Playwright and essayist (Granta, Orion, The Nation) Christian McEwen talks about the guilty pleasures of a new mattress, why women do more housework than men, and the surprising link between hoarding and forgiveness.
Join us as we explore these stories from her new book Legal Tender: Women and the Secret Life of Money. McEwen’s collection of haunting, and sometimes amusing, first-person tales were initially presented as a play. Over several years, she talked to more than 50 women, of different ages and cultural backgrounds about money, “the great dragon in the room,” issues of self-worth and spending and the management of household finances.
What was the inspiration for the project?
“In 2009, I was in a local performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues,” says McEwen, “and at the party afterwards I said to one of the actors, ‘What other topic brings up such complicated, contradictory feelings for women besides our vaginas?’ Before I reached the end of the sentence, I thought: Money. I have to do a project about money.’”
Why is this topic so important now?
“My generation — the Boomers — like to feel that we’ve arrived politically, yet in so many ways it feels as if we’re going backwards, and we need these stories of empowerment. We need to hear how other women have managed because the average American woman makes 77 cents to the male dollar.”
From the women’s stories in Legal Tender:
The Bed of Solitude
“One day after Michael and I broke up, I went a bought a brand new bed. The mattress came on New Year’s Eve and I saw how cobwebs had formed around the room. How my bedroom had become sad place. So I lovingly cleaned and after I finished vacuuming and washing things I polished all my furniture with oil and vinegar. The room smelled a little like a salad…”
“The biggest struggle in my marriage has been about the division of labor in the household. My husband and I both started out with academic jobs but I decided to negotiate a half-time contract and (ended up) working full-time for half the pay. I was made at my husband for ten years because I did almost all the housework and the little kid work and I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t help more…”
A Hoarding Parent
“My father was a self-made man — a fur trapper and a trader, an auctioneer, and an antiques dealer. He made a lot of money but he lived in squalor. When I was going through his stuff I felt I needed to transform it. So I made altars. And I took all the objects from Africa and wrapped in in red cloth and sent them to all the people I knew of African descent. With the money I found (in envelopes, hidden everywhere), I put my niece through college at Columbia. I’ve been able to travel and to support the people I love to do the things they want to do.”
For more information about Christian McEwen and to buy this book, go to www.christianmcewen.com
In the spring of 2009, I had a tiny part in the performance the local performance of Even Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. At the party afterwards I said to one of the other actors, “What other topic brings up those complicated contradictory feelings for women apart from our vaginas?” And before I reached the end of the sentence, I thought, Money! I need to do a project about money.
I’m wondering what it is about money – and why so many women feel they never have enough.
I think it goes back to the late 60s early 70s. The last wave of feminism and the fact that a woman making her way in the world is a relatively recent thing. My generation which is the boomer generation is probably the first where women are actually expected to pay our way and we like to think we’ve arrived politically. yet in so many ways it currently feels as if we’re going backward. We need those stories of empowerment. We need to hear how other women have managed because even now the average women makes 77 cents to the male dollar. That’s the mean across the United States.
Were women comfortable when you asked them to tell their stories about money and the home? Or was it a kind of therapy?
It was different from therapy that I was I had no agenda beyond hearing the story. I wasn’t trying to heal them or improve their finances or mend their relationship with their husband or their mother or anything of that nature. And what I really experienced listening was the story came alive in its fullness to them and therefore to me. Probably in a way that it never had before. The image I have is this: It’s like the money monster rising into the room. There was a sense of they knew one portion of that monster in their financial adviser or their husband or their partner or with their parents but they’d never seen it whole somehow.
One of the stories I found very affecting was about a woman who’s always had to scrimp and save. She only allows herself a bit of luxury when she gets divorced. And it’s very interesting what it is she decides to buy for herself. I’m wondering if you could read that story to us.
Yes. Let me find it.
“I think everybody who works in the freelance world has a bag lady who is ready to haunt her. I haven’t had to be that person so far except in my heart…I know how to save money. I do. My rainy day fund is adequate for small emergencies. But one time the day after Michael and I broke up I went and bought a brand new bed. It was a hilarious and so tender experience. Nobody was in the store except for Joe who must have been a 30 something African-American guy. And Joe said I could lie down on this sleep analyzer which was a huge black wash battery type thing covered it naugahyde. And I had to say my name and how old I was and how much I weighed what position I slept in what position my partner, If I had one, slept in and I just blurted out to Joe Well I’m getting a divorce. Well I’m not married. And he said it’s OK.
“So he started showing me these different beds and I had to lie down on all of them to see which one would serve. And so I was lying on the bed that was you know pushing eight hundred dollars and then there was a tax and a special mattress cover. And I just said okay Joe I’m gonna do it. I flipped out my Visa card and signed up for it. And he said you’ll be glad you’ve done this with mattresses. It’s all about pouf and sink. And I said Joe you’re talking my language.
“The mattress came on New Year’s Eve. I’d gone upstairs that morning and I saw how cobwebs had formed all around the room. How my bedroom had become a sad place. So I took down all of the old photographs the life I had loved so much…Then I lovingly cleaned my room after I finished vacuuming and washing things down I polished all my furniture with oil and vinegar… I rearranged things and just sort of polished away the tears. My room smelled a little like a salad.
“And then the delivery guys threw out the old bed set up a new one. I made it up with fresh linens and then I started to make friends with a bird of solitude. Maybe I should call it the bird of gratitude. Well I was just able to say I must do this. I must have hearts ease I must cradle my back so when I get into that bed onto that mattress with my hot water bottle and the memory foam pillow they threw in for free, I just think poof and sink. Poof. And sink.”
That’s a beautiful story about a woman coming home to her own self after a divorce and about the role the bed plays in easing her rite of passage. It’s almost a mythical bed! One that transforms her life in some way and gives her access to something new, something that’s hopeful and redemptive. There’s another one I’d like to ask you to share. And this is about the whole problem we have with standard gender roles and housework and the notion we have that whoever earns the least is going to have to do the lion’s share of cleaning. It’s Suzanne’s story and it’s called Playing Fair.
“The biggest struggle in my marriage has been about division of labor in the household. My husband and I both started out with academic jobs but I decided to negotiate a half time contract. Which turned out to be one of those things where you work full time. You only get half time pay. It was not a good arrangement.
“So right off the bat I’m making half the amount that Tim is making plus he’s in the sciences and I’m in the social sciences so there’s another disparity right there. He got promoted before I did and so on…I was mad at him for ten years ten years. I was furious because I did almost all the housework all the little kid work and I just couldn’t figure out why he didn’t help more. That at some point it became clear to me that he was counting. He had some rough notion of fairness. It’s not that he was a jerk. I mean I’m still married to him. I love him dearly but he’s calculating at some level what was due. So he put in maybe 10 or 20 percent of the work which was less of course than it should have been. But nonetheless. I finally understood it when I left my job. I was without income for I guess four years and Tim stopped doing anything, anything at all. It was as if he felt OK…I’m really going to concentrate on my job because now I’m the total provider. And then just when I was about to despair I had the most curious thing happen.
“I went back to work and very quickly I got promoted into an administrative position and I started making more money than Tim was making and it was a total shock…By golly when I started making more money than he did he started pitching in. I mean he now does half the work in the house. I wasn’t expecting anything from him. And then all of a sudden the thing shifted and that’s where it’s been ever since. I remember I said to a friend at some level I just know that he’s been calculating this but it was a big surprise to me and I still don’t know how I feel about it honestly. It’s a part of me that thinks, Wait a minute. How did you put a figure on —I mean, I don’t even know where to start. My career would have been totally different if Tim had done more. Given me a hand. It was reassuring to realize that some notion of fairness was involved. Every once in a while he’ll come up with some revisionist comment how he feels really good that he stood by me all those years while I was working for my career. And I’m thinking What? I did that in spite of all the other stuff at home.
“We were just at the bank we were taking out a second mortgage to pay for our child’s private school and the loan officer asked us, Who wants to be the primary person on this loan? We kind of looked at each other and she said Well who’s making more money? Tim turns to me and said, It’s you at this point. I’m making $107,000 and he’s making $93,000. The college pays its administrators ridiculously well. So I feel a little funny to be making this kind of money. But I’m totally happy you know to have evened this out between us.”
That’s a beautiful story about the unconscious math that we all do. I think women feel beholden when the man is earning more money and the men expect that the more time they put in the office the less they need to do around the house. There’s a kind of complicity in this story. And a real honesty in the telling of it, where the woman conveys her anger and her resentment. But she works it out with him too. And as she takes on more responsibility and gets paid more than, he does actually pitch in more. There’s a nice balancing act that happens here.
Yes, apparently between 1970 and 2000 men on average gradually moved up enough in terms of contributing to the household domestic work. Then around 2000 they stopped. The percentage stopped growing at around 35 percent. So even though a woman has a husband to help, she may still do 65 percent to the man’s 35 percent.
Do you have any sense of why the progress suddenly stopped?
I wonder if it’s to do with just the economy and people feeling that they need two incomes, and everybody feeling short of time and short of money.
There’s another story I’m very fond of in this collection because it turns a lot of what we think about hoarding on its head. This is Phyllis’s story and it’s about going back to her father’s house and having to deal with all the things that he’s collected after growing up in the Depression and learning never to let go of anything. And I’m wondering if you would share that story next.
This is a good friend of mine so I know I know her very well. Here it is:
“When I walked into his house I felt like I’d walked into the brain of somebody with mental illness. That’s absolutely how it felt. My father was born during the Depression working class Polish second generation the biological mother was from Warsaw but she died when he was eleven twelve and his father remarried and it was seven or eight kids in the in that. But his father remarried and there was seven or eight kids in that blended family. And he kind of got lost and his father was really hard on him. There was some rejection deep rejection there. So he was a self-made man. He really saw himself as picking himself up by his bootstraps you started by picking dots and was able to turn that into cash and his dad made soap. So that was part of a soap business. And later we went to the merchant marine and became an air conditioning refrigeration mechanic.
“He was a fur trapper a trader. He was an auctioneer a free marketeer a buyer seller a wheeler dealer. Eventually he hoarded money and invested money and that was where some of his wealth came from. He lived in squalor. So I had no idea. I thought he had delusions of grandeur when I was a kid my dad was always rehabbing things. He bought this big old farmhouse. We lived in for the pilgrims at the top and he was always rehabbing with the other rooms and he was an antiques dealer so it looked like hoarding. He looked like a hard-working man trying to make a living. But he didn’t ever share that money. There was never enough money never enough food. We didn’t have a lot of heat in our home. You could take a shower once a week. There were real stringent guidelines around the spending of anything. But you know he bought that farmhouse and the 80 acres for twelve thousand dollars…I remember picking up a piece of trash in his yard and saying you need to clean this up before you die.
“And I held this thing up and I said, Look what is this? He’s like. well if you didn’t have your goddamn head up your ass you’d know that was worth something. And I remember saying that it was maybe worth something at some point but now it’s trash.
“When I did finally walk into this home I really literally dropped to my knees and I wept when I saw the condition he’d been living in. He burned to death in the bathroom.
“Before, he hit his head as he grabbed onto something, whatever he grabs falls on top of him with a heater an old heater it falls, the whole thing goes up the flames.
“…The firefighters had called my brother and had him come to the house to help them search because they had no idea where to look for the body or even if he was home. His car was in the driveway and there were no tracks leading out. So I walk into this house and it’s just wall to wall filth and garbage and clothes and piles of papers and books and trash. By that time my brother and sister had already been working a day. They’d made enough space for me to walk around. So I look to the left where the bedroom was and there was about three and a half feet of clothing in that room. Clothing and pillows and lamps and pictures and chairs kind of piled up that you had to walk on to get through. I wish I’d done an inventory because it would have been fascinating. It could be books and broken antiques and food and clothing and a computer might be in there somewhere or a television. In the kitchen we found like 20 bags of hardened sugar 20 5pound pound bags. I opened the refrigerator. There were probably 300 packets of ketchup mustard and relish mayonnaise. We wore Tyvek suits and headlamps and masks over our faces because it was so filthy and moldy and dirty. How do you clean? You can’t. And it was freezing cold because there was no heat.
“It was a 15 room farmhouse. The attic in the basement included. And outside five barns. One of them was two floors. The 10 room motel across the street. The garage across the street. Then we got a call about the five rooms summerhouse and he had a trailer in the middle of the woods on Lake George in upstate New York that just went on and on and on and on and on.
“It took us six months, my dad had said to us if you want to get things from me you’re going to have to work for it. I had to look through everything because he hid money everywhere. And he did I’d be cleaning out a drawer and I’d find you know like five thousand dollars in 100 dollar bills or under a rug. Another 5,000 dollars. There was a safe. No combination. I don’t know how much cash was in there. A fair amount. You might be cleaning something out and you just find 200 or 400 or 500 or 10,000. It was literally everywhere and not in any of the places you’d think. He used to say to me if you’re good you’ll get a lot of money when I die because I’m a multimillionaire. And I’m like, Yeah right. Like, Dad you live in squalor. He’s, like, I’m a multimillionaire. You have no idea.
“He was. Yeah. I got half a million dollars and had a very estranged relationship with him but just before he died we actually reconciled to some degree.
“I’d go and visit. He’d peek out the door and say I’m coming right out and I’d take him to his church. I’d say let’s make a prayer for you and he’d bring me to Mother Mary and I’d be like Mother I love Mother Mary.
“We arrived after mass one day it could still smell the incense in the church and he walked around this beautiful land and these beautiful buildings and just connected on this very spiritual level. And he’s like let me take you out to lunch. I have two coupons to Popeye’s. We go to Popeye’s. So he’d be able to garner us two meals for under seven dollars with his coupons. And of course he’d take the pickle relish and the ketchup and the mustard with him.
“But I saw him trying to connect and open up to me in a way he never had in all my life before. So I can only hold it as a spiritual path that my being born to him was also my spiritual path. I think his life was a sacrifice for my a fast track to a generous life and to waking up and being all that I am.
“If I was going through his stuff I felt I needed to transform it and I thought I’m gonna make altars.. I also took all the objects from Africa that I could find and I wrapped them in red cloth and I sent them to all of the people I knew of African descent. I don’t know what their value was but they were beautiful. And everybody I knew got something in the mail.
“Because my dad had mental illness and was so abusive. It’s really hard to see him in the light. That’s what I’m trying to shift now. I think he did the best he could. I think he cared deeply to hold that money and distribute it to his children. That money changed my life.
“It’s very unusual to go from a working class to an upper middle class life. I’ve been able to travel to support people I love to do the things they want to do. I put my niece through College at Columbia. I redid my kitchen. I’ve been able to make repairs on my house. So I think that that continues the transformation. And it’s my belief that my dad is really happy if there’s any part of him left that’s looking at me from the other side. He’s saying yes good. I tried and I didn’t do so great but I’m so glad you’re able to do it on my behalf. And you know to have more compassion for his brokenness.
This is a story not just about money but about safety and security and home. What touches me the most about this: Phyllis really understands that for her father all things that he collected were talismans. They were little promises of Redemption. This reminds me of a recent book called The Swedish art of Death Cleaning. The author advises us all to tidy up before we go to make sure that we don’t leave all these horrible sorting tasks to our children.
But Phyllis knows there’s something sacred about going through a parent’s possessions. It gives us a chance to get to know them better and to understand what was really at the center of their lives.
Yeah I think that’s right. I think she’s grateful for it, and she herself lives a very different life—a life of generosity and making art.