When con artist Bernie Madoff's alleged mistress wrote a book describing what might be called Madoff's very small endowment, she was taking retribution on an ex-lover who once wielded power. The advance on the manuscript repaid her not only for some of the cash she lost but for the self-esteem she forfeited. Her tell-all shout-out was a classic, if not classy, act of revenge. And a particularly feminine one as well.
Revenge is like prescription medication: A little can cure you, a lot can kill you, and you should avoid getting hooked. And, like medication, it's often best if you can do without it altogether. But if you must have a dose, the best approach is: Get even, get over it, and get on with your life.
Revenge fascinates us all, but we have a particular appetite for women getting mad, then getting even. Lizzie Borden remains an icon in American culture. Exciting, uncomfortable, delicious, and distasteful as they are, we cannot exorcise revenge fantasies completely—that is, if we can exorcise them at all.
It's also possible to execute classy acts of revenge, ones that are perfectly proportional to the original injury in every way. Consider the case of Allison, a fact-checker for a national magazine: "My boyfriend from college and I had discussed marriage from our second date on. After we graduated, he stayed on for a degree in creative writing and I came to New York for work. As far as I knew, everything was perfect. I spent tons of money on phone calls and would shop for the perfect cute cards to send him." She also baked cookies and sent batches weekly.
"Then I get a letter telling me that for the last three months he's been seeing this girl from his class and he feels deeply for her. He went into detail about how wonderful she was, how she eschewed (his word) all commercialism and would tease him about the cards I sent, saying how adolescent our relationship was. The letter was incredibly smug and self-indulgent even as he was trying to sound hip.
"He ended by saying that I needed to find a new life for myself, that I must broaden my circle of acquaintances (since many of our old college friends were more his buddies than mine, he said), and how I shouldn't weep too long after reading what he called 'this missive of misery.'"
She read it over "way too many times."
Allison, who had been fairly subdued as she told her story, suddenly brightened. "But I decided that I was going to take his advice and not weep. Instead, I made photocopies of his letter and sent the pages around to my pals in the office, friends at home, and our old friends from college, asking them to comment on its style and critique the prose generally. Most of them were wonderfully scathing, calling his writing 'turgid' and 'sentimental.' I sent him copies of their responses. I knew that the most important thing to him was his overinflated sense of himself as a great writer and that these letters would land a punch.
"He thought I would be ashamed to admit to people that we'd broken up. Instead I celebrated it, and invited the people who knew us to join in the celebration. I have never regretted convening that impromptu editorial group, because I no longer felt like a sacrificial victim in someone else's script."
Allison managed to break the stranglehold of socially enforced female passivity. She focused on what would make her feel better—and, significantly, make her feel the support and loyalty of her friends—and did not allow an undue amount of time to pass before acting. She dealt a swift blow to her desire to withdraw from everybody and by doing so ensured that the process of grieving over the loss would not be endured alone. The drive toward both symmetry and closure are at the heart of most revenge tales.
Only an intimate would be able to strike so precisely into the heart of vulnerability. And only a very smart, very creative, very hurt woman would be able to imagine and execute such a novel and effective plan—a plan perfectly targeted to wound the perpetrator of the original wound.
Men just don't think about revenge the same way women do. Guys often contemplate destroying somebody's property. Women don't think in terms of keying their ex-lover's car. They want to key their ex-lover. Further, women—especially if they consider themselves to have been "nice" women—act out their vengeance not in order to control but because they are out of control.
Of course, we all start out as nice women. Nice women are not supposed to crave disaster, even when we experience pain, betrayal, humiliation, or ingratitude. We're supposed to turn the other cheek—with the appropriate amount of blush. If we love deeply, it is not surprising that we grieve deeply if that love is taken away. It might also follow that we want to exact recompense and restitution. Somebody stole our sense of self-worth and we want to get it back by stealing theirs.
Perhaps the sweetest revenge is when the impulse for personal justice leads to actual, objective justice. There is such a thing as righteous anger, after all. An elegant 50-year-old female vice-president of a Fortune 500 company once told me such a story in dulcet tones: "The best form of revenge is simply to make the truth known," she began. She had been working for a man who believed women were fine as long as they knew "their place." Before leaving the man's employment, she photocopied private files proving that nearly every woman in the company was paid twenty to twenty-five thousand dollars less per year than her male counterparts. Armed with this information, the female employees filed a grievance and won their case. "I did it for me," the VP smiled, "but I was happy for them."
It is deeply and wonderfully gratifying, when hurt or humiliated, not to be nice. That's not unfeminine; that's human.
Great Moments of Revenge
- In 2009, lured to a hotel by one of his many lovers and agreeing to be bound by "sheer sheets," one Wisconsin man found himself instead confronted by two more of his lovers and his wife. The three women Krazy Glued the cheating man's penis to his stomach. They face prison for assault.
- In 2003, Clara Harris ran over her dentist husband—twice—after he told her to get a boob job and lose weight so he'd stop sleeping with his receptionist, only to be caught coming out of a motel with the younger woman. The jurors who convicted her wept—and begged that she be given the lightest possible sentence.
- In 1970, after serving as Press Secretary for the First Lady in the Johnson administration, Liz Carpenter wrote a book about life inside the White House. One evening Carpenter encountered statesman/author Arthur Schlesinger Jr. at a cocktail party. Approaching her, he smiled and said, "Like your book, Liz, who wrote it for you?" "Glad you liked it, Arthur," she replied. "Who read it to you?"