It’s hard to write about money. We’re taught not to talk about it — and as we are seeing from the Occupy Wall Street movement, the more we are forced into the conversation, the more we see the “stuff” that people have about money.
Turns out that when I , my character of Julia in The Foreign Language of Friends is potentially a member of the 1%. A few readers made mention of this in so many words when I posted last week’s chapter. Now, I didn’t invent her tax returns when I invented the character, but the art collection alone suggests a high income level.
When I first conceived the story, I wasn’t thinking about class warfare or the 99% — those discussions didn’t exist. The Tea Party generated conversation about government spending, but the 99% were pretty quiet at the time.
I intended to write about four women who were isolated from female friendships. I wanted to demonstrate how women suffer when they are cut off from each other, and how healing it can be when they learn to give and receive support. Julia’s money just happened to be the way that other people felt uncomfortable around her.
Just as Julia is a fictional character, our thoughts and beliefs about money can be fictional, too. These stereotypes can lead us to the sense of “us vs. them” separation that we see. We are suspicious of the “other,” the person we think isn’t like us at all. Here are some ways we fictionalize people because they are either rich or poor (and note the contradictions):
- We can’t raise taxes on the rich because either we a) are rich or b) will be one day when we win the lottery.
- People have lost their jobs because they made bad choices or are lazy.
- If you’re rich, it’s because you worked harder and accomplished more than poor people do.
- If you’re rich, it’s because you did something bad to get there.
- Rich people and poor people can’t be friends.
- Rich people are happier.
- Rich people are miserable and lonely.
- Money brings nothing but trouble.
- If I had money, I wouldn’t have any trouble.
- Rich people don’t care about poor people.
So, let’s look at Julia. I suspect that any reader of my book will recognize that Julia probably doesn’t care as much about taxes as you’d think she would. Her husband would disagree, but I think Julia would be happy to pay a little more because she already has everything she could ever possibly want. She’s grateful, not greedy.
Julia doesn’t strike me as someone who would accuse the poor of being lazy. Julia, in fact, is an East Texas girl who fell in love, not knowing that her husband would strike it rich. I don’t go into Julia’s family at all, but I suspect they were nice, working-class people, the backbone of America. I also suspect that many of them saw their jobs go off to China and India! Did that make them lazy or bad? No. When did we stop saying “There but for the grace of God go I” and start saying, “It’s their own damn fault?” Yet I doubt Julia would have that attitude. I suspect she knows how lucky she is.
At the same time, Julia and Larry didn’t do anything illegal or immoral to get where they got. They weren’t lobbying Congress or buying Supreme Court justices to maintain their lavish lifestyle. While we see the reality that some of the 1% are buying and selling our government, not all of them do. The OWS movement, as I understand it, is not anti-wealth, but anti-corruption, and there is a difference. There are 1%-ers who make a positive difference in the world, and who are willing to pay more taxes.
It’s possible that Julia falls under the stereotype of “rich people are miserable and lonely.” Julia wants friends, and the new women she meets are suspicious of her because of her obvious wealth. I think Julia smashes the stereotype, though, with her determination and persistence to bring this disparate group of women together in friendship.
A reader asked: what would happen if Julia lost her money? Well, I don’t go into that in FLF, though it could be some fun fodder for a sequel. We can imagine that her friend Geri wouldn’t want much to do with her, which is Geri’s loss. I love Julia, because she has spirit, energy, and the persistence to help her newer friends figure out how to get along.
I can also imagine, if I were writing a prequel, that we could look at what happened when Julia and Larry became wealthy. Just as she would lose friends if she lost her money, she would most likely lose friends when she gained it, too. Trust me on this. Now, there are plenty of wealthy people these days playing the victim, and I don’t approve of that, either — but judge Julia on her merits as a human being, not her wealth. Pay attention to how she treats others, regardless of their status, and how equal these women are, rich or poor.
Julia may be one of the 1%, but she’s one of the good guys. I’ve made her suffer in The Foreign Language of Friends, not because she’s rich, but because she’s human, and stuff happens to all of us. I know she doesn’t have to worry about how to pay the mortgage this month or feed her family — and she’s aware of that, too. She knows she’s fortunate. But she’s going to have some rough days ahead, and I hope she gets the empathy she deserves.