UPON HEARING that Elizabeth Holmes has been sentenced to more than 11 years in prison, social media erupted with vituperative glee. A lot of people seem to think that the 38-year-old Theranos founder, convicted of fraud earlier this year, is getting what she deserves.
Fair enough. Holmes’s deceptions about her company’s technology cost investors hundreds of millions of dollars and, according to the judge, her contrition was at best minimal. She could hardly have expected to walk away with the 18-month sentence her lawyers requested. And although this is hardly the end of the litigation — an appeal is forthcoming, according to her lawyers — the public fascination with the case is itself a source of fascination.
I’ve written many columns about the Holmes trial. As a teacher of both contracts and evidence, I find many of the issues it raised both intriguing and important. Yet somehow I suspect that the abiding and emotional public response has nothing to do with either the scope of attorney-client privilege or the distinction between “puffery” and misrepresentation.
Some have attributed the continuing fascination to the fact that, unlike other spectacular Silicon Valley collapses, the Theranos fraud involved people’s health. True — but insufficient. The trial of former Theranos President Sunny Balwani, who was convicted in July of fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced next month, has not attracted nearly as much attention.
Part of the reason of course is Holmes’ gender — specifically, what one observer labeled the “complex interplay of feminine charm, ego, power, and ethics.” John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal, who broke the Theranos story, described in his book how people fell under her spell: “The way she trained her big blue eyes on you without blinking made you feel like the center of the world.” Small wonder that some scholars have found in the celebration of her downfall a reflection of “longstanding apprehensions about formidable women.”
Yet gender cannot be the entire story, because taking glee in the travails of the famous is hardly uncommon. People who know nothing about crypto and never heard of Sam Bankman-Fried before last week seem to be taking pleasure in his swift and sudden fall. The astonishing slide in Meta’s shares — and thus in Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth — has some critics all but dancing in the streets.
None of this is new. The 1907 “high society” trial of Harry Thaw for the murder of Stanford White brought so many of the curious to New York City that every hotel was packed. More than 150 million people in the US alone tuned in to watch the verdict in the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson.
What links these disparate cases is a shared public schadenfreude, a term the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the “malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others” but which can more accurately be described as a shiver of enjoyment at the downfall of the great and powerful.
In her fine 2018 book on the subject, the cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith argues that schadenfreude provides people an emotional “respite” — a momentary surge of superiority in a world that judges constantly. Smith points out that even though it is considered wrong to look down on the less fortunate, we’re generally happy to look down on those we usually find looking down on us: “Just as satire is only funny when it punches up,” she writes, “we are most comfortable sniggering at the failures of those more wealthy, attractive and talented than us.”
To be sure, Smith is being ironic. Wealth has an absolute as well as a relative measure; talent can be measured in some areas; attractiveness is almost wholly subjective. So perhaps the larger point is that we’re fighting back, if only for a delightful and tantalizing moment, against what the novelist E.L. Doctorow called “a process of magnification by which news events established certain individuals in the public consciousness as larger than life.”
Celebrities, for instance. Rich ones especially.
A part of schadenfreude is the desire to see justice done in cases that involve the prominent. Smith notes that in 2009, after the late Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, “the public gallery erupted in cheers and applause.” Though she concedes that “justice is also hugely emotional,” she expresses concern: “Are we entitled to add an extra dose of humiliation to the carefully measured punishment?”
The answer, I think, is yes, we are. Not for the fleeting sense of superiority, but because for those who have been great and are now brought low, the humiliation constitutes a pertinent part of the punishment.
This point was missed by those who wrote the hundred-odd letters asking the court for leniency on Holmes’ behalf — as if by dint of losing both fortune and reputation, she has suffered enough. No doubt the ritualized humiliation is difficult to bear, but it’s baked into the celebrity pie. Those who crave the cheers must risk the boos.
It’s not that I lack sympathy for Holmes, who continues to strike me as somewhat befuddled by her fate. But I have much more sympathy for the investors who lost money and the patients who lost hope. And if, as alleged, Holmes once said, “They don’t put pretty people like me in jail,” she did not just underestimate the legal system; she misunderstood what schadenfreude is all about.