Meditation on (the catharsis) of violence and punishment/(as) justice.
Klaus, The Originals, has uttered variations of this title numerous times.
I think I, like a lot of people, are drawn to powerful characters because there’s so much that is out of our control in our daily lives. So many indignities and violences that we can’t do anything about. So a character like Klaus provides that indulgence: a fantastical sense of power to exact revenge, punish and maybe even victimise others.
This is not why I was originally drawn to The Originals. At first it was just a show go get lost in, make university bearable. As was Revenge. Revenge dramas are a-ma-zing. The more fantastical the better. After I got sick however, I became obsessed with these shows. I watched them over and over. One time, I responded to a cousin’s inquisition on The Originals with “It’s my angry show.”
I watch it when I’m angry and can’t do anything about it.
For most of last year, and even sometimes now, the primary emotion I felt about my illness was anger. Sure, there was fear and self pity and loneliness and other times even hope and gratitude, but mostly, I was just so angry, I couldn’t function. And it was anger I couldn’t do anything about: I couldn’t even show it. I’d lay on the couch, listening to people having a conversation on the dining table and it’d get me so angry, I’d want to burn the house down. But here’s the thing, my illness, as much as it was devastatingly personal, wrecked my people. My pain was never, and will never be, justification for ruining my community. I don’t know, chronic illness warps the concept of strength. From the moment I got the diagnosis, I knew that in my own way, I had to be there for my people—my caretakers especially— somehow. I don’t think it was expected of me. Maybe it was me irrationally trying to hold onto some semblance of control and dignity. But also, I think, it was a turned around act of kindness, mercy even, on my part. I made it a point to never reveal the full extent of my suffering. If I got so exhausted I couldn’t stand up, I didn’t let myself cry until it was just me. If I was in so much pain it made me dizzy, I always attributed it to exhaustion and not pain. You can simply sleep off exhaustion, dizzying pain is worrisome. If I had a fragile day emotionally, that just the sight of my oncologist made me cry, I disappeared for the rest of the day. My most honest moments were under a mask, inside the radiation machine and in the tiny bathroom afterwards.
So I gobbled down The Originals. The idea that there could be a set of circumstances that would make the lives of immortal beings precarious was just *chef’s kiss*. I lived for the elaborate revenge plots and the poetry just before a character is dropped down a few stories; or having a stake driven into their necks. It was violent and bloody and so mighty fantastic. Because my illness felt like an injustice. Somewhere in the universe, there was a force or a malicious being hurting me maybe because they thought I was weak or that my life didn’t matter much to them. Nothing anyone did was good enough. Emotional support, medical intervention, financial support, nothing felt like remedy. It was mitigation; harm reduction at best, I wanted justice. I still do sometimes. I wanted somebody to track God and kill him. Brutally. I wanted the sky to turn red from all those deities bleeding to death.
Why someone else you ask. Because even in this fantasy where people have the power to kill gods, my logic was still grounded in the real world. I knew people like me—Black, female, disabled at the time—don’t have the power to punish gods—intentionally imagined as white and male.
Now I know, I didn’t want justice. I wanted punishment. Revenge.
Because injustice is inextricably linked to dehumanisation. So justice must be an act or the process of affirming the sovereignty of human life. It is saying, “I see you and therefore respect and protect your humanity.” I don’t think there is justice in my context, not even fantastically. Only cycles of anger and violence, ad infinitum.
But even now, my go to form for catharsis is violent TV shows. I haven’t been angry enough to want to see immortal beings fearful for their lives so I’m not watching The Originals. I’m oscillating between Revenge and Queen of the South. I worry about this though. What does it say about me that I find release and relief in deliberate acts of violence? I mean sure, you root for the protagonists because they’ve been harmed and if they have to hurt a few people to make things right? It makes sense. But the thing that I find exciting isn’t the narrative, which is justified, it’s the fact that women are getting away with being unkind and cruel. Of course I realise Emily in Revenge is a rich, white woman so of course she gets away with shit. And Teresa from the Queen of the South also gets rich at some point so again, wealth and whiteness doing the thing again. But still, I enjoy seeing bad women. Also, I realise that Black women wouldn’t survive being framed as cruel and still have the audience rooting for them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not framing these shows as feminist. Women being equally bad as men isn’t feminism, especially if they’re rich and white. Even the Originals with it’s casket-girls-and-I’m-a-woman-but-I-can-still-kick-a-man’s-ass- girl power storylines. Whiteness, much like vampirism, is sustained by snatching the (body) autonomy of Black and Indegenous people. What I am doing, and I didn’t have a language for this until I read Beyond Survival, is honouring my feelings and finding an outlet for my anger. In Elisabeth Long’s article TJ Tips from the Overlap, she writes, “Revenge fantasies and Transformative Justice are not mutually exclusive. … Honouring and experiencing them dissolved their grip on me, making it more possible to act in alignment with my values…. Expressing revenge fantasies can feel liberatory. Acting on revenge fantasies usually doesn’t.”
But also, and it’s embarrassing, but parts of me still respond to the framework of violent retribution as justice.
Which is why for a longtime, I refused to engage Abolition and Transformative Justice. I got the gist of Abolition, but then I’d get caught up in that famous question, “what about the rapists” and I just didn’t want to engage in a politic that humanised and didn’t actively dispose of rapists. Because before I got sick, only rapists and pedophiles made me so angry I wanted them to die brutal deaths. I am wading into the waters of Abolition. Because I know we deserve to live in a society that doesn’t recreate violence in the name of justice.
But it’s also because I understand that very little qualifies as justice after the fact. Returning to wholeness is nearly impossible when the damage is done. Cancer took so much from me. I will never be whole again—not physically and definitely not physiologically. But I think I’m okay. And it’s not because I am strong or exceptional in any way, but because I had so many people fight for me and with me. Wholeness may never be possible but repair is. Survival and healing is possible. And I think that maybe justice is a fierce commitment to the survival and healing of victims.
Cheki, you made it all the way to the end. Si you just subscribe and if you can, become my patron. Thank you!
Photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash