Thursday, 12 May 2016

Schadenfruede - A guest post by Jan Flynn

Today I am pleased to introduce Jan Flynn the author of "Itself" the opening story in the forthcoming "Legendary Stories: What Went Wrong" anthology from Lit Select.

Things go wrong. Just when you’ve got your head above water, right when the bills are paid and the car is fixed and your pay increase is approved, just when you have some breathing room and think maybe it’s finally time to plan that vacation or fix up the bathroom . . . it all goes to hell. Your company gets acquired by a conglomerate that offloads your entire division on Friday afternoon. Your daughter calls from college to announce she’s changing her major and is will need at least another year to complete her degree. Your dog swallows a tennis ball and requires emergency surgery.

Why is this happening to you? The random nature of misfortune is maddening, isn’t it?

Ah, but when the poop is hitting someone else’s fan, especially if it’s someone you don’t like, and most especially if it’s somebody who absolutely deserves a sucker punch from fate . . . now, that can be delicious.

Who of us are immune to schadenfreude, that guilty but undeniable pleasure we derive from the misfortune of others? Breathes there an honest human being who will not admit to nurturing a secret chuckle, if not an outright thrill, at someone else getting it on the chin?

Maybe it’s not the nicest of human attributes, this Schadenfreude (or the even darker term morose delectation, defined as the habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts). But the feeling is thoroughly human.

And what better way to safely channel it than in story form? There is something so delicious, so satisfying when things go wrong . . . for someone else.

Here’s a true story, one that happened to me. As a little girl, I was decidedly pudgy. I was teased at school, which was bad enough, but things were far worse in my neighborhood. The house three doors up and across the street from mine was the headquarters of a tribe of boys a year or two older, who spent their afternoons roaming around, sneaking cigarettes, and harassing me if they caught me out alone. They seemed to regard my fatness as a personal insult, an affront that compelled them to outdo one another in demonstrating their outrage. If I couldn’t get out of their sight fast enough, they could work themselves up into a frenzy worthy of Lord of the Flies. This was before cell phones or even personal computers, so they tormented me up close and personally, employing classic techniques: name-calling, insults, threats. They stopped short of physical assault, though they did throw rocks at me on more than one occasion.

My father was seldom home, traveling much of the time for work, so I complained to my mother. She was a serene lady with a remarkable talent for obliviousness toward things she considered too unpleasant to countenance, such as the neighbor’s kids victimizing her daughter. Her mission was to raise my sisters and me to be lovely young ladies, and that required that we be nice and maintain dignity at all times. “If those boys tease you,” she counseled, “you tell them, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me’. And then you simply walk away and come home.” With that, the subject was closed.

I wondered if “stones” included rocks. I considered that the names I got called, while not resulting in broken bones, did hurt. But clearly this was something I, as a chubby girl, had to expect and deal with. I learned to time my comings and goings to avoid the moments in the day when the gang was most likely to be hanging around on my block; I cultivated the ability to disappear down alleyways and between houses before I was spotted. For a tubby kid, I was pretty nimble.

Most of the time, my avoidance strategy worked. But if I let my vigilance slip as I walked home from the bus stop after school, I ran the risk of ending up at the center of unwanted attention. If I was lucky it might just mean a few mean names and laughter aimed at me while I trudged up the hill toward my house, but if Mike McGowan was there, I knew I was in for it.

Mike McGowan was the oldest, the tallest, and by far the meanest of the gang. He wasn’t around all the time. He’d been held back in school at least one year, and there were rumors he’d spent time in juvenile detention. When he was on the scene, the name -calling and jeering ratcheted up in volume and vehemence and tilted alarmingly toward hysteria. I regarded the other boys with deep distaste, but I was scared of Mike McGowan.

Years passed. I survived grade school and middle school and began to come into my own in high school. Mike McGowan dropped off my radar completely. I found friends and interests and books and writing, theater and dance. I grew tall. It turned out that my grade school pudge had simply been the reserve material, the fuel for what was developing into a willowy figure.

And then I went off to college, where I flourished. I got leading roles in the theater department’s plays. I pulled straight A’s. I dated the handsome business major from the next dorm, the one who played bluegrass banjo. I forgot I’d ever been a fat little kid.

The summer between my sophomore and junior year, I had to part from the banjo-player to return home for the summer where I secured a nice cushy job as a temporary secretary. The company had an elegant suite of offices in a new building overlooking San Francisco Bay. A trip to the ladies’ room meant leaving the suite to walk along the fourth floor of a sunlit atrium, where glass walls surrounded a central terrazzo staircase. It was an enjoyable way to stretch my legs while taking a break from answering phones and typing reports.

One early afternoon, I was on my way to the restroom, gazing out at the fog-wreathed hills surrounding the bay when I felt a pull on my awareness, a sense of being watched. The wide central staircase was to my right, and as I approached it I could see someone on the flight of steps just below the level where I stood.

A janitor, cleaning the steps, plunging a rag mop into a grimy yellow bucket and swabbing listlessly at the terrazzo. The butt of a cigarette stuck from his lower lip. He wore a filthy jumpsuit over ratty clothes. His expression was sardonic, bitter, resigned.

And he was checking me out. From his vantage point just below me, his eyes took a slow and insolent tour of the length of my legs and along my torso. I was used to getting the once-over from construction workers and the like, but something about this guy disturbed me. He was way too young, I thought, to look so hopeless, so broken down, so stuck. Without realizing it, my steps slowed. Meanwhile his gaze continued its journey, a smarmy grin forming around the cigarette butt, until he looked up into my face.

Our glances met, and in a jolting instant we recognized each other. Mike McGowan, my nemesis, stared at me, his eyes suddenly wide with shock, the butt dropping from his gaping jaw. For a heartbeat, I instinctively drew back, awaiting abuse. In the next heartbeat, I registered our relative circumstances.

“Well, hi, Mike,” I purred, aiming a wide smile down upon him. I would have said more, but he instantly dropped his gaze, mopping away as though the task demanded every shred of his attention.

I took a deep, giddy breath and headed off to the restroom, where I thought of a few choice remarks
to make on my return journey. But a few moments later, when I reached the atrium again, Mike and his bucket had disappeared.

It didn’t matter. The moment was perfect. Delicious. Satisfying. Schadenfruede.

Jan Flynn’s short fiction has also appeared in Midnight Carnival (Spring, 2016 issue). Her story "Stuffy" won First Prize in the Young Adult category of the Writers Digest 2015 Popular Fiction Awards. She posts regularly to her blog "Write On" at "The Moon Ran After Her", her novel-in-progress, is a retelling of firsthand accounts of her family members who survived the Armenian Holocaust. Jan lives in Northern California with her husband Michael and her dog Molly.


  1. I often talk about this phenomenon in my psychology classes. Sometimes it's referred to as "the fall of Tall Poppies." Fascinating subject.

  2. What a fun post! Thanks for sharing.