Fantasies of Revenge and the Stabilization of the Ego

Acts of Revenge and the Ascension of  Thanatos

There’ve been 2 major traumas in my life: one before my analysis, the other during. My first was when I was a senior in college. I was brutally assaulted, my neck was sliced open with a razor blade, and I almost died. My second was when the man I was passionately in love with rejected me, decided not to marry me. For many years after the assault, I was not consciously angry at that man. Even after he was caught, my overriding fantasy never had to do with exacting revenge. I imagined that one day I would go to prison and meet him, and just simply ask him why he felt compelled to do that to me. My liberal compassion, my desire for understanding carried the day.

But ten years later, when my sweetie decided that he couldn’t marry me, revenge fantasies filled the whole of my interior self. I have to assume that my fantasies were fueled by the freedom of thought and feeling that analysis fosters. This was my fantasy: I imagined that my lover would be involved in some terrible accident – and that as a result he would be a paraplegic; he would have no use of his legs – maybe even he would have no legs. But – here is the kicker – his mind would be totally in tact. And, in this state, he would finally come to realize that I truly loved him, that my love was the most valuable thing that he had ever had in his life – and that without my love, he was doomed to live out his last awful years, with no love.

These fantasies were quite conscious. I gave them full room to breathe and be alive in my psyche. And they were quite specific. I didn’t imagine him dead because having him dead was quite beside the point. I wanted to see him suffer – and for a long time. That was to be my revenge.

Revenge in our culture

The earliest known picture depicts men killing one another. Later in history, the Old Testament tells of Cain and Abel, the two bothers, one killing the other. Before we chastise Cain for his horrifying act of destructive aggression, let us remember that Cain is credited, in modern terms,as the founder of civilization; he built the first city and invented agriculture. Cain, the founder of civilization; Cain the murderer. Most of us have learned from childhood that the desire to get even is neither noble nor mature. We have been taught, for instance, that it is not appropriate for individuals to take justice into their own hands and exact revenge over a private feud. Our Judeo-Christian religions are based on the precept of forgiveness. Rabbi David Posner says that forgiveness is “the central thrust” in God’s relationship with humanity. Father Richard Neuhaus says “To wish revenge is evil.” He advises to “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Similarly, our criminal justice system, we solemnly assure ourselves, is based on our commitment to fairness and to the need for punishment appropriate to the crime. Revenge, we are told, has no place in the restoration of order.

Yet, in spite of our moral stance of recoiling from revenge, we are fascinated by it and embrace it. Revenge has been a favorite theme in art,from the Greek tragedies to Shakespeare. Revenge is a leading theme in modern movies and in detective and spy fiction. In any of the movies based on revenge, there is scarcely a shudder in the audience when the hero starts killing, picking off one punk after another, in revenge for the murder of his wife, say, or the rape of his daughter. Instead, a cheering audience always gives its approval of this behavior. Our cultural fascination with murder arises, then, not out of some perverse, other-than-human part of our selves, but rather from a deep, often unacknowledged awareness of our own murderous inclinations.

As a theme in entertainment, revenge is so popular – maybe even more popular than the church – because we are given license to feel what we can’t help feeling anyway.

Revenge and the stabilization of the ego

When our desire for revenge remains on the level of a fantasy, it actually serves several constructive psychological functions. For example, thedesire for revenge, directed toward another, can serve as an internal gyroscope. Vengefulness maintains the balance of the destructive drive bydirecting it away from the self. In this, a desire for revenge is self-protective and stabilizing to the psyche. It marks the beginning of movement away from narcissistic self-involvement by allowing another person existence enough for blame. When someone has been wronged, apsychologically healthy response is to direct rage at the wrongdoer rather than turn it against the self. Wanting revenge is part of the healing process of hurt and anger.

Fantasies of revenge maintain a bond with the person toward whom the revenge is directed. As long as one is busily occupied with fantasies of revenge, the other person is not really given up. If the feelings of separation or grief are too painful to be tolerated, holding onto the hate is a way of holding onto the relationship with the person.

Hate and revenge impulses can provide a force for life when life doesn’t seem worth living. I have spent many therapeutic sessions with spurned lovers plotting revenge, successfully forestalling suicidal behavior that was threatening to emerge whenever the feelings of grief and loss got too intense.

Vengefulness also serves as a defense against feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. The hope of vindictive triumph makes life more bearable and makes us feel less like helpless victims. By imagining the world the way we would like it to be in our revenge fantasies, we escape the real world. In our fantasies, we control our environment; we are powerful enough to give our story whatever ending we like.

The bad guys can all end up dead. Nothing beats revenge fantasies for feeling good about yourself. You’re powerful, righteous, and the number-one winner all the time.

Revenge fantasies are important healing tools, because they help us to use thoughts and feelings in the service of harnessing our impulses and controlling our actions. Revenge fantasies are a way of acting without acting.

King Lear is a prime example of how revenge serves this stabilizing function for the psyche. Lear’s daughters have abandoned him in his oldage, and he becomes obsessed with fantasies of revenge. He plots revenge on them — deeds that will be “the terrors of the earth.”

But Lear begins to think better about his revenge fantasies. Immediately before his descent into madness, he begins to feel a little sorry for his daughters, the “poor naked wretches.” He even begins to blame himself for their suffering.

As Lear’s rage toward his daughters softens, he turns this same fury back on himself, blaming himself for their hard hearts. It is a classic twisting of rage back toward the self in order to protect the beloved others.

Three centuries before the discovery of the concepts of narcissism and narcissistic defense, Shakespeare surely wants us to make the connection between Lear’s setting aside his revenge fantasies and the dark madness that overcomes him.

Cultural codification of revenge

All around the world, for centuries, societies have had principles of revenge that have been precisely spelled out. These people are not squeamish about consciously acknowledging their desire for vengeance. In fact, for many of the cultures, still today, acts of revenge define law as precisely as our own laws define acceptable behavior for us. In these cultures, revenge is not a choice; it is a sacred duty. In the fifteenth century, Albanians compiled a canon of revenge. Today, in Albania, this canon is found on the tops of refrigerators in peoples’ homes, as commonplace as telephone directories. There are 200 pages, more than a thousand precepts that outline every variety of violence in which vengeance is justified.

Laura Blumenfeld went looking for revenge after her father, a rabbi visiting Israel, was shot. The bullet grazed his head, and he lived. As Laura read through the Albanian Canon, she found Precept 906 that gave the revenge prescription for shooting someone, and only grazing their head.

But Laura couldn’t understand the precept for revenge. She traveled to a small town where she met with the head of the Blood Feud Committee.

Here, they don’t believe in “turn the other cheek.” They believe: “Don’t hit my cheek because I’ll kill you.” In Siberia, when a man kills a man, the family of the killed man gets a concrete form of revenge. The family of the killer has to give up one of their own men. He substitutes for the dead man in every way, performing his work, raising his children.

In southern Greece, women sing lullabies of vengeance to the sons of murder victims, fully expecting that when the sons grow up, they will take their revenge.

The Bedouins pass their legacy on through multiple generations by virtue of an oral tradition. They don’t care how long it takes to exact revenge.

They have a saying: “If a man takes revenge after forty years, he was in a hurry.”

Murder as metaphor Like everyone (hopefully), I live with revenge fantasies of murder daily.

When I am imagining being alone, being away from those I love the most, my unconscious is on the subject of revenge and murder. There are times, for instance, when my daughter’s demands have pushed me beyond my tolerable limit. I might be driving, and I imagine an accident in the car – I get hurt or dead, and finally my precious, beloved daughter understands that she cannot make such demands on me. My revenge is my injury to myself.

I have, as well, wishes and desires about the temporary obliteration of another person. These arise out of a need to be away, to be separate and separated from them. Of course, I do not say to myself (or G-d forbid, to anyone else) that I want these people dead at these moments. I say to myself that I just want them to be a little different from the way they are. Or, I want them to go away, if only for a little while. I want Molly to be less childishly narcissistic: “Come on Mol, have a heart. Be good to your over-aged Mom. Be a good girl who can put my needs in front of your immediate, ever-changing entirely-appropriate-for-a-child impulses.”

But here is the ghastly truth about the unconscious: wanting someone to be different is the same as wanting them to not be there; and they’re both equivalent to wanting the person dead, if only for that moment. It’s saying: “You’d be just fine, if only…” But, of course, that brings us into that shoreless arena of the infinite list of “if onlys.”

The if onlys never stop at just one. The if onlys are a thousand contingencies that aren’t true. All of the if only’s are just ways of not being with what is. They’re ways of killing what is. They’re ways of killing, without the actual act.

Metaphorical murders

Murder as vengeance

I see the line between metaphorical murder and actual murder as thin. Being a psychoanalyst is really the same as being a homicide detective who tracks down the murdered and the murderer – the aspects of self that have been killed off and those that want to kill. The themes of life and survival and murder and destruction are common to both endeavors. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill ghetto crime, street-killings, random killings and such are of interest to a sociologist; but intimate murder – murder where eros and thanatos have become fused in some grotesque-Frankensteinian combo – this is the stuff of psychoanalysis. Unless you’re a psychopath, a person who has moved into that death-land of indifference and utter non- feeling, then there’s really no point in killing unless you kill someone you love. A killer who kills with feeling will choose as his victim whomever he loves the most. These murders of passion happen when the love and death drives meet, and then in that sudden moment of passion the death drive – thanatos in all its glory–takes over, and in its ascendancy, erases all memory of eros. Murderers embody life lived on the edge, and beyond. Murderers entice us, even seduce us with the fact of their having crossed a line in actuality that we only dream about. I have read that Jeffrey MacDonald, in prison for the murder of his wife and two small children, has a large fan club and gets marriage proposals from women all the time.

It is just this fascination – with eros and with thanatos – and with how the two can, at times, intersect at destructive angles that led to my interest in Dale Kagan. I think, too, it was my own brush with violence, with my almost-murder that brings me, now, years after the event, to Dale Kagan.

A true tale of revenge spurned by a desire for separation

I read about Dale in the New York Times. It was a small article, hidden way in the back of the Times, page 39 or so, describing a lawsuit that an inmate had won against the correctional system for inadequate medical attention. At the end of the article, there was mention, as though an afterthought, that this woman, the lucky recipient of a lot of cash, was a former Harvard University Graduate School of Business honor student and that she was in prison for the murder of her mother.

After reading the article, on an impulse, I wrote to Dale. I wrote to her because I wanted to know what it takes, what odd mechanism is at work in the mind of a bright, relatively affluent Jewish (I presumed from her name) girl from Long Island. What I wanted to know is how a girl with roughly the same background as myself, privileged in both money and opportunity, could bring herself to kill her own mother. I thought that in coming to know Dale, I might come to know better how murderous rage and the desire for revenge, and the need to be separate and love and togetherness can co-exist in the same space.

The history

This is what I found out from meeting Dale and researching her story. The time shortly before the murder was a particularly happy period for Dale’s mother. She had begun seriously dating a man; her friends have described her during this time as being the happiest they had ever seen her since the death of her husband five years earlier. But apparently Dale’s mother’s circle of inclusion for her new life did not extend to Dale.The last significant communication Dale’s mother made to Dale was that she was planning to remarry and that Dale would have to move out of the house.

Dale’s murder of her mother was a crime of passion. Not pre-meditated, and not your ordinary kind of murder passion between lovers, by a betrayed sweetheart. This was a passion that went back to the original source, the first object of our passions, a passion for mother. This was a murder stimulated, I believe, by the fright and rage of too much separation. And, a blood-thirst for revenge for that forced separation.

Murder and revenge – whether metaphorical or real – is mostly about separation. You don’t want to kill or punish if you don’t feel caught by the involvement. If it’s a mere manner of walking away without a care, then anger, rage, impulses of revenge and murderous thoughts don’t come into the equation. But if you have the feeling that you can’t get away, or that you don’t want to get away, or that you don’t want the other person to get away, then you may resort to murder – either murder in thought and feeling or murder in deed. It’s the fastest escape route known to man. (But not the smartest.)

The Faustian bargain she made with the devil when she chose to kill her mother .

Dale Kagan had become a lost soul, split off from the self that meant the most to her, the self that was still tied to her mother. It is the Faustian bargain she made with the devil when she chose to kill her mother.

She had thus ended all possibility of ever living again peacefully or even merely comfortably with her emotions.

That one fateful day back in 1983, when Dale took a shotgun to her mother’s back, something in Dale broke down. All benefit of reason left her.

Thanatos split off from eros, spinning off into its own descent toward hell.


Psychoanalysis says to be cured – and Arnold Bernstein’s likes to think of cure as like a cured ham – matured with the right spices — you need to have access to all your feelings. So, as Dick Bundy has said: “If you only want to get even, you’ll never get ahead.” So, we have to look at the opposite of revenge; we have to look at forgiveness.

Dale couldn’t forgive her mother. And in thinking about Dale, I came to a stunning realization about myself. I’ m not sure that I have ever forgiven anybody for anything. (I seem to be a bit more kindly toward my dog Sam. I forgive him everyday for going after my new little toy poodle Lilly. I love him and I hate him and I keep forgiving him even after I swear I’ll give him away.) But with humans, with a lifetime of accumulated angers and resentments, I have either moved on, or I’ve stopped caring, or I’ve used reason to set aside my grudges. And some grudges – I still fiercely hold onto them. Remember my sweetie who I wanted limbless because he broke my heart. Well, it took him 25 years, but he was finally able to manage to come be with me. Have I forgiven him all those lost years. Not on your life. We have a loving, wonderful life together. I adore him today as I did when I first met him. But in a New York nano-second, if he says the wrong thing to me, I will remember those years that he wasn’t with me, and I will be so angry that I know that forgiveness can, in no way, describe my state of mind.

The hope of words

Fortunately, there is hope for those of us for whom forgiveness is not possible; there is a solution to the urgent calling of our destructive drive. Psychoanalysis is a method by which we try to prevent the kind of fragmentation of self that can lead to the utter abandonment of one drive and an absolute descent into the other. While it is true that psychoanalysis takes feelings seriously, it is also true that one can come, finally, to the point of nonchalantly dismissing feelings with a shrug, as if to say, “Well, they’re only feelings after all.” The left brain, the new brain that reasons and thinks logically can counterpoint the old brain that sways us to and fro with our feelings. Reason tempers the need to discharge the drives into action. The goal of the psychoanalytic method is inherent in the belief that reason and logic can be brought to bear on all our murderous inclinations, real or imagined murder – that reason and logic is what, in the end, should prevail. Psychoanalysis posits that I can want Molly, who I love more than anyone alive, to disappear for a time, but that I do not need to act out this wish in any destructive fashion; I don’t need to drive the car into a concrete piling; I can make her disappear by going myself for a massage or to a movie. Psychoanalysis posits that Molly can be helped to grow out of her self-centered narcissism in order to develop into a human being who will, at the appropriate age, consider her mother’swishes. She can make herself disappear by going into her room to play with her Barbies. And psychoanalysis posits that Laura Rosenfeld’ s father’s shooting and Dale Kagan’s mother’s murder could have been prevented.

Laura Rosenfeld went looking for revenge for her father’s shooting, but what she found instead was words. She wrote to the shooter. He was in prison for another crime. She did not identify herself, but presented herself as a journalist. Through their letters, these two – enemies by right – developed a relationship. When you look at the shooter’s letters, at first you see just diatribes – fierce party lines. You wonder if there is a person in there. But there is a progression as they begin to get more comfortable with each other. Laura wonders why he didn’t kill her father. He had other bullets in the gun. He confesses that he has come to realize that he does not have the moral make-up of a terrorist. You sigh with relief (as did Laura) when you read this. There is a human in there.

Laura’s revenge was that in coming toknow this man, in allowing him to come to know her, they were both transformed.

That’s why she calls her book, ‘Revenge: A Story of Hope’. A transformation through words. Mere words. Psychoanalysis is a ritual of telling one’s story. Its medium is words. The use of words for the purpose of healing comes from the Greeks. They recognized speech to be man’s greatest treasure, a gift from the gods. Revered even more than the physician, who could heal the body was the person who could bring “cheering speech” to another. In telling the patient to say what comes to his mind, psychoanalysts are suggesting the silencing of the normal operations of our everyday conversational speech. When we do this, another language presents itself to us. This is the language of the unconscious. This is our inner speech. This is the speech that connects us with our deepest being.

The process between patient and analyst is, if nothing else, a conversation. Patient and analyst engage in the exchange of words. This is all they do: talk. The patient comes to tell a story about himself. In fact, the patient has decided to be in this process of self-examination largely because, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, the story that he has been telling himself has either stopped or become too painful. The analyst listens to the story and talks back; and they continue doing this – this specific kind of dialoguing – as long as the conversation is either useful,interesting, pleasurable – even painful, but ultimately gratifying in some way. The dialogue continues and the story moves along. One might even develop a clear beginning and end, a cogent storyline that comes to have rational meaning. For a while it doesn’t even matter whether the story has the authenticity of truth. The analyst suspends disbelief in order to enter the emotional reality of the patient. It is only later that the analyst must take on the difficult job of aiding the patient to move towards reality, into an accurate rendering of his life story. The maturing adult, then, is a storyteller who is, as Louise Kaplan describes, continually in process of reliving and revising his memories, continually re-finding his identity, continually re-forging the shape of his very selfhood.

This is slow work. It is the reclamation of selves, the re-finding of the essential humanity in us – the lofty as well as the gutter in us. It’s sometimes a nasty business. But as the ad for Ikea says – more or less: “It’s a big country out there. Somebody’s gotta’ furnish it.” We analysts hope to transform the world by furnishing it with new selves, and we do this work self by self, one self at a time.