Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash
by Liz Perle
A review by Sandra Tsing Loh
Apparently it's the last post-feminist taboo. So let's violate it. Just for you,
my friend, today I'm going to open it wide ... My pocketbook, my purselet, my
hidden portmonee ... Yeah, I'm going to push aside all the secret velvety
folds and show you that most intimate of female parts: my money.
Because oddly, in this age of the blinding white Oprah pantsuit, when everything
is illuminated, it seems a Victorian lace curtain still hangs over the delicate
womanly matter of our personal expenditures. But unlike most urban professional
females, I'm going to rip back that curtain, I'm going to bare all,
I'm going to feed you raw numbers like oysters -- My husband? Him? Oh,
he won't mind. As usual on weekends, he's with his favorite dominatrix,
PBS's own Hell's Angel, Suze Orman. There he stands in the kitchen,
obediently chopping vegetables, as from the small TV the saber-toothed blond
androgyne berates him in her jacket of leather: "So you've been too
busy' to figure out how a Roth IRA works, or what a FICO score is? Buddy,
wake up and smell the 401(k)!"
In eras past, financial punisher Suze Orman would be a man, feelings negotiator
Dr. Phil would be a woman ... But no, in the '00s, sex roles, finance roles,
power roles, domestic roles -- they're all up in the air! Yet still, women
don that AmEx-hued fig leaf. In Money, A Memoir, Liz Perle describes
a divorcing girlfriend seeking her advice about such complex issues as property
division, child support, income lost, college funds. Perle asks -- but gets
no answer to -- what her friend actually spends in a month. After hemming
and hawing, the friend finally admits: "I do know, and I'm too embarrassed to
tell you. What I need and what I spend are two different things." Writes
As I hung up the phone, it struck me that I know more about my friends'
sexual assets than their financial ones. They've never hesitated to tell me
all about love affairs, dreams, disappointments -- even their husbands' most
minute physical, moral, mental, and sexual failings -- but I have no idea
what any of them earn or spend each month.
Of course, here's the rub: after reading Perle's "tell-all" memoir, you
still have no idea what Perle earns or spends in a month. Yes, she writes
candidly about how her own divorce brutally exposed her girlish financial illusions.
She confesses to a host of characteristic female frailties, soil previously
tilled by Lois P. Frankel in Nice
Girls Don't Get Rich (duly credited). Craving not just the convenience but
the metaphorical stability of a double oven, Perle admits to being a member
of "the emotional middle class," to experiencing downward mobility as a
kind of "egocide," to caving in professionally to her own acquiescent "inner
stewardess" (who's too polite to protest a bad job assignment or lobby
for a raise). It's fertile, relatable territory -- what woman, feeling blue,
hasn't practiced retail therapy (during PMS, how often have I fondled aromatherapy
candles named "Tranquility," rosemary soaplets startlingly named "Refresh!")?
What XX-chromosomed human hasn't hoped her dreadlocked spoken-word barista may
one day transform into a (still soulful) stockbroker with a bulging portfolio?
(For one singletess in Perle's book, saving money is actually painful -- it's
an admission that "no one is coming to take care of her.")
Over this garden of female neuroses is laid the larger template of American
Women in Financial Jeopardy ... a topic I'm finding increasingly troubling,
gnawing. Just the previous week, I'd been reading Getting
Even, by a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Evelyn Murphy, with
E. J. Graff. Until then, I'd considered myself pretty well versed in the depressing
rills and contours of the gender wage gap. I knew that almost fifty years after
Betty Friedan sounded the gender-equality alarum, U.S. women still make just
77 cents to the dollar of U.S. men ... I knew about the lifetime million-dollar
"Mommy Tax" (Ann Crittenden, The
Price of Motherhood) ... I knew about the glass ceiling, either real or
self-"chosen." But what does a woman's "choice" really mean, Lisa Belkin of
The New York Times Magazine, when the job demands eighty hours a week?
And how many dual-Harvard-M.B.A. divorce settlements could have gone so much
better if the female Harvard M.B.A. had just stayed working? I was already
seeing us women in a whirling estrogen maelstrom, Perils of Pauline-like,
greenbacks flying madly about our heads as though in a wind tunnel -- I pictured
us like in that scene in Thelma
and Louise, where the money whips from a tearful Geena Davis's hands
right out the car window.
But here was yet another layer I'd not even thought of. A laudably thorough
examination of sex discrimination in the workplace, Getting Even probes
the subtle distinctions that still exist among collars blue and pink. Have you
noticed that at elite restaurants, waitpersons tend to be men (better tipped
and paid than waitresses at truck-stop diners)? In the aisles of Home Depot,
do you see more male employees than female ones? (Salesmen make more than cashiers;
cultural biases remain around which sex excels at selling paint chips.) Are
you aware that on construction sites, even women fully capable of operating
those ... Caterpillar ... thingies ... must fight much harder to get those good
union jobs by proving they're physically strong enough to pull up (down?) that
gearshift ... clutch ... dealio -- argh!
I felt horrible frustration reading Getting Even, both because of the
social injustice and because, with my imperfect attention (I kept thinking of
that money whipping out the car window!), I found the book itself so
hard to concentrate on. It was a trip to Barbara Ehrenreich Land without Barbara
Ehrenreich. I felt awful for the minimum-wage-earning women in their Wal-Mart
vests, standing exhausted under the fluorescents; I felt sorrow for their unremitting
bad luck, both in life and in literature. It seemed unfair that slogging through
their book required ropes, huskies, snowshoes. By contrast, here I was devouring
Liz Perle's middle-class confessional divorce memoir like it was a piece of
porn, a Harold Robbins beach book. Even Money's Women in Financial Jeopardy
statistics mesmerized me: more than half of retired women live in poverty, 58
percent of Boomer females have less than $10,000 in a pension or 401(k) plan.
(My own "retirement funds" currently stand at a mere $6K -- down from $12K --
in a wheezing little IRA. I call him "my Ira," my little Jewish codger who keeps
yelling "Feh -- my knees!" while osteoporosis shrinks him yearly.)
In the end, however, Money fell short of satisfying me. After all those
hazy female anecdotes, metaphors, and statistics, I wanted the Money Shot --
I wanted to look at it, to see Perle's own Quicken Bill-Pay file open spread-eagle
before me. The only numbers she let drop were $2,500 a month in San Francisco
for "a dark two-bedroom shoe box on the ground floor in a dicey neighborhood"
and $5,000 for her son's "sweet hippy preschool." Five thousand, eh? Per month?
Per year? Do they pay more for organic? What?
But no. Still doing a skillful three-card monte behind her Dance of the Seven
Feminist Rhetorical Veils, Perle insisted, "I've talked to women who
make $30,000 a year and women who pull in $300,000 annually who feel equally
hungry and equally insecure."
All right, then. Barring women of genuinely modest means -- those who make
less than $30,000 a year, who drive ten-year-old cars or take the bus, who rent
apartments, who have tumbled terrifyingly into the health-insurance abyss, who,
for goodness' sake, are reading this very magazine between laminated covers
at the public library -- herewith my modest proposal.
What if, instead of trying to change the still-male-dominated worlds of government
and business and contemporary work culture from the top down, we American Women
in Financial Jeopardy went the other way? To fill our womanly coffers with the
cash we need, what if -- in a group strike à la Lysistrata --
we all just said no to ... buying stuff we don't need?
That would stick it to the Man!
Wait, no, think about it -- clearly, it's the synergistic forces of
capitalism, corporations, and consumerism that are driving our lives down into
a spiraling hell. But, looking at it another way, we're actually pressing
our Manolo Blahniks to the accelerator. We women make the lion's share
of household purchases in this country. We ourselves drive billions of dollars
a year in sales. Without the army of us and our Visa cards ... ?
Because the fact is -- not to take anything away from the women who make
$300,000 a year and still feel hungry -- we do happen to live, as you may
have noticed, in a country of choking abundance. Our 99-cent stores are Wonders
of the World. Food is so cheap, even our pets are obese. The bears in our parks
practically require cholesterol medicine. Do you understand? Even our trash
is fattening! Things need shaking up when American women feel endangered even
as Yosemite bears lumber around belching, their eyes glazed with surfeit, their
pelts covered in Oreo crumbs.
Yeah, I see us women piling into our SUVs, our Volvos, our minivans -- hell,
even our cute little lime-green VW Bugs -- and driving out to the desert ...
Grrrls doing it for themselves, all together. We could get off the grid! We'll
dump the cars, change into sarongs ... go barefoot ... drop out ...
unplug ... start our own Burning Woman festival! At the very least, we could
burn our bras! Which would probably take a full month, because by now we have
so damn many of them. (Over the years, from Victoria's Secret alone, I've
bought Angel bras, T-shirt bras, Wonder bras, Miracle bras -- I have so many
bras, I could make my own giant bra ball.)
I grant it will be difficult to get the word out about this burgeoning new
women's movement. There will be no glossy new Condé Nast magazine celebrating
us. There will be no sitcoms about us, standing around, not drinking Diet Coke.
Could we get on Dr. Phil? Oprah? "Women Who've Stopped Spending."
I can't picture it. I don't even see us blogging on urbanbaby.com about the
thrills of buying nothing -- our posts would be blocked (if adorably, one little
hand up) by Baby Gap (and look at that striped wool mitten with the pom-pom!).
But perhaps humbly, on these pages, I can share one woman's story: my own.
After all, I did promise you a journey deep into my pocketbook. Although I do
hate to open it. Because I happen to be, yes ... the world's cheapest woman.
Let me explain how I got this way -- how I became this utter marvel -- at
age forty-four, in Los Angeles. To start with, professionally speaking, frugality
is an absolute necessity. My guitarist husband, Mike, and writer me are the
old-fashioned kind of bohemians. Not 'fro-haired hipsters gyrating in iPod
ads but the sort who, starting January 1 of every year, literally don't
know where their next dime is coming from. That's right: we're the
kind of creative free spirits who buy their own health insurance ($500 a month).
Over the eighteen years we've lived together, my annual income has ranged
wildly, from $9,000 to (in the one surreal year of mirage-like TV pilots) $250,000.
We pay cash for everything, including cars. Our house is paid off -- not so
amazing when you realize we bought it for $239,000 seventeen years ago. Of course
it's also 1,300 square feet, and now that we have two daughters, there
are four of us in residence.
But here again, the silver lining. The financial upside of living in a too-small
house is that you stop buying things, because there's no place to put them.
Thanks to our girls, free stuff keeps coming to us anyway, stuff upon stuff.
Joyous gifts of clothes, books, toys ... The other weekend, I spent three
hours on my knees scooping up what I call "piñata chum," the
candies and jacks and half-broken tops and balls and SpongeBob stickers that
continually trail in from birthday parties of children I cannot even name. A
tiny living space is the perfect cure for materialism when brute objects get
in the way of such basic human needs as being able to find your mail or sit
down while eating.
Of course, one could argue that I'm lucky -- I'm genetically inclined toward
thrift, coming as I do from an insanely cheap immigrant family. It's true that
by now my siblings and I simply enable each other. I'll give as Christmas gifts
publishers' galleys I got in the mail. (If they're good, why not?) My sister
recently topped that by placing under the tree a book she'd checked out from
the San Francisco public library, with the stipulation that my brother finish
it quickly so she could return it. But the master of parsimony remains my eighty-five-year-old,
Shanghai-born, retired-scientist dad. He doesn't just Dumpster dive; he'll go
to his local Starbucks and pour the latte dregs of others into a discarded Starbucks
cup and then quaff the whole lukewarm mess right there, while enjoying his also-
stolen-from-Starbucks New York Times (to class things up a bit, I guess).
I grant that at a certain point such behavior moves from thrift to eccentricity,
even health hazard (never mind how my dad fertilizes his lawn; although I must
say, for eighty-five, the man has an astonishing immune system). In my twenties
and thirties, I openly rebelled against all this Sanford and Son-like
penny-pinching. Spreading my wings, forging my own identity, I was fascinated
with the taboo of luxury, of buying expensive things. And so (particularly in
the $250,000 year of mirage-like TV deals), I threw down! Instead of cheesy
white $5 plastic chairs from Home Depot, how about some quality outdoor pieces
made of Brazilian teak -- $1,500? Well, it turned out that the two lounge chairs,
like fussy pedigreed dogs, required constant grooming (oiling, actually), and
-- as I like to say in California -- I am my own Mexican. I found myself becoming
the full-time employee of the fussy teak chairs. I'd spend my afternoons scanning
the sky worriedly. Was rain coming? Should I -- with much shin bumping and lower-back
wrenching -- move the chairs into the shed? With then another oiling? I was
becoming a slave, a Slave of Teak -- and it irked me.
Also, driving through Big Sur over many years, I'd become curious about the
Post Ranch Inn. All one could see from the road below was a misty green hill
rising up beyond a gate. The Post Ranch Inn's cliff-side retreats were $700
a room and up. And so what? "Seven hundred dollars a room!" I told my husband,
arms akimbo, legs planted like Yul Brynner, flush with my Hollywood cash. "For
just once in my life, I want to know what a $700 room is like!" I found out.
The SUV ride up the hill? Thrilling. The moss-roofed entry port? Magical. The
room? A veritable aerie boasting a 180-degree Pacific Ocean view, a stone fireplace,
a slate tub, every surface discreetly touched with perfect northern California
appointments -- exotic teas, eucalyptus bath salts twined in raffia, Bose sound
system with DMX ... "No!" I snapped at my husband as he leaned over the dials.
"Miles Davis we can have at home!" I jabbed my finger toward the skylight, dropped
my voice to a whisper: "What we're paying for is the birds, the susurrus of
the birds, the natural Pacific birds." He opened his mouth as if to speak, but
I shushed him. "Don't you understand? We can't afford conversation,"
I hissed, my Shanghai blood roaring in my ears, its eternal abacus clacking.
"At $45 an hour, what we're paying for is the silence, the natural Zen silence!"
Which brings us to the fact that being neurotic is expensive. Amid the crazily
sleep-starved wars of the first baby, Mike and I booked ourselves into therapy.
But we soon realized we could stop fighting, find a way to divide the household
labor, and save the $120 a session -- our health insurance being no dental,
no mental. (Since you ask, this is what we came up with: he does all the cooking
and cleaning and laundry, and in reward gets to be very bossy and curt about
it, and we also have to eat whatever he feels like all the time -- lots of fish.
I do the bills.)
These are just household things, though -- issues of circumstance, fate of
genetics. Truly cheap people are, in their secret hearts, individuals. Iconoclasts.
Rebels. Always oppressed, always breaking out, with some kind of personal "crazy
philosophy" (my dad's term, eyebrows lifted, twirling index finger at the temple).
I think the most colorful intro to mine is via one of my favorite novels, Pearl
S. Buck's Pavilion
of Women. On her fortieth birthday, after serving two decades as a faithful
wife and mother, the matriarch of a great house in China announces to her husband
that she's done with having sex. She's finding him a young concubine, and is
in fact that day moving to another pavilion so she can sit in the library and
I'm fully aware that our 1,300-square-foot bungalow cannot house a young
concubine. (Look at me: I'm already doing the math. I'm figuring that
young women being what they are today, our concubine would probably also require
therapy, fiction-writing classes, spa treatments, the rosemary soap, the Tranquility
candles. Forget it!) But what I relate to in this character is the great weariness
suddenly felt, midlife, with the trappings of being female. For instance, at
forty-four ... I'm tired of looking at myself in the mirror. I'm
so bored with it! My God, I've been looking at this face for decades now.
When will the tedium end?
It wasn't always like this. At age thirty-six, in the year of the mirage-like
TV pilots, I found myself many mornings at 10 a.m. riding glass-walled elevators
to a lot of frightening meetings with a lot of fresh-faced young people. In
multiple fun-house reflections, I could see that I looked like a hound dog,
Leonard Nimoy-esque. Those eye bags haunted me day and night. So I paid
$3,000 and had them lasered right out.
But here came the strange part. The procedure was so quick, so simple, so painless,
and so effective -- I looked fabulous, no one could deny it -- that my outer
appearance actually ... began to unravel. Not just the bags but the scales
fell from my eyes. For a decade I had cosseted my eye bags like royal invalids -- creaming
them, lotioning them (after reading a tip in a beauty magazine, I even tried
smearing them with Preparation H). Now that I was free ... there, there,
there on the bathroom counter! That busy, self-important cityscape of skin revitalizers,
moisturizers, scrubs, washes, lifters, exfoliants. I suddenly saw that dusty
shantytown for what it was: an utter sham! With one sweep of my arm, I razed
it. I threw those Clinique and Nivea jars and tubes away, every single one!
When I was the servant of the eye bags (and they my master), oh ... I used
to be so hunched over, in apology for my hideous presence. I wouldn't dare leave
the house without my hair meticulously styled, makeup labored over, wearing
what I hoped -- prayed! -- were my hippest outfits. But now, with the eye bags
gone, it was like my female debt was finally, suddenly paid in full. And now
the pendulum was swinging wildly the other way. With the worthless cosmetics
gone, what else could I do away with? Ideas were flying to me. Why wear earrings,
why put on lipstick, why even -- the sloth that dare not speak its name -- change
out of the clothes you slept in? I have this pair of $10 black drawstring
Target pants that balance perilously on culture's very Mother Who Works From
Home fulcrum. Are they running pants? Exercise pants? Pajamas? Who knows? Then
again, check out this Ann Taylor striped T-shirt I'm wearing -- Goodwill, $1!
(That's right, one dollar. Don't mean to brag, but I paid for it in quarters!)
As for my fabulous shoes, they're probably German and expensive, but for me?
Free! Because like all my shoes, they're cast-offs! That's the upside of having
girlfriends who are rabid shoe buyers. It's such trouble to go back to Nordstrom's
to return a color they don't like; it's easier just to ... give the shoes to
Because it's not new clothes I hate so much as clothes shopping. Several
decades in, it is the mall itself that has become wearisome to me -- depressing,
odious, exhausting. Glowering down from all around are posters not just of ten-foot-tall
eighteen-year-old supervixens, but of men! Even in Victoria's Secret! Men
of rock-hard pecs, gelled hair, curled lip! How gay are our Madison Avenue ad
Speaking of which, one day it hit me how much I'd come to physically dread
going to my pricey salon. The faux-antiqued walls, the WWD magazines,
the jumping club-kid haircutters (who are by now actually north of forty, just
like me). The owner of the salon is Taz -- that's the name of the salon, "Taz"
-- and it suddenly struck me how sick to death I was of hearing about Taz. Taz
was here, Taz was there, Taz was in South Beach, Taz was on a shoot in Arizona
... where he was developing a new line of "product" including some $30 chi-flavored
botanical serum I'd have to, as usual, fake interest in. You know what, Taz?
They're just split ends. Fuck off.
Then there's the whole weight project. My friend Carolyn has lost twelve
and a half pounds in the past three months. Good for her, you say, but consider
what she's spending: $199 for six months at Jenny Craig, plus many little
tins of food at upwards of $400 a month. And what with all the deprivation and
the sensitized palate, there's the feel-good sports ion water she deserves,
at $2 a bottle, of which she has several a day. New gym membership ($40 a month).
New running shoes that really fit, air-spring sole, cushioned heel ($100), plus
important new sports leggings, new socks, etc. To entertain her during all that
treadmilling, a $299 iPod. And to celebrate a drop of two sizes, a recently
purchased pair of $300 "distressed" jeans.
That's right -- that's what distressed skinny jeans cost now: $300.
Carolyn tried on jeans at the mall for three hours before she finally found
the right snug fit. Let's not even count the new high-heeled strappy shoewear
to go with the jeans, the $120 haircut with highlights. (I admit -- when she
asked, I sent her to Taz!) Carolyn's self-esteem is glowing. She's
going out more at night. She's contemplating a vacation, maybe a cruise,
with salsa dancing, windsurfing, parasailing. There's more confidence,
laughter, tossing the head back.
In America today, I can't think of one person who wouldn't pump the
air and say, "You go, girl!" I can't name one female self-help
book that urges you, now that you're forty, to simply accept ... the
extra seven pounds (talk about egocide). If we were all wearing sarongs, no
one would know the difference -- that's why we need skinny jeans. When
it comes to oppression, jeans are our burka, our religion, our god. We labor
for the jeans, we starve for the jeans, we pray to the jeans that they'll
close ... The fact that we're paying $300 is only good news. Female
emancipation is always defined in terms of expanding our economic presence.
Our personal power is defined by our earning, our cultural power by purchasing,
how we vote with our dollars.
Which is to say, conversely, the woman who buys nothing is nothing.
Nothing ... nothing ... nothing.
I resent it bitterly, and I am in revolt.
However, having now made a $25 purchase at Borders last week, it is I who
gaze in awe. It is I who wave the saggy old bra in salute. Because it turns
out there's a new mistress of the shabby pavilions, a new Queen of Cheap! She
is New York writer Judith Levine, and I so enjoyed her new book, Not
Buying It, that I'll be "gifting" my copy on this Christmas, in turn, to
each member of my penurious family.
Nauseated not just by her own maxed credit cards but by her weakness in a hyperconsumerized
world, Levine decided to try to survive, for one year, on just "essentials" -- a
strategy that saved her $8,000 (out of a gross income of $45,000). Yes, there
was a diabetic cat requiring expensive veterinary care, and no, Levine's
vanity (which I respected her for fessing up to) would not allow her to give
up her $55 haircuts. But beyond that, the strictures were urban-spartan. She
and her partner, Paul, were to buy no clothes or shoes. There would be no restaurants,
movies, gifts. They could buy groceries, but not fancy ones. Toilet paper, yes;
Q-tips, no (this impressed me -- I consider Q-tips essential).
Levine's yearlong Visa-free journey reveals a hitherto-invisible realm. Without
the whirl of buying, vast quantities of time open up -- and not just from a
lack of purchased entertainment; consuming itself takes time. (In The
Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz illustrates how we can fritter our days
away even on trying to choose the best price for something on the Internet.)
But perhaps Levine's most pointed observations are political. She is no fan
of Bush -- he who advised patriotic citizens, post-9/11, to go shopping. But
she's troubled too with her fellow Democrats' click-and-buy approach to political
If participating in the election by joining MoveOn or Concerned Women for
America is not as satisfying as shopping, it feels a little like using an
Apple computer or wearing Nike shoes -- what Merkely + Partners brand manager
Douglas Atkins calls "joining a brand." The twenty-first-century political
group is not a group in the human sense. It has no voice, no flesh. There
is no room to meet in, no one to meet. You send your money (or not), you get
your e-mails (just like your software updates and porn-site come-ons), you
"buy in" to the organization's politics.
Meaning that "Kerry" (windsurfing gunboat captain, Ivy League union
supporter) was simply a brand that didn't work. These days, Americans are
not citizens so much as consumers; says one friend of Levine's, "What's
left of the counterculture is the counter."
That's not entirely true, of course. There are those eco-footprint fetishists
(almost always white males, natch) who retreat to little dwellings in the woods
(notably often the woods of Vermont) to compost and crack their own wheat berries
and tinker ad nauseam with revolting gadgets like batteries powered by their
own pee -- all while doing a lot of calculations about how much "nature" they
need to sustain their lifestyle. Generally these types like to keep their income
"below taxable level," in the words of Vermont conservationist Jim Merkel, a
reformed weapons engineer and the author of the veritable bible of eco-footprint
Simplicity. "Then," as he says, "not a single cent of mine would rain bombs
and bullets onto peasants who live near coveted resources." Of course, taxes
sometimes go toward good things -- bridges, schools, and ... well, never mind.
Idaho Panhandle, meet the Green Mountains.
But women have a whole different style of going "off the grid." Men like to
live alone in a rusty old school bus in Vermont, whereas for women (OK, white
women), the romance, the adventure, of getting off the grid comes through travel
abroad, away from America's Jeans Nation. I'm thinking now of Elizabeth Gilbert's
Love and Rita Golden Gelman's Tales
of a Female Nomad. The narrative always begins with an affluent urban woman
weeping alone in her creature-comfort-filled home with the as-though-slugged-in-the-stomach
pain of knowing her marriage will end in divorce. She emerges on a whirlwind
journey of Third World villages that always, wonderfully enough, involves Bali.
Common tropes include sumptuous weight gain, deep conversations with barefoot
shaman-type medicine men, untrammeled sex with males of all ages (including
All of which sort of confuses the issue of American Women in Financial Jeopardy.
Let's face it: it's a lot cheaper to sit in the native woods and put your pee
to use than it is to wander the world in search of spiritual advice and sexual
catch-and-release. So, what's really going on here, emotio-money-wise?
Liz Perle traces her beliefs about the complex relationship between women and
their money to her Yiddish- speaking grandmother. Perle remembers the day about
one year after her mother had died that, driven to impart an important life
lesson, her grandmother frantically rooted around in her bureau drawers, past
stockings and scarves ("each new thrust released the scent of Chanel No.
5"), until finally, from deep inside an underwear drawer, she pulled out
a little woven metallic coin purse. "It's a reticule ... It's
something a woman wears to keep her valuables hidden," her grandmother
says. "This is the beginning of your knipple." Perle writes:
In my grandmother's hierarchy of what mattered in life, money silently reigned.
She believed that at the end of the day, a woman's safety and security (not
to mention social position) depended on it.
The phrase that leaped out at me, upon reading that, was "social position."
What a stunningly unique situation modern American women are in. For perhaps
the first time in the history of civilization, a woman's social position
is completely fluid, hers to somehow ferret out and determine and sustain. It's
not just that the West is unlike the East. (It's not just that it's
unlike India, where you have an oppressive if impressively well-defined caste
system, or unlike Bali, where of course so many are descended from Javanese
royalty -- for rapt Westerners, yet another of Bali's intoxicating-as-a-jungle-flower
features.) Think how far we've come, baby, from Jane Austen's day,
when women clearly understood that marriage to an alpha male was upon what their
social status depended ... from brilliant ascension to Mr. Darcy's £10,000
a year at Pemberley, to the mournful poultry-tending outpost of a union with
the rector Mr. Collins.
A modern American woman's social position is not so easy to calculate. If only
it were still just about money -- the old Yankee Protestant families, the polo
ponies, the little dogs, the ladies' lunches, the charity balls, the coiffed
hair, the dull face. My Los Angeles is littered with the wives of giant Hollywood
Mr. Darcys who materially want for nothing, but who continue to be gnawed at
by the novel that won't get written, the environmental cause that can't quite
gain celebrity traction, the holistic fitness line that won't sell (it's not
the money itself they need, but the prized creativity-and-success marker of
the money). Nor is female professional success/independence the cure-all. I
think of a novelist friend whose books unfailingly receive burnished notices
in The New York Times (making her, literarily, extremely high-caste).
The problem is that in person, people find her insufferable (at dinner parties
she'll drain the life out of a room with her endless pedantic monologues, much
as Elizabeth Bennet's own sister Mary would, plodding on and on with her Scotch
and Irish airs). As a result, this friend can't even find her Mr. Collins --
or at least not a straight one. On the flip side, I have a vivacious writer
friend who lives in a trailer in Topanga who wrote a rickety (yes, Bali-inspired)
chapbook several years ago to a spray of pungently mixed reviews that ran only
on the West Coast. No New York Times mention for her, not even a capsule.
And yet, she's not only an attendee but a hit -- especially with flirtatious
males of dubious repute, a chain of Mr. Wickhams only adding to her allure --
at A-list canyon parties. In the drab wake of pretend feminism, where women
share the fuzzy poncho of "sisters," this woman has social capital -- which
is to say access -- to burn.
Jane Austen would lie down with a headache doing this calculus, which isn't
really all about the money. It's about the hunger for self-definition,
the terror of never knowing where you stand. In lieu of Mr. Darcy (and the ladyship
of Pemberley, which I believe I would have handled quite well), at least I have
this: a stale, old wedding-gift Tranquility candle.
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