Private pain, public pleasure

“I do not believe they are right who say that the defects of famous people should be ignored. I think it better that we should know them. Then, though we are conscious of having faults as glaring as theirs, we can believe that that is no hindrance to our achieving something of their virtues.”

— Somerset Maugham

I’m not so sure about that …

Anyway, I have no idea who’s right in Joan Kennedy’s fight with her children over their efforts to put her under permanent guardianship and stop her from selling a $6 million house at Hyannisport because they fear the effects of her alcoholism.

Having had considerable personal experience with such issues over many decades myself (although dissimilar dollar amounts), however, I can say that this all must be quite awful for the Kennedys. At such times, the rest of us celebrate the anonymity that fences off our family flaws from our fellow citizens – even from most of our own relatives.

I do question the drive of some in the mass media to detail – often erroneously – the legal, psychiatric and emotional intricacies of such stories. If the Joan Kennedy matter isn’t private, I don’t know what is! In, say, the Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson cases, which have also involved immense invasions of privacy, at least crimes were alleged. The Joan Kennedy situation, however, is purely a private civil matter of great emotional and genealogical complexity – beyond an outsider’s ability to fully comprehend.

Yes, the Kennedys have, of course, sometimes hidden from and at other times sought to gain the public spotlight, depending on the needs of the moment. That goes for many political families, including the reigning royals, the Bushes. Reporters and photographers are cordially invited to cover events at which a family appears healthy, happy and all-American – fly-fishing, teeing off, cutting brush, eating steaks (not soyburgers) or playing touch football. (Rarely reading – that doesn’t build community confidence.)

But when family civil wars brew, or personal indiscretions reach New York Post levels, the families understandably shoo away the journalists = lest they irreparably lower the image of the heroic if temporarily very stressed clan in the public’s viewfinder. We’d do the same thing.

We enjoy personal validation, and a comforting perspective, by looking at others’ problems. And of course the travails of the rich and powerful especially satisfy many who think that their own lives are squalid, or at least without glamour, and who have the sin of envy in spades (i.e., most of us).

For them – OK, for us – schadenfreude may be the most delicious of pleasures. However deep a hole we dig ourselves into, we can always take comfort in that others’ shames and pains will eventually come through to make things all right in our world. Their pain, our pleasure. Or, in the obverse, as Gore Vidal – who has some Kennedy connections (via Newport) himself – noted, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

I’ll leave to the theologians whether suffering generally ennobles, and makes us closer to the saints, including the colossal figure who recently died in Rome. (My own experience – I fully agree with Maugham on this – is that suffering shrinks and acidifies most folks.) Whatever. I think that the evidence is clear that the crises of celebrities arouse more public pleasure than pain.

Still, after finding oneself devouring the problematical private lives of celebrity families, one sometimes has the desire to take a shower, and not with Michael Jackson.

(Robert Whitcomb is The Providence Journal’s editorial-page editor.)