Schadenfreude: Taking Pleasure In Other People’s Pain

(Originally published in The East Valley Tribune on April 24, 2009 (http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/story/138319)

There’s this funny-sounding German word that describes a very real and sadistic feeling we sometimes experience: “Schadenfreude.” Ever heard of it? Don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either. It means to take spiteful, malicious delight in the misfortune of others.

Schadenfreude is not just some speculative feeling. Recent brain scan studies show that a chemical is released in the brain causing pleasure when we sometimes see others suffer misfortune. It’s real and it’s sadistic.

Even the foul-mouthed puppets in the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q” sing about Schadenfreude, with lyrics like “don’t you feel all warm and cozy, watching people out in the rain,” and “D’ja ever clap when a waitress falls and drops a tray of glasses?”

We had a field day when a Malawian judge prohibited Madonna from adopting another child. Adoption is one of the most selfless acts of love and humanity. And yet, we attacked Madonna as another self-indulgent “Angelina Jolie wannabe.” It was icing on the cake when Madonna tumbled off another horse while riding in the plush Hamptons.

Explanation for our glee? Schadenfreude.

Seedy sex scandals involving politicians are perfect fodder for Schadenfreude. Take Elliot Spitzer, the once well-respected New York governor who got caught in a prostitution ring. The scandal became more titillating when the prostitute giggled to the press that Spitzer kept his dress socks on during each encounter. In fact, the long-running publication The Economist coined a new phrase for our national Spitzer obsession: “Spitzenfreude.”

Which brings me to former Phoenix Suns nutritionist, Doug Grant. In 2001, Grant found his unconscious wife, Faylene, underwater in their bathtub after she ingested a large amount of Ambien. Last month, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for contributing to her death, according to Valley media reports. He could go to prison for up to 12½ years.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that Grant married his mistress, Hilary, three weeks after Faylene died. Bad timing? Uh, yeah! Sleazy? Definitely. Proof that he killed his wife beyond all reasonable doubt? No.

By the way, Faylene knew about Grant’s relationship with Hilary, even encouraged it. Shortly before her death, Faylene wrote a letter, as reported by the Phoenix New Times, saying she “held a secret hope and desire for several weeks that I would be able to see you both married, that I could be there!”

Faylene also wrote that she wanted Hilary to be the mother of Faylene’s children. She even predicted a premature death, writing about her joyous anticipation of entering the Celestial Kingdom as soon as possible and asking Hilary to remind Faylene’s children “that they are precious to their mother who has been called to serve her mission elsewhere.”

All of this suggests Faylene may have had suicidal tendencies, casting reasonable doubt that Faylene’s death was even a homicide. Even the Maricopa County medical examiner testified that there was no evidence to support a homicide.

Oh, and speaking of “Celestial Kingdom,” Grant happens to be Mormon. So is his very capable defense attorney. So was Faylene. So is Grant’s new wife. Why is this relevant? Because we relish in punishing those we perceive as morally superior “do-gooders” and exposing them as self-righteous hypocrites.

Plus, HBO’s popular show “Big Love” doesn’t help, with its soap opera depiction of polygamy and characters resorting to crimes and tactics reminiscent of “The Sopranos.”

It makes us feel better when those we perceive as religious fanatics have sinned worse than us.

As Grant’s trial unfolded, the prosecutor became concerned that premeditation for first-degree murder may not be provable beyond a reasonable doubt. So late in the trial, the prosecutor convinced the judge to allow the jury to consider the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter (aka “reckless homicide”), primarily based on evidence (also disputed) that Grant failed to timely call 911 once he discovered his wife’s body.

Clearly, this a “Hail Mary” attempt for any conviction.

This case was about a perceived sleazy defendant. He worked for the almighty Phoenix Suns. Just three days before her death, the couple was on their second honeymoon in Utah when Faylene miraculously survived after skiing off a cliff, with Grant witnessing the event close by.

He is a wealthy Mormon who could afford a high-power Mormon lawyer to come to his rescue. The guy married his mistress three weeks after his wife’s death! Allowing the jury to conclude that Grant’s failure to timely call 911 was reckless conduct contributing to his wife’s death simply provided the lame “legal means” to seal Grant’s fate.

But c’mon. The real reason for Grant’s conviction? Schadenfreude, beyond a reasonable doubt.

Scott Hyder is a Phoenix business attorney specializing in real estate, bankruptcy and estate planning. You can visit his Web site at www.scotthyderlaw.com.

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