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 therapeutic endeavors.

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 configuration.

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 are revealed.

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.”

Genetic Considerations

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 their destruction.

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 affect.

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 relationships.

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 (23).

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 counterphobic measure.

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” [21]). 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 fashion.)

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 undergone.

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 infidelities.

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 of blame.

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 wrongdoer” (15).

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.

Fain would I sing, but fury

   makes me fret,

And rage bath sworn to seek

   revenge of wrong;

My mazed mind in malice is so


As Death shall daunt my deadly

   dolours long;

Patience perforce is such a

   pinching pain,

As die I will, or suffer wrong


I am no sot, to suffer such abuse

   As doth bereave my heart of

   his delight;

Nor will I frame myself to such

   as use,

With calm consent, to suffer

   such despite;

No quiet sleep shall once possess

   mine eye

Till Wit hath wrought his will

   on injury.

My heart shall fail, and hand

   shall lost his force,

But some device shall pay

   Despite his due;

And Fury shall consume my

   careful corse,

Or raze the ground whereon

   my sorrow grew.

Lo, thus 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 Press, 1959.

11.  Greenson, R. R. On boredom. This Journal, 1:7-21, 1953.

12.  Greenson, R. R. On enthusiasm. This Journal, 10:3-21, 1962.

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 Press, 1932.

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. Psychiat., 119:754-759,


19.  Lewin, B. D. The Psychoanalysis of Elation. New York: W. W. Norton, 1950.

20.  Loewenstein, R. M. Christians and Jews. New York: International Universities

Press, 1952.

21.  Menninger, K. A. A Psychiatrist’s World. New York: Viking, 1959.

22.  Schmideberg, M. On querulance. Psychoanal. Quart., 15:472-502, 1946.

23.  Uniform Crime Reports. Crime in the United States. Washington: Federal

Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1962.


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