Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
January 27th, 2010

Unintended Consequences

Reflections on a good deed gone awry



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.

The Author : Frances Silverglate
Frances Silverglate, a grandmother of four, is an attorney in New York City and previous contributor to Busted Halo.
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  • L

    I happen to know the writer, and the many, many good deeds she continues to do (while still being mindful of the potential repercussions on others.) This is a lesson we all need to learn. Still having such an open-hearted friend always reminds me to err on the side of generosity!

  • anna smith

    i think in the end we need to remember that we have to give a helping hand to anyone who needs it and any creature,but be aware of the issues that may crop up i know i have open my heart and home to many creatures and humans and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. i believe these situations are put in front of us to learn from our mistakes and to take the goodness of the situation as well.

  • V

    Something similar happened to some friends of mine. Though in their case, they didn’t have kids, nor other animals.

    So, that’s ok, right? Well…

    Instead, they cared for the dog for several years, and it bit a new renter of their upstairs apartment and sent her to the hospital. Funny… it was even a German Shepard. They were very fortunate that the renter in question didn’t sue them.

    Indeed, a friend of this renter even lied to the police to keep this dog from being put down. She was bit too, but since she didn’t need stitches, she could keep it from the authorities. Neither the renter nor the friend of the renter were violent or threatening to the dog. The amazing thing is that the friend of said renter did not know the owners of the dog at all.

    So… was that lie a good deed?

    I puzzle over some of this, because I have another friend who takes in abused animals as a matter of course, and under his care, the animals actually somehow heal emotionally. Twitchy, violent animals become docile pets over a matter of two years.

    Yet, this dog did not, even after living for years with loving caregivers.

    I don’t know much about animal psychology. There’s more going on than instinct, though goodness knows they aren’t as complex as humans. Humans are harder to read, I think, and some don’t know themselves from animals.

    I really have to wonder if these German Shepards were trained to fight like pitbulls, where as the animals my animal training friend takes in are abused in a simpler, more straightforward way.

    One of the best dogs I’ve ever kept was obviously seriously abused, (and abandoned) and yet he was harmless.

    After a few years of loving care, the ranch that took him in reported him to be a wonderful dog, even trustworthy with children.

    I think the lesson here is to keep in mind where the risks are when you attempt to do good. Know the situations and the potential pitfalls.

  • Dee Burke

    It’s so hard to tell the stories of our mistakes and I really appreciate your willingness to tell yours. After making a very big mistake of my own, I guess I thought I’d repay some karmic debt by agreeing to take in a cast-off 2-year-old Great Pyrenees (her name was Grace (!) and she’d been crated most of her life—she didn’t even answer to her name). I had everything in readiness (bowls, food, VERY large crate, etc.), but still quickly found I was not to be the saint of rescued Great Pyrenees, as I’d hoped. I couldn’t do it, with a full time job and a full time family. It’s a gift to be humbled again and again. I can never “repay” my debts. Grace comes in so many ways—although, in my case, the dog wasn’t it.

  • Esmeralda Garza

    My grandson Alijah, who is 2 years old, Kaiser, my german shepherd, and Henry, my cat, live in my home. My perspective is that I wouldn’t take in any person or animal that would endanger any of them. Taking care of all of God’s creatures includes those in your home. Loving and caring for your neighbor includes loving and caring for your family. I can’t fathom any situation that calls for christian love and charity that would require compromising the safety of the people and animals in your care or that would bring about “unintended consequences”. God doesn’t call us to do that. The point of this article is lost on me. I’m new to this website, and there was no inspiration to this story. There was no insight that was gained. I only found it heartbreaking.

  • Christy

    Wow! That previous comment was incredibly harsh!

    Being someone who appreciates & cares for all of God’s creatures as well, I totally understand where Frances is coming from. I have taken in strange animals to my home on previous occasion, not even thinking about the consequences to my own pets. I think this is sage advice. We need to think very clearly about whether we have the capacity to help someone or something before we jump in head first.

    Rescuing strays dogs & cats is akin to working with the troubled youth I work with on a regular basis. I always have to analyze the situation: If I intervene in the issue, will I cause more harm than good?

    I guess it seems simple as a Christian to jump in with guns a blazing, ready to help out, but Christ didn’t call us to be cowboys. But I digress.

  • Esmeralda Garza

    I found this story very disturbing. Why would anyone endanger the lives of their children and pets by bringing in an animal that may be dangerous into their home? It’s infuriating that the cat was in his home, “safe”, when a strange animal was brought into its home and basically killed it! The dog was welcomed into the home! The difference between the dog and Jack Abbott is that men are created in the image of God, and we hold onto the hope that there is goodness in all men. Animals are animals. They’re not people. They are driven by animal instincts. It’s ridiculous to even compare the two. Thank God that dog didn’t attack your children!! Honestly!!

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