Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On the Silver Spoon Itself

My aunt—the beloved-and-generous one who hands out $500 checks to her nieces and nephew at Christmas—is rich. Like, rich rich. Like, lives off her investment income rich. She's my mom and my uncle's half-sister; the money comes in large part from her mother, but I also think that she got more money from my grandfather than her siblings did, through coincidences of chronology and alimony.

She lives in the Bay Area—she bought a sweet, rambly little house that she's never really furnished (it still has one of those dishwashers where you hook up the hose to the sink)—and she drives a twenty-year-old car with a broken gas gauge, and she never ever buys clothing, but she does buy cross-country plane tickets whenever the fancy strikes her, and she eats at great restaurants on a daily basis. She's on the board of an organization of young people with inherited wealth doing progressive philanthropy, and she's thinking about going to school to do a degree in social work. So she's nobody's pampered child of privilege with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement who doesn't understand that not everyone has the privileges she's had. That said, she's still been profoundly shaped by her experience with money (that is, having lots and lots of it).

She's only about ten years older than I am, and when I was little, I thought she had the best life I could imagine (when we visited my grandfather, she would be there riding her pony). When last I saw her, she referred to herself as "a damaged rich kid raised by damaged rich kids," and that's kind of true. She has trouble with people. She's very, very into holistic medicine and alternative nutrition, and is prone to being diagnosed with new and obscure conditions. She's not, you know, shoving the entirety of Colombia up her nose or anything in the manner of certain daughters of privilege one could name, but she's not the world's happiest, best-adjusted human.

I really do think that inherited wealth, in and of itself, can alter people in a negative way. It can obviate the responsibility to confront the disparity between your world and others' world--not just in terms of privilege, but in reference to very pragmatic things, like: "Is it a good idea to eat rotten raw meat?" (The World: No! My Aunt's Alternative Nutritionist: Yes!) It can also, of course, make other people unreliable, prone to flattery and dishonesty. It breeds instability, somehow, a disconnect between the internal and external worlds. This can lead to general quality of suckitude, where the disconnect is not recognized at all and enormous oblivion and entitlement flourishes (think Paris Hilton), or something more along the lines of my aunt's state, where the disconnect is recognized but not overcome, and the result is a person kind and well-meaning but weird. Then again, had my aunt had less crazy and/or awful parents, she might have turned out just fine--certainly, rich kids are not necessarily doomed to suck. I grew up with some pretty nice and normal ones. But I do think that lots and lots of money, because of its ability to remove one from the tumbling effect of the world, which polishes people like gemstones, sanding down our sharp edges with much friction, can isolate people. It's a danger that heirs need help to avoid, and my aunt certainly did not get the help that she needed in that department.

My family is rooting for my aunt; her siblings and my sister and my cousins and I all care a lot about her, and not just because of the checks she distributes and the dinners she takes us out for. But she's got an uphill battle--for her, I think, the money really has been more of a curse than a blessing.


SJean said...

Great post. Very interesting and very well written. (unfortunately, my compliments to your post aren't very interesting or well written, but you get the idea anyway i hope!)

Ms. M&P said...

That's very interesting. I've thought about such things although not nearly as articulately. I've wondered what it's like for wealthy to kids to make goals and have ambition because it seems to be missing in some of them. Even though my life goals don't center around money, I think it would be more difficult to know what I want if a huge supply of cash were readily available to me.

Shana said...

Hm. I think this is an interesting post. Your aunt sounds a bit eccentric, and I know and have met plenty of people like her, who *weren't* rich. I think it's easy to say "oh, well, they have money so that's why they're aimless in their pursuits [or eccentric or whatever]." I think having significant money simply allows someone to do what they really want to do, and some people will continue to work, and some people will be incredibly lazy, and some people will be eccentric, and some people will go off the rails -- and it's normally only the ones that go off the rails that the world reads about. Just like it's a curse for some people to have excessive amounts of money, it goes the other way -- we just tend to sympathize with the challenges of poor people more than we do with the challenges of the rich.

All that said, I do believe that being in possession of a lot of money does have its own challenges, but I don't necessarily believe that merely having a lot of money makes life more difficult for someone -- it's just a different set of challenges and responsibilities.

Young said...

I wonder what sort of great restaurants provide her with food that goes along with her "alternative nutrition". :-) It could be pretty scary! I have some relatives who are into that stuff, but I think that they just don't eat out at all.

Escape Brooklyn said...

Interesting story! It makes me think of that documentary, "Born Rich," about those insanely rich kids. Contrary to my expectations, their lives did not look appealing.

MEG said...

I am a fan of leaving inheritances to heirs in a trust fund that they can't access until they're 35.

If you let your kids grow up having any and everything (which a lot of people who aren't even rich do) it ruins kids in a lot of ways. Not being forced to have responsibilities, to set goals, to work for anything or even to want for anything is NOT the way to shape the best characters.

But even if you DO have millions (or hundreds of millions) you don't HAVE to indulge your kids' every whim. You CAN send them to public school or have them drive non-luxury cars. You CAN make them go to college, get jobs, and earn some money/respect of their own before handing over a trust fund.

Of course there are a lot of ways to be damaged/ruined that have nothing to do with money. But I agree that money doesn't generally help those folks who are already prone to entitlement/laziness/immorality.

Andrew Stevens said...

I agree with Shana. There's a lot of "post hoc ergo propter hoc" about people who were born to money. Every little eccentricity is blamed on it. My sister-in-law has similar opinions about holistic medicine and alternative nutrition (and hypochondria) and she's never had money in her life.

Daisy said...

Adding my two cents:

I agree how you were brought up is a big factor. If a kid happened to be rich but had parents to instill the value of money and people in him, he wouldn't end up such a train wreck.

I think it also relates to how you got your money (i.e. Did your grandfather strike rich? Or did your father?). The Chinese have a saying that goes something like "Inherited money is lost in the third generation." From observation, it seems the older your inheritance is, the less you'll appreciate it, and the chance to derail yourself with it increases.

Anonymous said...

Andrew and Shana make a well-noted point: just because someone is into alternative/ holistic medicine does not make them rich. That is true--my penniless hypochindriac mother, bless her heart, is proof. In this case, however, I think the author sees her aunt's eccentricities as a symptom of a larger disconnect between her aunt and the "rest of society", and I think that is true, as well. How we act and how we think are colored in no small part by our own life experiences. The life experiences that EM's aunt has had due to her family's wealth could very well contribute to her feeling of disconnect, and the unhappiness that has resulted from that. A very good lesson to learn, indeed.
That said, I also think it is important to remember that we all spend money in an attempt to placate our own insecurities. Great wealth simply allows this to happen on a much grander scale. Much of what we blame on wealth, then, might simply be the same painting on a larger canvas, so to speak.