Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
There’s a line in the hit 1988 film “Heathers” – now running as a musical in London’s West End – when the clique of popular girls takes an inane straw poll of their high school cafeteria. “You inherit $5 million the same day aliens land on the Earth and say they’re going to blow it up in two days. What do you do?” The answers are as diffuse as they are wild: vows of selfless charity, fantasies of luring Madonna into prostitution, designs for suicide-bombing zoos “so you and the lion die like one.”
This week, the winners of two high-rolling lottery jackpots may get to live out their own big-spending fantasies. Tuesday’s MegaMillions drawing currently stands at $1.6 billion and Wednesday’s lesser Powerball is still no snip at $620 million. There isn’t even a promise of alien invasion to cut short the spending window.
But in life, as in fiction, there’s always still a catch. Is an overnight windfall of this magnitude really worth the hassle? Earlier this year, a New Hampshire woman sued for the right to retain anonymity while claiming her Powerball prize of $560 million. Most states still consider the identity of lottery winners a matter of public record.
If that sounds like a price worth paying for a half a billion life change, bear in mind the number of lottery winners who’ve met grisly ends after the news of their winnings spread.
In 2006, Abraham Shakespeare won $30 million in Florida; less than three years later, he was found buried under a concrete slab. Doris “Dee Dee” Moore, a woman who mysteriously befriended Shakespeare after his win, was eventually convicted of his murder. She’d offered to help Shakespeare manage his winnings, and killed him for them instead.
Shakespeare isn’t the only winner who’s been killed after becoming a high-profile target. In November 2015, Craigory Burch Jr. won $400,000 in Illinois and posed with the check. Two months later, he was killed in a targeted home invasion by gunmen demanding his money.
This is, of course, old wisdom. Chaucer’s medieval “Pardoner’s Tale” tells the story of three arrogant brothers eager to seek out and destroy Death. When they meet a wizened old man on their journey, so the tale goes, he directs them “to find Death, turn up this crooked way” and points them to a glistening casket of gold buried in the roots of the tree. It only takes this sudden windfall to ensure all three of the brothers kill each other.
Six-hundred years later, J.K. Rowling adapts the tale in the Harry Potter books to tell the story of “the Elder Wand.” In this version, Death gifts the eldest of the three brothers an all-powerful magic wand – but it can’t protect him in his sleep. Excited by his new power, he gets drunk in a nearby inn and boasts of his good luck, whereupon he promptly has his throat cut in his drunken sleep by a fellow patron. (“And so Death took the first brother for his own.”) Folk knowledge through the ages has warned us: Too much sudden gold or power, and you attract the wrong type of envy.
Still, who doesn’t want to win the lottery? Just keep your mouth shut, do your best to claim anonymity (easier in some states than other) and don’t flash your cash, right?
If only it were that simple. Even if you can keep out of the limelight, it’s hard to adapt to sudden wealth when you’re not used to it. Drug addiction has plagued lottery winners. Jack Whittaker, who won the Powerball in 2002, lost his daughter and granddaughter to drugs and blamed their sudden wealth for fueling their spending on drugs. (“My granddaughter is dead because of the money,” Whittaker said in 2007. “You know, my wife said she wished that she had torn the ticket up. Well, I wish that we tore the ticket up, too.”)
Even those born into wealthy families, whose relatives have every opportunity to teach them how to manage money, often screw it up. The last Duke of Marlborough had to put Blenheim Palace, one of Britain’s largest stately homes and birthplace of Winston Churchill, into a trust to avoid his ex-convict son from taking control of it. In 1999, citing the Marlborough case, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland went to court to delay the receipt of an inheritance by their son George, who was 14 years old at the time.
“Too much too young,” they argued, would leave him vulnerable to “vices and pitfalls.” George Percy has since forged his own career in geothermal energy and will still inherit Alnwick Castle on his parents’ death.
But the concerns of parents like the Northumberlands have fueled the rise of “Next Generation” programs in private banks, which specialize in teaching the young how to manage their money sensibly. If you do win this week’s Powerball, the best thing you can probably do is sign up to spend a week alongside the world’s young aristocrats and oil heirs.
It’s sad but true: The best answer given to a fantasy wealth questionnaire in popular culture isn’t the hedonism of “Heathers,” but the vow of Ross Geller in “Friends” as he snatches a lottery ticket from his friends in season 9: “I’m going to put it all into a very low-yield bond!”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Given that winning $1.6 billion seems like so much trouble, you might consider passing altogether on this week’s game of chance. If these horror stories of a “lottery” curse don’t put you off, consider the old moral arguments: Lottery tickets are primarily bought in poor neighborhoods, by people who can’t afford to throw their money away. Even if your Powerball purchase this week is a one-off flutter, you’re still fueling an industry powered by perpetuating gambling addictions.
But if you’ve really got to play this week, enjoy the thrill. Just cross your fingers, count your lucky stars and pray that you don’t win.