The wounded and the jilted have acted to even the score since the beginning of civilization. In the olden days, revenge even helped keep the peace in society: The Code of Hammurabi, the earliest recorded set of laws, dating back to 1760BC, sanctioned revenge as a way to keep order; the phrase “an eye for an eye” was coined in the Bible; and in Japan’s Edo period, samurai warriors took an oath to seek revenge if their masters were
harmed. Back then, if you messed up, there would be hell to pay, so you behaved.
Today, we have more reasonable laws and police forces and Crown prosecutors that are supposed to keep the world just. Yet DIY-style revenge lives on in a big way.
Admit it: You’ve thought about revenge or have even tried it—recently. Everywhere I turn, revenge is in the spotlight. It’s being celebrated and glorified on TV shows like the Fox drama
Revenge and reality TV’s
adulterous partners are caught in the act by a film crew with an angry lover in tow).
In film, Lisbeth Salander, in
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is out for it, and Batman is back for one more round. On the radio, I keep hearing Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” (“I dug my key into the side / Of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive”), Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” — a roasting of his ex Britney Spears — and Linkin Park’s vengeful “Burn It Down.”
Even legitimate news shows can’t help but cover retaliation-fuelled incidents, like singer Chris Brown’s recent brawl with Drake, the current love interest of his ex Rihanna, or more sensational tales such as the California woman in the midst of a
divorce who cut off her husband’s penis, put it down the garbage disposal and flipped the “on” switch. (She told police that “he deserved it.”)
Writer Eva Nagorski became intrigued by the subject when she was asked to write a fictional blog, called That Girl Emily, about 14 days of revenge to promote a Court TV show. Men and women alike wrote in to tell their stories, and Nagorski shares some of these in her book,
The Down and Dirty Dish on Revenge: Serving It Up Nice and Cold to That Lying, Cheating Bastard.
“People across all walks of life and at every income and education level have thought about revenge,” she says. “Culture celebrates it because it’s taboo and titillating. It’s sexy.”
Are you the type to willfully seek out revenge? Find out on the next page…
Nagorski argues that movies such as
The War of the Roses,
The First Wives Club and
Fatal Attraction have made viewers laugh, cringe and live vicariously through these fictional revenge stories. In her book, she quotes Raymond DiGiuseppe, chair of the psychology department at New York’s St. John’s University. His research shows that revenge is being glorified now in ways that it really wasn’t in the past and that the shift in attitude “has gone from retribution will get you in trouble to revenge is good.”
Nagorski says it’s impossible to identify any one film or moment in history that marked the shift. But, personally, I think September 11, 2001, was a turning point. Desire for revenge was immediately widespread. George W. Bush talked about “hunting down” terrorists and making the Taliban “pay.”
When a world leader spouts such vengeful words, it makes them acceptable. Susan Boon, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, has studied revenge in depth. Over the past decade, she has watched the revenge theme become more prevalent across all types of media, especially film.
movies celebrate revenge, and there’s less emphasis on showing the consequences of acting on it,” she says. “To moviegoers, there’s a kind of aesthetic beauty and joy in watching people get what they deserve.”
The effect of portrayals of revenge is similar to that of portrayals of violence: The more we see it, the more we view it as normal, and a kind of numbness sets in. We root for the ones dishing out punishment. I’ve noticed the shift in my own life. I confess to watching Judge Judy cut liars and greedy plaintiffs down to size in her courtroom. And I cheer on Emily Thorne, the heroine of
Revenge, as she plots retribution for every one of the people who caused her father to be falsely imprisoned.
I’ve begun to take real joy in watching or hearing about mean people who receive payback for their deeds. I think my personal glee over revenge traces back to January 16, 2011. That’s the date my (now former) partner ended our eight-year cohabitation after a pleasant dinner of grilled cheese and soup by saying, “I’ve been thinking about things, and
it’s over.” That was it. No discussion, no compromise, no attempt to work things out. It got worse from there.
Find out if Michele gave into revenge or not on the next page…
We lived together in awkward silence for another six weeks. Then one day, while I was attending a writers conference, our three cats and many of my possessions disappeared. I was left with an email announcing a legal quest for spousal support, plus nasty, false accusations that I’d slept with an
ex-boyfriend and that I was keeping my income low deliberately to avoid having to pay monthly support. I was angry. Big time. My thoughts migrated from disbelief and hurt to how I could get even: I wanted revenge.
I thought about slashing tires. I came up with a crafty plot that involved a locksmith and a pizza delivery man to get the cats back. I drafted embarrassing Facebook posts featuring excerpts from my ex’s email rants. I even contemplated a call to my in-laws to explain my side of the situation. I didn’t actually do any of this — but it sure felt good thinking about it.
According to a groundbreaking 2004 study by Ernst Fehr, director of the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, we are hard-wired to get pleasure from revenge.
Fehr used MRI brain scans to see what was going on when subjects thought about punishing those who betrayed their trust. Turns out that even the act of pondering revenge lights up the brain’s pleasure centre, where the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine resides. (It’s the same spot that’s stimulated by chocolate, candy and cocaine.)
Boon surmises that watching fictional revenge may also stimulate those same pleasure centres, causing us to derive joy from watching evil getting its ass kicked. “This could convince some people that revenge is acceptable,” she says. But despite the
feelings of joy that can come from watching or imagining revenge, actually dishing out DIY-style justice can make you feel worse rather than better.
According to a study by social psychologist Kevin Carlsmith at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., following through on revenge leads to more feelings of anger and guilt. In his experiments, he offered subjects the opportunity to take revenge for a specific act.
Afterwards, however, the participants who chose to avenge felt worse than those who didn’t. His conclusion? The theory is that revenge keeps anger burning longer — which makes it not nearly as cathartic or satisfying as we hope or imagine it to be.
But when the desire for revenge is extremely passionate—like in the case of my broken heart—it can rise to another level as chaotic feelings take over (and we ignore the fact that we are prolonging the agony), according to Nagorski.
“Love isn’t rational. It’s emotional. So you see people acting out who may normally be quite levelheaded,” she says. And in this age of electronic media, retaliation has never been so convenient or anonymous.
Discover how to make peace with revenge and not give into temptation on the next page…
Sure, you can rant about your ex on Facebook or via video on YouTube, but there are revenge-specific sites too. At
getrevengeonyourex.com, you can put up embarrassing photos of your former love or have a humiliating postcard mailed to him. Over at
ExboyfriendJewelry.com, you can sell any
bling he gave you. And at
RevengeLady.com, you’ll find links to purchase dead flowers or arrange for a smelly fish delivery.
While Nagorski warns against using the Internet to get revenge— “Once it’s out there, it’s out there for good. And when you start dating someone new, you’re going to have to explain how and why you took revenge. It just doesn’t bode well.”
She isn’t completely anti-revenge. “If you can do something with a light touch or sense of humour that will help you move on, it might be useful. But I would never condone something illegal.” Lori Dennis, a Toronto-based psychotherapist, also understands how powerful the desire for revenge can be.
“When someone does something wrong to you and you can’t do anything about it, it makes you feel powerless and small,” she says. “Revenge is one way to take your power back and restore equilibrium.” But Dennis doesn’t recommend acting out revenge, despite the fact that our pleasure receptors fire up just thinking about it. “If you do, it’s a slippery slope, and you up the ante with more bad feelings of angst and guilt,” she explains.
No person is either 100 percent bad or good, Dennis reminds me. She says we should ask ourselves what role we might have played in the situation. Seeing the shades of grey cools the burn of anger. The person who hurt you stops being the bogeyman. I know that I am partly to blame for the collapse of my
I stayed in a bad situation, and I kept my blinders on to my own dissatisfaction. After my ex and I settled things before a judge (my ex only got 25 percent of the value of the house due to a pre-existing agreement), I got a little taste of the “light touch” revenge Nagorski describes. I took whatever of my ex’s possessions (books, DVDs, vinyl records, exercise equipment) were left in the house and put them on the curb with a “Free!” sign.
I donated the rest to charity. And I got my own cats—ones no one can take from me. Pretty harmless stuff as far as revenge goes, but it did feel good. I know now that it was a positive thing that the relationship ended, but I still have issues with the coldhearted manner in which my ex handled the breakup. For me, that puts forgiveness a long way down the road—even though I know that, as Dennis told me, “the flip side of revenge is forgiveness, and for personal growth, forgiveness is an important step.”
I realize refusing to forgive hurts me the most, and I know there are buckets of research that demonstrate the positive effects of forgiveness on body and soul. I’m just not there yet. In the meantime, I’m going to start by cutting back on my revenge-infused TV choices and knowing I can be happy and love again. I believe the adage that says that living life well is the best revenge.