It is a hot, airless summer afternoon in Brooklyn and I am about five-years-old. There are countless aunts, grandmothers, and a handful of uncles scattered around the three-family house but none of them are near; everything is aridly silent, except for traffic kicking up gravel on the street outside the window. My brother, six years older than I, has damaged my infant pride by telling his friend, the one who plays basketball in the lot behind the house, that I still suck my thumb. They laugh and I am left holding a ballooning sense of outrage and helplessness.
I hate myself for sucking my thumb, but I hate my brother more for revealing this secret merely to get a laugh out of the handsome boy I secretly plan to marry. I am determined to get back at him. I sneak into his room on the second floor and turn his pet turtles over onto their backs. The blue curtains blow in a sudden breeze, and I hold my breath, terrified that some adult will catch me in my unholy mission. I am doing the worst thing I can think of doing to him; I am hurting those he truly loves as a way of extracting revenge.
I make it unseen into the supposedly inviolate sanctuary of his room and, one by one, very carefully overturn the small creatures. The turtles are uncomfortable and look ridiculous; they aren't actually in pain, but their tiny flailing limb signal desperation and discomfort. It is precisely how I wish my brother to feel, but since he is older and therefore out of range for direct action I have to settle for a sort of referred revenge directed onto those he loves and who are under his protection. I had once thought of myself as being in that category, but now I feel betrayed.
The betrayal is perhaps the worst of it. I thought we were allies; I thought it was him and me against the gang of adults who wandered through our house all day long. If it had just been some neighborhood kid that made fun of me I wouldn't have bothered taking my thumb out of my mouth to say anything. The hardest part was that my usually nice big brother should have treated me so lightly in front of one of his friends, handed me over for a laugh--that was the last straw, the straw that turned the turtles over on their backs.
Sneaking out of his room, I go into the alleyway to play with dolls, and imitate the good little girl I once was but am no longer. I have been initiated. I suddenly feel older and wiser, the possessor of a secret knowledge. I've done something to him without his consent just as he did to me; I have made things even. I have balanced the scales of justice, I think, in a way that makes it clear I'm not to be treated as if I don't count.
Having taken my revenge, I feel smug with satisfaction, as if what I've done is an accomplishment, as if I had learned a new song or memorized a new joke. In a childhood, like any childhood, filled with the impotent sense of needing always to look up to see what's really going on, it was an attractive, seductive, triumphant feeling.
I got caught--it was probably pretty clear to everyone that the turtles didn't simultaneously pirouette into the air, and it wasn't likely that one of my aged aunts had taken it upon herself to have a little fun with the terrapins. But, frankly, I don't remember how I got caught. Being found out wasn't as important as committing the deed; punishment was nothing compared to how good I felt at the moment. The tension and satisfaction I derived from my miniature Medea fantasies were, at that moment, obviously worth the cost of whatever punishment I could anticipate.
I was, indisputably, the most likely suspect. They--meaning my parents, my brother, and a virtual chorus of assorted relatives--tried to embarrass me about my actions. They couldn't; the embarrassment I felt about the thumb-sucking revelations was still smarting too intensely for me to feel badly about my response to it. Even though I couldn't really understand how they could get mad at me and not at my brother once I explained the details of my gratuitous humiliation in front of the boy next door, I accepted my punishment with all the dignity a very small and grubby child could manage.
Punishment--in my case being denied dessert and Walt Disney for two weeks--was a price worth paying. Whatever they could do to me now, I wouldn't take back the look of powerless anger on my brother's face as he listened to my sentence being handed down. I got him back; that was all that mattered. Anything after that moment added up to nothing more than an epilogue.
So it goes with revenge. We are willing to run the risk of of forfeiting those possessions usually held dear: self-esteem, pride, morality, ethics, love and family. While revenge is purchased most often at the cost of our good impression of ourselves (and others' good impressions of us), somehow it feels worth it.