"Ah, Mephistophilis!"

The scene where the perp breaks down and confesses all is always a crowd pleaser. That sweatbox drama, the pacing inspector giving the third degree, the metal table marred with cigarette burns. We imagine ourselves behind the one-way, watching the confession unfold. But, what would it be like to be chained to that table instead?

Kellie McGee was. Her sister, Deleese Williams, listened in from the next room. TV cameras rolled, and McGee was grilled. She was being forced to say she thought her sister was ugly. As Deleese listened, the interrogator — a television producer for “Extreme Makeover” — wore McGee down. She protested that her sister wasn’t so bad, that she had plenty of good points. The producer was relentless. McGee cracked at long last. Yes, she said, Deleese was ugly. Yes, she was ugly as a child. Yes, yes, yes.

Finally, the show had the footage it needed for a decent episode. But at the last minute, Deleese’s extreme makeover was cancelled because, producers said, recovery from the necessary jaw surgery would be too lengthy. The show would not go on. She traveled back from Hollywood to her home in Conroe, Texas the same person who left.

Unable to face herself after all she had said in the interview, Kellie McGee killed herself four months after her ordeal, overdosing on drugs and alcohol. Deleese now takes care of her sister’s two children.

Last month Deleese filed a lawsuit against the employers of the interrogator — ABC, the company responsible for “Extreme Makeover.” She says that when ABC pulled the plug on her promised makeover at the last minute, even though it had been nationally promoted and even though the whole family had been pressed into service in crafting the all-important “before” footage, all that groundwork turned into torture. She says ABC welched on its deal.

For its part, the tight-lipped ABC expresses “sincere condolences” and says that “The producers endeavor to handle each potential makeover participant with the utmost care.” And they say that Deleese always knew that her show could be cancelled. After all, there it was in the contract.

The suit has brought chortles from some who see it as an example of litigious culture run amok. But it’s also a cautionary tale to those who lead large enterprises that deal with ordinary people and who wield the power of dreams over them. The television production companies who promise life-changing experiences — that later turn out to be shallow. The for-profit colleges that promise new vistas on the career horizon — whose course credits later turn out not to transfer to traditional schools. The state-sponsored lottery programs that point out you can’t win if you don’t play — but who fail to point out that you can’t lose if you don’t play either. The mortgage brokers who allow buyers to sign loans for interest only — with massive balloon payments and foreclosures just a few years hence. What do these and other organizations owe to the ordinary, flawed people chewed up on the path to profit and success? Do they owe sincere condolences, or perhaps something more?

Can it be that the only moral to these stories is “let the buyer beware?”

As Christopher Marlowe’s immortal The Tragicall History of D. Faustus draws to a close, our hero has sold his soul to the devil and enjoyed the fruits of his deal. Lucifer’s second-in-command, Mephistophilis, has given him knowledge and power. Faustus now must pay the devil his due. In a chilling scene, the clock strikes eleven, the half hour, then midnight as he begs for salvation — he’ll even burn his beloved books. To no avail. “Ah, Mephistophilis,” he sighs, as he is led off by a pack of devils. His resignation and remorse grab the reader by the neck, in a phrase that has rung through the centuries.

One understands how Mephistophilis, who beckons the unwary down this nasty road, can live with himself. He’s a devil, after all. But as for those of us who aren’t, and yet still lure the unwitting into such risky deals, the mind boggles.

The unnamed producer who badgered Ms. McGee into tearful confessions, while promising transformation to Deleese Williams, may well have learned an important lesson in humanity from the experience. We do not know, as all we have to go on is a sincere expression of condolences.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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