In vitro fertilization. Surrogate births. Womb transplants. In an age when one of every eight U.S. couples experiences infertility, according to the National Survey of Family Growth, modern science promises to make the impossible possible.
But just because such high-tech “fertility feats” are becoming more commonplace doesn’t mean there is always a happy ending, argues Miriam Zoll in the memoir “Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies.”
Zoll details her and her husband’s experience with four IVF cycles, all of which failed, and two donor-egg cycles, which also failed after both donors were found to be infertile.
Zoll writes that she “grew up with dazzling front-page stories heralding the marvels of test-tube babies, frozen sperm, and egg donors; stories that helped paint the illusion that we could forget about our biological clocks and have a happy family life after — not necessarily before or during — the workplace promotions.”
But, Zoll writes, the reality of her attempts to have a baby in her late 30s and 40s didn’t match the hype.
The book takes a critical look at the fertility industry, the failure rate of later pregnancies and what Zoll calls the “epidemic of misinformation” in the media about delaying parenthood.
“They told us that we didn’t have to rush to have kids,” Zoll recalls a friend telling her. “They told us it was okay to wait, and in the end it’s not.”
We sometimes giggle when a person slips and falls. Snigger when a politician’s vice is publicly exposed. Feel relief when no one wins the big lottery jackpot. Smirk when we triumph in a board game or see a co-worker passed over for a promotion.
It can be embarrassing to admit to finding pleasure in others’ misfortune, but according to “The Joy of Pain” by psychologist Richard H. Smith, the feeling — known as schadenfreude — is an undeniable part of being human.
“Schadenfreude” combines the German words for “harm” and “joy,” the book explains. At its root, schadenfreude is not a sign that someone is inconsiderate, evil or vengeful. According to Smith, it is a feeling stemming from the natural tendency to compare ourselves with others. Another person’s misfortune, however small, boosts our sense of self-worth, he writes.
Competitive scenarios can also prompt schadenfreude. We are regularly presented with zero-sum games, such as chess, a tennis match or vying for a job, “in which one person’s gain or loss translates exactly into another person’s loss or gain.”
People also find satisfaction in others’ suffering if we determine that they “deserve it.” The book notes that the more deserving someone appears to be of the misfortune that befalls him, the more open people are in their display of schadenfreude. “This is true especially if the standards for judging deservingness are clear cut — for instance, if someone has committed crimes or has behaved . . . hypocritically,” Smith writes. “The pleasure is collective and free-flowing.”
Smith adds that because the desire for justice is such a strong human motive, we are biased in our perceptions of deservingness, especially if we feel we have been personally wronged. In this case, schadenfreude can take an exaggeratedly dark turn. The book argues that the pleasure that Nazis took in the brutal treatment of Jews during World War II is an extreme example of schadenfreude.
On the other hand, he writes, there is evidence that human nature generally “disposes us more toward compassionate responses than hostile ones.”