Tuesday, August 17, 2010
The Revenge of the Humiliated
When I was in college, for a year-and-a-half I lived in a studio apartment attached to an old two-story house, in which lived 11 or 12 girls. I got to know them quite well.
Some stayed there the entire time but some left and others came, so altogether I got to know maybe 15 girls. It was an eye-opening experience.
One night I was in the room of one of them, sitting on the floor while she lay on the bed. We were listening to her records (this was before CDs, obviously). She was 21 years old, very attractive, with a very nice body.
For some unknown reason she began to tell me about when she was 12 years old. She had been ostracized in the seventh grade, she told me. She showed me a picture.
She didn’t look bad, just a gawky 12-year-old with glasses. A little pudgy. The word “nerdy” occurred to me. All these things together were enough for her to be ostracized.
That summer, she blossomed. The baby fat melted, she got contacts, she got taller, she filled out. It was the proverbial case of the ugly duckling turning into a swan.
When she went back to school in the eighth grade, all of the kids who had ostracized her now wanted to be her friends. She ignored every one of them.
Since that time, she told me, she had never been attracted to what most women would consider handsome men.
“Then who are you attracted to?” I asked.
“Men who look like Peter Noone,” she told me.
At first I didn’t recognize the name. Then she said, “Herman, of Herman and the Hermits,” and I recognized who she was talking about. I found that a little odd, because when he was popular she was about seven years old.
In fact, she married a guy who looked like Noone. I had a hard time keeping a straight face when I met him.
When I thought about what had happened to her, I realized this was a case of humiliation followed by revenge. I never asked her, but I’ll bet when some really good-looking guy asked her out (unless he looked like Noone) I’m sure she turned him down. And I’ll bet she enjoyed it.
Humiliation followed by revenge is the story of Cain and Abel, except in that case it led to murder. In Kathy’s case, being much milder than Cain and Abel, it took the form of rejecting or completely ignoring the guys who had humiliated her when she was 12 years old. She was doing to them what they did to her.
What happened to her for those several months in the seventh grade affected her for the rest of her life. You could use the word “trauma,” although I think it’s a bit strong. But there is an old saying, “Trauma demands repetition,” which is done in order to relive the trauma and make it turn out right.
So I’d say Kathy was reliving what was done to her in the seventh grade, to make it turn out right. And apparently, in her case, she was able to make things turn out okay.
Living well really is the best revenge, I guess. And turnabout is fair play. And all fair’s in love and war. And sometimes, unfortunately, love is war.
The kids who humiliated her in seventh grade did so unwittingly. Which raises the question: why is it not taught you are not supposed to humiliate people? How many parents teach this? Schools? Churches? I’ve never seen it.
I mentioned that Kathy was nerdy at 12 but beautiful at 13. That reminded me of the movie, “The Revenge of the Nerds.” And what was it about? Humiliation followed by revenge.
I don’t see much difference between humiliation and shame. In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve (who, ominously, are Cain and Abel’s parents), are ashamed when they realize they are naked. And Cain is shamed and humiliated when God rejects (rejects, the way Kathy was rejected) his sacrifice and accepts Abel’s.
Shame, humiliation (caused by some sort of rejection, which is abuse)…pretty much the same thing. They are apparently our earliest unpleasant feelings, and the cause of so much trouble in the world. In the story of Eden, those feelings are what being evil into the world.
The psychiatrist James Gilligan, who studied murderers his entire career, one day realized what he was hearing from them, over and over, was the story of Cain and Abel. “I killed him because he dissed me,” he heard over and over. It’s even become a shorthand – “dissed.” And everyone knows what that word means.
Can there be a case of revenge that is not based on humiliation and being shamed? If revenge on is not based on humiliation, then what else can it be based upon? I can’t think of anything else.