Does Forgiveness Make a Difference?

The comment from V.E.G. to my “Revenge I” post is a good starting point. After an act that severely damages someone, when is a statement of forgiveness enough to make a difference? Or from the other side, when is an   apology enough?

Well, obviously it depends on what has happened and the circumstances. One could say that Adam Lanza apologized to the children he killed by killing himself and killing his mother. Perhaps. But we also know that Adam’s suicide had more complicated motives. Mr. Parker, the father of one of the victims, gave a reasonable comment to the world when he apologized for his son’s acts. But can he even apologize for his son, and what is the power of that statement to a grieving parent? Dr. Scapegoat talks about a much longer and more complicated process.

There is a wealth of data on the factors in play which determines how long scapegoating trauma lasts: the intensity of the insult and the situation in which it occurs, the victim’s age, personality, strengths, etc. Perhaps the most critical variable is the amount of support the victim receives at the time and ongoing. But scapegoating is always a major trauma and all these factors do not adequately predict the end game. What we can count on is that no one emerges from these experiences unscathed or untransformed.

Data on the long-term effects of bullying, a prevalent from of scapegoating in children, was recently presented in the journal JAMA Psychiatry by Catherine P. Bradshaw, deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at Johns Hopkins University. The lead author found that “being a victim of bullying is having an effect a decade later, above and beyond other psychiatric problems or factors.” This study is talking about massive effects on the subjects compared to a control group on issues like depression and suicidal thoughts, agoraphobia, panic attacks and other anxiety disorders.

What does this have to do with revenge? As the above study suggests, the feelings generated by scapegoating, including feelings of revenge, do not just go away. Many therapists who treat adults who have been bullied or otherwise scapegoated as kids have learned that there is no real “cure” for this trauma, only adaptation and transformation. Psychiatric illness is a negative outcome; becoming a healing professional, philanthropist or activist who helps other scapegoasts is a positive outcome. And there is everything in between. Harnessing the feelings of revenge in a productive way is a powerful help, perhaps a necessity, in energizing the child scapegoat towards a good outcome as an adult.

Writing my Revenge, Inc. thrillers was one way for me to understand the role of revenge in people and groups working through their scapegoating traumas. In Cloud of Terns, Revenge Inc., through Wiley and Dave, gave Renata Champagne a way to reactivate her life after being raped in a fraternity house. In Revenge of the Scapegoat, the latest title, I follow what Debra Jean Lieberman, a post-doc scientist, might need from the energies of revenge to reclaim her life after being victimized by her super scientist boss. And in my next  book, The Killing Chord, I explore what role revenge might play in helping a famous composer regain his creativity and ability to father after losing much of his family in a fire set by an antagonist.

More about the tentative conclusions of this fictional exploration into revenge in the next post.


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