October 19, 2017
For almost a year, Americans have watched their president bully others through social media, order the denial of basic rights to immigrants, encourage policies that would effectively disable the ability of millions to sustain health-insurance coverage as well as strip women of basic reproductive care, hire professed anti-Semitic advisers, throw the education system out the window, disavow our global warming and pollution crisis, and threaten nuclear war—what many believe to be an attempted killing of the fabric and identity of America itself.
Trump has been accused and excused not once but multiple times of sexual assault and harassment, claims he has denied. Consider that one in four women are sexual abuse survivors and one in two women have experienced sexual violence other than rape—it's not hard to comprehend that many women see a perpetrator in charge of the wellbeing of their country, with power over the fate of their bodies and lives.
When Trump was elected president, I heard from female friends and acquaintances—and then the masses at the Women's March—that I was not the only woman to feel as if our “perp” had taken office. The presidency was his condoning reward for (alleged) criminal behavior. When it came to violation and injustice, it seemed society had turned its back on moral principles.
*Jennifer K., a mother, states, “The election was devastating for me. Besides all of the actual political consequences, I’d recently found the courage to leave my abusive marriage. Watching a man who joked about nonconsensual touching by saying ‘grab them by the pussy’ was a painful reminder that too often there are no consequences for the abuser.”
In response to the election, many sought professional help.
“I can’t recall a single therapy session, for nearly a month following the 2016 election, which did not include references to Trump’s win,” says Dr. Richard Greene, a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Reactions ranged from feeling shocked and stunned to angry and frightened. Particularly powerful were the responses of women who had a sexual abuse history and both men and women who had a history of being bullied. Trump’s misogyny and proclivity for intimidating people who disagree with him struck painful chords and evoked difficult memories. A number of clients said that he reminded them of their abusers.”
How do people react when they’re provoked or tormented? Some “retaliate” by doing the opposite of those who’ve caused them pain, by acting from a place of good will: “going high.” But we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t acknowledge that we might also have darker thoughts.
“Donald Trump’s words and behaviors are so triggering that I think many people don’t even realize they’re operating in trauma mode,” says *Juliana Crowne, a visual artist. “I’ve often wondered why someone hasn’t killed him.”
Joan Wheeler, an abuse survivor, relates, “I was frightened by the rage I felt in the aftermath of the election, the enormity of which could’ve swallowed a city whole. The world felt as unsafe as it had when I was a kid. Here I was a grown woman living in a realty in which an abuser was given the ultimate authority. I was sickened by how many chose to avert their eyes or, worse, normalize his behavior. My rage, which has as its ultimate target the father who abused me, was directed at the man sitting in the White House, the first person I ever truly wished dead.”
The personal is political, and vice versa. I grew up in a house presided over by a sociopathic, misogynist father who was verbally and sexually abusive. My mother, out of fear, allowed my father to make decisions that put everyone’s physical and psychological safety on the line, for years, with detrimental effects. At night, while my mother slept across the hall, my father would come into my room and abuse me. My experiences left me feeling so powerless that sometimes I fantasized exacting revenge on him in order to counteract my mother’s submissiveness and stop the person causing my pain, though I never acted it out.
When I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, I came to learn about the aftermath of trauma, including what’s called the “revenge fantasy.” In Trauma and Recovery, renowned Harvard psychiatrist and researcher Judith Herman writes that in the revenge fantasy, “the role of perpetrator and victim are reversed. The revenge fantasy is one form of the wish for catharsis. The victim imagines that she can get rid of the terror, shame, and pain of the trauma by retaliating against the perpetrator. In her humiliated fury, the victim imagines that revenge is the only way to restore her own sense of power. She may also imagine that this is the only way to force the perpetrator to acknowledge the harm he has done to her.”
According to Jodi Perelman, MFT, a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, revenge fantasies are useful: “They can be a powerful stop along the journey of psychic healing, especially if we allow ourselves to simply accept and acknowledge them.” But she is quick to add that “revenge really is a ‘fantasy,’ because enacting it doesn’t truly bring about the long-desired wish, whether that be freedom from the effects of abuse or eradicating the experience of helplessness.”
This past June, Kathy Griffin’s photo shoot featuring her holding up a bloody head resembling Trump embodied a revenge fantasy. Her display was met with public horror and offense. Griffin apologized, saying she “went way too far. I made a mistake and I was wrong.” She asked celebrity photographer Tyler Shields to remove the photo from Instagram. Griffin was subsequently vilified by the public.
Perhaps “mistake” was too soft a word for Griffin to use to characterize her act. The suggestion of assassinating the American president—or anyone—is unacceptable. But artists—painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, comedians—create visual representations of the human experience and express our reactions to life’s events. What if Griffin, as an artist, was tapping into an emotional undercurrent of Americans, particularly the revenge fantasies of women?
If Griffin’s photograph was a projection of a collective reaction to our social trauma—a deep need to reclaim personal power—where she went wrong was in not examining her mode of expression before enacting it in public. (And Griffin would later retract her apology, saying the outrage was "blown out of proportion.")
Jennifer K. wasn’t a supporter of Kathy Griffin’s photo: “It seemed to shift the negative focus to her instead of the president,” she says. “I felt like it gave cover to ‘outraged’ people [in our government] whose actual policies are horrible for women. In that way, I felt like it was distracting and counterproductive.”
Crowne disagrees: “The image was a satirical response to the unrelenting abuse of our government. I am not advocating that Donald Trump be decapitated, but I find it hard to consider that he is somehow being wronged by [Griffin’s] actions.” Crowne elaborates, “Maybe Trump could stop raping our world and pillaging our Constitution. The wrongdoing lies in his actions, his words, and his delight in greed. If I had to choose an image to say how Trump needs to disappear, Griffin’s choice works for me. The image is only an image, as opposed to the reality of the unraveling of our Constitution, the loss of health care, the condoned murder of black citizens, mass roundups of hard-working immigrants for deportation—that is traumatic. I don’t think women should be denied an avenue for what is an appropriate response to the madness in our world.”
Herman explains that “revenge fantasies increase [a victim’s] torment. They exacerbate the victim’s feelings of horror and degrade her image of herself. They make her feel like a monster.” In fact, media response to Griffin's photo shoot was that she was a monster.
But Griffin isn’t evil. She has a conscience: Without excusing her behavior, she not only asked but begged for forgiveness. What she failed to do, what we as Americans have to learn to do, is to move away from what Herman calls “helpless fury to righteous indignation: Giving up the fantasy of revenge does not mean giving up the quest for justice; on the contrary, it begins the process of joining with others to hold the perpetrator accountable.”
It’s time to be bold, which is different from engaging in desperate measures. It’s time for us all—women, men, Congress, state representatives, the people of our nation—to speak out and take responsible action, just as many in the Hollywood industry are now doing with Harvey Weinstein, and other high-powered sexual predators. It’s time to put aside our fears, our conditioned hesitations around standing up to the man in charge. It’s time to put a stop to the voice that tells us to "shut up and put up," and start listening to our hearts and minds.
The best revenge is living—from a place of conviction for what is right. The future existence of our world, and ourselves, depends on it.
*Some names have been changed.