When Geneen Roth and her husband lost their life savings, Roth joined the millions of Americans dealing with financial turbulence, uncertainty and abrupt reversals in their expectations. The resulting shock was the catalyst for her to explore how women's habits and behaviors around money — as with food — can lead to exactly the situations they most want to avoid. Here is an excerpt from Roth's new book, "Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money."
What was lost
I was standing in my kitchen wondering what to have for lunch when my friend Taj called.
“Sit down,” she said.
I thought she was going to tell me she had just gotten the haircut from hell. I laughed and said, “it can’t be that bad.”
But it was. Before the phone call I had 30 years of retirement savings in a “safe” fund with a brilliant financial guru. When I put down the phone, my savings was gone and my genius financial guru, Bernie Madoff, was in handcuffs. I felt as if I had died and, for some unknown reason, was still breathing.
Since Madoff’s arrest on charges of running a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, I’ve read many articles about how we Madoff investors should have known what was going on, how believing in Madoff was no different from believing there were WMD in Iraq. And I wish I could say I had reservations about Madoof before “the Call.” I wish I could say I knew better about getting such consistently good returns, but I did not. Besides, everything I “knew better” about — stocks, smart financial advisers, real estate — had also proven disastrous: Our financial adviser embezzled a quarter of our money years ago, I lost another third in the stock market during the boom times, and we bought our house at the top of the market and sold at the bottom. Considering that, Madoff seemed like a respite — his fund showed occasional losses along with small, steady gains. (I’m keeping a list of people who want to be notified of our next investment so they can sprint in the other direction. Feel free to add your name.)
Rejecting the pursuit of shiny things
It was always more important for me to find work that I loved than to be rich. I know this is an attitude that reflects enormous privilege, since so much of the world lives on less than a dollar a day and must concern itself with getting food. But I was (and still am) unspeakably fortunate: I’ve always had clean water, sweaters to spare, more than enough to eat.
Although my parents were so poor when they married that they ran out of food money each week by Saturday night, my father worked his way up the corporate ladder — and by the time I was 15, our main metric of worth, both in the community and with one another, was our collection of new, shiny things. Cars, shoes, popular people. But like many baby boomers I spent my college years protesting the Vietnam War, rejecting consumerism and various other activities (like hiring a plastic surgeon to break my nose so that it could look like everyone else’s) for the many iterations of “finding myself”: therapy, living in India, and meditation. In my late 20s, I spent a year washing dishes and being a maid at a local inn and two years as an avocado-and-cheese sandwich maker in a health-food store so that I could spend early mornings writing. After that, I started my first groups for compulsive eaters in my friends Harry and Sue’s house; since I was working as a nanny and living in the bedroom next to their 2-year-old daughter, they gave me the use of their living room to begin what seemed like a far-fetched idea: meeting with women like me to explore our relationships to food and weight.
More in books
Was I able to reject the pursuit of shiny things because I knew that if I ran out of money or luck, my father could rescue me? I don’t know because I don’t know what it would have been like to grow up in any other family. What I do know is that I saw what money cost: parents who were cruel to each other; addiction to alcohol and drugs; infidelity; physical and sexual abuse; and self-loathing all around. It was impossible to know if the pursuit of more caused the wretchedness, but the connection between misery and money was scalded in my brain — as well as the need to find out if there was more to being alive than being rich and sleeping with your best friend’s wife or husband.
Unconscious beliefs about money
Up to that moment, I had had the luxury of not paying much attention to money, partly because I was making enough to pay my bills, after which I’d put what was left over in a savings account, and partly because I had met and married my partner, Matt, and I relegated the money part of our lives to him. He made more money than I — enough to put a down payment on a small house in Berkeley — and I assumed that people who could afford to buy a house knew what they were doing in the financial arena. Not only did I feel money dumb, but I also felt that focusing on money — either on ways to make more of it or on how and where to invest it — was complicated, shallow, and spiritually bankrupt.
Although I wasn’t aware of this until recently, I didn’t believe that it was possible to be interested in consciousness and interested in money, to care about deforestation and care about money. I believed that any kind of awakening from what my teachers called samsara, or the delusion of conditioned reality, needed to be separate from money, as if money were as deadly as the plague and even thinking about it would lead me to being one of the bad guys. So I kept making choices based on my unconscious beliefs, and since those beliefs lumped being an aspirant of the contemplative life with remaining ignorant about money, I chose ignorance again and again. Since I couldn’t admit that I was making money and was therefore, like all the moneyed people who I was convinced had no integrity, I just stopped thinking about it. And I stopped taking any responsibility for having it or deciding what to do about it.
From "Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money" by Geneen Roth. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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