Louise O'Neill: 'I sometimes wonder if I should find a nemesis, a yardstick against which to measure my own life'

"Two of my closest friends are excellent grudge-keepers, they are like Madeline in Big Little Lies, smiling as she says, “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”"
Louise O'Neill: 'I sometimes wonder if I should find a nemesis, a yardstick against which to measure my own life'

Louise O'Neill, author. Photograph Moya Nolan

Famously, the writer and academic Roxane Gay has a nemesis. I say famously because she regularly discusses this nemesis with her 830k followers on Twitter. 

“All last week, I visualized crushing my nemesis,” she tweeted in 2013. In 2018, she wrote, “my nemesis is having a good year professionally and has clear skin. It’s a lot to take,” and in 2019, shared that her nemesis, “got a job I was in the running for. I had paused plotting against her for the holiday. I won’t let that happen again.” 

In March 2020, as the world went into lockdown, Gay reassured us she was “socially distancing” from her nemesis “until things improve and then I will defeat them once and for all”, but in November, she noted she “felt empathy for my nemesis today. Isolation is making me soft.” 

In a piece Gay wrote for Medium titled The Pleasure of Clapping Back, she explained that “a nemesis must be a worthy adversary… (they) can give you purpose, can hone your ambition… having a nemesis is motivational.” 

A little healthy competition never hurt anyone. We see it with musicians, writers, artists, sportspeople, creators; if someone in their field does excellent work, they are often inspired to match or exceed their peer’s excellence, and the rest of us benefit from that competition.

I sometimes wonder if I, too, should find a nemesis; someone to keep an eye on, a yardstick against which to measure my own life. Taking a petty joy in their missteps, using their successes as a whip to spur myself on. 

Or maybe I shouldn’t choose a professional equal, maybe I should focus instead on those who doubted me, said unkind things, whispered about me behind my back, the echoes of which were told and re-told back to me, falling apart in my hands. I have a few possibilities – three, at last count – but when I think about the prospect of making any of them an actual nemesis, I become weary. One man is simply spiteful, which Roxane Gay would not approve of (“it is far too easy for someone completely odious to be a nemesis,” she says in The Pleasure of Clapping Back, “that would absolutely be beneath me”) and another seems desperately unhappy, which makes me sad rather than vengeful.

If I’m being honest, I’m not sure if I am built for a nemesis. Two of my closest friends are excellent grudge-keepers, they are like Madeline in Big Little Lies, smiling as she says, “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.” 

There is a humour in the way they discuss their enemies, the ancient slights they recount as dinner party anecdotes, funnier with each telling. There is no bitterness, they do not wish their enemies any real harm. 

When someone disappoints me, the approach I take depends on how much I value them as a friend. If they are someone I love dearly and I know my resentment will only fester between us, I address the issue, explaining why I feel let down. If they are a casual acquaintance and I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with a confrontation, I mute them on social media and forget they exist. 

If someone has been particularly monstrous, I will pace back and forth in my room for half an hour, muttering under my breath as I pretend that I’ve bumped into them at a party or an event. In my imagination, I look fabulous and my ripostes are devastatingly sharp, ensuring they feel as small and insignificant as possible. 

But then I start to think about their childhood and why they behave the way that they do and what made them so angry and honestly, I regret ever having started therapy because it makes it impossible to hold a good grudge when you’re theorising why that person needs to heal their inner child. 

By the next day, I’ve entirely forgotten why I was upset in the first place. (Yet another reason why having a nemesis is difficult for me – short attention span.) Roxane Gay says it shouldn’t feel negative to have a nemesis, that it is “quietly thrilling… a form of release.” She says that it makes her life feel bigger, makes her feel that she has a little more control than she does. 

The truth is, when I think of those who have truly hurt me, the people who inflicted wounds which I’m still healing from, I wish I could hate them. I imagine that would feel more empowering than this, the pain that is left behind. The secret fear that maybe you deserved it, maybe there was something about you that begged to be treated so poorly. And maybe the worst thing is knowing they don’t think about you at all, the person who did this. They probably don’t even remember your name.

Louise Says:

Read: What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri. This is a practical, invigorating road map for white people who want to become anti-racist allies. Witty and razor-sharp, Dabiri is one of the most incisive voices we have today. A must-read.

Watch: The Flight Attendant. An eight part mini series about a flight attendant who wakes up after a one-night stand to find a dead man in the bed beside her. Stylish, slick, and darkly funny, this is also a perceptive examination of trauma and addiction.

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