We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories. Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are. And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.
We struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.
Goodness is a nebulous concept, however. There’s no external metric that indicates what we should do. For instance: if we are subject to an injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?
There are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …
Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.
A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order. Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence. (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)
Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies. The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.
The compulsion to punish people who have hurt us arises from deep within our brains.
But punishment invites further punishment. Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.
But forgiveness is hard. Sometimes people do terrible things. After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.
The attack had been recorded by security cameras. Apparently it was horrifying to watch. The assailant’s defense lawyer stated publicly that it was “the most provable murder case I have ever seen.”
And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people. (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)
At the time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail.
Correction (pt. ii)
My wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –
outside at four a.m., scattering birdseed,
smoking a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic
nothings into the unlistening air.
Then a passing man tossed off a punch,
knocking her to the ground.
He stomped upon her skull
till there was no more her
within that battered brain.
Doctors intubated the corpse &
kept it oxygenated by machine,
monitoring each blip of needless heart
until my wife convinced
a charitable neurologist
to let the mindless body rest.
That same afternoon
I taught another class in jail
for men who hurt someone else’s mother,
daughter, or son.
The man who murdered,
privacy-less New York inmate #14A4438
with black hair & brown eyes,
had been to prison twice,
in 2002 & 2014,
caught each time
with paltry grams of crack cocaine.
Our man received a massive dose
of state-sponsored therapy:
nine years of penitence.
Nearly a decade of correction.
Does Victor Frankenstein share the blame
for the murders of his creation,
the man he quicked but did not love?
Or can we walk into a maternity ward
that one, nursing now, will be a beast.
Are monsters born or made?
My mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,
apprehended after “spontaneous utterances,”
covered in blood, photographed with
a bandage between his eyes.
And we, in our mercy,
will choose whether
I have always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation. Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was thrust upon him. The creature was ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated him. Victor Frankenstein abandoned him in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased him away.
Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring of the creature’s rage.
In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance. The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts. But what if many stray pieces were collected? An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s. The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from. And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look! Here is a body, victim of the attacks. Here is a dead man we can honor properly.
In truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out. Once he completes the corpse, he realizes that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all the empty coffins.
And then the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its component parts. In the creature’s words (as translated by Jonathan Wright):
“My list of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end.
“Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.
“But the killing had only begun. At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”
Soon, the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead victims that he is composed of. He can chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead allies. The chain of causality is so tangled that no one is clearly responsible.
United States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a small group of Afghani terrorists.
Some people thought that this sounded reasonable at the time.
To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame. But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death? The man who assaulted her? That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach. But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.
Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?
Do I blame myself? As a citizen of this country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others. Even when I loathe the way this nation acts, by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.
I have inherited privilege … which means that I also deserve to inherit blame, even for horrors perpetrated well before I was born.
Forgiveness is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity. The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad is flummoxed:
In his mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging these lives an endless task. Or maybe he would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated than ever before.
“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.” This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue. He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components. This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim. The victim proportion in some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.
“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”
Header image: an illustration of Frankenstein at work in his laboratory.