Laura Blumenfeld knows all about revenge. It has occupied her thoughts and rolled off her tongue for years. And now it's the subject of her provocative first book, "Revenge: A Story of Hope," in which she explains how she carried the idea out herself.
Americans don't talk much about revenge, let alone admit to the desire publicly. It's a taboo, a concept that brings with it an unsettling sense of fear, anger, and lack of control.
That's something Ms. Blumenfeld noticed when she first started telling people she was researching and even pursuing revenge. They would become tense, often taking a step back and furrowing their brows. Even now, conducting a phone interview while standing in line at an airport, she makes those around her uncomfortable.
"People are staring at me," says the Washington Post reporter with a laugh, "I'm sitting here going on and on about revenge at a security check."
The irony of the situation is not lost on the author, whose book is being published less than a year after Sept. 11, a date that changed the way Americans look at getting even. Her book isn't so much about the nation's recent wounds, but the motivation for revenge in everything from the Middle East conflict to fights on the playground and her own quest to avenge an attack on her father. It presents an opportunity to bring a taboo out into the light and see how it is intersecting with culture today.
Revenge and its effects are rarely far from thought, even if they're little discussed. The more extreme cases school shootings, terrorism end up on CNN. The milder forms take place in offices everywhere, through badmouthing or freezing out offending associates.
The idea of revenge originated with the creation of man, according to some beliefs. As one story goes, Satan was angry with God for kicking him out of heaven, so he introduced Adam and his kin to sin. There's been score-settling ever since motivated by things like shame, family honor, or a desire for justice. Much of the language about responding to revenge is from biblical times an eye for an eye, from the Old Testament; turning the other cheek, from the New.
The language of retribution is perpetuated in modern times in everything from Hamlet to Harry Potter. Sometimes real revenge goes no further than victims' fantasizing, but its presence in society is palpable enough. Frederic Luskin, the project director of the Stanford (University) Forgiveness Project quips, "More people practice revenge than practice forgiveness."
At Georgetown University, Robert Bies has been looking at revenge in the workplace for the past seven years. His research suggests that "revenge is part of the everyday fabric of all organizations," he says.
As a journalist, Blumenfeld says she saw it everywhere in the partisan payback on Capitol Hill, the bloody tit for tat in Northern Ireland, and the callousness at recess.
But as the daughter of a rabbi who was shot by a Palestinian gunman in Jerusalem in 1986, she was interested for a different reason. Her father, a tourist, survived the bullet it only grazed his scalp. But "the shooter," as she calls him, had denied her father's humanity by making him a military target, "as if my father were some kind of radar station, and not even a human being," she explains. She wanted to restore that humanity for the shooter to know her father as a man.
Her journey takes her to the scene of the crime, and also around the world. She interviews folk experts in Albania and ayatollahs in Iran to ask about revenge practices and what rights a daughter has to avenge her father. She learns about the power of revenge in Mafia-influenced Sicily. "In Sicily, symmetry would demand that I shoot the shooter, or maybe his father. But I had to find another way, my way," she writes.
Her father's shooter, Omar Khatib, is in jail for his crime, she learns. So she begins her quest for him to know the Blumenfelds by befriending his family without saying who she is only that she's a US journalist.
She avoids pigeonholing her subject. "Revenge is like love: It's one of those things you can describe, but you can't define," she says.
She sees revenge as one end of a spectrum, with justice on the other end. Americans prefer the word justice. There's a big difference between the two, says the Rev. Dr. Joretta Marshall, a dean at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "Justice is more about how we create and sustain and nurture relationships that serve the common good, that don't marginalize and destroy others. Revenge has to do with making someone else feel bad because you feel bad."
Often, revenge is not as satisfying as people expect. And it can end up hurting the avenger more than the target. "I think it's something we need to be paying attention to how we think it's going to help us feel better," says Dr. Marshall.
A focus on revenge may cause people to lose sight of moving toward a more just society. "If revenge is the last word, then we don't have any way to get out of constant [cycles of] hurting," she says.
But some people talk about "constructive" revenge. Professor Bies, who specializes in organizational behavior, says it exists in workplaces. His research suggests that in some cases, revenge curbs abuses of power as when an employee confronts a superior in a public way about inappropriate actions.
In fact, he says that most stable organizations have a mix of forgiveness and revenge. "You need elements of both, and that's the intriguing thing."
At least one worldwide movement restorative justice allows victims and communities to be involved in punishment, to help in reforming the offender.
That's closer to what Blumenfeld was after. She argues that the extreme choices are not always realistic. Turning the other cheek is a tough rule to live by, she says, and an eye for an eye, "feels good for about five minutes until the person pops out your eye, and then all of a sudden you realize the futility of revenge and how it's ultimately self-defeating."
She found a third way: transformation. "What I've learned is that revenge doesn't have to be about destroying your enemy, it can be about transforming your enemy or yourself."
Her friendship with Mr. Khatib's family eventually allowed her to correspond with him. He is educated and knows English, and tells her he has renounced violence. They discuss "constructive revenge" in which a person's anger is channeled into "building something up rather than lashing out," she wrote.
He and his family learn her true identity in an emotional courtroom scene when she persuades a panel of Israeli judges to let her testify as a witness in favor of his early release. Rather than alienating her from Khatib and his family, her actions draw them closer, and they remain on good terms. In a recent TV interview on ABC, Khatib (still in jail) said Blumenfeld "chose the positive way of getting revenge from me. And she succeeded."
She says she knew she had achieved her goal, and could finally rest, when Khatib wrote to her father that "[Laura] was the mirror that made me see your face as a human person that deserved to be admired and respected."
Her father says he didn't want revenge, other than to live a full life. But she needed more. "I felt really satisfied," she says. "I got revenge, but it was in a way that put an end to the animosity, rather than perpetuate it."