The problem with revenge stories  

Spoilers below for TV dramas Apple Tree Yard and Unforgotten, if you’ve not watched them yet.

Both dramas involved complicated plots about those who have been abused turning the tables on their abusers and getting away with it.

While in real life, we might abhor vigilanteeism and we have a judicial system that is intended to be fair and impartial and not based on vengeance, we do accept that there’s a difference between fiction and reality.

Don’t we?

Some people can’t tell the difference. I vaguely remember stories about an actor who played a rapist on East Enders coming in for personal abuse on the street. There’s theories that violent games inspire real life violence. Much is made of Norwegian Anders Breivik training by playing Call of Duty – whilst ignoring all the many people who have played the same game without ever planning and carrying out a terrorist attack – and ignoring the logical point that to use it to train meant that he’d formulated a plan rather than been pushed into action by the game itself. Perhaps most worrying is the idea that Jack Bauer of 24 provided the inspiration for real life torture, post 9/11

To what degree are the writers of fiction responsible if some reader or viewer confuses the boundary?  Let’s ignore Trump, whose comprehension of the difference between lies and truth is doubtful. And consider the possibility that intelligence operatives used torture because it worked for Jack Bauer.

Would that be the fault of the producers and writers of the show? Of the actors?

Or would it be the responsibility of those whose job it was to train them, to teach them about the law, to remind them of human rights. And most of all, perhaps, that torture doesn’t actually work. Not even in those faked up storylines where the stakes are high and there’s only so many hours to save the world.

Did 24 ever have a plot line when the torture failed? That would be good story telling. I did watch the first few series but I can’t say it stuck in my mind – and in spite of the helter skelter pace, it got boring.

But I do love revenge stories. Way back at Liverpool Uni in the late 70s one of my lecturers specialised in Revenge Tragedies and forced me to write an essay on Titus Andronicus. Now that’s torture for you.

The issue some have with these current dramas is that they aren’t tragedies. Vengeance is rewarded. There’s no requirement to dig two – or six – graves.

Here come the spoilers.

In Unforgotten (the second series), a body is discovered and the investigating team gradually uncover the truth about the long-dead man. It was a variant on the Strangers on a Train story. All the suspects had met in a psychiatric unit and recognised each other as abuse victims.  And between them they hatched a plan to revenge themselves on each other’s abusers – creating perfect alibis. It would have been difficult to prove, apart from the fact that the detective followed one of them and discovered them all chatting together in a pub…  The ending, which has disappointed some, has the investigating police colluding to ignore the evidence and let it go, out of sympathy for what they’d each endured, and because they had spent the previous twenty years as productive members of society and were no longer a danger to anyone.

While this was emotionally satisfying in the drama, it’s not how we’d see it in real life. Most of us would, I assume, prefer to see the courts deal with the evidence and then allow for mitigation. Maybe in a real life situation a jury would decide they were not guilty of murder, only of manslaughter. Perhaps a short prison sentence or a suspended sentence would be deemed appropriate. Or maybe a judge would decide they needed to be made an example of to deter vigilanteeism.

Apple Tree Yard is also a revenge story, with a twist or two along the way. The heroine, Dr Yvonne Carmichael, is a scientist who falls for a dodgy guy who leads her to believe he’s a spook. Clearly she must be punished for the sin of having a fling while she has a good job, a nice house and an acceptable husband (even if he might be playing away himself, I mean, he’s a bloke, so that’s allowed, right?). And so one of her colleagues clearly senses that she’s an immoral woman and is therefore fair game, and rapes her. It’s a truly shocking scene – brutal and violent. Perhaps more shocking is the way she becomes meek and plaible and goes along with his suggestion that they share a taxi. Shocking, that is, if you believe all the myths about rape, and how victims behave – and it seems many people still do.

So we know from the outset that Yvonne is on trial, along with her lover, Mark Costley, for George’s murder.

In various twists and turns we find out that Costley was not a spook – he failed to qualify because of suspicions that he has a personality disorder – his defence against the charge of murder. He’s married, with children. Yvonne finds out she really hardly knew him at all. There are shades of the Prisoner’s Dilemma throughout – will they stay loyal to each other? It seems not. And then, in a final twist, it is revealed that he was the more romantic – not her. That she asked him to deal with George. And so she gets away with her revenge as he is convicted and she walks free.

As a viewer I couldn’t help but feel glad that Yvonne got away with her revenge. I felt sad for Costley – not for George, who was violently murdered after all. I suppose that’s because we saw the brutality of the rape. And we saw that he continued to stalk her. That even though she didn’t report him and she altered her life to avoid him, that she’d allowed him to get away with it – still he wouldn’t leave her be.

In real life, would it be acceptable to incite murder, even of someone who has violently raped you and is a determined stalker? Of course not. Even though we know perfectly well how dangerous male aggressors of this kind are. Even though we know restraining orders are of limited use, that the police often fail to take stalking seriously, even though we know how low convictions for rape are… We still wouldn’t condone that kind of violence.

But this is fiction. I’m not sure that we really expect fiction to be realistic. At least, not all forms of fiction. We criticise dramas where we think they fail to be realistic, but we accept a certain amount of deviation from reality too. No one wants to see policemen doing paperwork, or on long observations when nothing happens. It’s a story.

Where would we start criticising Apple Tree Yard for its deviation from reality? The willingness of a respectable female scientist to have sex in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament with a guy she knows nothing about? Her spectacular agility in leaping to the conclusion that he’s a spook, because he makes some random observation about how CCTV cameras work?

Me, I’d rather pick holes in reality. I suppose we could write a fiction in which justice prevails – the police act correctly, there’s evidence to be had and not just he said, she said situations, the jury are educated about the myths about rape and abuse, the court system always reaches a just conclusion. And we could all it, I dunno, Utopia. It wouldn’t be very emotionally satisfying for all the people who have been let down by the justice system. See the recent Guardian article about British rape trials. Nor would it be a very good story.

I have my own dog in this race. My own addiction to revenge stories to declare. My novel, A Savage Art, is also a revenge story.  I’m sure there are lots of areas where it fails the realism test.

Revenge stories are wish fulfilment for the powerless. I suppose I believe like comedy, they’re about punching up, rather than punching down. If they make the reader or the view think about issues of morality that’s a good thing. But if we expect a story to make our minds up for us, in this brave new world of FAKE NEWS, then we’ve already lost.

Ann

For another day, perhaps. Is it wrong to punch a Nazi?

P.S. My novel is currently only £0.99/$0.99 to download

Sources

Guardian – Inside British Rape Trials

NYT – Normalising torture on 24

CSM – Did 24 help to make torture acceptable?

American Thinker – Stranger than Fiction: Does 24 Inspire Real Life Torture?