We describe several interviews with abusive men and discuss ways of understanding the phenomenon of men who abuse women. Absences of attachment and empathy seem to play a central role.

Men’s violence towards women is a male capsizal (Eliasson, 2000) and more common than many can imagine. In London, one in three women has been forced to endure severe violence by a male partner. Two of three men interviewed in a British survey say they use violence on their women in “conflict situations” that can be as minor as her not having dinner ready on time (!). In England, two women are murdered every week by a male partner or lover (Bloom, 2001). Approximately 12 per cent of all men, according to an American survey, have committed acts of violence on women at some time in their lives, such as punching, kicking, or striking them with an object or using sexual violence (Strauss, in Fonagy, 1999).

 

CHAPTER NINE: Extreme collective violence: the example of Rwanda

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W e return to large group phenomena after having used a revenge perspective to look at everyday situations. We take up Rwanda as an example and describe the atmosphere prevailing there ten years after genocide. The interplay between leaders and followers is a primary factor and at the same time there are phenomena that are special for the perpetrators in Rwanda. We discuss their ways of explaining what they did and how they look at it now through interviews made by a French journalist. Finally, we take up the revenge murders that inevitably followed in the aftermath of the genocide.

Rwanda is a small country of 26,338 square kilometres, not larger than the Swedish province of Småland and slightly smaller than the state of Maryland in the USA. It is an extremely poor country with a population of about eight million, situated north of its twin Burundi and wedged in by Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Uganda, up on a lush green plateau in the middle of Central Africa. At the point in time prior to the start of the genocide, the Tutsis made up 15 per cent of the population and had long been the well-educated elite in society. They were mainly ranchers, while the Hutus, who made up 85 per cent of the population, were for the most part farm workers.

 

CHAPTER TEN: Refraining from revenge

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Refraining from revenge starts with a person’s own resistance, which in the best case scen ario can transcend into a mental realm of reflectiona dialogue, as we see in the example of Jean. We also illustrate how this dialogue expresses itself in psychotherapy. The goal now is to break the spiral of revenge and achieve restoration.

“It’s amazing that they had such mercy on us. That shouldn’t even be possible.”

Alphonse, one of the Hutus who took part in the massacre in Rwanda, after his prison release

(Hatzfeld, 2009, p. 16)

We will now return to Jean, the youth whom we cited in the book’s foreword. Jean exper ienced the unbearably painful loss of having his entire family obliterated during the Rwandan genocide, after which he lived on the streets until he received help from pedia tric surgeon Dr Alfred Jahn, who provided a place for him to live and arranged for him to attend school. At the time of our first conversation with Jean in 2003, he has lived with Dr Jahn for a couple of months. He is dressed in a scruffy t-shirt with cut-off sleeves and he looks grim and edgy, almost a little dangerous, with his piercing gaze and powerful voice. His face is twisted in anger, and he holds his hand up in front of him in a demonstrative gesture, as if he wants to show his fighting spirit: his zeal to take revenge. However, at the end of the same interview, he suddenly looks considerably more relaxed and says:

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Surviving psychic trauma

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A Rwandan boy pointed to his chest and said: In my heart there will always be sorrow and anger. I will not be able to reconcile myself with what happened but I accept it.

A woman who was a child during the Holocaust said: I showered for hours … but I couldn’t wash those feelings away.

The liberation after genocide probably belongs to the most painful period, paradoxical as that may seem. It is no longer possible to deny reality. The inevitable moment of reckoning has arrived. People can no longer cherish the hope that missing persons in their families will return. Their closest relatives are no longer alive. Their sense of loneliness is overwhelm ing (Kaplan, 2008). How is it possible for people who have experienced traumas in war and genocide to bear their wounds and perhaps their hatred and, optimally, to free themselves of them? How is it possible for them to get on with their lives and tolerate the affects that are invad ing their psyche?

We meet a Rwandan woman who is in a deep depression. She tries to imagine how her future will be, considering that the perpetrators are among her neighbours in Rwanda. She says: “To open the window in the morning and see the people who murdered my family …”. She touches the back of her hand and continues: “I feel like I have open wounds … the wounds in my skin that had just closed … are opening up again. I don’t know how I am going to react … now I have the power to do something.”

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: Stopping the revenge spiral

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I n order to prevent the act of revenge or to stop it from developing into a revenge spiral, people who can provide counterbalances are needed. They can be individual helpers and rescuers or ordinary people who show civil courage and do not remain passive spectators of violence. In this chapter, we want to inspire resistance by giving examples of such helpers and of initiatives that can help prevent or stop various types of violence, all the way from violence in the home and on the street to genocide.

During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we have learned about a number of people and organizations that have shown civil courage and an impressive involvement, and have thus counteracted hate and revenge. Their actions usually start as private initiatives and sometimes become institutionalized in later stages.

Social worker Irena Sendler smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto, and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. Organizations such as Amnesty, Save the Children, Doctors without Borders, and international groups against torture are other examples of forces for the good. The list is long and encouraging, although, at the same time, the well-documented strength of the destructive forces in the world is almost paralysing. The passionate humanitarians with whom we ourselves have come into contact, however, show us the possibility and the importance of individual resistance against hatred and potential revenge.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Restoration and reconciliation

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Restorationfrom the perspective of the individualis to set boundaries for one’s own integrity and to protect one’s own interests. Revenge can feel sweet in the short term but its thrust is to hurt the other and invariably even oneself, since the vengeful individual becomes ensnared in bitterness. Restoration, in contrast, is a way to regain one’s own dignity. In a broader sense, restoration can also be part of a political struggle, which can perhaps counteract earlier feelings of loss or failure. The individual, by regaining his dignity, does something good for himself and for his own group. In this concluding chapter, we intend to show the possibilities and difficulties involved in seeking and obtaining restoration.

A striving for restoration can imply an ambition to obtain justice. Many who have experienced cruel assaults towards their own person or towards people close to them say that justice is important. But what does that mean and what exactly is the difference between justice and revenge?

 

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