“It’s Maggie,” she said, her voice trembling. “She’s been shot. She’s dead.”
I couldn’t believe it. Maggie, my brother’s 19-year-old daughter, had been murdered at school by her ex-boyfriend who then killed himself. It was another senseless act of violence but this time, Maggie – our Maggie – was dead.
In my heart, I knew I had already felt loss in my life. Two years before, I had been forced out of a well-paying job and prior to that, I went through a devastating divorce. But the impact of this new trauma was different. Shock, guilt and the cry for revenge welled up inside me but who could I blame? Surely someone should have saved Maggie. Why not me?
Oddly enough, I saw signs of my own recovery in Maggie’s death. I had worked for years as a feminist attorney and advocate for women’s rights but Maggie’s death made the issues of violence against women more personal and very immediate. If this could happen to my family and to Maggie, it could happen to anyone. But what was I being called to do?
One morning it came to me. I was thinking about the power of the moment when a woman decides to leave her abuser. I realized that Maggie did not live beyond her moment, but suddenly I imagined myself working with other women to transform their lives after abuse. After all, wasn’t getting on with one’s life the most exacting revenge against a man who had tried to bend that woman to his will?
By then I could see that for those of us who face a "life-altering event" such as abuse, death of a loved one, divorce or the loss of a job, there is either a road to recovery that brings new vigor and purpose to our lives or a spiraling down into anger, depression and hopelessness. I had stumbled onto the more productive path, one in which I could:
· discover opportunity in what felt like loss,
· focus on positive emotions and energy that could move me forward,
· dare to create the life I so richly deserved, and,
· celebrate the life I had by choosing to live in the present, not the past.
How could I work with women who had been abused so that they, too, could be similarly transformed? Slowly I envisioned a workshop, inspired by the quote by Victor Herbert, “Living well is the best revenge.” Sure I wanted to avenge Maggie’s death, but with a lighter touch like an angel’s and without anger or recrimination. So I coined the name, "My Avenging Angel,” and saw the workshops as the “next step” for women to help them move beyond abuse and restore the positive energy in their lives.
Is this work easy? Hardly. I have heard so many stories from women of abuse, betrayal and dashed hopes that I wish I had a magic wand to simply wave away their pain and anguish. They have suffered greatly. At times, their self-esteem is low and they have little belief that their lives will ever get better. But they do have hope.
Each time I give them the choice of reliving the abuse and the pain inflicted on them or reaching deep down inside to uncover their true heart’s desires, they do choose the latter. They set goals for themselves that are not only achievable but also can spur them on to making bigger and better changes for themselves.
The essence of this kind of transformation is well described by Dr. Judith Hermann in her groundbreaking book, “Trauma and Recovery.” If the core experiences of trauma are disempowerment and disconnection with others, she wrote, then recovery is based on the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.
I can now see that the process of reconnecting to positive energy in one’s life is the movement from victim to survivor to “thriver.” This is the journey I now travel and teach in the My Avenging Angel Workshops that I originated after Maggie’s death and have conducted since September, 2001. Through these workshops, I have helped women gain a new, more positive perspective on their lives, regain their power and reclaim their lives.
I know that having a positive outlook on life is hard for survivors of abuse and loss. It really gets to us sometimes that everyone else seems to have an easier life, a more comfortable journey or a less challenging existence. But now I can see that the truest measure of our lives is not what we have experienced but what we have made of our experiences. We don’t really know how good it can get once we get positive and focus our energies on our future, not the past. Whatever we might have imagined for ourselves is only a fraction of what we can have when we free ourselves to live well, be happy and create the life we want.
Then living well is not only the best revenge; it is, in fact, the song of our soul and the fulfillment of all our dreams.