Poverty and the Stockholm Syndrome, by Mary Elizabeth Parker

Mary Elizabeth Parker

Money has always made my gut clench. When I was tiny I knew we didn’t have any because the tension in our house crackled. The closest we got to wealth was to cruise the rich neighborhoods (of North Muskegon, Michigan) on Sunday in our rattletrap station wagon. After another of our parents’grim-faced money ‘discussions’,the ones they thought we six kids didn’t hear, I decided we had to help. We gathered together the sum of $1.67, and I sneaked into our parents’ bedroom and slipped the coins into Dad’s glass ashtray. I was so proud the next morning when my mother came to us: I thought we would be lauded for saving the family. Instead, she folded our little fists back over our pennies, tenderly. That was terrible: We didn’t want our money back. It was a long time before I realized $1.67 would do no good.

Very early, I learned the difference between Our Money (a little) and The World’s Money (a lot). My father sold life insurance and each month “collected the debit”,driving his route of several counties to gather people’s premiums in cash. He’d bring home bundles of bills [not ours but John Hancocks] that had to be turned in to the office in the morning. It was my privilege to count the take, sitting on the nubbly mint-colored carpet in our living room with my legs spread out and bills dumped all around me: like a game of Concentration where I had to match a five-dollar bill with a five, a twenty with a twenty. Sometimes, there would be up to $3,000.

All these years later, I’m still in thrall to Money [not ours, but Theirs], like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome–she who stays attached to a captor even after she’s freed: I’m freed from Lack of Money by my husband’s respectable income, but I’m not free in my mind. I continue to be yanked hard, like a woman still in chains, by opposing beliefs, such as:

I deserve wealth a lot more than some other people who have it and so should enjoy (my husband’s) money to the full. Or conversely: I do not deserve anyone’s money (including his) if I have not been talented/energetic/savvy enough to work the system to get money on my own. Or even: the system is rotten and no one should work it. Wealth is a spurious value, anyway.

Maybe it’s the not knowing what I’m worththat makes me anxious. I spent so many years slaving in professions (e.g., writing) the market doesn’t value with anything vaguely approaching professional pay that now I can’t accurately value myself.

Or maybe I can’t be easy about money because money’s still foreign to me. I’m awkward around it: I’m still the kid who, no, didn’t drink the rosewater out of her first finger bowl, but did pop whole into her mouth a huge decorative rosette of butter because she thought it was candy. (I was 6, with my grandmother at a strait-laced hotel in the Adirondacks.)

Now I think up ways to be frugal so as not to seem profligate with my husband’s money. I live in a large brick house he chose–in full, uncomfortable knowledge that a big house for two people puts too much value on ostentatious expense. So I don’t decorate. I do the cleaning. I clip coupons. I only buy clearance. I pinch pennies harder than I ever did when I was single. I drive a big car but hunt down cheap gas (and have since long before gas became exorbitant). My current café is…not Starbucksbut McDonald’s.

I used to laugh at the stories of eccentric bag ladies, shuffling down the street and checking pay phone slotswith millions at home stuffed under the mattress. Me, I would not trust a mattress. But the coin slot thing? I’ve had the urge. I’m still Cinderella cleaning ashes and ignoring my shimmering gown.

My real problem with money lies in a weird transitive equation learned somehow in my strapped childhood, and reinforced during the adult years when I still had little. The equation reads like this:


Good money paid to you proves your work merits it and that you are worthy of both money and love. Or, transitively, if you and your work are loved, that means that you and your work merit love and you deserve to be paid good money. According to my admittedly bizarro emotional math, any hip-hop mogul is a prince and I, who’ve earned just about zilch in my life plying my humanistic professions, am not fit to polish his bling.

Yes, it’s dopey thinking, illogical, my husband would say. Yes, I know that in a free market economy, money paid is tied not to the work’s intrinsic merit, but to market demand: It might be argued that a poet improves the zeitgeist more than a trash collector does, yet the market rewards garbage-men reasonably well and expects poets to work for free. It might be argued that my father who earned less commission than he might because he refused to sell a policy a family didn’t need, merited more respect (both from himself and from the world) than some of the top producers who’d sell anything to anyone (he said).

Yet, even knowing that wealth and success doesn’t add up to merit, I still believe, illogically–at the emotional level–that any people with money, because they’ve managed to get some (especially those who got it for themselves), are possessed of some personal excellence unknown to us people who haven’t managed to get some.

By my own illogic, all these years I’ve stood inferior not only to Fortune 100 CEOs and film stars and star quarterbacks, but to the sleaziest pop warblers, to bounty hunters and tattoo artists, to all those people whose louche lives earn them millions in films and record deals and reality-TV series. By my illogic, the monstrous money all these people earn, hero and fringe geek alike, attests to me that they have merit. The paltry money I’ve earned attests to me that I’m worthless.

So I’ve devalued myself. I’ve bowed to our market economy’s rule: MONEY = MERIT. Under the yoke of this belief, I can’t feel light and free with my husband’s money because I’m ashamed I’ve garnered so little for myself. What can I claim as my worth? I have none, financially: My career has been a bust in terms of bucks. The small bit I earn looks even more wizened against my husband’s example. And how can I claim a right to his money? He earned it himself before he met me.

I’m still crouched here, like Stockholm Girl, beneath the Power of Money, my feints at self-assertion becoming weaker and weaker, my mien more cowed and obsequious. I don’t know if all persons who have no knack for earning feel in a one-down position to those who have a big, big knack–but feeling one-down doesn’t feel good.

Logically, I know the market rule that MONEY = MERIT is crazy-making. My craziness might clear some day if the market rule reversed to read: MERIT = MONEY. People would be paid what their work’s intrinsically worth, on a scale weighted heavily toward beauty and aesthetics and long-term good for society. Most pop stars would earn but a nickel a day. Excellent teachers, by contrast, would earn small fortunes (no one needs a large fortune–that’s just ostentatious).

Because I believe, at the same time that I secretly kowtow to money, that wealth is unimportant. This is my true belief, not the crazy one. I have lived very simply and could do so again. I lived in tiny apartments, with bagels and Cokes at local cafes and cheap chocolates at home as my sole indulgences. I read library books as my eveningentertainment. I found Junior League rummage sales and wore the value out of richer women’s clothes. I did worry what I’d do when I grew old, but I figured that I and one of my brothers (who also lived on a shoestring) could take opposite sides of some tiny mauve house and die there and be discovered under the kudzu some years later, like out of Faulkner. Then I married, my brother married, too, and the mauve house faded from my plans. (Okay, truthfully, it has not quite disappeared. I’m still cautious.)

My husband watches me bemusedly. Money is just a tool for him; it has no emotional weight. Because he attaches to it no baggage, he can swing it around with aplomb: investing in one wad a throat-closing sum (well, to me, anything over $100 is a throat-closing sum) if he sees it as a good expenditure long-term. His heroes are CEOs, those in the Fortune 100 who earn so much a professor could commit hara-kiri thinking of it. But my husband’s fine with CEOs’compensation. They are, in effect, the rock stars of business and they should get monster bonuses, he says, if on their watch the company bottom line makes a monstrous leap. He implies, with a look straight at me, that any complainer who doesn’t like it should just work harder so she can be CEO.

I am, but he is not at all aggrieved that people who are merely human receive paychecks higher than God’s (star athletes, star actors, star entrepreneurs). He is perfectly fine with their obscene wealth. Those incomes are commensurate with, and justified by, he says, the monster amounts pumped into the economy when the general populus opens its pockets in tribute to the stars (and shells out for the spin-off products, too). He most admires those who grub-staked their own fortunes, figuratively working the gold sluices for years. But he does not begrudge any who leapt from the womb straight to their grandfathers’ billions.

He believes absolutely in trickle-down theory: money poured in by Mr. Gotbucks willy-nilly will eventually find its way down to fund something of value. In a perfect system, my husband agrees, all products developed would be assets to our country and to the globe. But our system, he says patiently, doesn’t work that way. In a free economy, both entrepreneurs and consumers are at liberty to finance whatever amuses them. So he’s happy when fans pay millions to see a quarterback dance, or a Beyonce. He believes that, eventually, through a spiraling ascent of investing, some of that money will make its way to, say, higher pursuits. My husband believes, for instance, in medicine as something of true value. He counts as one of the shining moments of his life when he flew out from the tiny airstrip at Lamberene, Gabon on a business trip in 1963 and saw Dr. Albert Schweitzer in a big hat waving up at the plane.

He agrees that the huge star economyfinanced by the popular dollar is a sub-economy: teetering on froth–on the flash, the rush, on endorphins–and that it doesn’t value what it should. But he condones it because it works. To the extent that popular tastes drive up market value, he says, popular tastes are good.

An economy flush with money, he says, funds entrepreneurship and innovation, research and development and, thus, advent upon advent of new product. Whether that product is cancer drugs or energy sources or a breakthrough on a par with the electric lightor conversely, runaway consumer fads like Gameboys or Pet Rocks or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesis immaterial, he says. Whatever fattens the GDP devolves ultimately to the good. I don’t necessarily believe this. But my husband does.

He believes in the American Dream. His family was stripped of everything in Cairo when Nasser kicked out all non-nationals in the 50’s (any non-Arabs, though my husband’s Italian family had lived in Egypt for generations). My husband ended up in England, then Israel, and eventually the United States. Here in the U.S., it seemed to him, there was no limit to what a man could become. He values education and business sense and displays strong moral fiber in all his dealings. He has prospered here, as have scores of his childhood friends, whose families also left Cairo under edict. He’s made a formal behest to give back to this country, not Egypt, when he dies.

This economy that’s good for America is, he believes, good for the world. He calls it a good thing (not a great thing, but a good thing–better than keeping the money in a mattress) that the Sultan of Dubai ordered a silver Audi (not silver as in silver paint job, but silver as in made of solid ore) and began erecting a personal residence which makes the palace at Versailles look like a clubhouse. The sultan continues with his flashy plan (hedge against the day the oil slows) to set up his tiny country as a high-end tourist trapwith ersatz ski resorts and water-worlds in the desert, crowding up to the world’s most expensive hotel. The hotel is an aerial, buttressed, balsa-plane-style edifice built out into the Gulf, like an abstract Flying Dutchman. My husband is optimistic that this excess will provide jobs for all in tiny Dubai, in building, equipping, and providing daily upkeep for all the sultan’s toys.

To give him his due, my husband says he’d rather the sultan use his oil money to set up factories and thereby float Dubai into the modern manufacturing stream–to ensure a two-way flow of goods and, thus, generations of employment for Dubai’s people. But, my husband says, the sultan’s free to spend money as he wants. However weird an investment, if it succeeds, if money flows, it’s (a specie of) good.

Meanwhile, I sit a free woman, feeling as much a hostage to money now as I ever did to lack of it. I’m a Cinderella who has lived awhile now in the castle–but something in me keeps wondering what’s happening. I’ve been poor and I’ve been richer, and richer is strange.

MARY ELIZABETH PARKER’s essay COMBAT BOOTS was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poetry collections include THE SEX GIRL, Urthona Press, and two chapbooks, BREATHING IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY, Paradise Press, and THAT STUMBLING RITUAL, Coraddi Publications, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her poems have appeared in journals including NOTRE DAME REVIEW, GETTYSBURG REVIEW, NEW LETTERS, ARTS & LETTERS, CONFRONTATION, MADISON REVIEW, PHOEBE, COMSTOCK REVIEW, BIRMINGHAM REVIEW, KALLIOPE, PASSAGES NORTH, NEW MILLENNIUM WRITINGS, and GREENSBORO REVIEW (nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE); and in EARTH AND SOUL, an anthology published in English and Russian in the Kostroma region of Russia.

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