Looking Away from the Train Wreck

06/17/2011 04:57 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2011

What is it about train wrecks? Why can't otherwise decent people look away from mayhem, blood, end-of-life scenarios and the personal tragedies of fellow human beings? I've been trying to figure out the impulse that drives us to gawk, snicker and develop unhealthy appetites for the media's daily diet of spectacular downfalls, brazen displays of stupidity and the outing (with attendant humiliation) of hypocrites and liars. What's with our addiction to schadenfreude?

In the recent past, there has been no lack of train wrecks for us to witness:

The Anthony Weiner Scandal

At first I paid no attention: "Oh, another politician caught with his pants down. Who cares?" But wait, like John Edwards, this one's a Democrat, and a bulldog Democrat at that, as opposed to a Blue Dog! My heart went out to the poor, horny idiot, but I turned away. Then came the denials, followed by the confession, not to be outdone by the apparently X-rated crotch shot, which led to the man's colleagues deserting him in droves. Hard to keep saying "I will not look" when it's barking at you from the front page of your morning paper.

The Paul Revere Laugh Fest

Now when it comes to John McCain's VP pick, I'm pretty good at looking away. But I tend to watch Bill Maher, who unfortunately perpetuates her bizarre celebrity through his adept comedic skills. So, it came to my attention that the ex-VP-candidate had tried really, really hard to describe Paul Revere's mission on that balmy April night back in 1775, and then backtracked from her regrettable ramblings in this way:

"Part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there. That, hey, you're not going to succeed. You're not going to take American arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have."

Seeing it in writing like that was too good. I broke down and forwarded the quote to three people I know who care about the English language. Guilty as charged, and ashamed of it.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Hotel Maid

I was busy looking away from this horror show, figuring I'd tune in a few months from now for the verdict, when my phone started ringing. See, because my husband is French, people wanted to know what his friends and family and all of France thought about the drama. In reporting what my visiting father-in-law felt on the subject, I found it impossible not to develop a few theories of my own -- about men in power, about the forceful crotch directive that humans beings can't seem to ignore, about infidelity and, of course, about rape (did you know that a woman is raped every two minutes in the United States?). Yes, yes, I know I am not unique in this. In the story's wake, everyone started pondering these exact same life issues. And as much as I like to think of myself as someone who eschews the B.S. for the real news about real issues, I have to say that I loved hearing that a bunch of women donned their maid uniforms and lined up to jeer at Strauss-Kahn during his perp walk into the courtroom (I absolutely adore the word "jeer"). And when I caught those fine ladies' picture in the newspaper, I did not look away.

There have been plenty more recent, whiplash-inducing train wrecks, and there's no need to rehash them here. They were just add-ons to the usual suspects, which never did seduce me:

  • The tea party

  • The "birther conspiracy" highjinks
  • Reality TV shows
  • Dramas of the royal family over yonder
  • Local TV news
  • Celebrity divorces and other dramas
  • However, as mentioned above, I (like most people) am not immune to the wreck factor. Why is that? Some possible explanations:

    1. Relief. "Whew. It's happening to someone else!" But we all know that but for the grace of some inexplicable goodness, it could be happening to us. A friend told me that back when he was in college, he and a buddy got high on acid and had sex with a woman they knew. Although she resisted their advances, they insisted in their quest to have that three-way, and convinced her to play along. Later, she acted like she couldn't believe that she had participated in a ménage-a-trois but seemed fine, just fine. Upon leaving, she smiled and said, "Bye, see you tomorrow!" But they never saw her again. They heard that she had transferred to another school out of state. That's when they understood that, without realizing it, they had forced themselves on her, causing her to experience enough shame to leave school. But what if she had filed charges with the police? What would have been their fate?

    2. Resentment. We've all had the experience of a close friend reacting strangely upon hearing that you got that great job, that that gorgeous guy asked you out, that you landed a publishing deal, that you won the lottery (fill in the blank). I suspect it's the same weird sentiment that makes people experience glee in the face of power crashing to the ground: resentment (fueled by feelings of inadequacy), or envy, its ugly cousin. I bet you're thinking, "Not me, I'm not like that." Yeah, me too. But you might want to rethink that.

    3. Hatred (or love). If you hate someone, it is hard to disengage from their life story. In the case of Weiner, he's a Democrat, so Republicans hate him and don't even try to look away. I'm a Democrat, but Weiner's a politician, and it's easy to hate a politician, even if you love him. In the case of a car wreck, when rubberneckers wreak havoc in the lives of all the people stuck in traffic behind them over the fate of complete strangers, that's out of love for the victims, who share our common humanity.

    4. Vindication. We love to be proven right: "Didn't I tell you she was stupid?" "All men are horny bastards." "Studies show that men would commit rape if assured they would never get caught." "When a politician says hello, it's a lie." "Bankers are so greedy." "I knew it!"

    5. Fear. They say that all fears lead to the fear of death. Train wrecks represent not the Big Death but a bunch of little deaths -- death of an era, of a relationship, of a career, of a belief system, of solid earth under our feet. We look in horror at what might have been or what has come to pass, and we shudder for our lives, for the things we take for granted; and we pray to the unknown that we might live to see another day.

    Any other thoughts?