Why do bad things happen to posh people? And why don’t they happen more often? Seriously, is there anything more satisfying than reading the gory details of the latest celebrity crackup? First you are shocked that someone so wealthy could be so stupid, or that somebody so glamorous would let herself be photographed looking like that. (For instance, in a lineup photo by some weary Florida sheriff.) Or that the public persona of a glad-handing movie star would crack into dozens of pieces, and behind the mask you’d get to see the real face of a basket case who has traded his Armani suit for a baggy orange jumpsuit. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! That will teach him to be so worldly, so handsome, so… arrogant.
When we read such a story, at first we are simply curious, perhaps even mildly shocked. We might even feel real anger at what this A-lister has gone and done. But we aren’t sorry he did it, and we certainly can’t stop reading about it. And as we do, a warm sense of satisfaction floods our soul. The worse the atrocity is, the better we feel. Millions of Americans who watched as O. J. Simpson fled the police on California highways were profoundly disappointed when he went and surrendered himself, instead of going off a cliff in a blaze of glory (Thelma and Louise) or making the cops gun him down (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). And they savored his trial day by day, like an ultra-slow motion train wreck, then took a bitter glee in his acquittal — only to have their sense of justice satisfied when he was sent to prison for stealing back his own sports memorabilia. More recently, we have been able to read all the details of the following high-profile dysfunction:
– Justin Bieber getting busted for drag-racing, without a license, while stoned, in a residential neighborhood.
– Alec Baldwin melting down yet again and accusing a reporter who was harassing him of various sins that cry out to heaven.
– Miley Cyrus performing, um… various acts… on the VH-1 Music Awards.
– Charlie Sheen “winning” (that is, having a protracted psychotic breakdown) over the Internet.
– Lindsay Lohan leaving the house.
Older scandals that have warmed the cockles of our stony hearts include Mel Gibson’s rants against Jewish cops and Russian gold-diggers, Woody Allen’s marriage to a girl he raised as a daughter, and the drunken or drug-addled antics of countless actors over the decades — detailed in popular magazines, TV gossip shows, or splashy tell-all books with titles like Hollywood Babylon.
Of course, the pleasure is sharper when we can think of some legitimate reason to dislike the given celebrity. Perhaps we don’t like his politics, or disapprove of the moral content of movies he helped to make. Maybe he set even set some appalling fashion our children have adopted. (One of the authors heard his mother react to the death of John Lennon by saying, “Good. After all those kids he helped to get hooked on drugs. I’m glad he’s dead.”)
There’s a word for the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of other people, and unsurprisingly, it is a German word: Schadenfreude. The language that gave us the works of Luther, Hitler, and Kafka gets the credit for naming it, but that bitter glee we enjoy is timeless and universal. Milton tells us that Satan targeted Adam and Eve in part because he envied them, and Genesis firmly states that Cain murdered Abel because he was jealous that God seems more pleased with his brother. We hear tales of saints who were persecuted even in convents or monasteries by lesser brethren who envied their ecstasies. If someone who possesses greater natural gifts than us is annoying (see Amadeus), then a person who is supernaturally singled out for blessings is simply intolerable (see anti-Semitism and anti-clericalism while you’re at it).
We won’t try to cure you in a single column of the deadly sin that Aquinas called the deadliest of all because it doesn’t even seek out an illicit pleasure, but merely hopes to bask in another’s pain. But we would like to offer a seed of an antidote to plant in the reader’s mind a few reflections that will help him resist temptation the next time someone famous does something infamous. It’s a small thing, and easy to overlook, but we hope that it will help:
These people are human beings. Sinners. Goofballs, like all of us. What is more, they are goofballs who have managed — through desperately hard work, alloyed with luck — to attain a station in life where they are tempted relentlessly. Hunted by reporters. Targeted by stalkers and sociopaths. (In Los Angeles, there are certain AA meetings which recovering actors frequent — and where star-hunting bimbos and gigolos sign up and pretend to be alcoholics, the better to target the rich and famous.) Imagine yourself in their places: Imagine that you could afford any drug you wanted and were surrounded by people who knew how to deliver it to you in minutes. That you could walk into a nightclub and wow attractive strangers with a virtual certainty that you could bring someone home with you on any given night. That you had seemingly limitless access to cash, and enormous lines of credit. If you needed to get away from a bad situation, you could hop on a private plane and fly anywhere you wanted, with enough money to stay there till things cooled down.
How many of us would behave very well, constrained by such an appalling lack of constraints? Premarital sex, recreational drugs, irresponsible use of an automobile — aren’t such things the bread and butter of youth in modern America? Each of the present authors has been guilty of each of these things, and done a good deal worse. Is there anyone whose family doesn’t include someone with an addiction or mental illness? So why is it so shocking that the wealthy and the famous, when subjected to constant scrutiny, will prove to have their share of warts?
It isn’t shocking, but it’s titillating, and we feel that because we have paid to see these people’s movies, we have a claim on watching their death-spirals as well. They are no more or less real to us than Scooby Doo; they’re cartoons whom we watch on screen.
But do we really want to see our most talented, hard-working people ground up and destroyed? Does it make our lives any happier to see Justin Bieber cry?
Envy is a deadly sin, folks, so guard your hearts and change the channel. And remember to say a prayer for that person who is tempted so much more fiercely than you will ever be. He’s a front line soldier in the war of good and evil. When he is wounded, our instinct ought to be to bandage him — not snicker from the comfort of our sofas.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.