People say it didn’t happen.
Not just a couple of people, but quite a few, say that I’m a fake.
People say I’m a fool, and I’m selfish, and I’m conceited, and I’m kidding the public, and currying sympathy, and crying poor on the outside while cackling on the inside.
I found out just the other day that people say I’m in the fiction business, when it comes to the facts of my own life.
Quite by coincidence, three good friends on three separate occasions told me that the public perception of my financial downfall more than five years ago was nothing like what I perceived it to be. I always believed that most people sympathized, at least a little, and hoped for the best for me. This turns out not to be true.
Those who explained this to me, by the way, are not the kind of friends who can’t wait to tell you that you’ve put on weight. They’re good friends, genuine and caring, who’ve given their personal and professional support to me for many years.
One of them said he was stunned by people’s comments. He called them “heartless.” When he defended me, detractors called him a pushover. Another friend told me bluntly that I should have known how skeptical people were about my tale of woe. She said that I was “tone deaf.”
People say, it turns out, that I didn’t have a great deal of money stolen – or if I did, it was because I was greedy and I asked for it.
People say it wasn’t really everything we had.
People (a few people, among them the IRS agent we’ve dealt with over our hideous tax woes) that I couldn’t have become so well known and so successful and not have money hidden somewhere, in numbered bank accounts, in other countries – in my wooden shoes, I guess.
People said, “Pride goeth before a fall.”
People said, “Greed is its own reward.”
People said, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
People said, “Easy come, easy go.”
People said, “Everyone gets a comeuppance.”
People said, “She was like one of those lottery winners who throws it all away.”
People said, “There’s more to it than she’s saying.”
People said, “If she posts pictures on Facebook of her frolicking in Ireland, she’s not doing that bad.”
People said, “If she’s having such a tough time, why does she have all those kids?”
People said, “She has to have recovered by now. She should get over it.”
I never knew.
I never suspected.
I had no idea at all that anyone doubted my word.
I never knew people thought I was prideful.
I especially never knew that anyone thought that the way I made my money was easy.
You’re not supposed to let other people define you. You’re supposed to really believe that what people about you usually has everything to do with them, and may not necessarily have much to do with you. I would tell my children, no one has permission to make you feel small. But it’s harder to take your own advice. For someone who depends on goodwill for her living – that is, the good intentions of people who read – perception is reality. So hearing these things brought me to my knees. None of them is true. Most of them are grossly unfair. Still, it was stunning to think that I wandered around in a bubble, thinking the people I met were on my side.
I do understand that my calamities seem extreme. As the third friend explained, it verges on impossible that a money theft and a property tax problem and then a rogue, hateful IRS encounter could all happen to the same person. It seems impossible that they could all happen to someone who’d already gone through being a young widow and raising kids on her own. It’s too much bad luck.
I get that.
When you write stories suggested by real life, you have to tone it down, because real life beggars the imagination. Real life sometimes really is too much. Real life sometimes does defy the credibility budget for a story, which is why I tell my students sometimes that the worst way to justify a story is by saying that it happened that way in real life. Further, much worse things have happened to people than losing all their money. I’m grateful every day that what I lost was not my children’s health, or my health.
However, anyone who says, well, it’s only money … has some, at least a little bit. It’s not only money. It’s safety. It’s security. It’s a little bit of a windbreak in a gale of a world.
For a long time, I didn’t even have a little bit.
For a long time, I had considerably less than nothing.
For a long time, I had hideous credit debt because I made the foolish decision to try to keep the older kids in college by paying part of their school bills with credit cards, until they could scramble for student loans. I couldn’t bear that they would have to drop out because of my mishap.
Many people I’d helped out couldn’t help me. Others wouldn’t. Several, and I bless them, did. It turns out (because I asked) that even my own brother didn’t realize how much I’d lost, or how bad off I was. Neither did any of my in laws. I didn’t spell it out. I should have.
Even my brother assumed it was all better now.
Debt is a luge that gathers speed and danger as it hurtles downhill. I am only now, or at least soon, trying to stop the desperate descent. Then I’ll make my way up the hill.
For the record, when all those kids (except for the last two, my daughters born in Ethiopia) were born to me or came to our family through adoption, we had enough to support them well.
The adoption of our daughters was nearly completed when all our money was taken, and no further fees were required. Good sense would have demanded that we stop out. But good behavior demanded that we proceed, since we had given our word and to renege would have left a stain on my character – no matter how justified it would have been.
For the record, for all those years that we sank deeper into more serious need, my husband did not work. I still don’t know completely why he did not work. He was healthy and capable, and he can’t fully explain it to me. For the record, the investment decision was his. Why didn’t I stop him? I didn’t know any better. This wasn’t Bernie Madoff, making outrageous claims to his clients. It was another guy, another crook, not a household name. If you go to the dentist, do you assume the diploma on the wall is real? Or do you investigate it?
My husband made the choice. I went along with it. He was foolish, and I didn’t know any better.
Most marriages would have broken up.
Perhaps this one should have.
Our children, however, had endured a terrific blow, required to give up their home, their school, their friends, their lives, literally to pile into the car and drive off, the night before Thanksgiving. I didn’t want them to lose their dad as well. Their dad loves them very much, and they love him. My anger would have been revenged – for a month, for a year. Then I’d have added one more bizarre statistic to my resume as a person: I’d be the mother of nine kids who got divorced.
But a wise pal of mine who’s a counselor says that you don’t get divorced when you want to, you get divorced when you have to. My husband isn’t evil, or even bad, or even mean to me. He trusts too many people. He still thinks most people are good.
I don’t know if it’s too late to heal all the wounds between us. I try, but sometimes not as hard as I could.
Some days I don’t know anything.
I do know that I am on the level, and that my life won’t ever be the same.
For the record, anytime you see me on Facebook frolicking in exotic or even pleasant places, I’ve been paid to go there, to lecture or to teach. Whoever hired me has helped pay the way for one of my younger kids to come along. Otherwise, it would be difficult for me to afford to take them anywhere, even to visit relatives in the Midwest, even to go camping. A well-heeled friend helped buy their plane tickets when I got to teach at Disney World. Should I have made it clear that I wasn’t there under my own auspices? People don’t like to hear about a long, unrolling mess. Even tragedy can be boring. So I try to put on a happy face, and sometimes it even works.
For the record, it was never easy come, easy go.
I made my living the old-fashioned way. I earned it. And seeing it all gone was about as easy as having bowel surgery in the woods with a stick.
I was never prideful.
I was never greedy.
I was the same person when I had money as I was before I had any money and as I am now. I guess this is a rant, but I have to admit I feel I have a right to a rant. I’m not the best person in the world but I’m a decent sort. I try to be good. I try to be happy, and one thing I know is true: I would never, not ever, not ever, ever kick anyone who was down. If you thought those things about me, and especially if you said them, maybe it made you feel better about your own life.
I hope it did not make you feel better.
Shame on you.