IN ENGLISH På engelska


On the Dynamics of a Frightening Urge and its Taming

Tomas Böhm and Suzanne Kaplan, London: Karnac (2011).

Madeleine Sultán Sjöqvist


In Swedish: Hämnd eller Upprättelse – om hämndspiralens psykologi, Tomas Böhm and Suzanne Kaplan, Stockholm: Natur & Kultur (2006) 2009, second edition, first printing.

The complete English translation of the second edition, with further revisions, is Revenge – on the dynamics of a frightening urge and ist taming, Tomas Böhm and Suzanne Kaplan, London: Karnac (2011).

A prominent feature of Tomas Böhm’s and Suzanne Kaplan’s is that they do not advocate forgiveness. We seldom see such a consistent therapeutic position. But it is precisely this insight that the afflicted need to meet. From such a perspective, those who have been forced to suffer cruelties are provided with a constructive opportunity to cope with their thoughts, feelings and actions. They can thereby avoid becoming a part of a revenge spiral, a spiral that tends to escalate.

Kaplan and Böhm published a book in Swedish on revenge and restoration in 2006 and the book now being reviewed is an expanded second edition published in 2009 and in English 2011. They show how revenge, as a psychological mechanism, is an active ingredient in everything from the “minor” pointers of everyday life such as the withholding of important information to more serious matters such as infidelity in couples’ relationships and ranging upward to major societal phenomena such as war and genocide. Both Kaplan and Böhm have extensive experience of the psychology of revenge and restoration. She is a psychologist, a psychoanalyst and a writer and holds a PhD in education. Her thesis was based on work with children who have survived genocide. He is an MD, a psychoanalyst and writer and works with couples’ relationships, xenophobia and the psychology of perpetrators.

One premise of the book is that all of us have the capacity to take revenge when our self-esteem is hurt and violated, but that most of us stop at revenge fantasies. We quite simply find ways out of destructive relationships, unsound workplaces and repressive situations. Similarly, most of us are capable of holding on to the insight that we harbour both good and evil within ourselves. The avenger, in contrast, has convinced himself beyond the shadow of a doubt that evil exits outside him. Evil is ascribed to the victim. The avenger sees no way of dealing with his own strong feelings other than to retaliate.

The key concept for Kaplan and Böhm is the revenge spiral. Based on a psychological understanding, they describe in the first part of the book how revenge and revenge spirals are expressed and function in practice. They take to polemics not least against the countless revenge themes that appear to play a major role in everything from literature and film to religion. Cultural history is rife with humans and gods who obliterate, retaliate and are totally close-minded – and who believe that they are triumphant – according to Kaplan and Böhm. The authors also use psychological theories to explain why people take revenge, harass others and show intolerance. I personally believe that most of us have asked ourselves these questions: Do I look the other way when I see bullying, harassment and vengeful actions? Do I get swept away by group pressure? Am I capable of actively participating in evil actions or of standing passively on the sidelines while I watch the group around me commit them? Or would I have the courage to stand up for the victim even if it cost me exclusion from the fellowship of the group? Kaplan and Böhm’s answer cuts to the core: Most of us would give in to the pressure of the group. But we can learn to recognize and thereby expose the simplistic and cheap tricks that avengers and psychopaths use when they want to get a mob to join them. By doing so, we can be better equipped to resist the complicity and the moral failure of silent bystanders.

The second part of the book is about restoration, a part that could well have been expanded. I say this not least considering that we have in today’s society greater opportunities for people to break away from destructive relationships, workplaces and regimes that carry out genocide. We need strategies to enable us to deal with neighbours, “friends”, “colleagues” and “partners” who are caught in a destructive revenge spiral, people whom we in certain cases find in our daily lives. We frankly need not only to learn to recognize acts of revenge, narcissistic personalities and psychopaths, but also to be given examples of guidebooks from which we can learn to think and act in such a way as to prevent revenge from becoming a central part of our own lives. I hope the authors are working on a free-standing sequel where they give more details on how to proceed. More books on the psychology of civil courage are especially needed. What gives certain individuals the strength to stand up against a mob led by a psychopath though they risk their own well-being and comfort, yes, even their own life?

There is a profound seriousness about this book; the authors do not shy away from evil, cruelties and atrocities. It is a serious matter to force another human being to endure intolerance, revenge and genocide and it is a serious matter to have been dragged into a revenge spiral. Part of the book’s strength is that the authors so clearly and consistently show that they side with the victims, with those who are the target of their fellow human beings’ cruelty. The authors do not believe that forgiveness functions as a means of restoration, brilliantly stated on their part. No, life cannot go on as though nothing has happened. No, I cannot forgive you. No, I cannot relieve you of your guilt. You must bear it yourself. Restoration, according to the authors, can only be achieved between equals. Unless the perpetrator confronts his actions and changes radically, there is, quite bluntly, no basis for forgiveness. Kaplan and Böhm have reached the conclusion that perpetrators rarely have the capacity for transformation.

It is so easy to believe that restoration comes with retaliation, with giving the perpetrator a dose of his own medicine. Who can forget Don Corleones’s statement of his life wisdom to one of his sons in The Godfather, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” History is rife with humans and gods who obliterate, retaliate and are totally close-minded – and who believe that they are triumphant. Now thanks to Kaplan and Böhm we can also see a path away from banalities.


Madeleine Sultán Sjöqvist
Lecturer in the Sociology of Religion
Uppsala University


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