“TJ is a butt turd!” My 10-year-old self sat back to admire my handiwork: drawn in permanent purple, in foot-high letters, right on the front porch. So everyone who came to our house would know exactly what kind of kid my little brother was. To this day I don’t remember what he had done that so incensed me that I thought this was an appropriate response but I do remember being super proud of myself. All the way until my parents saw it (and my brother’s scribbled response on the sidewalk) and made us spend an afternoon scrubbing concrete with bleach.
Ah, revenge gone awry. Good times! (Some other time we’ll have to talk about revenge with unintended consequences…)
But revenge isn’t just a theme for childhood fantasies and TV dramas (that star sweet, vapid Amy from Everwood as Hampton’s ninja Emily/Amanda – I still can’t wrap my brain around that one). Unfortunately as we get older and more aware of the injustices of life, it becomes more infectious. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
A friend recently screwed me over. On the scale of betrayal (Would that not make an awesome game show??), it ranks just above the roommate who made out with the boy she knew I liked (in my bed, no less) but just below the time a girl rear-ended me going 2 miles an hour and then sued me for extensive injuries a year later (she lost). My friend is no Snowden. And I knew it. So when she finally ‘fessed up, after months of avoiding me, I shrugged and said, “What’s done is done. No worries.”
Except I did worry. And that worry started to fester just a little bit. Not only had she inconvenienced me but now I was out a significant chunk of cash. I tried not to think about it or at least consider it from her perspective but one night as I lay awake, stewing over the hard little knot it had left in my stomach, I realized what I wanted. I wanted revenge. I’m not normally a vengeful person but the money kept gnawing at me. Plus, her response had felt too glib – apparently she’d taken my directive not to worry at face value and had gone merrily on her way, like Lindsay Lohan after a car crash. (Oopsie! How’s my lipstick?)
But I’d wanted her to feel bad about it! Not, like, forever, but a little acknowledgement of the pain she’d caused would have been nice. And because she didn’t have the apparent decency to feel bad, I wanted to make her feel bad. I spent way too much time considering exactly how I could do that – not my finest hour, to say the least – but I couldn’t think of anything that would have the desired effect that didn’t involve property damage (paging Carrie Underwood!). Then I had an epiphany.
This is why revenge never works: Its success hinges on the other person doing what you want them to – which if that had worked, you wouldn’t be in the situation in the first place.
Oh sure, ostensibly you could force the other person to do what you wanted, at least for a moment, but you wouldn’t be able to control how they felt about it and in the end that’s really what you wanted. So everyone loses. (Proof: Every movie Denzel Washington has ever been in. Okay, except maybe for “Mother Goose: A Rappin’ and Rhymin’ Special. Oh yes, he was in that.)
But I tell you this story not to tell you what she did (which I hope I’ve been vague enough about that no one will recognize the situation as it is not my intent to embarrass her) but to tell you what I did. I decided to just give it away. Yes, that meant the money was really gone. But, let’s be honest, it was already gone anyhow. Stewing about it wasn’t going to make my dollars come home unless suddenly teeth grinding becomes lucrative. But making the decision to just give it – freely, unconditionally, with an open heart – turned it from a loss to a gift. And giving things makes me feel awesome. On her end it changed absolutely nothing but on my end it changed everything. Just like magic the knot was gone and my heart was eased. Yeah, it hurt making the decision but it didn’t hurt nearly as much as hanging on to my anger and bitterness did. And I didn’t lose an otherwise good friend.
You’d think I’d have already learned this lesson by now. There was a time in my life when Revenge! was a major theme. During the court case where I testified against my ex-boyfriend for sexually assaulting me (and a bunch of other people) and then when he went to prison, lots of folks made comments along the lines of “Well now you are finally getting revenge (or vindication) for what he did to you!” Indeed the prosecutor even made a comment to me about how rapists are treated in prison and how I could rest assured that he’d get his. “Don’t drop the soap!”
That made me want to retch. Because revenge was not my motive at all. See, my ex assaulted me five years before he was arrested for sexually abusing a different girl. I was five years past our awful breakup. I was five years past his death threats. I was four years (and two and a half kids) into a healthy marriage to a man whom I deeply love and respect. The last thing I wanted to think about was that awfulness in the past. So it wasn’t revenge that drove me to talk to the police. It was simply because I wanted him to stop hurting people, including himself. And the only way I could see to do that was through the legal system. If he’d kept his promise that I was “the only one” he’d ever done that to then I likely never would have gone to the cops. (I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. I’m simply saying that, as a victim, that was my truth.)
But he didn’t stop himself. So I had to. (Me and the other girls who testified as well. They were amazingly strong – I don’t want to make it sound like I was the Lone Ranger or something.)
I’ve written before about my ambivalence about testifying. It was a 9-month nightmare that was absolutely the worst time of my life – and that includes all my eating disorders and the death of my daughter. I had horrible PTSD. I got hate mail from strangers calling me a slut or worse. I had nightmares every single night and most days to boot. I remember watching the sentencing video from my bed while holding my 2-day old son and wondering how I’d make sure my boy didn’t end up like that boy. And yet I’d probably do the same thing over again. Not for revenge. Not to hurt him. Not to make him sorry for what he did (which, judging by his statement at his sentencing, I’m pretty sure he isn’t). But simply to make him stop. Get help. And since he hasn’t reoffended (that I know of), perhaps my sacrifice worked? I hope so.
I bring this up now because I recently got an e-mail from a sweet girl in a similar situation – and I get an alarming amount of letters like hers – who asked me: “In the end, was it worth it to you to get revenge?”
No. A hundred times no. If you are considering pursuing legal options because you want revenge then you will likely be disappointed. Even when it goes exactly as it should (Does that ever happen?) our justice system can still feel horribly unjust. Because even if he actually goes to jail – which is rare enough – and he is forced to pay some physical penance for what he did, you still can’t make him feel sorry that he hurt you. You can’t make him feel anything.
I remember one of the lowest moments for me in the court case was when the prosecutor told me my ex was challenging my testimony because he didn’t even remember me. I’ve been left in the years since to wonder if I really was so inconsequential to him that he could shatter me and then step over the shards as if nothing happened or if it was one more way he was still trying to manipulate me – to tell me I was so below nothing that he wouldn’t even acknowledge I existed much less was a person he hurt.
If that’s one thing I learned from the court case it’s that I never was a person to him. I was a plaything, to be used and abused, and then thrown away when I no longer served my purpose. That the love I had honestly felt for him was a total farce on his part. And how do you get revenge for that? How do you make someone feel the pain of being willed out of existence? You can’t. No amount of jail time will fix that.
So, sweet reader, am I telling you not to press charges? Not to testify? No. I do actually think there are many good reasons to take him to court. I just don’t think revenge is one of them. Revenge never works. (Unless you’re Austin Powers, in which case sally forth.)
The only way I’ve made peace with my past is forgiveness. And I don’t mean forgiving him – although I’ve done my best to do that too. I mean forgiving me. The court case was almost as much about punishing myself for all my mistakes both in the five years previous and for not coming forward sooner and sparing all the victims that came after me (and yes I’ve had a lot of therapy since to disabuse me of that guilt) as it was about punishing him. It’s taken way more work to forgive that scared, hurt, young girl who was in over her head and didn’t know to do anything but cry. But one of the ways I honor her existence and humanity is to keep talking about this.
To you, dear e-mailer, (and to all of you who haven’t written it out but think it): I love you. You are strong and brave and beautiful. You are more than this moment and some day this will be just one footnote in your life book. Whatever you choose is the right choice for you. Believe your own voice, even if no one else does. And if you choose to speak out about this – whether it be in a court room or a chat room – know that I hear you. You are not alone.
And someday – not today and maybe not for a lot of days (and that’s ok!) – you too will be able to say “What’s done is done. No worries.” And mean it for yourself. There is peace to be found.
Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted revenge? What happened? Anyone have advice to add to (or correct) mine, for the letter writer?
P.S. I really worried about posting this. It’s not that funny. It gets a little preachy. And mostly because I don’t want you guys to think I’m making myself out to be some kind of saint or something. Rather I hope that by reading this – and knowing how much I screw up – you will realize that if I can work through my revenge fantasies then you can too! I mean, especially with my friend in the first example, it’s not like I’ve never disappointed someone or been a jerk. So yeah, we’re all in this together…