SECRETS AND LIES
THE ONLY TIME I EVER HEARD MY ELEGANT GRANDMOTHER use a Yiddish word, I was nine years old. Sitting on one of the twin beds in her bedroom (it had been years since she'd slept anywhere near my grandfather), I watched her search through one of her bureau drawers as she kept up an uninterrupted monologue detailing her version of the facts of life. These had nothing to do with biology, but with an unwritten but inexorable code of behavior to which all young women must militantly adhere. My mother had died a year earlier, and ever since that bewildering August day, I had been the regular recipient of tokens of my grandmother's philosophy: white gloves, random costume jewelry, a sanitary napkin belt that looked like a medieval torture device, embroidery lessons, and other flotsam that reflected her sense of what a girl needed in order to survive and triumph. Mostly this involved serious training in the artof becoming a marriageable young woman (that being the end goal of everything).
This day, she was on a tear. Drawers opened, stockings shoved aside, scarves pushed into corners, each new thrust released the scent of Chanel No. 5. Her search took on a kind of urgency I hadn't seen before. Finally, she pulled out a strange and tiny woven metal sack from the bottom of a drawer of underwear. The object fit in her hand and seemed to be made of spun gold. It had some kind of cap on the top and a pin so a woman could securely attach it to her clothing.
"It's a reticule," she said, opening the mouth of this misshapen and minute bag. Seeing my completely blank expression, she continued. "It's something a woman wears to keep her valuables hidden."
This I had never seen.
My grandmother went over to her pocketbook, a black patent leather rectangle with a silver clasp that I liked to snap open and shut. She removed a $20 bill, folded it twice, and stuck it into the bizarre purse, which she then handed to me.
"This is the beginning of your knipple," she said, pronouncing this alien word "kah-nipple." "It's a woman's private stash. Every woman needs one. A just-in-case account. Every woman needs money of her own that her husband never knows about. So she can do what she wants. What she needs. Remember that."
Long after my grandmother died, I recalled thisconversation and its promise of secrecy and peril. It would be thirty years, though, before I would really understand what she meant.
SO IT WAS that before I learned the facts of life, I was instructed in the facts of money. Money would take care of me. I should do whatever it took to get some and squirrel it away. Money would come from my husband and possibly protect me from him at the same time. With it, I would be safe. But this path to security was indirect, extremely secret, and very, very important.
I received one other explicit money instruction from my grandmother. It had to do with not talking about it. On one of my frequent afternoon visits spent playing with the earrings and necklaces in her white leather jewelry box, I asked her if she and my grandfather were rich or poor. "You never talk about money," she pronounced. "It's private."
End of story.
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. It clearly didn't matter by what desperate or devious means a woman acquired this money--just so long as she had it. But God forbid anyone should talk about it. This big important thing that would be so critical to my safety and freedom.
Until a few years ago, my grandmother's message satpristinely in my gray matter, intact and unexamined, largely because I wasn't even aware of its presence. But that didn't stop her perspective from informing my thinking. Sure, my understanding of money and income had been updated. On the surface, I behaved like a financially responsible and frequently rational fiscal creature. I worked, saved, and paid my bills (well, most of them). Experience had taught me that my grandmother was right--that with my own income, I was sovereign over my life. But emotionally, my feelings about money's importance hadn't advanced much. Unfortunately, my stubborn refusal to look at these feelings led to occasional outbreaks of indirect, often manipulative behavior around people who could supply cash, erratic episodes of compulsive spending followed by anxious hoarding, and a general and omnipresent lack of trust about who could best provide for me.
WHETHER WE WANT to admit it or not, each of us has a relationship to money that goes beyond the getting and spending. Money is never just money; it's our proxy for identity and love and hope and promises made and perhaps never fulfilled. It's our social sorter. It's the ticket to our dreams. Yet there's a conversational force field around the topic that repels discussion. "Don't count your money in front of the poor," a friend once snapped at me after I'd mentioned how much I'd paid for a leather skirt. For the life of me, as I looked around, I couldn't see the poor person to whom shewas referring. But all these many years later I can still feel the sting of humiliation at being exposed as insensitive, selfish, and greedy. Few topics are as guilt inducing and taboo as this one.
Our silence doesn't serve, however. It seals in dubious advice (like my grandmother's), allows outdated moral prejudices to persist (money is filthy lucre)--not to mention gender roles (it isn't ladylike to be materialistic)--and protects serious social inequalities like the fact that men and women remain unequally compensated for the same jobs. The need to be secretive robs us of a way to examine our ambivalent feelings about our materialistic and emotionally dependent attitudes and impulses. Silence shields us from seeing how, unconsciously, we broker invisible deals to make sure we get what we want and stay safe and secure. And it keeps us from examining the toll those agreements exact. Finally, our silence means women can't be released from the low-level and often undetected feelings of anxiety, guilt, envy, anger, hunger, and fear that money inspires.
There's nothing I want as badly that I'm more ashamed of wanting than money. No wonder I don't like to talk about it. Yet how will I ever address my relationship with this forbidden subject if I don't?
WOMEN RELATE TO money much differently than men do. There are many reasons large and small why this is true. When I ask Stephen Goldbart, a prominent psychotherapistand codirector of the Money, Meaning, and Choices Institute, about these differences, he tells me that they are ancient and deeply embedded psychologically and biologically in both sexes. These differences are so old, so deep, and such a part of our basic wiring that they cannot be ignored. "There are strong gender differences when it comes to money--differences of identity and of historical roles. For men, the interplay of money and love and power has not really changed in thousands of years; they have always been the providers, and their identities and power come from this old survival-based role."
Goldbart has spent years observing how both men and women commingle money and power, which, he says, they need to do in order to survive. While men directly equate money and power, women, who have traditionally had no access to money, combine the two in a very particular way that has a lot to do with romantic love.
"Historically, money was melded with being provided for and taken care of. Thus it's a challenge for women to separate out love and money," Goldbart points out. "The degree to which a man provided for a woman has been her sustenance and her life. Therefore, for a woman, a man's success and his sharing of that success financially is more than just what we see in her lifestyle. On an unconscious level, it has to do with knowing that she and her children will survive. When we talk about money, we're talking about providing for basic human needs; this is basic human wiring. And while these providing and dependent roleshave changed in the last seventy-five years, to brain stem psychology, that is no time at all."
The way we're raised also has much to do with the different approaches men and women have to money. Somehow I sincerely doubt my grandmother pulled either of my male cousins into her boudoir and handed them a secret sack with a $20 bill in it. They weren't told that their social and financial security would be determined by their marriages or that talking about money was "not done," immoral, selfish, tacky, or just plain bad manners--quite the contrary. Joline Godfrey, the CEO of Independent Means and author of Raising Financially Fit Kids, reassures me that my family experience is far from unusual. Godfrey, a financial educator, feels that our culture remains stuck in the belief that we must take care of girls. She observes that we still expect too much from boys financially and too little from girls, and explains that for boys, the issue around money is shame because money is more directly tied to their manhood, whereas womanhood is still very much connected to a girl's beauty and to her ability to connect to others in relationships. Godfrey believes it is easier for women to disconnect from financial responsibilities because our identities aren't at stake if we do. But for boys and men? Money and providing determine their feelings of self-worth.
My male cousins understood quite clearly that they'd be judged by their abilities to go out, club the money dragon over its head, and haul home that cash. Holiday dinner conversations centered on what happened in the stock market,other people's (lousy or lucrative) investments, football, and "Did-you-...