Unintended Consequences


No good deed goes unpunished.

How many of us have used that phrase at one time or another? Sometimes it means that we secretly wanted more gratitude than we got in return for our trouble. Sometimes it’s a preemptive excuse for not going to the trouble in the first place. In general, it is a lousy phrase, and I hate it when I hear myself using it.

Nevertheless, I have learned that there are genuine risks to trying to help others, and it is best to stop and anticipate those risks before leaping into situations we may not fully understand. Otherwise, the results can be the very opposite of what we intended to achieve.

I think of Jack Henry Abbott, the self-educated career criminal whose book on life behind bars, In the Belly of the Beast, came to the attention of the writer Norman Mailer in 1981. Impressed with Abbott’s talent, Mailer involved a number of other literary figures in a successful effort to get Abbott paroled, and for a brief while Abbott became a sort of poster child for redemption through literature — until, just a few months out of prison and living in a halfway house on New York’s Lower East Side, Abbott stabbed and killed an unarmed stranger over a trivial misunderstanding outside a restaurant. Ironically, the young man he killed, Richard Adan, was also a writer, an aspiring actor and playwright in his twenties who had just gotten married.

In the aftermath of the killing, it became clear that no one involved in gaining parole for Abbott understood the extent of his pathology, or the difficulty of taking a man who had spent almost his entire life behind bars and reintroducing him to civil society. Yet the warning signs had been there for anyone who took the time to stop and look: Abbott had grown up in a series of foster homes and juvenile reformatories, and had spent most of his adult life in high-security prisons, with frequent intervals in solitary confinement for violent behavior. His skillfully written memoir described a culture of brutality among prisoners, and mythologized a kind of personal honor code based on violence.

Abbott was convicted of murder and returned to prison; he continued to write but published little, and eventually committed suicide. Norman Mailer clearly suffered from the public outcry that resulted, but never spoke at length about the incident, other than to say that he regretted it.

I think about this incident because I too once tried to do good and instead caused a minor tragedy.

The German shepherd

I was returning home one day in a friend’s car when we spotted a German shepherd trotting by the side of the road, in danger of being hit by traffic. We pulled onto the shoulder, got out of the car, and called to him; he came right over. There was an indentation in the fur around his neck where a collar had been. We conjectured that he had been abandoned, and we were outraged. My friend refused to take him, however, so I did — though I already had three children, two cats and a dog crowded into a small New York apartment. My plan was to keep him until I could find someone who would be willing to adopt him.

Naturally, a part of me wanted to absolve myself by blaming the shepherd, but deep down I knew that wasn’t right. How could I blame the dog for simply following his instincts? For being a dog?

I never asked myself who would be willing to adopt an enormous, full-grown German shepherd, nor did I stop to consider how he might react to my children or my pets. My dog at home had grown up around our two cats and was comfortable with them. I just assumed that the shepherd would be equally gentle.

It didn’t work out that way. When I brought the shepherd through the door, one cat immediately skittered for cover under the couch and the other froze in the middle of the living room. In a single leap the shepherd had the cat in his jaws — I could hear the bones snapping. In the pandemonium that ensued I managed to call my husband, who rushed home from work and took the shepherd — as eager to please as ever — to the local ASPCA, where he was almost certainly euthanized in a day or two. I took the injured cat to the veterinarian, who told me that his spine had been broken and that nothing could be done for him.

I was too guilty to have the cat put down right then and there. I took him home and tried to nurse him. He couldn’t use his hind legs, but could crawl with his front legs, dragging himself across the floor. He couldn’t get in or out of his litter box — I had to lift him. It took two weeks of mutual misery, watching him stubbornly trying to carry on, before I took the veterinarian’s advice and had him put to sleep.

Good intentions aren’t enough

Naturally, a part of me wanted to absolve myself by blaming the shepherd, but deep down I knew that wasn’t right. How could I blame the dog for simply following his instincts? For being a dog?

This made me think of Jack Abbott differently too. Abbott had essentially grown up in an environment that rewarded violence and punished gentleness; over time, violence had become second nature for him. And then suddenly he had been almost magically plucked from prison and placed in the world of free men and women, a world he could not possibly understand. Though free, he was still operating as if he lived behind bars, and during his brief stay in the halfway house, nobody tried to teach him the difference. How could we blame him for what happened?

The blame belongs to those who thought that their good intentions were enough — who were so impressed with themselves that they did not bother to question their assumptions or think through a reasonable, cautious plan of action that would protect others. I don’t know how Norman Mailer came to terms with his experience, but when it comes to my poor cat, I realize that the blame is mine, and no one else’s.

Does that mean that good deeds are too risky to dare? Of course not. What I have learned is that good deeds take place in the real world, and the real world is a complicated place that requires lots of careful planning and difficult decision-making before our good intentions can be effectively realized. Jack Abbott needed extensive help in adjusting to life beyond bars — professional help, not just invitations to literary parties. That German shepherd I found by the road needed a safe place to stay, away from other animals, while I looked for someone to adopt him.

Next time I am called upon to help, I will still help, but I will think, too.