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On the Dynamics of a Frightening Urge and its Taming

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

Reviewed by Marion M. Oliner, Ph.D.
J Am Psychoanal Assoc 2010 58: 175-178.


The two authors of this book draw upon their extensive experience in areas in which the theme, vengeance has played a key part in massive destruction. They have visited Ruanda after the genocide and have studied the effects of the hostility against foreigners in their own country as well the effects of extreme traumatization. In addition, their work with couples has confronted them with the same ubiquitous motto “don’t get mad, get even”.

The book is divided into three major topics:
1. Vengeance and its causes.
2. Acts of revenge.
3. Renunciation of the recourse to revenge.

In the first section the authors state as their goal to describe the general mechanisms of revenge omitting therefore the differences that exist in its specific manifestations. Instead they aim at elaborating clearly the patterns by means of descriptions of tragic phenomena in politics, in groups, and in extreme situations such as persecution or genocide. These are made more vivid and accessible by the illustrations the authors provide of familiar situations and day to day relationships.

According to Böhm and Kaplan, revenge is mostly an expression of the defense against feelings of shame, loss, guilt, helplessness, anxiety and grief. By means of revenge, anger is directed outward: it is deflected from painful emotions, at the same time as it maintains the relationship to others though envy, rancor, defiance and “Schadenfreude”, an expression that has no equivalent in English but signifies the pleasure at the misfortunes of others. In this concise description, the authors have conveyed a theme with which everyone is familiar, and as they say, identification with the aggressor can be observed in everyday life, in the abuse of children, as well as on a larger scale in politics.

I was particularly struck by their observation that regardless of whether the individuals identify with the aggressor or the victim, identification saves them from reflection. This view of identification is rare in psychoanalytic circles but it expresses misgivings that I share. All too frequently identification is supposed to explain the reasons for a person’s thinking. When this happens, it is possible that the writer is also avoiding the reflection necessary to assess the dynamics motivating the identification. In the situation of revenge, the individuals experience their actions as justified because their grief, loss or other injury prevents clear thinking. Revenge aims at undoing the hurt, identification is the means to that end.

They allude to the limited capacity of man to manage strong emotions and point out that group processes lend support to the feelings of defeat underlying the wish for revenge. Nevertheless, as they point out, there are factors such as reason, appreciation for complexity, and insecurity that can work against the powerful and regressive need to remain passive within a group process whose aim is destructive.But they warn that even mature individuals may not be able to withstand the pressures of a group, especially as it simplifies problems and thereby has the appearance of solving problems related to guilt, conflict or moral questions. The judgments rendered by a group can manifest themselves in prejudices and orthodoxy, and one can gain the impression that they express contempt for those plagued by relativism and more nuanced thinking. The authors call it fundamentalism and suggest that the locked room is an expression for the relatively primitive defense mechanisms whose function it is to protect from the threat of the unknown.

Böhm and Kaplan discuss the importance for survival of belonging to a group, and they suggest that some of the experiments that were conducted in psychology laboratories supposedly proving obedience to commands given by an authority regardless of their cruelty, actually prove the need to live up to group norms. Thus, in order to fulfill the goal of group adherence, feelings of the individual must be deadened as the group engages in the Rachspirale (spiral of revenge). They point to cultures in which revenge is accepted, in which the victims of these so-called murders in the service of salvaging a family’s honor are mostly female. Acts of terrorism, on the other hand, are desparate attempts to gain respect, wherein the fear of the targeted victim is accepted as a form of respect.

The authors stress that trauma is part of the human condition: the unelaborated trauma that must be denied can be a temptation toward revenge veering on brutality. This theme leads to an interesting review of the literature on the subject. According to the studies they cite, economic problems are not at the forefront of the causes for revenge. Instead psychological and cultural factors are responsible for the violence that erupts in the name of undoing a past injury, even when their overt manifestation appears to be material or territorial. It is a matter of undoing evil by acts that are commensurate with the injury.

They warn about interpreting the feelings of persecutory guilt experienced by perpetrators as stemming from the superego. They suggests that it is a primitive sense of guilt experienced by the perpetrator as if his victim lived inside of him and persecuted him vengefully. Instead of accepting his own violence as the source of his unease, he blames those whom he attacked.

Turning from the group phenomena described above, the authors devote an extensive part of the book to domestic violence. It is caused by the inability to establish a relationship that is based on partnership. Instead these men, whom they are discussing, relate in order to gain dominance over the woman who becomes the bearer of a part of themselves which they need to disown. To them the renunciation of force is experienced as cowardice, and the work with them consists of opening other avenues of thinking. Kaplan is responsible for the maneuver they call: making room. This refers to the closed room concept mentioned above, and the help a therapist can give to intervene in the process of opening up the psychic space. It involves creating new relations to important persons or events. But they caution that reconciliation is not always possible. In many cases, the damage that has been done is too great. Furthermore they stress that reconciliation should not be confused with forgiveness nor with justice, which they call sublimated revenge. Rather the aim of the work they advocate should be to develop psychic and moral maturity that functions as a force against acts of revenge.

Their recommendations are modest. Undoing the harm is almost never an option in those cases that come to the attention of the workers involved and Böhm and Kaplan point out the reconciliation involves two parties and is not always possible. However, it is realistic to obtain from the perpetrator an acknowledgement of the destructive and brutal acts that were committed.

The book ends with a discussion of the difficulties encountered by those who work with perpetrators and victims of violence prompted by the wish for revenge. It can be traumatic even for those who are third parties and called upon to help, as was evident in Ruanda where the UN personnel stood helplessly by as the events unfolded and were themselves severely traumatized partly by their own inability to help.

The book is an important contribution for the understanding of revenge whereever it manifests itself: on the playground, in the relationships of couples, in sexuality, the reaction to the Holocaust, and many more contemporary problems, unfortunately too numerous to mention. In addition it addresses the toll it takes on the therapist who takes on the task of helping those embroiled in the spiral of revenge. I hope that this brief review does justice to its rich content.


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