Lost and Found
One Woman's Story of Losing Her Money and Finding Her Life
The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Women Food and God maps a path to meeting one of our greatest challenges-how we deal with money.
When Geneen Roth and her husband lost their life savings in the Bernard Madoff debacle, 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. Roth identified her own unconscious choices: binge shopping followed by periods of budgetary self-deprivation, "treating" herself in ways that ultimately failed to sustain, and using money as a substitute for love, among others. As she examined the deep sources of these habits, she faced the hard truth about where her "self-protective" financial decisions had led. With irreverent humor and hard-won wisdom, she offers provocative and radical strategies for transforming how we feel and behave about the resources that should, and can, sustain and support our lives.
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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 thirty years of retirement savings in a “safe” fund with a brilliant financial guru. When I put down the phone, my savings were 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 sixty-five billion-dollar 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 Madoff 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 proved 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.)
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 fifteen, 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 twenties, 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 two-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.
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.
During the first year I learned to meditate, my Buddhist teachers took our class to graveyards so we would viscerally understand that we would end up exactly like the people in the ground: dead, very dead. After those excursions, I’d wake up every day and ask myself what I would regret not doing if I died that day, that week, that year. The answers were always the same: figure out the meaning of life (if there was one) and find out why I was here. And write, always write. Making more than enough money wasn’t ever part of the mix.
Eventually, after a few years of teaching groups about compulsive eating and having my book proposal rejected by twenty-five publishers, an editor at Bobbs-Merrill accepted my first book. I spent the next ten years teaching workshops and writing more books, doing well enough financially to rent an apartment, drive a used Volvo, and buy as much chocolate as I wanted. In 1992, my fourth book sold enough copies in paperback to spend two weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and when I received the check for this windfall— $106,000—it was like getting a paper bag filled with Monopoly money. I had no idea what to do with it, no way of relating to the fact that I was now one of the ones with money that I didn’t like, didn’t trust. Or, as James Grant, editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, says, “Insofar as there is a lesson in history, it’s that human beings are not good with large sums of money, anything over $136.”
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.
When our sweet and very rich friend Richard told us about a man named Bernie Madoff, with whom he and his family had been successfully invested for many years, we both assumed that Richard was brilliant (otherwise, how had he gotten so rich?) and that investing with Madoff through Richard’s family fund was simple, smart, and safe. So within a few years, we turned all our money—nearly a million dollars— over to Madoff. By giving someone else full responsibility for my money, my untarnished self-image could remain intact; I didn’t have to think about money or what to do with it: I had Richard, and Richard had Madoff .
Did I hear that diversification was smart? Absolutely. Did I choose to ignore that advice because I also got conflicting advice about Madoff being, as someone said, “the Jewish equivalent of T-bills”? Yes. I chose to find very smart people who (I thought) were as smart in their fields as I was in mine, and I chose to listen to them.
Since the Call, I have chanted the mantra of How could you, why did you, what’s the matter with you? Another, even meaner version of this is It serves you right. You thought you were above it all, different from everyone else. Well, guess what, honey? You’re not. I have also been eager to blame someone else—anyone else—for the mess. Richard; my accountant, who encouraged me to put all my money in one place; my friends, who all did the same thing. Where does the blame end? My father valued the accumulation of wealth. He said it didn’t matter how I did it. But this was after forty members of his family were killed in Auschwitz and his motto became “God abandoned us. There is no such thing as morality, and it’s every man for himself.” Do I blame my father, who has been dead for eight years? Or is it Hitler’s fault that I put my money into a Ponzi scheme?
Unlike many people who lost everything with Madoff , and unlike so much of the world, I still have money to live day to day. I am still teaching, and I am still writing, and there is still nothing else I would rather do. But still. For weeks after the phone call, I went to sleep at night oscillating between ranting about Madoff and being terrified that we wouldn’t be able to keep our house. Then I realized that, for me, the real suffering was not living without money; it was living with this ranting mind. The financial and emotional devastation was horrible, but if I didn’t allow myself to actually feel it—rather than react to it by blaming myself or someone else—then I couldn’t learn what there was to learn. I wouldn’t see, for instance, that I had participated in the fraud by being willing to close my eyes about what Madoff was doing. Or that I had pretended not to care about having money or where it was invested. Or the fact that I had been unconscious about money and had kept choosing to stay that way.
During the years we were invested with Madoff, I often asked Richard, the head of our feeder fund, how Madoff made such consistently good returns. Although Richard tried to explain it to me, it was clear he didn’t know either, because I’d leave our meetings still unable to explain to anyone else how it worked. But that didn’t deter me. And so, rather than put my money where my values were—into real things, real people, real companies—I allowed myself to be part of this insane leveraging of money upon money. I allowed myself to be sucked into the belief that as long as I was donating money to charities, as long as I was doing good work in the world, it was fine to participate in a venture that was not contributing to anything in which I believed. I engaged in the money split to which we as a culture subscribe: We say we believe in wind energy, but we put our money into oil. We say we believe in education and health care, but we put our money into advanced weaponry. We say we want to stop violence, but we allow genocide in Darfur. Over and over again, I’ve asked myself: Why didn’t I secure the most basic of all things— shelter itself? Why didn’t I pay off my mortgage? And if I don’t engage in blame, I see the answer clearly: because I believed in something else more—I believed in remaining unconscious. And I believed in accumulating. And when you believe in accumulating, you see what you don’t have, not what you do have.
My relationship to money was no different from my relationship to food, to love, to fabulous sweaters: Because I was never aware of what I already had, I never felt as if I had enough. I was always focused on the bite that was yet to come, not the one in my mouth. I was focused on the way my husband wasn’t perfect, not the way he was. And on the jacket I saw in the window, not the one in my closet that I hadn’t worn for a year.
In thirty years of exploring compulsive eating, I kept learning that it wasn’t about how much or how little I had on my plate or in my mouth. It wasn’t about how fattening pizza was or how many calories I burned during my aerobics workout. It wasn’t about the glycemic index or Weight Watchers points or the speed of my metabolism. The thing I kept seeing, the thing that changed everything, was that my problems with food weren’t about food. They weren’t about anything—not anything—out there. The problem was me. My mind, my beliefs, my conflicts, and how I expressed them in everything I did, particularly with the food on my plate and the size of my thighs. It was as if I walked through life as a hungry ghost— with, as the Buddhists say, “a mouth the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain.” No matter how much I ate or had or experienced, it didn’t satisfy me because I wasn’t really taking it in, wasn’t absorbing it, wasn’t noticing or appreciating it. I always wanted more.
I never applied what I learned about food to money because it seemed as if it didn’t apply. Also, I was lazy. I didn’t want to work as hard with money as I did with food. I didn’t want yet another area of my life about which I needed to take responsibility and be aware. And money seemed to be concrete in a way that food wasn’t. Money seemed to be about survival in a way that food wasn’t. Money seemed to have certain rules— “Make more than you spend,” “Work hard and you’ll get far,” “Rich people are special”—that seemed unbendable, irrevocable. Problems with money really did seem to be “out there.” And even though I could name a parallel food rule I didn’t believe for every money rule I did—“Fat makes you fat,” “Don’t eat after 7:00 P.M. or you’ll gain weight,” “Thin people are better than me”—I believed that money was real in a way that food wasn’t. Money was outside of me in a way that food wasn’t. Money needed to be handled on the external, not the internal, level in a way that food didn’t.
But after we lost our money, I saw that everything I was telling myself about money was just an excuse for me to continue being lazy, compulsive, and unconscious. I saw that there wasn’t a huge difference between problems with money and problems with food: Most of the world doesn’t have enough of either, but those of us who do seem to always want more and, for the most part, refuse to believe that the problems we are experiencing “out there” originate—and need to first be solved—“in here.” With our minds. Our conditioned patterns. Our old ways of believing and feeling and behaving.
Although I never would have chosen the path of losing our life savings, it is forcing me, in the way that my suffering around food forced me, to wake up, pay attention, question the automatic and reactive trance in which I usually live. When I wander into blame or fear (What if my husband or I get sick and we can’t pay the medical bills? What if there is an accident and we can’t work? What will we do when we get old?), I live in a hell created by my own mind. On this side of the loss, there is the necessity—the urgency—of staying in the moment. This breath. This step. This splash of sun. On the other side of loss, it seems that something priceless still remains.
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