Money. It’s our last taboo. People spill seamy details about their sex lives before talking about their finances, salary, or savings accounts. And yet, despite this curtain of silence, money is not only (supposedly) the root of all evil, it’s at the heart of relationship battles, shattered dreams, and midnight wakefulness.
Money (sadly) is often how men measure their worth and how women measure men. We forgive dreary people their dreadfulness a lot quicker when they possess fat checkbooks—particularly when their riches are combined with a successful career. Writers laugh louder at the jokes of acclaimed fellow authors. Relatives give a bit more latitude to rich aunties and uncles. All of us, whether with awareness or not, bow a bit in the face of a fat wallet.
Women—especially women of my age—grow up expecting to, if not be supported by, then be with a partner who pays the lion’s share of the rent. Young women today grow up with higher expectations (yes!), but they still harbor dreams of Prince Moneypants rescuing them; how could they not after watching fairy tale messages in classic movies such as Pretty Woman. These images stalk us; we buy into them, despite ourselves. When that man of ours walks out still holding the reins to the family money, we’re destroyed.
Each time a financial scandal unfolds, I wonder what was the self-told story the perpetrator believed that let him hurt so many people, and what is it like for his family?
When Bernie Madoff’s crimes made headlines, I thought about his wife Ruth and what it would be like to wake up one day and learn that one’s entire life was built on air. Every crime has multiple victims—and those victims usually include the family of the perpetrator. I know from working with criminal for ten years about the stories they told to excuse themselves—excuses that simultaneously fascinated and repulsed me. I learned how even those engaging in the most heinous behavior, manage to explain away their exploits—even if only to themselves.
Writing The Widow of Wall Street allowed me to explore my fascination with how criminal scandal affects those closest to the perpetrator, and how they applied to the family of Bernie and Ruth Madoff, by inhabiting the point of view of both my characters, caught in a similar crime, husband, Jake Pierce, and wife, Phoebe Pierce. My lens on marriage and money sharpened.
White collar criminals, accustomed to entitlement, commit the most outrageous schemes and crimes, always believing they’ll find a way out. Women, conditioned to second chair financially, don’t question the most unlikely of financial scenarios claimed by their partners.
So many women—many of my friends and relatives— are clueless about their finances. This added to my belief from the outset that someone like Ruth Madoff could absolutely be unaware of what her Ponzi-scheming husband had done. (He pulled the wool over the eyes of captains of industry and CEO’s. Why not his wife?)
I learned the word knippel at my mother’s knee. She was so secretive about her money that I assume she even had some she hid from herself. She urged me to keep a knippel when upon the occasion of my first marriage.
Looking back, not such bad advice. At the time, high on feminism, equality and a cotton hippie wedding dress, I scoffed at the idea of hiding anything in marriage. However, I soon learned equality as an ideal was not equally prominent in my husband’s mind as it was in mine.
By the time my marriage ended, I longed for full purview over the checkbook.
Ten years later, divorced, I had it. Broke, I let my credit card debt pile up—ignoring the growing interest, excusing myself because I was the sole support of the house and being unable to pay bills is tiring—and buying stuff for is soothing. So, you charge one more thing, open one more credit line . . . and the road to madness continues. I pushed the problems back; they woke me at three in the morning. Worry gnawed. How did I assuage my fears? By spending more money. The cycle grew.
Avoidance brings stress. I should have listened to my mother, who always said pay yourself first. My mother, horrified at the idea of my debt, rescued me via a kind (and wealthy, and thus, worshipped by her) relative who gave me an interest free loan, which I used to pay off my credit cards and I vowed to never have credit card interest again. Interest makes banks fat and turns us into twisted ropes of tension.
Since my husband has convinced me that avoiding the truth never makes the truth go away. What is, is.
But sometimes, what we’re told is, isn’t. There were many messages I took away from writing The Widow of Wall Street, including how often people wake up learning they live in a different marriage than their spouse, and how children always end up as collateral damage in their parent’s crimes.
Most of all, I’ll never forget this: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.