Read chalk drawing of a Head of a Fury (ca. 1750–1800) | Public Domain

“Head of a Fury” (ca. 1750–1800) | Unknown artist / Cooper Hewitt / Public domain

In Elizabeth Flock’s new book, the Furies—female agents of revenge in Greek tragedy—are alive and well in our world today. Published earlier this year, The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice (Harper, 2024) opens with a powerfully personal origin story.

Flock recounts that, while on a summer trip to Rome when she was 21, a tour guide raped her. “Often, I’ve wondered how … my life … might have been different if I’d had access to a knife or a gun,” she writes. Years later, when Flock realizes that she and the guide were working in the same US city, she confesses that “I found myself fantasizing about burning down his store.” Flock doesn’t do it. “But I was on the hunt now, for answers and for women who had followed their instincts to fight.”

Female avengers abound in contemporary art: you only have to turn on HBO’s Watchmen or cue up Kill Bill to realize that the Furies, who haunt Orestes for murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, in Aeschylus’s ancient drama the Oresteia, were only the beginning. Flock acknowledges this phenomenon, often through epigraphs that appear across the book, though she trains her sights elsewhere.

The writer instead seeks out “living versions” of these fictional women in engrossing portraits of Brittany Smith, Angoori Dahariya, and Cicek Mustafa Zibo, three real-life women who deployed violent revenge to secure justice in our twenty-first century world.

Brittany, a young, single mother of four from Stevenson, Alabama, killed the man who raped her; Angoori, a Dalit (“untouchable”) from Northern India, answered caste violence by forming a gang of cane-wielding women; and Cicek, a Syrian warrior, joined an all-female militia to fight against ISIS and for the rights of repressed Kurds.

Throughout the book, Flock refers to these women by their first names, and these names organize the pages into three “books,” with each bearing one woman’s name and telling her story. The structure grants the figures the kind of mythic status that Flock sought in her reading of fiction and history, treating them as if they were sages of a sort, whose experiences seem to promise uncommon insight.

And they do. The women are flung across vast space—it takes more than 6,000 miles to travel from Brittany’s US South to Cicek’s Afrin military base; it’s another 2,000 to get to Angoori’s Northern Indian state. But their lives spin, and often unravel, around a common thread. As Flock puts it, all three are “women who’d defended themselves in places where institutions failed to protect them.”

Read as a book about how institutions disempower women, The Furies makes the kind of actions that the three characters take seem not only reasonable but necessary for their survival. This strain comes out most fully in Book One, on Brittany Smith. In January 2018, Brittany shot Todd Smith while they were together in Brittany’s home. Brittany and Todd had known each other from high school; as adults, they befriended one another, their paths circling together in the narrow orbit that made up the daily rhythms of life in their Alabama town. Both were addicted to meth: Brittany was currently clean, but Todd was not, and on the night that he attacked and raped her, Todd had been using. As Flock narrates it, “Brittany had seen this kind of meth rage before.” She knew this kind of domestic violence, as well, having suffered at the hands of her husband.

Still, when Brittany claimed self-defense, citing the Stand Your Ground law, her request was denied by the Alabama court. The judge doubted that Brittany was raped, and found her account more generally “inconsistent.” Three years later, in the fall 2021, Brittany accepted a deal. The prosecutor had offered her a choice: plead guilty to murder, and do seven months, accounting for time served, or accept a manslaughter charge carrying a longer sentence. Brittany accepted the former; her desire to get back to her children as quickly as possible made accepting a murder conviction, which would affect every future opportunity that came her way, worth it.

In Flock’s textured account, the problem is not simply that the criminal justice system deploys “masculine assumptions” about body size and modes of self-protection in assessing self-defense claims. The more intractable barrier, which Flock examines to devastating ends, is the way that Brittany’s story, like Cicek’s and Angoori’s, reveals the gender norms and unequal opportunities that produced the violence the women confronted—and to which they replied through their own acts of violence.

The pattern holds across contexts: local police view accusing women with suspicion, or they fail to respond to their complaints—often they are part of the male power structure itself. When they report on stories about domestic abuse, journalists cast the woman as the villain, failing to “mention … their history of abuse.” As a result, many women give up on these systems altogether; their voices go unheard, their agency denied.

Even the plea deal, a victory for Brittany in a sense, seemed like a strange sort of justice. As a family friend put it, the District Attorney “just wanted to get” Brittany for murder. They did.

In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, when the Furies literally fall asleep on the job of hunting the matricidal Orestes, Clytemnestra returns to the stage from the dead. Now appearing as a ghost, she attempts to rouse them. “I suffered … terribly, from dear ones,” Clytemnestra implores the Furies, “and none of my spirts rages to avenge me.” “Hear me, I am pleading for my life,” she shouts, and seizes one of the Furies. They awaken. Heeding her call, the Furies continue their pursuit.

The women Flock profiles have no mythical power for asserting their agency or amplifying their voice to get what they need. Instead, they seek understanding through informal support networks, by joining militias composed of other women, by connecting with domestic abuse survivors, or creating Facebook groups—unofficial forms for modern-day Furies to convene.

Their appearance in The Furies, the result of Flock immersing herself in the women’s worlds, is itself a vehicle for returning a voice to these women, a gesture of empowerment that the book celebrates. The book, Flock tells us at the outset, “is a tribute to the women who have fought back, who have rewritten stories of disempowerment into stories of resistance.”

Even as she clearly admires and identifies with the figures, Flock is hardly uncritical. “Sometimes the system was at fault, but sometimes Brittany was,” she writes in one instance. Angoori cultivates a “cult following among her women” and craves political power. Cieck “developed a taste for revenge.” Still, if The Furies seeks to show how individual action is always caught up in a structural system, one that unfairly casts such women as the antagonists, it is hard not for Flock’s book to take shape as a needed corrective, with Brittany, Cicek, and Angoori emerging as heroes: tragic, perhaps, but only because their worlds presented them with impossible—because so constrained—circumstances to navigate.

It may be for this reason that the book deliberately struggles with how to evaluate revenge, in both conceptual and practical terms. As Susan Jacoby argued in her 1983 book, Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge, humans feel a primal need to respond to wrong, and so we should treat revenge as a natural urge.

At the same time, giving in to that need seems inevitably to lead to violent and lawless action—and to the well-traveled tropes that supposedly show us why revenge must be repressed. Taking “matters in to their own hands”; a “chain of violence that would never end”; the avenger driven “mad” by their desire. As it asks necessary questions about revenge, The Furies at times leans too heavily on familiar phrases and framings.

“The problem is not that in vengeance we take the law ‘into our own hands,’” the late philosopher Robert Solomon once remarked, “but rather that without vengeance justice seems not only to be taken out of our hands but eliminated as a consideration altogether.”

Stripped to its etymological foundation, in fact, revenge is verbal, not physical. Derived from the Latin vindicare, revenge springs from vis and dicere, two words that, taken together, literally mean to speak force. Historical dictionaries indicate that the “force” could be physical, as in the violence of brute power or the might of military troops, but it also could signify mental strength or vigor.

What this linguistic legacy makes clear is that revenge resides both in language and in deed. It is a desire for communication—to speak and be heard—as much as an attempt at violence. Hence Clytemnestra’s call to the Furies: “Hear me.”