ON VENGEANCE: The Desire to "Get Even"
Charles W. Socarides, M.D.
J. Am. Psychoanal. Assoc. 14(2): 356-375, 1966.
The psychoanalytic study of affects
began auspiciously with the early writings on depression by
Abraham (1, 2) and Freud (8). It reached a high point of achievement
with Freud’s work on anxiety (10). Since then several specific
affects have received considerable attention, e.g., elation
(19), bitterness (3), querulance (22), enthusiasm (12), boredom
(11). Affects involve the whole personality which results
in chronic ego states, inducing the ego to cope not only with
the underlying conflict but also with the resultant affect.
The affect itself may then constitute a severe block to our
This paper presents various theoretical
and clinical data concerning the affect of vengeance in order
to develop further the psychoanalytic theory of affects. This
study, beginning with genetic considerations, will be presented
from the point of view of superego, ego, and id manifestations.
It should be understood that superego, ego, and id expressions
of this affect are in continual interplay, now one, then the
other, dominating the clinical pic ture and giving it a particular
Many vengeful patients suffer
from a profound oral deprivation. Some patients, however,
in direct contrast, speak of their earliest childhood with
fondness and pleasure, though their happy, if not nearly idyllic,
childhood memories concerning orality were only rarely borne
out during analysis. Perhaps these two observations are not
unrelated in their etiological significance. The originally
deprived patient can no longer tolerate further deprivation:
the originally satisfied (satiated) one is intolerant of any
severe deprivation in adulthood. These two factors have also
been alluded to by Fenichel (6).
Curiously enough, vengeance—one
of the most persistent and powerful emotions of man—has had
little attention from scientific investigators. Much attention,
however, has been given this state by poets, playwrights,
and other artists.
Vengeance is a complex emotional
state apparently derived from pain and rage secondary to loss.
The usual response to suffering due to loss of a love object
is sadness, grief, or depression. These feelings might also
tend to provoke aggression, but sadness and depression do
not primarily involve an aggressive conflict, either with
external reality or endopsychically. Clinical observations
suggest, according to Jacobson (14), that “sadness predominates
in depression only as long as the libidinous investment in
the object world can be maintained by the veering away of
aggression to the self.” Angry or vengeful moods can be provoked
by feelings other than hurt or disappointment. They may be
precipitated by narcissistic conflicts, that is, from guilt
conflicts or experiences of failure or faults, with resultant
feelings of loss where the self-directed aggression is secondarily
turned toward the object world.
Surface manifestations of vengeance
achieve almost a classic, unvarying pattern. The person is
grudgeful, unforgiving, remorseless, ruthless, heartless,
implacable, and inflexible. He lives for revenge with a singlemindedness
of purpose. Passionately he moves toward punitive or retaliatory
action—above all other desires is the one to “get even” (in
effect, to get more than “even”). Whether he feels and acts
from the conviction that he is engaged in “just retribution”
(to avenge a wrong) or “malicious retaliation” (to revenge
a wrong), the clinical picture is identical.
The pseudocourageous nature of
those in a state of vengeance is strikingly evident in their
seeking revenge against all odds and no matter the cost. Such
an individual will not let the wrong done him go unpunished.
Querulously he complains that he is no inferior to suffer
the abuse of others who “bereave my heart” (5). Transiently,
the vengeful person may become aware of the irrationality
and inappropriateness of his feelings and aims, but this awareness
is quickly obscured by the overriding strength of the affect.
He does not experience guilt. He shows no concern about the
possible moral and social consequences of his act.
Vengeance is usually a private
matter; exceptions are the vengeful acts of groups, e.g.,
vendettas, feuds, lynchings, retaliatory political or military
acts solely for the sake of national pride. In group vengeance
the affect may often persist beyond the span of a lifetime
and be passed on to others (death pact).
At deeper psychological levels the self and the object world
are changed, producing alterations in behavior, thinking,
attitudes, values, expectations, and feeling tones. If the
object of the avenger’s wrath is not within his surveyance,
an increase in the tension state may occur. He may imagine
that new wrongs are being perpetrated against him. A similarity
to the sensitive phases of paranoid development is obvious,
although a paranoid condition may not occur. As in other intense
affective states and moods, there is little possibility for
an alteration of the environmental conditions with a resultant
decrease in tension because the patient screens out all stimuli
which contradict his emotional state. Vengeance is continually
fed through imaginings and fantasies of the previous injuries
dealt him. He then may unconsciously or consciously provoke
acts inimical to his well-being, thereby proceeding to a state
of “justified” vengeance. The avenger, furthermore, offers
as undeniable proof of the wrong he has suffered his loneliness
and the absence of all former pleasure. This is a consequence
of his choosing to absent himself from congenial society until
his aim of vengeance is achieved.
He is suffused with large amounts
of instinctual energy predominantly aggressive in nature.
In this respect there is a striking comparison between enthusiasm
and vengeance. In the former the instinctual energies are
primarily libidinal in nature (12).
The conscious aim of vengeance
is retribution, punishment, and a longed-for state of peace.
One finds routinely, however, that the act itself is highly
overdetermined. Unconsciously the aim of the vengeful individual
is to hide a more disastrous damage to the ego, a damage experienced
during the earliest years of life and underlying the specific
injuries of which he complains. In this sense the act of revenge
is a defense mechanism whose function is to conceal the deepest
traumata of childhood. In psychoanalytic therapy, once the
revenge motif is worked through, these primitive conflicts
No introduction to the concept of vengeance could be made
without citing a most revered reference from the Bible: “Vengeance
is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” This injunction which
appears in the New Testament progressively developed from
a harsh pre-Judaeo-Christian code—the Lex Talionis (An Eye
for An Eye). Later we find in Chaucer, “Vengeance is not cured
by another vengeance, nor wrong by another wrong”; from Bacon:
“A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which
otherwise would heal and do well . . . as vindictive persons
live the life of witches, who as they are mischievous, so
end they unfortunate.”
Inasmuch as painful stimuli are ubiquitous in the early months
and years of infancy, elucidation of specific factors producing
the later-to-be avenger is precarious, difficult, and often
problematical. Affective states and mood predispositions
are determined by many factors including the child’s inherent
drive potential, the depth and intensity of his object cathexes,
“his inherent tendency to respond to frustration, or deprivation,
with lesser or greater, rapidly passing, or more enduring
ambivalence” (14). The earliest libidinal or aggressive reactions
to specific objects may later be transferred from these experiences
to all objects and experiences. This produces a special coloration
of the object world for the child.
The genesis of vengeance is intimately
related to the origins of love and hate. “Love is derived
from the capacity of the ego to satisfy some of its instinctual
impulses auto-erotically by obtain ing organ pleasure. It
is originally narcissistic, then passes over onto objects,
which have been incorporated into the extended ego, and expresses
the motor efforts of the ego toward these objects as sources
of pleasure” (7).
Following this lead, the opposite
condition applies to rage, hate, and vengeance. These originate
in the ego’s inability to satisfy the instincts autoerotically.
The ego therefore incorporates hateful internal objects. In
love the mode of striving of the ego is toward these objects
as a source of pleasure; in vengeance the striving of the
ego is against these objects as a source of pain, to insure
Freud (7) believed that love “becomes intimately linked with
the activity of the later sexual instincts and, when these
have been completely synthesized, coincides with the sexual
impulsion as a whole” (p. 138). The preliminary stages of
love reveal themselves as temporary sexual aims, while the
instincts are passing through their complicated development.
These aims are severely interfered with if there is an admixture
of rage and hate. Freud, furthermore, saw love progressing
through various phases of change in develop ment; first, the
phase of incorporation or devouring in which love is compatible
with the abolition of any separate existence on the part of
the object and which he designated as ambivalence. “At the
higher stage of the pregenital sadistic-anal organization,
the striving for the object appears in the form of an urge
for mastery, to which injury or annihilation of the object
is a matter of indifference” (7, pp. 138-139). This preliminary
stage of love was hardly to be distinguished from hate in
its behavior toward the object and “not until the genital
organization is established does love become the opposite
of hate” (p. 139). In effect, Freud felt that the relation
of hate to objects was older than that of love and was derived
from the primordial repudiation by the narcissistic ego of
the external world whence flows the stream of stimuli. “As
an expression of the reaction of unpleasure evoked by objects,
it always remains in an intimate relation with the self-preservative
instincts; so that sexual and ego-instincts can readily develop
an antithesis which repeats that of love and hate” (p. 139).
When the sexual function is governed by the ego instincts,
at the stage of the sadistic-anal organization, they impart
a quality of hate to the instincts’ aim as well.
The admixture of love and hate
from which springs vengeance is to be traced to the “preliminary
stages of loving which have not been wholly surmounted; it
is also in part based on reactions of repudiation by the ego-instincts,
which, in view of the frequent conflicts between the interests
of the ego and those of love, can find grounds in real and
contemporary motives” (p. 139). In both cases, therefore,
the admixture of hate may be traced to the source of self-preservative
instinct. Furthermore, hate acquires an erotic character and
the continuity of the love relationship remains. In effect,
ontogenetically, hate may be of earlier origin than love;
the earliest conflicts of life are between the interests of
the ego and loving objects outside of oneself.
The vengeful person unconsciously
still desires to recapture the love object. Both love and
vengeance are characterized by the tendency toward activity:
in love to secure the love object once again for pleasure;
in vengeance to secure the love object for the expression
of hatred. The vengeful person, like the person in love, cannot
rest without expressing this motoric aspect of his powerful
In reconstructions from adult
analyses vengeance was seen to originate in the survival of
the retaliation wishes of the infant toward the mother for
deprivation during the oral period later reinforced by deprivations
during the preoedipal and oedipal periods. The penis envy
of women and the castration anxiety of men, including their
retaliatory phallic passivity, had at their roots the earliest
relationship to the mother and the destructive feelings allied
with her. All phallic conflicts in these vengeful patients
were based in the initial disturbance in the earliest object
In the earliest years of life
the relationship of maternal goodness, patience, generosity,
satisfaction, and the fantasies which accompany these early
primitive conceptualizations enrich the child and become the
foundation for hope, trust, belief in good ness and the future.
Conversely, the aim of the vengeful, greedy, envious, jealous
impulses is destructive introjection—not only to rob but to
put bad parts of the self onto the hated object in order to
spoil and destroy it. This has been previously described as
“the destructive aspect of projective identification starting
from the beginning of life” (16). (I doubt, however, that
these complex conceptual psychic processes as described by
M. Klein can exist at such an early age, i.e., three months.)
Damaged fundamentally in the capacity to love, the vengeful
person is unable to withstand future states of deprivation
and attacks individuals in the environment as if they were
representatives of the depriving breast, frustrating mother,
absent father, lost penis.
It is well known that the introjection
of the good mother becomes a source for the satisfactory construction
of the good ego and later ego integration and object synthesis.
If this is satisfactory, a strong ego is developed and the
individual is able to identify with specific objects. Indiscriminate
identification is characteristic of a weak ego and leads to
confusion between self and object and a grave disturbance
in object relations. This shifting from idealization to hatred
due to the weakness of the ego aids in changing the formerly
idealized person into that of a persecutor and in projecting
onto him envy, greed, hostility, anger and vengeful attitudes.
He then becomes the despoiler of the avenger from whom the
latter must exact revenge.
Individuals who are likely to
become vengeful are often found to have defensively idealized
their childhood. The underlying envy, greed, and tendency
toward vengeance are split off but remain operative and are
liable to disturb relationships in the future. These partial
identifications allow the avenger to abstain from hateful
actions and temporarily simulate good object relationships.
Very often powerful and creative figures are identified with
but are also envied. A superego figure onto whom strong envy
has been projected is the most likely choice to become particularly
persecutory and is experienced in the unconscious as one who
interferes with thought processes of the patient and with
every productive activity in which he engages, ultimately
even with his sense of well-being and pleasure in living.
This may be the motivational force behind the enigmatic assassination
of nationally loved and envied figures whom the assassin did
not know personally and against whom he had no actual grudge.
The aim of vengeance is to destroy the envied superego figure
conceived of in the unconscious as a depriving and persecutory
force. The essence of the vengeful state of mind is to rob
the loved object of what it possesses and spoil it. These
possessions may be beauty, reputation, accomplishments, or
even the object’s very life (murder) or the assassin’s life
(suicide) if by so doing pain and harm could be inflicted.
Ordinarily during the oedipal
period feelings of guilt and mourning are experienced and
resolved. Whether this can be achieved depends largely on
the emotions the child once felt to ward his lost love object.
Normally the gaining of new objects such as the father, siblings,
and other compensations lessens the degree of hate and vengefulness
toward the mother. The oedipal stage has a profound effect
upon whether vengefulness or envy is to be reinforced or attenuated.
During the oedipal period and the genital phase the change
from all other desires to genital ones often decreases the
importance of the mother as the source of all satisfaction.
Hate may then be displaced onto the father or siblings. The
girl may identify with the mother and the boy with the father,
in which case a range of sublimations becomes possible and
decreases the intensity of the affect of vengefulness.
Vengeance as an Expression
of Id Drives
Crimes far in excess of any possible
injury suffered by the criminal are commonplace. One need
turn only to the pages of the daily press to find reports
of violent acts carried out by those who consider themselves
rising in justified retaliation to “get even.” Most murders
are termed “crimes of passion”—clinically, they represent
an overwhelming breakthrough of id impulses and their vengeful
expression. In a recent study nearly one third of psychiatrically
hospitalized murderers were found to have suddenly expressed
vengeance in a murderous act as the result of intolerable
vengeful feelings secondary to ideas of morbid jealousy and
infidelity (18). It has been reported that 29 per cent of
all homicides in the United States (of which there were over
7,000 in 1962) are directed against immediate family members,
and 19 per cent of murders outside the family were identified
as lovers’ quarrels. This constitutes a total of 48 per cent
Murder by groups is exemplified
in the sacking of cities and even in organized society’s demand
for the death penalty in crimes where there has been no destruction
of life. Sexual molestation of children is punishable by death
or life imprisonment in more than half of the states in this
country. Sadistic or sadomasochistic prac tices, whether sexual
or nonsexual, carried out by groups or singly, contain unconsciously
the affect of vengeance.
Often vengefulness undergoes displacement.
For example, Don Juan, deserted by his mother in childhood,
spent his entire life getting women to fall in love with him
and then rejecting them. This was a simultaneous satisfaction
of both aggressive and libidinal drives. Don Juan was afraid
of being rejected; the women’s love served as a reassuring
There are women who take revenge
on men due to their infantile sadistic conception of sex and
continually pay back (“get even”) an old grudge against the
male (“vengeance masked by love” ). Many women so envy
(often quite unconsciously) the man’s possession of the penis
that they may make every effort to make him unhappy in life.
In clinical practice one frequently
sees a relationship between sexual passivity and vengeance.
The vengeful person seeks to restore his identity and attempts
to undo the damage done to his phallic integrity.
Patient A, after feeling rejected
because of his girlfriend’s critical attitude, dreamed: “I
take a piece of wood out of my leg, throw it on the ground
and stamp on it.” This was an act of vengeance to deprive
his lover of his penis since by often demeaning him she had
forced him into the role of sexual passivity. In order to
get even with her he punished her by punishing himself. At
the same time he asserted himself actively by withholding
and destroying his penis. As one might expect he developed
a severe potency disturbance.
In the above example three fundamental
characteristics of vengeance are demonstrated: (i) a desperate
attempt to forestall threats of castration and a loss of a
sense of identity; (ii) an attempt to ward off depression
over loss or disappointment in love (or other severe disappointment);
(iii) a joining of superego and ego where the id is free and
permits discharge of its drives into aggression. (The patient
no longer passively endures his castration but actively induces
it—simultaneously punishing his girlfriend— albeit in a self-defeating
Myths, legends, and tales of vengeance
usually involve the threatened castration of the later-to-be
avenger. In Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in addition
to the hero’s, Edmond’s, incarceration, one of his persecutors
seduced and married his betrothed. Edmond spent much of the
later years of his life wreaking vengeance on all those who
had attempted to destroy and castrate him. In the legend of
Helen of Troy, Helen was stolen from the Greeks by the Trojans.
Quite possibly the Greeks felt this was a national “castration”—the
result of her abduction was a protracted war.
The affect of vengeance, however,
does not require heroic themes. The most common precipitating
situation is that of rejection or abandonment in a love relationship.
The disappointed one may at first become depressed, masochistic,
or suicidal. He may make frantic attempts to become resigned
to the loss of the loved one and begin to undergo the normal
process of loss and mourning. However, complications may occur.
In some instances, he may still proclaim his “love” and turn
against others whom he imagines to have robbed him of his
love object. At other times, his aggression may be directed
toward her and he will begin to seek vengeance against her.
This condition leads to a spiraling downhill development.
Although the revenger does not acknowledge it, in actuality
he no longer can regain the lost love object and his previous
relationship with her; he is dominated by his wish to reform
and regain her through punishment. His own suffering increases
with each attempt at vengeance.
In addition to investigating the
origins of love and hate, Freud devoted considerable attention
to the problem of the transformation of love into hate. I
have found only one reference to vengeance or revenge in Freud’s
writings, although hate, aggression, and sadism are frequently
mentioned. This reference is in connection with the development
of depression. A study of his ideas on depression and revenge
sheds further light on the problem: “In both disorders [depression
and obsessional neuroses] the sufferers usually succeed in
the end in taking revenge by the circuitous path of
self-punishment, on the original objects and in tormenting
them by means of the illness, having developed the latter
so as to avoid the necessity of openly expressing their hos
tility against the loved ones” (8, p. 152; my italics).
In The Ego and the Id (9), Freud stated that clinical
observation showed that love is very often accompanied by
hate, that hate is frequently a forerunner of love, and that
in many circimstances hate changes into love and love into
hate. Of course, someone may first love and then hate the
same person without extracting vengeance. Other individuals,
however, may be changed into persecutors and express aggressive
and often dangerous impulses toward the formerly loved object.
In the latter condition Freud assumes that there is no alteration
in the behavior of the object which plays a part in this,
but there is, on the other hand, an “ambivalent attitude .
. . from the outset and the transformation is effected by
means of a reactive shifting of cathexis, by which energy
is withdrawn from the erotic impulses and used to supplement
the hostile energy” (9, p. 61). This is a displaceable energy
which is in itself neutral but is able to join forces either
with an erotic or with a destructive impulse.
Freud, through his analysis of
the obsessional neuroses, indirectly supplied us with a significant
insight into a mechanism in vengeance. In obsessional neuroses,
“what guarantees the safety of the ego is the fact that the
object has been retained...through a regression to the pre-genital
organization...the love-impulses transform themselves into
impulses of aggression against the object” (9, p. 78). In
contrast, in depression, the object has been lost and the
destructive component has entrenched itself in the superego
and turned against the ego. “...the object love, which cannot
be given up, takes refuge in narcissistic identification,
while the object itself is abandoned, then hate is expended
upon this new substitute object, railing at it, depreciating
it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic gratification from
its suffering” (8, pp. 151-152). There has been a turning
around upon the self.
The development of vengeful feelings
from an antecedent love relationship is dependent on the following
factors: (i) an ambivalent attitude from the outset—a mixture
of love and hate; (ii) the withdrawal of energy from erotic
impulses which is then used to supplement the hostile energies
of the avenger; (iii) a regression to pregenital organization;
(iv) an insuring of the safety of the ego in that the love
object is retained.
Above all, in vengeance an attempt
is made to: (i) provide for the safety of the ego; the self
is not blamed as commonly seen in depression; (ii) the superego
is not invaded by destructive com ponents which would rage
against the ego; (iii) in place of the latter, love impulses
are transformed into impulses of aggression directed against
the object secondary to the regression which the patient has
A vivid example of the transformation
of love into hate and vengeful violence was presented in a
recent news story concerning a former Hungarian Freedom Fighter,
later a physician in the United States. Upon learning of the
infidelities of his wife, he poured acid over her body, especially
her face, to extract vengeance and because he “loved her”
and wanted to “save her” from doing harm to herself by future
Vengeance and Ego Operations
In the act of revenge the wish
is for acknowledgment of one’s power, superiority, rights,
and judgment. The avenger hopes thereby to regain strength
and his former sense of identity. Also, through the bond of
hate and vengeance a replacement of the pre vious libidinal
bond has occurred. The patient may then succeed in avoiding
anxiety, which would otherwise have resulted from the complete
loss of any bond with the love object.
In addition, the avenger prefers
to experience rage and hate rather than fear. This is commonly
seen in those who once felt forced into sexual passivity;
in the unconscious this was tantamount to a self-castration.
In attempting to reduce castration anxi ety these individuals
may be driven to destroy the love object.
The avenger often has considered
himself to be a male without any phallic deficiency in adult
life. In certain circumstances he may suddenly be threatened
by loss of this self-image, loss of the love object, financial
distress, etc. Resorting to vengefulness is a startling proof,
however, of his unconscious infantile fears, his castration
anxiety, feelings of inferiority and smallness. In adult life,
the initial infantile aggression become manifest instead of
the deeper underlying castration fear. Typically, such persons
have developed a defensive screening out of their fear and
have imagined themselves to be the proud possessors of a large
phallus, the favorite child, loved and admired. This response
to the adult frustration contradicts these earlier infantile
convictions. This mechanism which consists essentially of
attempting to deny the wrong that was done to him in childhood
does not sustain him for long. It is a form of ‘temporary
denial” which may involve depressive and repressive mechanisms,
during which time he may feel that he has not been truly injured
or harmed by the neglect and lack of love in his family. However,
he may suddenly find that he reverts to overt expression of
rage and vengeance through displacement and reaction formations.
Vengeance may then be expressed through a vivid acting out.
Patient B, a successful young attorney,
had been severely neglected by his mother and left to the
care of nursemaids. Consciously he never complained of his
mother’s complete indifference to him as a child. When his
girlfriend begged him to marry her, he rejected her because
she was of a different faith. Her response was to turn her
back and to close the door. A few hours later the patient
presented himself at the door, bleeding from self-inflicted
razor wounds and smeared with dirt. He thereby demonstrated
to his girlfriend (mother) her bad treatment of him when he
was a child.
The ego may disguise vengeance as (i) moral masochism; (ii)
pathological jealousy; (iii) acts of “justified” aggression
(either toward the actual victim or toward others); (iv) reaction
formations such as excessive pity, sympathy, benevolence.
An identification with the one
who has damaged him may take place. The threatened loss of
his identity forces the avenger to behave as he believes the
other one behaved toward him. For example, the avenger may
engage in promiscuity, lying, or deceit fulness “in response”
to the lying, deceitfulness, or promiscuity of the person
who wronged him. This identification with the aggres sor increases
the feeling of loss of self but at the same time allows for
aggressive discharge. The avenger’s search for self-esteem
and identity is doomed to failure even if he carries out his
aims to completion since the difficulty lies within himself.
Vengeance may flourish in the
soil of masochism. The great lengths a person may go to in
order to wreak vengeance may be masochistic in itself and
he may become depleted morally, socially, and financially.
Patient C, a twenty-six-year-old
homosexual man, separated from his wife, of definite aesthetic
and artistic talent, was destructive in his work, sexual and
social relationships whenever anyone began to be “nice” to
him, thoughtful, considerate, or favor him. When a business
partnership began to become successful, it would lead to his
turning his “vitriol” on his partner and finally estrange
him. He did not “trust” the friendship, which meant that he
would not expose himself to the possibility of deep disappointment
and hurt, the loss of ego and identity, which he had experienced
at the hands of his mother in early childhood. His father
had been forced to leave the family due to his mother’s acrimonious
attacks when the patient was only one year of age. The patient
had “vowed” vengeance against the submission of his ego to
the mother’s domination. In summary, the loss of his father
and the presence of his tyrannical, nonloving, depriving,
“crushing” mother led to a loss of ego identity, a loss of
his penis, and intense feelings of smallness. In his late
teens, this developed into a wish to gain love and affection
and a penis through the identification during sexual intercourse
with his partner’s penis. He also experienced vengeful homicidal
impulses toward both male and female. He often told the analyst:
“Out of the blue I have the thought I’d like to kill you.”
To control his homosexual impulses
and his aggressive drives he adopted a masochistic position
which kept him bereft of power, success, and satisfaction.
This masochistic position warded off murderous impulses—the
choice of the lesser evil. However, in his masochism one could
easily discern an expression of vengeance and his frantic
attempts to control it. At the same time that he assumed the
role of the helpless, suffering, weak individual, he said:
“I shall not cooperate with you; I am stronger and bigger
than all of you; I don’t need my ‘nothing’ job; I do not have
to rely on my wife, need no friends, I am invincible.”
It became clear during the analysis
that he could wreak vengeance on his mother, who constantly
told him of how good she was to him despite his father’s desertion,
through demonstrating to her his complete failure in life.
He would take vengeance on the analyst by walking out during
sessions and by not getting well.
The affect of vengeance was unconscious
for many months in this patient. When the vengeance motif
was interpreted, he finally discovered “that I have been so
consumed with revenge—makes an awful lot of sense to me. It
keeps popping up in my mind. For example, I feel so vengeful
toward my wife. I hope her new play fails, that she never
remarries and that she never has the children she wants so
much. It’s like ‘Take that—and that—ha ha!’ It’s so childish.
It’s not clear hate. It’s like when you think, ‘I hope you
don’t have a baby, ha ha!’ It’s the kind of hate children
feel. If I succeed in vengeance, it’s a pathetic aloneness
I feel, all love is just dead. It makes me feel a little bit
like a baby, like I want to cry, ask forgiveness, a hollow
triumph. It destroys me—I’ve done it to you, mother, wife,
and I feel a murderous elation, but then I feel a loss of
all love and the bottom falls out. I give nothing, I get nothing,
I go nowhere, I might as well kill myself, might as well...My
complete revenge would lead to a hollow triumph—yes, then
I wouldn’t want to go to bed with my wife after that. I’d
just want to shake. Even if I killed her, what good does it
do me to kill her?
“Sometimes I feel like killing
my mother and now like killing my wife. I’ll kill her, kill
her, and then I’ll kill myself. I’ll zip all the skin off
her. But I can’t kill her even though I don’t like anyone.
My mother indirectly made me lose my father and when I see
that scene from my childhood with his ripping her hair, she
seems to me to be the bad one and I feel guilty for that feeling.
She’s the horror. When he’s ripping her hair, I feel that
if I were older and I let out what I really felt when I was
three, I would have cheered him on. You remember the time
I attacked her and was sent to Bellevue—I stopped and the
bottom dropped out. I felt completely destroyed. This way
I would like to punish my wife, too. But if I did, I would
get nothing but my vengeance. I go nowhere, I might as well
kill myself. I think I want to show them both how I have been
mistreated, first as a child and now by her. When I become
masochistic, not only do I prevent myself from being destructive
toward them but I have found out that I can even sustain stronger
hate the more masochistic I stay. It keeps the hate good and
strong, it feeds it.”
Very often the hero—the one exalted
in life and in literature—may represent a reaction formation
to feelings of vengefulness due to childhood fears and inferiorities.
The hero through counterphobic measures performs unnecessary
and dangerous feats which will ensure him against castration.
He thereby denies his fear of castration and attempts to compensate
for it. If never defeated, he may, indeed, remain a hero.
The avenger, in contrast, denies the fact that he has already
been castrated; he must therefore force his castrators to
reinvest him with power and strength and return his lost phallus.
Revenge, however, is never completely satisfying. No matter
the punishment meted out to his enemies, the uncon scious
castration, the loss of identity, persists and cannot be erased
from memory. Patient C voices the futility of wreaking complete
vengeance on his rejecting mother and wife.
Vengeance as an Expression
of Superego Conflict
In the vengeful act the apparent
absence of the restraining mechanism of conscience and the
conscious absence of guilt is a striking phenomenon. The most
violent crimes may be committed and sadistic practices carried
out; instead of a reduction in the feeling of moral pride
there very well may be an increase in the sense of self-esteem.
The avenger attempts to masquerade as his victim’s superego.
Punishing the victim may also
be due to the displacement of guilt and finding of a scapegoat,
as Loewenstein described in Christians and Jews (20). In the
latter connection, mass vengeance, whether against Jew, Negro
or other minority, may allow for the temporary lowering of
superego barriers in order to fulfill the oedipal wishes against
the father in the presence of the group (sharing the guilt
mechanism). Such acts upon a helpless minority may provoke
retaliation, which is then used by the avengers to justify
their own course. In this fashion one also escapes superego
guilt. In vengeance conscious superego guilt is absent and
in stinctual aims, especially those of aggression, are paramount.
This is in contrast to states of boredom (11) in which instinctual
aims and objects are repressed because of guilt. In the final
analysis, one gains the distinct impression that the demands
of the superego are partially met through the punishment of
someone else—the imagined offender. This might be termed a
“hypocritical distor tion of the superego” (4). Unconsciously,
however, the vengeful person suffers intense guilt feelings
which must stay in repression or a severe depression ensues.
In effect, he protests: “It is not I who has destroyed the
good breast (mother)—it is she.” Nonethless, there remains
the deeply repressed conviction that this childhood happening
is the result of one’s own bitterly resentful and destructive
impulses toward good objects (satisfactions) (17). The resultant
guilt induces a need for self-punishment usually expressed
as a decreased evaluation of self and a renewed projection
Although a seeming overvaluation
of the self frequently characterizes the avenger, the underlying
diminution of self-esteem leads to his withdrawal, both physical
and mental, from all former pursuits. A middle-aged storekeeper,
cheated out of his business by a partner, instead of expressing
his murderous vengefulness and attacking his former associate,
became depressed and extremely self-deprecatory.
Vengeance bears certain similarities
to paranoid conditions. Like vengeance, in paranoia there
is a superego regression (13) and guilt projection. In both,
the projection of guilt onto others is to create a superego
for the other supposedly guilty party and to mete out punishment.
Vengeance, therefore, as well as paranoia, sets up an alter
superego against which the unconscious superego of the patient
may wage its tyranny.
The diagnostic difference reveals
itself in the following factors. (i) In the paranoiac there
is a psychotic elaboration of the injuries perpetrated against
the patient; the vengeful patient shows no such dereistic
thinking, although he bitterly complains of damage done him.
(ii) Whereas the vengeful patient may suddenly erupt in violent
action, upon its consummation he is almost always aware of
its inappropriateness, although he both lacks this awareness
before the act and was unable to inhibit his action; the paranoiac
continues in his unreal thinking. (iii) A study of the premorbid
personality is of crucial significance diagnostically. (iv)
In the paranoiac there is a denial of reality: “I don’t hate
him; he hates me.” The aim of the vengeful act is not only
to punish his victim but to elicit from him the admission:
“I’m sorry I did it to you; you are superior, more powerful,
and I bow to your judgment and decision.”
Viewing superego functioning in
its broadest conceptualization, not only is vengefulness to
be eschewed but its opposite, forgiveness, cultivated. Forgiveness
releases the individual from super ego bondage. It is the
only relief from the burden of contriving and acting out multiple
painful intrapsychic mechanisms which the condition imposes.
Freed from this painful affect, new love relationships may
be possible and the individual’s instinctual energies are
again made available for useful and constructive aims. A true
victory lies not in vengeance but in overcoming the infantile
damage done to the ego and constructing a more stable and
mature ego based on reality and able to endure its disappointments.
One cannot, of course, expect
a vengeful patient to divest himself readily of so meaningful
an affect which has so overwhelmingly pervaded his psyche.
To make this change the patient must perceive the true nature
of both vengeance (including its infantile origin) and forgiveness—and
the privation or enrichment which, respectively, inevitably
follow. “Forgiving is not the same thing as exoneration. It
does not consist in attesting the other’s guiltlessness. One
can only exonerate the innocent; one can only forgive the
The primitiveness of the affect
of vengeance severely blocks the total ego development of
the individual and deprives him of any pleasurable adaptation.
Spinoza, to whom Freud often turned, succinctly stated this
premise: “He who wishes to revenge injuries by reciprocal
injuries will always be unhappy.”
The genetic forerunners of vengeance
are found in the earliest object relationships. Initial disturbances
due to oral frustrations result in the ego’s inability to
satisfy the instincts autoerotically and to an incorporation
of hateful internal objects.
In contrast to love, in which
the mode of striving of the ego is toward objects as a source
of pleasure, in vengeance the striving of the ego is against
these objects as a source of pain to ensure their destruction.
The aim of vengeful impulses is
not only destructive introjection, but to put hated parts
of the self onto the hated object in order to spoil and destroy
it. Even spoiling of the self may be resorted to in the hope
that it will result in the object’s pain and suffering. Envied
superego figures, e.g., national leaders, conceived of in
the unconscious as depriving and persecutory, often become
the target for vengeful individuals.
Severely damaged in the capacity
to love, the vengeful person reacts to life’s losses and disappointments
as if they were representatives of the depriving breast and
mother. Infantile retaliatory impulses are reinforced by later
deprivations of the preoedipal and oedipal periods. Superego,
ego, and id manifestations of vengeance are described along
with the underlying psychic mechanisms.
Vengefulness constitutes an effort
to express and forcibly secure instinctual needs, to assuage
guilt, to relieve fear and aggres sion. With the infantile
origin of vengeance exposed the ego is strengthened to deal
more effectively with reality pursuits.
1. Abraham, K. Notes on the psycho-analytical
investigation and treatment of manic-depressive insanity and
allied conditions (1911). Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis.
London: Hogarth Press, 1927, pp. 137-156.
2. Abraham, K. A short study of
the development of the libido, viewed in the light of mental
disorders (1924). Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis, London:Hogarth
Press, 1927, pp. 418-501.
3. Alexander, J. The psychology
of bitterness. Int. J. Psychoanal., 41:514-520, 1960.
4. de Forest, I. The self-dedication
of the psychoneurotic sufferer to hostile protest and revenge.
Psychiat. Quart., 24:706-715, 1950.
5. de Vere, E. Revenge of wrong.
In Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Name, by D. Ogburn &
C. Ogburn, Jr. New York: Morrow, 1962.
I sing, but fury
makes me fret,
bath sworn to seek
revenge of wrong;
mind in malice is so
shall daunt my deadly
perforce is such a
As die I
will, or suffer wrong
I am no
sot, to suffer such abuse
As doth bereave my heart of
I frame myself to such
consent, to suffer
sleep shall once possess
hath wrought his will
shall fail, and hand
shall lost his force,
device shall pay
Despite his due;
shall consume my
the ground whereon
my sorrow grew.
in rage of ruthful mind
I rest reveng’d
on whom I am abus’d.
6. Fenichel, 0. The Psychoanalytic
Theory of Neurosis. New York: W. W. Norton,
7. Freud, S. Instincts and their
vicissitudes (1915). Standard Edition, 14:111-140.
London: Hogarth Press, 1957.
8. Freud, S. Mourning and melancholia
(1917). In A General Selection from the
Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J.
Rickman. London: Hogarth Press, 1937.
9. Freud, S. The Ego and the Id
(1923). London: Hogarth Press, 1949.
10. Freud, S. Inhibitions, symptoms
and anxiety (1926). Standard Edition, 20:77-175. London: Hogarth
11. Greenson, R. R. On boredom. This Journal, 1:7-21, 1953.
12. Greenson, R. R. On enthusiasm. This Journal, 10:3-21,
13.Hesselbach, C. Superego regression
in paranoia. Psychoanal. Quart., 31:341-350,
14. Jacobson, E. Normal and pathological moods: their nature
and functions. The
Psychoanalytic Study of the Child,
12:73-114. New York: International Universities Press, 1957.
15. Kecskemeti, P. Punishment as conflict resolution: toward
the clarification of the problem of punishment and psychotherapy.
Arch. Crim. Psychodyn., 4:700-723,1961.
16. Klein, M. The Psycho-Analysis of Children. London: Hogarth
17. Klein, M. Envy and Gratitude: A Study of Unconscious
Sources. New York:
Basic Books, 1957.
18. Lanzkron, J. Murder and insanity: a survey. Amer. J.
19. Lewin, B. D. The Psychoanalysis of Elation. New York:
W. W. Norton, 1950.
20. Loewenstein, R. M. Christians and Jews. New York: International
21. Menninger, K. A. A Psychiatrist’s World. New York: Viking,
22. Schmideberg, M. On querulance. Psychoanal. Quart., 15:472-502,
23. Uniform Crime Reports. Crime in the United States. Washington:
Investigation, U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1962.