At the heart of most good stories lies reversal: Cinderella becomes the princess, and the wicked stepmother and stepsisters get their comeuppance; Jane Eyre, the poor downtrodden governess, marries the lord of the manor, Mr. Rochester — a damaged Mr. Rochester to boot. (Charlotte Bronte satisfyingly maims him in the fire at Thornfield.) We love stories, of course, where the underdog triumphs against the odds. Perhaps we all harbor fantasies of revenge and secretly imagine our enemies at our mercy in one way or another.
Certainly, in my own case I have used stories to right what I perceived as the wrongs in life. I have written about murderous husbands brought to account (in “Crossways”), doctors blackmailed for sexual harassment (in a story called “The Transitional Object”) and a young, unknown African writer who takes his revenge on an older and more famous white woman modeled on Marguerite Duras. (Bay of Foxes)
What I have learned from writing, too, is that a character who is entirely a victim is never very interesting. We need conflict in a story, and this comes from the character who puts up a fight and is not entirely blameless, who is, perhaps, even complicit in the crime.
But what about real life, you might ask? Is there no satisfaction possible there? What are we to do about the wrongs we consider we have been subjected to as children at the hands of our parents, perhaps, wicked Mummy or Daddy, or as adolescents at the instigations of our cruel peers, or as adults in our work and love life?
Perhaps the most useful attitude here, too, is similar to a good short story. Have a good look at your own behavior and see how you might have been complicit in the crimes you are certain others committed. How much projection is going on here? How much easier it is to blame others for the wrongs in the world, but what ultimately will that alter? Certainly it is much easier to change our own behavior than that of others around us.
Perhaps the best rule is to forgive but not to forget, to use our disappointments, our humiliations, and failures to move on to the next occasion. So often what we take for failure can be an occasion to learn and to grow if we will learn from each situation how to protect ourselves better, becoming more aware of our own motivations and behavior, but also who to avoid, and how to reach out to others who are more likely to help us, and to ask for what we really want and what we truly deserve.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.