Shameful Thoughts: A Primer

Oprah

When it comes to daytime TV, it doesn't exist until it has been on Oprah. She went "Inside the Lives of Little People" in the fall of 2003 to tackle the fear of the physically different, invited Dr. Phil to dispel schadenfreude in 2001, helped new millionaires cope with poor relatives in 2000 and invited Tyra Banks to talk about sibling rivalry in the same year.

Meryl Streep

No one ever accused the two-time Oscar winner of playing simple characters in straightforward movies. There is the maternal anguish of Sophie's Choice, Karen Blixen's privileged wealth in Out of Africa and, in The Hours, that hint of pleasure Clarissa Vaughan takes from being the center of attention as she plans a party for her dying friend.

Patron Saints

For every guilty twinge, there's a saint in the house. Those worried about favoring one child over the another should apply to Saint Dymphna, guardian of family harmony; the ambivalently bereaved might look to Ulric, the patron saint of happy death; snobby materialists might turn to Lucy of Syracuse, patron of serfs and peasants. The disabled have a long list of patron saints to choose from, including Gerald of Aurillac; those troubled by sexual temptation can turn to Mary Magdalen, among others. People attracted to catastrophic death should try a prayer to Joseph of Arimathea, the patron saint of pallbearers.

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Country-Western Music

Leave it to country-western songwriters to plumb the depths of shame: "As you tumble to the ground, pick me up on your way down," wrote Harlan Howard in a 1958 paean to schadenfreude. Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" takes on those who smirk at the poor; Tammy Wynette sung the praises of fantasy with "You and Me" ("When he touches me, I feel your fingers, and each time we kiss, I see your face"). The legendary Roy Acuff gawked at the "Wreck on the Highway," putting contemporary disaster-lovers like Alan Jackson to shame. Mark Wills growls "Don't Laugh at Me" in defense of disabled people; Gene Watson glowers "I know you'll be glad when I'm gone" in his "Farewell Party."

Shakespeare

Part of Shakespeare's enduring power is his deft hand at capturing taboos. King Lear provides the prime example of unfair parenting as he rejects the honest Cordelia in favor of the lying Regan and Goneril; in the same play, Regan later revels in schadenfreude as the Earl of Gloucester is blinded. Achilles glories in the ignominious death of the Trojan king Hector in Troilus and Cressida; the scheming Richard III is loathed in part because of his disfigurement (dogs bark at him, he reports in the opening soliloquy, where he describes himself as "deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before his time").

20th-Century Presidents

Presidential behavior isn't always so stately. Nobody can forget Jimmy Carter confessing that he "lusted in his heart" (although many of us wish we could). Reagan's disapproval of daughter Patti Davis was less memorable, but equally disturbing. Just about everyone in the civilized world watched with schadenfreudic glee as Nixon fell apart; in the same era, Jesse Jackson—later a perennial candidate—proudly displayed his blood-soaked shirt after Martin Luther King's assassination in a classic case of glory-by-association-with-death. Finally, FDR was so attuned to fears of the handicapped that he almost never allowed himself to be photographed in his wheelchair.

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