Is It Possible to Cure the Desire for Revenge?

One researcher is trying to end gun violence by flipping the script on vengeance killings

Illustration: Deborah Lee

InIn rural Pennsylvania, where James Kimmel grew up, being the son of an insurance agent meant he was often at the receiving end of jeers by his classmates, many of whom came from farming households. The harder he tried to fit in, the more they harassed him. In his final years of high school, Kimmel’s classmates snuck onto his family’s property and shot his beagle, Paula. Kimmel found the dog when he went to feed her the next morning. “She was laying there in a pool of blood,” says Kimmel, now 55. The police did nothing.

The following week, that same group of classmates left an explosive device in the family’s mailbox, blowing it up — and with it, Kimmel’s patience. Grabbing his father’s .32 caliber revolver and the keys to the family car, Kimmel jumped in the vehicle and chased the bullies, cornering them against a barn. When the kids exited their truck, Kimmel grabbed his dad’s gun from the passenger seat and opened the door. He was about to step out of the car when a moment of clarity set in.

“If I murdered them, I would be murdering who I was,” he says. “Jim Kimmel would never be the same person after that. I wasn’t willing to pay the price.”

TToday, Kimmel is the co-director of the Yale Collaborative for Motive Control Studies, which researches violence motivation and prevention. There, Kimmel developed what he calls the “non-justice system,” an intervention program designed for people like his teenage self; individuals who have an overwhelming desire to punish those who have mistreated them.

Unlike the U.S. criminal justice system, Kimmel’s approach isn’t focused on reprimanding offenders for harming victims. Instead, it borrows techniques from psychotherapy to explore victims’ motives for vengeance in a controlled setting.

The non-justice system is comprised of nine different role-play exercises, each of which is moderated by a trained facilitator. The aggrieved individual imagines himself as the prosecutor, then as defendant, witness, defense attorney, judge, jury, prison warden (or other punishment enforcer). In the final imaginary scenario, the victim plays out a “Final Judgement” scene with a higher power evaluating his life choices. In each scene, the victim reflects on what he is thinking and feeling in his assumed role. Unlike restorative justice, which attempts to build empathy between both parties involved in a conflict, the hallmark of non-justice is that it neither requires the victim to forgive his transgressor, nor relies on the transgressor to show remorse for his misdeeds.

“If I murdered them, I would be murdering who I was…I wasn’t willing to pay the price.”

A small pilot study of the system, which Kimmel conducted in conjunction with Yale researchers Michael Rowe and Elizabeth Flanagan, and was published last December at the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, produced encouraging results. The researchers found that participants’ revenge desires toward their perpetrators decreased significantly immediately after the intervention and that those cravings remained low in follow-up interviews two weeks later.

During post-intervention interviews, participants described feeling empowered to think through the consequences of retaliating against their aggressors. And although their revenge cravings didn’t disappear altogether, like Kimmel’s epiphany during his teenage years, many told researchers that acting on their revenge impulse “wasn’t worth it.”

“Is it something that I really want,” one participant asked. “Or is it a selfish feeling that will get me nowhere if I was to act on it?”

Kimmel’s program seems to be catching on outside of academia. Court and criminal justice officials in Chester County, Pennsylvania, are considering a non-justice pilot project, which would create a Violence Interruption Court for individuals at high risk for retaliation — a variation on Kimmel’s nine-part role-play. And in Connecticut, a mental health clinic is adapting a version of the non-justice system as part of its bullying prevention initiative in schools.

Kimmel’s lofty vision is especially enticing in our polarized political climate. He sees the non-justice method as a centrist solution to gun violence. “We see motive control as common ground between gun rights folks and gun control folks,” he says. With Congress gridlocked, unwilling or unable to pass meaningful gun reform, even in the wake of major mass shootings in Ohio and Texas this summer, Kimmel thinks we should focus on curtailing gun violence on the demand side by preventing “revenge killings” before they occur.

TThe real-world implications of revenge cravings can be seen everywhere. One study found that young people who landed in the emergency room with assault injuries and showed retaliatory impulses were more likely to get into fights in the future. A different study, which focused on the motivating factors behind intimate partner violence, found that retaliating against a partner for emotional harm was one of assailants’ most commonly cited motivators. And a systematic review revealed that revenge was a motivating factor in nearly 40% of all school shootings.

However, it’s not always clear how violence will manifest among the aggrieved. It was revenge against women who had rejected him that prompted Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014. It was revenge that led Emanuel Kidega Samson to shoot nine people outside of a church in Nashville in 2017. Revenge after being bullied was at the heart of Abel Cedeno’s stabbing of two students in the classroom in 2017. And it was revenge that Scott Beierle had in mind when he opened fire in a yoga studio in Tallahassee in 2018.

Bullying and rejection might seem less traumatic than being the victim of a violent crime, but, as Kimmel cautions, it’s important to avoid considering people’s grievances in a hierarchical framework. “It may not be about the degree of your experience of ‘wrong’ as much as the degree to which you are able to control the brain’s biological craving,” he says.

“Is it something that I really want,” one participant asked. “Or is it a selfish feeling that will get me nowhere if I was to act on it?”

Violence begetting future violence is not a new concept. For years, public health experts have advocated for treating violence like a disease, cutting it off at the source before it has the chance to spread, sort of like how doctors inoculate patients against measles or the flu. Big cities with routine gun violence, like New York, Oakland, and Chicago, all have well-established violence interruption groups, where peer outreach workers visit people who have recently been shot or assaulted, often in a hospital setting, and try to convince them not to retaliate.

Anecdotally, these programs are effective. But in Kimmel’s view, they don’t go far enough. There’s not rigorous peer-reviewed science to back up most violence interruption initiatives. Oftentimes, preventing violence hinges on the ability of individual mentors to keep at-risk individuals engaged, a strategy that can easily fall apart, as it did in Brooklyn this summer, when an 18-year-old father was shot to death by local gang members, shortly after the man’s counselor left the violence intervention program he was participating in.

“At the end of the day, this is sort of like a business. There’s still budgets, there’s still deadlines,” the counselor told the New York Times, referring to the limitations of violence intervention programs. “That doesn’t work in the streets.”

OnOn a brisk day in late March, James Kimmel sits at a round table in a Yale classroom, preparing to train a small group of street outreach workers from the Connecticut Violence Intervention Program, a local anti-violence group, to use the non-justice method on local youth who’ve been affected by gun violence.

In the pilot, participants usually role-play using an imaginary scenario centered around dog fighting, but this afternoon they try something different. Leonard Jahad, executive director of the Connecticut Violence Intervention Program, facilitates the mock intervention. An outreach worker, Doug, plays the part of the victim with a revenge craving. But instead of role-playing the dog-fighting scenario, Doug uses an example from his own life: his son’s murder at gunpoint.

In this scenario, Doug role-plays the judge in his son’s case; he is allowed to sentence the person who harmed him to any punishment he wants, even things that would be unusual or not acceptable in an actual court of law.

By the time the scenario reaches its crescendo, Doug’s voice has risen, and the facilitators eye him uneasily. Jahad offers a suggestion outside the scope of the exercise. “You’ve got to work on not carrying it,” he says. “Do you run? You exercise? You swim?”

Two hours later, Doug is still amped. “The people I hang around know that my son being shot still affects me,” he said. In real life, his son’s killer didn’t get jail time for the murder. (He was later incarcerated for a different crime.) “I went through that and I still didn’t get justice for my son,” Doug said. In the role-playing scenario, Doug sentences his son’s killer to 25 years in prison.

“It feels good.” He takes a deep breath and exhales. “I’m elated. They found justice for my person being done wrong.”

LLast year, Kimmel approached his holy grail, the National Rifle Association, in an attempt to get the gun group’s buy-in. Oliver North, then-president of the NRA, sent an email that he was “fascinated” by research from Kimmel and his co-investigator Michael Rowe.

“We believe that our work presents a unique opportunity for the NRA to ‘flip the script’ and lead the way in reducing gun violence in America,” Kimmel wrote back to North. “Violence can be thought of as an equation: Violence = Weapon + Motive to use it to harm others. Setting aside the debate over guns in this equation, the NRA can help save lives by supporting efforts to target and reduce motive.” To Kimmel’s disappointment, North, who was ousted from the NRA early this year following a public power struggle with chief executive Wayne LaPierre, never responded.

While Kimmel bills the non-justice system as common ground in the nation’s ongoing firearms debate, his belief in motive control as a gun violence solution allies him with a strange bedfellow for a mental health professional: President Donald Trump.

“Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger. Not the gun,” Trump said in the immediate aftermath of two mass shootings that unfolded in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, during a 24-hour period in August.

Mental health professionals like Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University, bristled when Trump blamed mental illness for the shootings.

People with mental illness are 10 times more likely than members of the general population to be victims of violent crime than they are to be perpetrators. “We shouldn’t conflate risk with mental illness.” Dr. Ranney explained to me. “The people that Dr. Kimmel examined in the study were not mentally ill. Hatred is not mental illness. Anti-social personality disorder is not mental illness. And honestly, substance use isn’t mental illness either. What I’m cautioning against is stigmatizing a large segment of our population.

“It feels good.” Doug takes a deep breath and exhales. “I’m elated. They found justice for my person being done wrong.”

Kimmel acknowledged Ranney’s point about the danger of unfairly stigmatizing mental illness, but argued his contemporaries were being irresponsible by taking a hard line against examining the motives behind gun violence. The primary motive behind gun violence is a powerful biological craving to retaliate “in response to injustice, real or perceived, against the perpetrators, their proxies, or society and bystanders in general,” he explained. “True, craving revenge is not considered a mental illness. However, it is a dangerous and destructive mental process.”

Neuroscientists have found that, for victims of violence — especially male victims — administering punishment against those who have wronged them activates reward-processing centers in the brain, similar to the stimulation that drug users experience when they take opioids.

Kimmel compared his dual solutions for gun violence to the solutions policymakers have applied to the opioid epidemic, which include both increasing access to addiction treatment and reducing the nation’s opioid supply. Gun violence should similarly be addressed from both the demand side and the supply side, he argues. On this point, he seems to stand alone.

“By pitting themselves against Trump rather than embracing his calls for mental health approaches to gun violence, mental health professionals are disempowering themselves and the power of medical science to heal,” he says.

“In effect [they’re] imposing a death sentence on the American public no less real than the death sentence imposed by those who oppose background checks and assault weapons bans.”

InIn June, I travel to New Haven for a second time. It’s early in the day, but the temperature has climbed above 80, and the single fan running in the basement of a converted school does little to circulate the stuffy air.

Leonard Jahad is leading a one-on-one intervention with Lamont Battle, a 30-year-old security officer at a local public high school, whose father was shot to death in 1994, when Battle was only five years old.

Battle, who was born and raised in New Haven, had recently learned that the man who killed his father had died in a police shootout. A few years prior, he had reached out to the killer on Facebook. He had questions about his father. He wanted closure. Now that the man was dead, Battle thought he’d never get it.

When Jahad and Battle reached the point in the role-play exercise where Battle has to give a verdict and sentence his dad’s killer, he laces his fingers and lays them on the table in front of him. “He deserves to go to jail for life,” Battle says of his dad’s killer. “He can only have one visitor, and that visitor would have to be the son of the victim.”

Battle imagines visiting his dad’s killer in prison, year after year, and being the only person to celebrate the killer’s birthdays as they pass. “Whenever he wants to talk. When he wants company. I would be his only company,” he says.

Time passes. “We’ve been best friends for 30 years now,” Battle projects. “You took my dad. Now I’m your son.” And then, “He told me he’s sorry, finally. That helped a whole lot.”

Public health reporter

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store