Dr Liz Gordon – Getting even


I read an article today about Owen Glenn, that odd and reclusive NZ rich person.  The story is that he developed a friendship with Eric Watson (an even richer NZ man) and somehow lent him $250 million.  For some reason there was a split between them and Watson hung onto the money for a long time, but eventually paid it back. Glenn wants all the interest on the money and also his legal fees ($50 million!) paid.  Because this has not happened, he is using the court system to freeze Eric Watson’s assets.

Glenn is reported to have said: “I will pursue Eric to the ends of the earth”. As he has heart disease and cancer (which he also seems to attribute to the dispute), the ‘ends’ may not be all that far off.

It is clear in reading the story that, while this appears to be a financial dispute, it is fuelled at least in part by feelings of personal betrayal and hatred.  Owen Glenn is rich enough to say “Oh well, I’ve got my money back, so I can go on with my life”. He is not financially stretched or anything. But instead, he is putting huge energy into getting back at Watson.

I don’t know what you call that, but I do know that it is a very human response. Getting revenge is built deeply into our psyche. There are lots of words for it: “payback”, “balance sheet”, “settlement”, “nemesis”, “an eye for an eye” and so on. Where a person is killed, the victim’s family often feel high levels of anxiety until such time as the perpetrator is punished. It is partly that unexplained level of emotion – often stronger even than grief – that drives the failed punitive systems of justice.

There are a number of people in New Zealand who continue to pursue their perceived injustices long beyond the time when retribution is possible.  Some write to all new MPs, almost as a rite of passage, when they are elected. I had half a dozen such people contact me of this kind.

The stories told always included some actual or presumed injustice, that happened some years previously.  One I remember well occurred in 1974, and I received the man’s letter in late 1996. It involved him losing his job in a polytechnic, despite being (he said, and I believed) a highly talented and effective teacher – a genius in his field.  He put the loss of his job down to the corrupt actions of the organisation. He wanted acknowledgement of this and an apology. He wanted to see his personnel file. He wanted justice.

The thing is, it became very clear that the matter had festered in his mind for all that time. And time had stood still for him.  He could not move forward. He was extremely bitter. The world was out of balance and he became stuck, writing to MPs and anyone else he could think of.  By 1996, of course, no-one was left in the organisation who even knew the person. And the man’s undoubted talents had gone to waste, lost in a mire of disillusion and hatred.  It was dead sad.

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Even if I had been able to get matters resolved for him – and there was no chance – he had lost much of his adulthood pursuing a resolution, and it would have made no difference to his life in the end. Such futility.

As I said, there were a handful of others like this. But the general reaction I am trying to describe – might we now call it the futile attempt to restore a lost balance in life? – I now see everywhere.  Colin Craig and his battles, Jami-Lee Ross who is hanging on in Parliament to make everyone’s lives a misery, including his own, having apparently lost everything and apparently going a little nuts.

I see it here in Christchurch, where years after the earthquakes, for which there is no-one to blame except perhaps the mighty Atlas shrugging his shoulders, there are high levels of mental illness, especially depression and anxiety, still high levels of insurance disputes and lots of other problems.  For the families of those who lost their lives, there may be culpability in the buildings, the shop facades, even the emergency services and of course the Council rules. We have seen all this and more. But in the end, there is life to be lived, hopefully without the encroaching bitterness that appears to be a feature of humanity.

Is this the price of love and friendship?  That when something happens that leads to a great lost of treasured things, we are bound to pursue the perceived perpetrator “to the ends of the earth”.  Is this both the great triumph of humanity, the search for understanding, and our greatest flaw, the need for retributive justice?

I always advise those locked into such patterns to try to put the grievance gently aside, and live their lives as best they can.  This always makes the recipients of such advice angry. But I think I have this about right. Any thoughts, anyone? And gently, please, not in anger or hatred.


Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research.  Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).


  1. Before you claim Owen’s action is revenge rather than justified redress you should establish for your readers that:

    1) The interest claimed was never in the terms of the loan contract and therefore is punitive or exemplary.

    2) That Owen’s legal expenses were illegitimate or unjustifiable in recovering the loan.

    Otherwise your article rests on false equivalence.

  2. Make take is that those less able to move on from being ripped are those who have ripped others in the past. The old adage ~ never steal off a thief, they get really bitter. As an economic near failure, I can not understand how the very rich can get there from the sweat of their brows and have mostly broken other people’s eggs to make their omelet.

  3. I see it in the causes taken up by Sensible sentencing that longing for retribution that no amount of “eye for an eye” will fix. Single death became a thing to stop whole families being wiped out for one death! The person hurt can not be made whole by hurting the person who hurt them – we need to stop this type of justice and go forward to the justice that says what is changed will not be unchanged but we can change it to something that makes us function. Life works so you can only go forwards. I hear the grief in people damaged by a crime/ a disaster / an accident it is how we move from the damage that is important – people can choose to stay locked in the pain as it keeps the hurt close or they can work on being free.

  4. Its far to easy to assume all that was involved is money. I doubt that. Money is the most replaceable thing on earth and Mr Glenn knows that, savvy investor that he is. Cutting losses goes with the territory.

    To stir up this amount of ire Watson has either repeatedly humiliated/degraded him or someone close to him in such a way that there is no recourse. Then he may have compounded this by rubbing Glenn’s face in it. That might do it.

    Its not like Glenn comes across as a bitter person. He does a fair bit of philanthropy etc etc. That takes time from his money making enterprises.

    And hey… if Owen Glenn wants to kick ass on the way out I say he should bloody well do it. Maybe God wanted it this way and Glenn was the best person for the job. I mean there aren’t many people who could take on Watson in the first place.

    Besides all of that the Court has spoken, and what kind of idiot disobeys a court order? Especially a multi million dollar order? Watson did this to himself.

    There is a book by Gordon Winterbourne on The Master Curse. At the start he explains that doing nothing is often a greater evil then restraining someone committing terrible acts against others by using the Curse. He also points out that an Angel can be the most violent being on earth when acting to protect others. Sometimes violent action is necessary to restore balance.

  5. Well Liz, the first thing that came to my mind was how patient and tolerant NZ Maori were in the face of shocking injustices in the first 100 years following the signing of the Treaty. That we were touted as having good race relations, was due largely to (a) the good nature of Maori people, plus (b) the fact that Maori were not then seen as an economic threat to Pakeha.

    So I went online and did a brief search – brief because it’s a lovely day here today.

    Main thing I found was that vengeful people tend to share certain social attitudes : right wing authoritarianism and social dominance. Cultural differences – vengeful people are less benevolent, less focused on universal disconnectedness-type values. The examples you cite may fit in here with these right-wing type values – and Maori, of course, have the communal inter-connectivity, and maybe a Gaia- for want of a better word – outlook, hugely lacking in the neo-lib types hell-bent on destroying planet earth.

    The Gandhi and Martin Luther King passive resistance beliefs started impacting globally from about the mid 1960’s onwards, but again possibly limited to people from certain cultural/social groups. It interests me, because I had a close relative virtually destroyed by her whanau, who remained the kindest person I have ever known, and who constantly urged younger family members not to be judgmental.

    The Jami-Lee Ross scenario, and the terrible annihilating behaviour of all the main players, catapults us back into primitive territory and suggests that the paradigms may have been changing again, without anyone noticing.

  6. With all due respect Dr. Gordon, even after twenty years an acknowledgement by the powers that be that errors were made and processes were not as transparent as they aught to have been and yes, lies were told, would have an enormously validating effect on the offended party.

    I can tell you from my own experience that it would/will (hopefully) make an appreciable difference to my life should the Ministry of Health own up to having totally mismanaged to the point of dysfunction (and very possibly that ‘c’ word) the provision of disability support services for non ACC disabled in New Zealand for the past two decades.

    Can’t begin to describe the depth of contempt I have for them and the almost complete disillusionment in the successive governments who have allowed the MOH a free rein.

  7. There’s a fine line between standing up for one’s self and becoming obsessed then going mad. I should know. I’ve crossed that line many times.
    The trick, for those about to embark upon a career in madness, is to train one’s self into being bi-segmented just like a hard drive.
    You have your vengeful and mad self. And, you have your rational, functioning self and whatever the occasion requires at the time? Trot that self out and let it run around for a while.
    The problem with fiscal swindlers is they know there’s a good chance that those whom they’ve swindled will, indeed, give up and go away sulkily harrumphing and kicking at the ground. ‘Moving on, so to speak.’ I say, nothing like a little madness to keep the creeps on their toes.
    I’d like to see glenn and watson shot each other in a duel.

  8. Hatred and revenge fantasies only increase the suffering of the victim. They may in some rare cases lead to some degree of regret or even remorse on the part of the perpetrators, whereas the perpetuation of the hurt of the aggrieved party is guaranteed.
    There’s no morality underscoring my belief here, I don’t think people who can’t forgive persons who have caused unfair suffering to their lives are stupid or unfair themselves. But forgiveness is nevertheless a worthy goal, just because it frees the victim from otherwise irreconcilable pain, and even logical given in many cases the one not being forgiven is likely oblivious, or at best indifferent to the psychic hatred leveled at them.

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