You know somebody like this. I’m talking about a person who is consumed with anger about having been treated unjustly. A person who can think of little else but how to wreak revenge on the person or persons who caused his pain. A person who talks about this injustice incessantly, and who can’t seem to get on with his life. Now psychiatrists have named this quality and are saying that it is a bona fide mental illness–it is known as “embitterment.” It could also be called “the Ahab Syndrome” for Melville’s Captain Ahab, who was willing to sacrifice his ship and his men to capture the white whale that had taken his leg.
Dr. Michael Linden, the psychiatrist who named this behavior, says that people suffering from the syndrome are generally good people who have worked hard at something–such as a job or a relationship–and then suffer some unexpected loss. They get fired. Or the wife runs away with their best friend. They turn into helpless victims and stay mired in their hate and aggression. Linden says that these people rarely come in for treatment, because they feel that the problem is outside, in the world, not inside themselves. “They are almost treatment-resistant,” he says. “Revenge is not a treatment.” (La/Times-Washington Post, 5/26)
The same day that I read the Post article reprinted in the Oregonian, I read another piece: it was the horrific story of a mother who picked up her two children, a daughter 7 and a son 4, from their father for a weekend parenting visit, and then forced the children off the Sellwood Bridge, apparently an act of revenge against her estranged husband. (Oregonian, 5/27) The little girl was saved only by the quick action of a stranger who heard the children scream. The man, David Haag, went out in his boat, found the children in the water, and dived in after them. Haag said he thought the girl had been holding onto her little brother, for they were right together in the water. But he could not save the boy, who was already dead.
I look at the picture of the mom on the front page of the paper–her name is Amanda Jo. She has long dark hair, disheveled now; a dazed look on her face, she looks almost like a child herself. What could she have been thinking, to push her two babies off a bridge? What could she have been feeling?
This mom had lost a custody battle for her children–this was the second time she had lost custody of a child, for this past February, the court ordered an older son, by a different man, to stay in the sole custody of his father. I can only imagine that she might have felt helpless and hopeless. And because she could not control the courts or her husband or her own out-of-control life, she exercised influence over others by hurting the children. She had become truly mentally ill. Her act was akin to the man who loses a job and then goes in and shoots up the office. Or the man who shot people in a Nashville church because his estranged wife used to go there. I’ve been treated unfairly, they say. And somebody has to pay.
It should be said, however, that even though few people will kill to justify themselves, most of us have sucked on this bitter rag of revenge. At some time or other, we will have been treated unfairly–by another person, by society, or just by the universe in general. And this typically makes us very, very angry. Generally time takes care of our bitter feelings, and we move on to more productive activity. We forget. We may even forgive. We understand that justice is not something we can expect or demand, in this world.
Speaking of justice, now–what would justice be for this woman? What would you say, if you were on the jury? What crime is more horrible than killing one’s own children? What demons are at work within this woman? Are they different from the ones at work in you and in me?
I have no answers to these questions. I am struck with the horror of the crime. I wonder at the reaches of human pain, about the genesis of evil. I acknowledge the darkness in myself and in all of us.