Rosenbaum, novelist and director of Fordham University’s Forum on Law, thinks there’s an epidemic underway, and in Payback: The Case for Revenge he argues that the legal system fails to fulfill a duty to citizens as avenger of wrongs, and that fictional revenge narratives feed a natural, healthy desire for revenge.
The divide between the fictional realm and the legal realm is central to your book. Have you been conscious of this in your own dual careers? Do you see a similar gap in your own work as a lawyer and novelist?
As a lawyer my teaching interest is teaching humanities, to offer a moral critique against the legal system. Law’s virtue is that it is dispassionate. But as a novelist I’m saying the subjectivity of experience is completely annihilated. A novelist has a much more open landscape. Evidence is all about excluding—“Your honor, I’m asking the jury to disregard that.” All the great novels about the law never discuss the law. What you learn is the experience of human beings in the courtroom. Clients are coming to lawyers on their worst day. Lawyers are not tuned in to that complexity. They think it makes them bad lawyers if they are.
You discuss hiding behind the insanity defense as dishonorable, and in fact, a lie. Has revenge gone underground? Are we embracing avengers who are dishonorable? Are these bad role models?
It’s best not to lie and manipulate, but if the underlying purpose is to reclaim honor...In the Count of Monte Cristo, he does; he finds this to be a more commensurate punishment. The goal of revenge is to as closely approximate wrong—you are getting exactly what you gave, exactness is the key. I can take no more than this and I can take no less than this. The avenger is in the position of the CPA. A perfect exemplar of an avenger should be very rational, not a crazy person. Someone interested in precision. When you invoke the death penalty, you are not a murderer.
In the Steubenville rape case, the person wronged was accused of seeking revenge and there was concern voiced in the media for what kind of future her rapists could have if punished. Is this contrary to the actual definition of revenge, which you say is justice with a face?
The moral universe is not concerned with the complaints of wrongdoers who believe they should not be punished. All the person who causes the moral injury can do is question whether the punishment is disproportionate. They made a decision, they decided that this is a pleasure they wanted. When people commit crimes, they have made a decision.
Recently, victims of sexual abuse in the Horace Mann Action Coalition made the following public statement after rejecting a monetary settlement: “We want the same things we always wanted: to acknowledge that abuse took place in unambiguous language, which has not been done; to apologize to the survivors unambiguously; and we want an investigation of some sort, whether with the participation of the school or not. We are not vindictive and we are not out to hurt anyone.” How does this relate to your concept of a revenge-averse society?
In our legal system we never ask people what they need. The Horace Mann clients are laying out what they need. Lawyers only think in terms of money. The clients aren’t saying, “I would like bamboo shoots to be shoved into them.” They’re speaking evenly. They’re saying we don’t need to break his arms. They are still saying we want to be avenged—don’t hide, you have a right to be. At the end they seem to be backing off. They’re not violent, they have legitimate needs, what they are saying is this is the least that can be done.
Without a clear participatory role for victims, it devalues the pain. It says, “Your private pain is irrelevant to us.” Prosecutors are not told they represent victims. They represent the state. They literally do in State v. Jones. If you don’t acknowledge why the client got there and give him an opportunity to speak, they aren’t going to walk away feeling relief. Lawyers use words like legal relief. In fact, they don’t care.