I mean, who doesn’t love a twisty tale of personal justice? In fact, my current work-in-progress has a significant revenge theme. And as with any manuscript I write, I tried to think of revenge stories (books or movies) that had a similar thread for comparison.
As I pondered the options, I began to notice a concerning trend. Most of the stories I could think of featured male main characters, some of whom are avenging female family members (Taken, e.g.). The ones with female main characters are centered on how they’ve been wronged by a man (First Wives’ Club, The Lauras), and more often than not, they’re humorous in nature (Fried Green Tomatoes). Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies comes close, but I’d consider that more self-defense than calculated revenge.
With a little research, I found more woman-led stories, but most of the women are teen girls (True Grit, Carrie) or highly-trained professionals (a detective or assassin, like Kill Bill). The average-Joe-gets-revenge narrative seems limited to men, for the most part. You know the theme I’m talking about, the one where the totally normal guy is wronged in some way and starts doing his research, creating a murder board with pictures and strings connecting them, gathering evidence as he plans his hit list.
I couldn’t find anything like that with a woman in the lead, so I asked my husband what he could think of. He mentioned Orphan Black and Killjoys, which are closer, but they’re sci-fi tales. They’re already squarely beyond reality, set within the realm of imagination. Is that the only place to find female revenge-seekers? Does a woman have to have special powers or live in an alternate universe to enact revenge?
I’m sure there are stories out there of average women getting revenge for an injustice not involving infidelity. I don’t claim to have read every book or seen every movie with a revenge theme. The problem is, those stories are harder to find. They don’t represent the revenge themes you find in popular tv shows and movies. In those, serious revenge is best left to the men.
And that bothers me. Of course it does.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a “I’m gonna take out his cheating self” narrative, and I love a good sense of humor. But is that all women get? When it comes to mystery/suspense fiction, women are already more likely to be victims than heroes, more likely to need rescuing than to be the rescuer. The suspense world is full of books with that same old trope of the the pretty dead girl who needs a man to get justice for her. Yes, women tend to be more physically vulnerable, but statistically, men are more likely to be victims in every crime except rape. (Check out these stats, especially page 9.)
Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to create strong, intelligent female characters. I want women like me to be able to embrace a narrative in which women aren’t simply the victims but are the heroes of their own story. They say write what you know, and an intelligent woman at the helm of her own ship, that’s a reality I know.
The truth is, I’m lucky enough to have some incredible, strong women in my life. If I ever needed justice, my money’s on them to get it for me. Sure, there are some awesome men in my life too. But when it comes to taking care of business, there’s one thing I know for sure: don’t ever underestimate a woman.
I don’t mean in a metaphorical sense. I mean literally. Because I have a heart condition (not life-threatening) and today is one of those days.
I’m betting anyone with a chronic illness understands what I mean. I can go months with only minor symptoms—palpitations, the occasional twinge—but then boom, I have a day or two when I’m practically doubled-over, clutching my chest like a dad who just got his teen daughter’s cell phone bill.
I have yet to find a pattern for these bad heart days. They tend to strike at will and there’s not much I can do about them except breathe my way through them. But it makes me appreciate all the good days. Because when it comes down to it, I’m so very lucky. My symptoms are generally mild and easily managed, unlike a lot of other people who deal with SVT (supraventricular tachycardia). I’ve never had to go to the ER because my heart rate wouldn’t slow. I don’t have to take medication to keep it under control.
Days like these make me think of the many people who walk around with invisible illnesses, struggling to make it through the day although you’d never know it. They’re a special kind of warrior, people who deal with chronic pain and invisible symptoms. They don’t get the same kind of respect and understanding people offer someone with a cast on their arm, but their struggles are no less real.
And it’s not just the average person who misjudges people with chronic illnesses—medical professionals can misjudge and misdiagnose them too. I got a small taste of that when, as a fifteen-year-old claiming chest pains, the doctors kept asking me if I was stressed and then implied that SVT was a diagnosis they landed on only because they could find no physical evidence and had ruled out everything else. I was only a teen, but I wasn’t stupid. I could see the doubt. (If you want to learn more about when I finally learned the truth, you can read about that here.)
I take that experience and multiple it by about a hundred to imagine what so many people with chronic illnesses go through, running the gauntlet of skeptical specialists and doubting friends. As if handling an illness isn’t enough, they also have to battle to be heard and fight to be supported.
So yeah, days like these are frustrating, but days like these are also beautiful. They remind me how lucky I am. My bad heart days are infrequent. I have an official diagnosis I can point to as an explanation. I have a husband who picks up the slack when I’m struggling and never shames me for asking for help.
My bad heart days remind me of all the good things. So I really can’t be too mad about it. And the reality is, my wonky, imperfect heart keeps beating, keeps powering through. How could I ever be upset about that?
I think of you a lot, especially this time of year. That sounds kind of creepy, but let me explain. I grew up with you all around me. I lived next to you, went to school and church with you. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a military town, seeing the many sacrifices of brave souls.
You are those brave souls. I know your service member tends to get a lot of well-deserved attention and praise, but I see you. I see how, in many ways, you sacrifice just as much. If you’re a military spouse, you’re the one left to deal with everyday life when your loved one is deployed. You have to live with the worry and fear. And if you have kids, you get to play the part of both parents, making sure no extracurricular activity or school project gets lost in the shuffle.
Even when your spouse is stateside, you know work takes priority. I mean, who can compete with the safety and security of a nation? And so that promise of helping Josh with his math homework ends up being one you get to fulfill. And while of course you’re proud of your spouse’s choices, I’m betting you sometimes wish you could just be like any other family for one night.
If your parent is the one in the military, you’re probably pretty good at packing boxes. Every few years, you have to start over. Say goodbye to old friends, move to an area you probably know nothing about. I’ve said goodbye to many of you, writing letters until you’ve adjusted to your new lives and are ready to focus on your new friends. In many ways, we’ve both had to start over, finding new friends to replace ones we’ve lost, but you have the pressure of doing it in a new place with entirely new people. You’re the perpetual new kid. That’s a tough role. You know why your parent does what he/she does, and you’re probably even super proud, but that doesn’t make you miss him/her any less.
And if you have a child in the military, you know the dangers of both deployment and stateside training, either because you’ve lived that life or you started extensive research the moment your child told you they were joining up. No doubt you’re wonderfully proud of the person you raised but you also live with an edge of fear lingering around you.
I think of all of you, the million tiny sacrifices you make and the greater ones. And I find you’re particularly heavy on my heart during the holidays, especially if your loved one is deployed. You adapt in so many ways, and I know you have to work extra hard to fill in the gap. You may not wear the uniform, but I know you’re just as much a part of the military as the one who does.
This season, I’m thinking of you, praying for you, and offering my gratitude for your work, your service. You are my heroes.
Whenever something tragic happens, the focus is usually on the perpetrator—who he is and why he did what he did. And while those are important questions to answer, what I keep coming back to are the people who lost their lives. The victims.
I’ll be honest, I hate the word victims. I mean, I get it, it’s not inaccurate and headlines only have so much space. But I hate how it reduces vibrant humans, defining them by how their lives ended.
Something everyone in the medical or psychology world (including my undergrad program in speech-language pathology) learns is to put personhood first. Instead of a “stutterer,” it’s “a person who stutters.” Instead of centering on the person’s condition or disorder, you center on their humanity.
And so in every tragedy, I try to center on the people who were victimized. I read their names. I learn who they were, that this person liked to hike and that one had two kids. It doesn’t change anything, of course. They’re still gone, and their families will remain irreparably broken. But it’s one small thing I can do to honor them, to refuse to let them be a number, a statistic of tragedy.
The people who were recently killed in church were people who thought they’d have a tomorrow, as we all do. They were thinking about Sunday dinner and worrying about work or school the next day. They didn’t know they wouldn’t have a next day.
So I don’t look away. I can’t. I look at their pictures and I read about them. It’s painful. Of course it is. But they deserve that small respect I can give them, a moment to acknowledge their humanity and mourn their loss.
If you want to join me in honoring those killed in Sutherland Springs by learning their names, you can read about them here.