Made in the image of Betsy DeVos

We were poor but happy atheists, until my parents found Amway, Jesus and the gospel of wealth

Published December 9, 2017 3:30PM (EST)

 (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
(Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)

When I howled my way into the world on a stormy Midwestern Sunday in the spring of 1983, I was, for those first few oxygen-gulping milliseconds of my life, the world’s tiniest, angriest atheist.

I was a child of logic, precocious and analytical, and atheism suited me well. But being brought up that way in a rural mid-American town full of Catholics and Baptists and Lutherans was interesting, to say the least. Everyone we knew went to church — friends, neighbors, relatives — and we weren’t open about our lack of faith. When schoolmates invited me to Sunday school, I went along. When my grandfather rounded up his progeny for a pre-meal prayer at family gatherings, I held the hands of my cousins and obediently bowed my head, though I’d be lying if I said my eyes were closed.

But my parents and sisters and I, we didn’t believe. How could there be a god, my father reasoned, when my mother’s mother had wilted away from cancer on Christmas Day at age 49, when the nurses at my cousin’s birth had suctioned a hole in his tiny windpipe and all anyone could do was watch him die? We had resigned ourselves to atheism with sadness, not pride or joy, and in an effort to play good Midwesterners, we kept our beliefs to ourselves.

And then one summer day my aunt and uncle drove 300 miles to bring a nicely dressed married couple to our house, and my sisters and I dragged our cousin to the tennis courts across town while the adults had some sort of long, serious discussion. The Plan, we’d later come to call it — they’d come to show my parents The Plan.

Here I should back up and talk about the house I was raised in. My first two years of life were spent on a farm called Rabbit Ridge, my home a 1970s ranch outside a tiny town in northwestern Missouri not far from the Iowa and Nebraska borders. But the farm had been devastated by a drought a few years before I was born, and we never recovered. My parents declared bankruptcy, and my father took a job selling animal feed to farmers in Southern Illinois just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

The land was fertile there, but my family was slow to prosper. We rented for the first several years after settling in the area, and when I was seven we purchased a boxy nineteenth-century home on the southern end of town. Originally a tiny three-room American vernacular, the house had been added onto over the years, and by the time we moved in it was a relatively spacious four-bedroom with a yard and a detached two-car garage.

It may sound nice, but the place was falling apart. The previous owners were hoarders who’d piled junk up to the ceilings. The bathroom was revolting, worse than some of the more unappealing truck stop restrooms I’ve visited throughout my life. One sister and I had bedrooms in the newest portion of the house, where the floors were literal concrete and virtually no insulation protected us from the extreme heat and cold of Illinois. On winter mornings we’d huddle together beside a kerosene heater as we piled on layers of clothes, and in summers the windows were propped open by big box fans.

At some point before we took ownership, a tremendous oak in the backyard had dropped a massive limb through the roof above my bedroom, and the ceiling had never been properly repaired. When it stormed, I’d awaken to find the foot of my bed soaked through with rainwater. I kept a bucket handy for those wet nights and trained myself to sleep in a ball. I still associate the smells of kerosene and water-logged plaster with my childhood home.

Our community wasn’t a wealthy one, but my friends had comfortable homes and tidy haircuts and on-trend clothes. As the youngest of three girls, I often arrived at school in pants that hadn’t even been new when my oldest sister first wore them and were quite worn out by the time they got to me.

But I didn’t grow up unhappy. I may have been ridiculed occasionally by schoolmates, and my house wasn’t always the most comfortable place. But my needs were met. I was close with my sisters. And my parents did what they could to make our lives as good as they could be. I’m providing this information for context, not for pity. You must first understand my background before you can truly comprehend the scope of the DeVosian influence on my family.

Fast-forward to December 2016. I follow the news, reading headline after headline about the president-elect’s cabinet prospects. Jeff Sessions. Rick Perry. Betsy DeVos.

Betsy DeVos — the name is new to me, but it feels familiar somehow. Each time I hear it, which is often, I think of my childhood, of white bars of soap and motivational tapes and The Plan.

Betsy’s wasn’t a name I’d heard before she was brought into the limelight by Donald Trump, but her last name was one I knew all too well. After my sisters and cousin and I returned home from the tennis courts that summer day so long ago, after my aunt and uncle and the couple they’d brought over packed up their car to return to the rural Missouri countryside that had driven my family out with its infertility some seven years before, the DeVos legacy was already well on its way to changing my family forever.

Depending on your age, you may or may not know where this is going. What was The Plan? What’s all this about soap? What is it you don’t know about Betsy DeVos?

A bit of history, then, that isn’t my own: In the fall of 1959, two Michigan men by the names of Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos founded Amway, a multi-level marketing company that in its early days peddled vitamins and multi-purpose liquid cleaner. The company grew and grew, promising its followers a direct path to the American dream.

So: in the early '90s, my parents signed on as Independent Business Owners of Amway under my uncle and aunt. My uncle and aunt had signed on under the man and woman who came along with them to our house to show my parents The Plan. That man and woman had signed on under some other couple. And so on. Up and up and up. That was the goal — show The Plan. Sign people up. Sponsor new Independent Business Owners, and everything they buy and sell, you’ll get a piece of. That’s multi-level marketing in a nutshell.

My parents went all in. They converted a small room in our house into an office and storage area. My dad built shelves where we could store the bulk items we ordered — cases of peanut butter, toaster pastries, grape and strawberry jam; twenty tubes of Glister toothpaste; stacks of Nutrilite vitamin boxes; tubes and bottles and boxes of Artistry skincare products.

Suddenly we were living in this dichotomous world. Everything was either “positive” — Amway-related — or “negative.” Lucky Charms? Negative. Happy Days cereal, with its toasted smiley faces and colorful marshmallows? Positive. Listening to morning radio shows as we primped for school in the morning? Negative. Popping in a cassette filled with Amway success stories? Positive. Once I reached high school and was earning my own money as a waitress, I bought the things I wanted, but I hid them — I didn’t care for the scent of the Satinique soaps that lined the walls of our shower, so I kept a caddy in my closet stuffed with fruity shaving creams and bottles of Herbal Essences.

Our family vacations revolved around “the business,” as it was called. In the summer we’d pack up our old conversion van and drive across the country to a family reunion — Dallas, Chicago, Orlando. We’d check into the hotel, and my parents would spend the weekend in meetings while my sisters and I made a small fortune babysitting the children of other convention-goers. That’s what it was, of course. Not a real family reunion, but rather an Amway convention hosted by the Diamonds that somewhere up the line had sponsored someone who’d sponsored someone who’d sponsored us.

Diamond was the level my family was striving for. The Diamonds were the embodiment of living the dream. My mom cut out pictures of the things she planned to one day have the money for — a tropical beach vacation. A mansion. A set of fancy Queen cookware, manufactured and sold by none other than Amway itself.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Independent Business Owners were Christians, at least ostensibly. The motivational tapes would talk about God, about blessings. Sunday mornings at the weekend conventions featured a religious service led by men in suits, their wives in glittery dresses. Suddenly atheism was a difficult philosophy for my parents to maintain, and not long before I reached my teens, we were practicing Christians.

I embraced the change, initially. I was a quirky pre-teen in a small, conservative town, and all I ever wanted was to belong. I bought a student Bible, pored over its crisp pages. I kept a tiny devotional calendar beside my bed. I joined a youth group upon entering junior high and stuck with it through early high school, attending weekly meetings and school events, spending hundreds of my waitressing dollars on conventions much like the ones my parents were going to.

For a brief period of time I believed what I was being taught: that accepting Jesus was the ticket to an eternity in Heaven, that my apathetic sisters would not be saved. I was tortured by the thought. And then, at some point that hyper-analytical child reemerged. I realized I didn’t buy into any of it, that I was only staying in it for the friendships I’d made, the boys my friends and I would flirt with on those summer trips to Myrtle Beach. I adopted the label of agnostic and abandoned the Christian world for one that was more fun, more logical, with new friends and more interesting boys.

But what was harder to abandon was the notion that the American dream was something real and achievable, the idea so often echoed on those motivational tapes: “If the dream’s big enough, the facts don’t count!” When my parents talked about the grand trips we’d one day take, I allowed my heart to pick up speed. When my father mapped out his plan for adding a second story to our house, I believed I might actually get a bedroom with real floors and a ceiling that protected me from rain. When I schemed to one day go off to a boarding school for the arts and my dad suggested it might be possible, I let myself fantasize. After all, if it was a big enough dream, surely it would happen. That was what I’d been taught.

It’s the definition of the bootstraps mentality. If the dream’s big enough, the facts don’t count! And having that mantra drilled hard into my head from such a young age made the thought of having a run-of-the-mill career seem pointless and highly undesirable. If I believed in myself, I wouldn’t settle! I didn’t need college. I was special. I didn’t want a J-O-B. I was going to be rich!

Let me say that again in different terms: One of the key ideas repeated in the Amway world is that “job” is such a bad word it must be spelled out, not said. On their tapes, the Diamonds told stories of being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The Diamonds didn’t want to work. The Diamonds wanted to be rich! And they got rich why? Because they wanted it badly enough.

My parents wanted it badly, too. “The business” was nearly all my father ever talked about, and he missed most of my school events to attend meetings and show The Plan. While I know that our financial situation did improve as I grew older, I couldn’t say how much of that was thanks to Amway, as my dad was working a day job all the while.

I grew up believing that wanting to be normal was a bad thing. That working for anyone other than yourself was a waste of a life. That college was like a car wash for brains. That Jesus did die for my sins — and that he was white.

This was the cult of Amway. And in hindsight it really worked like a cult. We were to follow the system as it was laid out, without asking questions. We were to idolize the Diamonds and other higher-ups. We were to attend the meetings and conventions always, even if it put us in financial danger, and there we’d absorb the songs and prayers and teachings with tireless joy. We were to scorn those who did not join us, to think in terms of us versus them, positive versus negative. We were to look at every new acquaintance as a possible recruit — if I made a new friend, his or her parents were an immediate target.

The God of the cult of Amway was money. We worshipped it. We wanted nothing to do with anyone who suggested something else might be more important. We called ourselves Christians, but what we wanted were blessings in the form of cold, hard cash.

And at the top of it all sits Madam Secretary Betsy DeVos, née Elisabeth Dee Prince, who married into the Amway legacy when she wed the son of co-founder Richard DeVos. Betsy DeVos is the kind of woman I was meant to aspire to become — wealthy and focused on keeping privilege in the hands of those who’ve always had it, or at least those who’ve earned it by pulling hard enough on their mythical bootstraps. I was meant not to concern myself with art or social justice, not to seek out a nine-to-five that might bring me security without excess. I was meant not to attend college, to forgive my parents for being unable to afford anything but public school.

I was made in the image of Betsy DeVos.

Earlier this year, Kellyanne Conway famously offered advice to those who risked losing medical coverage under the proposed Republican health care repeal. Those who are able-bodied and uninsured should simply find a job, she said on ABC's "This Week," back in June. “If they’re able-bodied and they want to work, then they’ll have employer-sponsored benefits like you and I do.”

There’s a familiar sentiment buried in her claim: If the dream’s big enough, the facts don’t count. If they want to work, they’ll have benefits.

What people like Betsy DeVos and Kellyanne Conway don’t want to consider is that their wealth and comfort are dependent upon the struggle of others. What if everyone sold Amway and quit their J-O-B? Who would pick up the garbage, pump the gas? Who would put out their fires and fight their wars? Who would build their fancy homes?

Here’s the truth: there’s no such thing as independent wealth. Behind every success story is a set of circumstances that went right. Behind every empire is an army of lower- and middle-class workers just doing what they must to survive.

I saw first-hand the elitism and the self-righteousness of the likes of Betsy DeVos. I thought for a time that I should want to become her. But at some point I stopped believing in the things I couldn’t see. And what I see now is an administration that’s operating much like Amway did — they profess to serve God, to want the country to prosper. But the God they serve is money, and the prosperity is not to be shared. I see it all the time in the comments section of online articles, that all-too-familiar dichotomous mindset. It is us versus them, conservative versus liberal, hard worker versus freeloader, white versus black/brown/yellow, American versus illegal, Christian versus faithless, male versus feminazi, straight versus queer. Differences are shunned. Much of the population is othered. And the country has become one giant pyramid scheme that promises wealth to all who follow protocol but delivers it to only those at the top.

As for me, I’ve had a hard time finding my place in this world. After finishing graduate school in 2015, I had a difficult time finding a job that paid enough to sustain me and subsequently fell into a deep depression.

I went back to the Midwest to visit my family in the summer of 2016, shortly before the election. By that point, the precarious state of my mental health was known, as were my political and religious leanings. One evening my father sat me down to talk. He was suspicious of the doctors I’d been seeing, the bipolar medication I’d now been on for months. He suggested I take vitamins and rethink my position on Jesus.

I walked out.

It was clear to me from that conversation that my father simply could not grasp the magnitude of my depression and that he viewed mental illness as a matter of choice. He believed a change in attitude and beliefs was all it would take to bring me happiness and success. I simply didn’t want it badly enough.

But facts count, regardless of the size of the dream. When things finally improved for me, it was due to a combination of hard work and luck. There is no one, not a soul, who succeeds on hard work alone. The Betsy DeVoses of this world want to keep wealth in the hands of those they feel deserve it. They argue that in this country anyone has the ability to succeed. But the more resources we pull from the poor, the more stubborn we are about paying them fairly, the worse their chances of ever being able to make it on their own.

And I, for one, dream of a better world than that.

By Abby Norwood

Abby Norwood received her MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon State University in 2015. Her fiction can be found in Midwestern Gothic, Sou'wester and Conte, among others, and she is currently adapting one of her short stories for the screen.

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