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Revenge: Sweet, Universal and Self-Destructive

August 13, 1986|BRYCE NELSON | Bryce Nelson, formerly a national correspondent for The Times, is director and professor at the USC School of Journalism. and

The middle-aged man still speaks fervently of the rage he felt toward the airline that so delayed him, his wife and their exhausted infant children on a night flight across the country. Five hours late, their plane finally landed at 3 a.m. at an airport far from their intended city of arrival. As a final insult, the airline hadn't even bothered to arrange transportation to carry the passengers to their destination.

But the man, an air controller in a large California city, found revenge after the airline cavalierly rejected his request for compensation. "Whenever one of their planes wanted to land, I made sure they kept circling until everyone else, even the small planes, had landed. I did everything by the book, but air controllers have lots of discretion," said the man, who requested anonymity.

"Finally, when I figured that I had cost them 10 times as much in jet fuel as my ticket had cost, I felt I had gotten even and began to let them land in order again. Revenge can be sweet."

Psychiatrists and psychologists say that the longing for revenge by people against those who hurt them is both universal and very powerful. Everyone wants revenge at times, whether against an unresponsive airline, a rejecting lover, a capricious boss, a cruel teacher or a rude automobile driver. Despite the strength of these feelings, psychotherapists report that most people suppress their desires for revenge.

"Every patient approaches revenge very timidly. It comes up very slowly, not in the first four or five sessions," said Dr. Harvey Rich, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. "There is something forbidden about revenge."

The beginning of revengeful feeling, behavioral scientists say, is a blow to self-esteem. The person who diminishes another's self-esteem, whether that self-esteem is based on intelligence, job competence or sexual attractiveness, can provoke enormous anger in the injured person. As the victim contemplates revenge, he hopes desperately to overcome his feelings of impotence and to regain his former sense of self-worth.

Perhaps because of its intimidating power, revenge has received little attention from scientific investigators and clinicians. "We all tend to be very afraid of our murderous feelings of revenge. We all have them, and we do a lot of projecting of them. Many psychiatrists fear vengeance from their patients," said Dr. Harold F. Searles, a Washington psychiatrist.

Many psychotherapists regard revenge as dangerous because it often damages or destroys the person who seeks it. They note the psychological truth of Herman Melville's novel "Moby Dick," in which Capt. Ahab, seeking to avenge the loss of his leg, eventually brings himself and his crew to an ocean grave in his mad desire to revenge himself on the great white whale.

A child hears family and social lessons forbidding revenge and learns to fear the retaliatory power of the parental figures on which he may wish to wreak vengeance. The adult who desires revenge is often aware that he may get himself killed, land in jail or hurt the lives of people he cares about while trying to obtain satisfaction. "People inhibit revenge because they are afraid of punishment," said Dr. George H. Pollock, head of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.

Those in the corporate, political or academic worlds learn that achieving revenge can be self-destructive. "If there's anything that's kept under conscious control in a place like Washington, D.C., it's the desire for revenge, because you know that you will need those who have offended you sometime in the future," said Dr. Bertram S. Brown, a psychiatrist who is the president of Hahnemann University in Philadelphia and who served as the director of the National Institute of Mental Health during the 1970s.

Some beneficially displace their desire for revenge into an "I'll show them" kind of determination. Clinicians say that this sublimation of revenge has been the driving force of many in gaining success.

Others act out, rather than suppress, their desire for revenge. Pollock said that he would characterize many of these unrestrained avengers as suffering from "impulse disorders."

These are some of the people whose compulsion for revenge contributes to high rates of murder, assault and arson, according to behavioral scientists.

Clinicians interviewed said they recently had seen more patients with strong, but thwarted, desires for vengeance that they linked to severe economic pressures in the job market.

Dr. Bruce L. Danto, a psychiatrist in Fullerton, said, "I hear a lot more fantasies from patients who talk about 'taking out a contract' to get rid of someone." The object of the desired revenge may either be a boss who fires an employee or an employer who puts pressure on a worker to force resignation.

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