The Awful Truth

Columnist Cintra Wilson on how her parents left her a legacy whose worth cannot be measured in vulgar coin: a terminally ludicrous relation to money.

Published October 27, 1997 12:34PM (EST)

I grew up in a house where money was the boxing ring in which my parents unceasingly slugged each other into red-streaked animals of roaring belligerence and desperate, sneaky instinct, duking it out horribly, every day, neither one ever winning; the feral to-the-death crash of two all-pervasive and airtight neurotics. The round numbers just kept flipping higher and higher and the two of them got incrementally more gargantuan and brutal about it, until finally one day they realized that neither party was ever going to change. Our house from then on was wet gray with fallout war gloom and hysterical tension about anything concerning cash. To ask for 20 bucks from either parent was to suffer a jabbering, angry monologue about the worst beatings of their lives. So instead of asking, I generally stole.

Mom, as a child, saw her father burst into tears one day after yet another entrepreneurial experience had failed (possibly the chinchilla farm; maybe the door-to-door hearing aid sales biz). The sight of the big Kansas man weeping, terrified he would be unable to support his family and dreading the hard bite of possible squalid futures, was too much for young Mom. Despite her father's eventual bounce-back into modest financial security, she grew up to become a ruthless penny tweezer, because as God was her witness, she would never grow old at the mercy of nuns or eat scrapple again (scrapple being a Depression-era meat substance that her father forced on family dinners during his self-imposed "hardship weeks" -- intended to be a bracing reminder, every three months or so, of the kind of manky cuisine poverty could bring). Parting with any kind of money gave her the terrible Fear. She liked her funds socked away deep in some mysterious underground bank, far away from anyone who could threaten their slowly, tenaciously growing amounts.

Dad, as a child, had a paper route. He dutifully gave all the revenue to his mother for safekeeping, planning to someday buy an air gun or a 10-speed or some other elite boy machine, the fantasy ownership of which filled him with rude power every time he threw news at the neighborhood lawns. He kept track of his savings every day for two years with army-man-like pride and discipline.
When he asked for the money, he found out that his parents, more out of disorganization than actual cruelty, had spent it all on various family needs. His beloved object hopelessly lost, the idea of saving any kind of money became ridiculous and painful to him, so in adulthood, money in my father's wallet melted out like fire through film.

From the hopelessly surreal hodge-podge of subjective accounts I received about both sides of the situation, I was able to guess that Dad compulsively spent every cent they had and racked up huge credit-card debts and Mom, who was ever burying small amounts here and there with razor-toothed ferocity, would eventually be forced to bail him out, which made her want to kill him all the time.

I take after my father. Until last week, anything over $200 in the bank with my rent and utilities paid made me a sultan. I spend money before I have it, as a rule, regularly relying on the tsk-tsking kindness of accounts payable people to force-feed my invoices unnaturally through the system and emergency FedEx my checks. Then I buy dinner for everyone I love. I have a collection of preposterous and largely unwearable shoes that rivals RuPaul's. My mother, when asked, never once bailed me out of these exasperatingly careless financial embarrassments I always got into, and for this I resented her a lot and considered her cheap and cruel. I felt that her total disgust with my father's spending habits was unfairly spilling out onto me, since I was, after all, always going to get the money eventually, I just didn't have it right then.

I fucked up again about a month ago. Since I was expecting a large check from an inheritance, I decided to spend all of my best friend's rent money while we were on vacation in Indonesia, expecting upon my return to be able to magically dip into my suddenly fecund bank account and cascade fresh money all over her landlord. However, as usual, the check distribution was screwed up and postponed for another month -- the absolute Universal Law of all checks spent before received. I was catastrophically fucked in a hole: The rent was due, and though I was luxuriantly surrounded by Indonesian nose-bones and fertility gourds, the checking account held nothing but moths.

I never try to solicit loans from my family in these situations anymore. They've never had any money around, and if they did, I was the last person they'd trust with it. The only time they had ever tried to treat me like an adult, moneywise, was eight years ago, when I was an additional card carrier on their American Express account, a status I immediately abused and disgraced myself with. After that little experience, any attempt whatsoever to float a mention of cash to my family not only brought on a raucously outraged refusal, but a lavalike onslaught of unkind words and bitter reprimands, for which I felt indignant and unjustly demonized, despite the fact that I have never paid them back.

After calling every friend and trying to scare up a temporary loan with no success, I at last thought in desperation about my mother's untouchable secret stash. I'm almost 30, I figured. As a gesture toward beginning a better future relationship, I am going to give my mother the last opportunity she will ever have to come to my financial aid, for which she will be grateful. She will know now that I am mature and responsible and trustworthy. I will fall back on the sacred family bond, and it will cradle me like a feather bed. Should that not happen, I will employ the most hard-core, side-winding manipulations and stiletto-pointed guilt-tripping necessary to force her to lend me the money.

With vast reluctance, I called Mom.

"Listen," I said, with my usual all-out lack of tact, which seems to be the rule when dealing with my family: "You haven't really helped me very much. Lend me this chunk of money for a month, and when I get my check I'll pay you back completely and pay back the old American Express bill you've brought up every time we've talked on the phone for the last eight years."


Bombs of heavy glass wailing through ugly black skies, fitfully swarming biological poisons, asphyxiating trees in typhoons of fire, children sliced open by shiny knives, dogs eating dogs eating dogs, bleeding fists beating the mirrorized portholes of phantom tanks.

She eventually fell under the wheels of plan B, the weight of my shameless, full-bore manipulations too focused and exhausting for her to deflect. She finally agreed to lend me the money for a month if I signed and faxed a dated promissory note.

"Do you know how that whole conversation could have gone?" I asked her, still steamed about the skin-curdling drama, despite my victory. "Like this: 'Sure Cintra! I know you need the money, yet are responsible. I happen to have it, and I know you'll give it all back to me promptly. I'll send you a check right away.' It could have been that easy."

"Let's pretend it went that way," said Mom.

"I'm grateful, you know, I really am," I finally conceded. "I won't fail you, and I'll always remember that you truly helped me."

"You're a monster," she said.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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