Inside the Golden Ghetto

It's easy to imagine Jessie O'Neill earlier in her life like "one of the young ladies moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers" at the fabulous parties of rich Jay Gatsby, "when the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby's house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn." O'Neill was born to wealth and shaped by its ways and means. She is a child of the '50s and '60s, "an era," in her words, "when martinis and Valium were a way of life among the affluent."By then, the namesake of F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional The Great Gatsby was not only an emblem of the 1920s ("when gin was the national drink") but already a literary parable of the potential hollowness and destructiveness of the American dream. But by the 1950s, the country was living it fully. "The ideological linkage between profits and human purpose solidified and became an increasingly and unapologetically conscious belief system," O'Neill notes.In 1953, the myth was set in patriotic stone with the maxim, "What's good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa," delivered by then-GM president and soon-to-be defense secretary Charles Erwin Wilson to Dwight Eisenhower.Wilson was O'Neill's grandfather. She knows the territory. Raised as an insider of what she calls the "golden ghetto," her life has been a revealing journey marked by a dysfunctional family, surrogate parents, alcohol and drugs, recovery and re-evaluation.Yes, she reports, there's trouble in paradise. With her book, The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, O'Neill hopes to help crack the myth of the American dream. Now a psychotherapist specializing in what she terms "affluenza," O'Neill is a partner in the Acacia Clinic in Wauwatosa and lives in River Hills.O'Neill's insights are exciting and timely. They're also controversial. And they're not just aimed at the rich. Affluenza, O'Neill argues, affects people of all economic levels. The "golden ghetto," she contends, is defined not only by money, but by "the conviction that money can, does and should guarantee happiness."O'Neill goes further. She builds a case that our whole culture suffers from the psychological dysfunctions of affluenza. The traits include workaholism or "addiction to chaos," low self-esteem, loss of future motivation, the inability to delay gratification or to tolerate frustration, and a false sense of entitlement."The perpetuation of the American dream hurts all of us, regardless of our socio-economic level," O'Neill writes.Warnings about wealth and its pursuit are hardly new. The apostles Luke and Matthew cautioned that "you cannot serve God and mammon," and, of course, there are the Commandments. But Solomon cut to the heart of it: "So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its owners."The Golden Ghetto is new because it's apparently the first look at the American subculture of wealth and its wannabes from the inside through the lens of psychology. While Fitzgerald and countless other American writers have with keen insight portrayed the dynamics of wealth, O'Neill has charted out the schematics. But the book is no academic text (O'Neill prefers to call it a self-help book) and for good reading O'Neill's social commentary rivals her social psychology."The malaise that currently grips our country comes not from the fact that we don't have enough wealth," O'Neill writes, "but from the terrifying knowledge that has begun to enter our consciousness that we have based our entire lives, our entire culture and way of being on the wrong premise." When former President Jimmy Carter decided to talk about our "national malaise," it was probably his political downfall. People wanted to hear that it was "morning in America." That, some contend, is known as denial. "No, people don't want to hear about malaise," O'Neill said. "But I believe the timing is very good for the message that money is not the key to happiness. We're working as hard as we can work, we're running as fast as we can run and we're starting to see that the bottom is dropping out." In that view, the enormous amount of time and energy needed to maintain our denial continues to grow. It's getting more difficult.Something is getting ready to happen. Psychologist Rollo May stressed that problems are predictive, that social neurosis is prophetic. "The problems of a period are the existential crises of what can be, but hasn't yet been resolved... if there were not some new possibility, there would be no crises," the late May wrote in his 1969 Love and Will. O'Neill agrees."The signposts are our children." And what she found in researching psychological problems in children of both affluence and poverty defies common assumptions."They grow up with the same personality traits," O'Neill said. Both rich and poor dysfunctional children show similar characteristics including an inability to delay gratification, an inability to tolerate frustration, loss of future motivation and low self-worth. The symptoms shared across class lines have another dimension. The middle class is where a more healthy distribution of personality traits can take place, O'Neill said, and with the increasing polarization of wealth, the middle class is shrinking."We're losing that healthy place. We're pushing our children into the extremes." O'Neill notes that already just 1 percent of the people in this country control 45 percent of the available wealth, about the same amount as controlled by the bottom 90 percent. Meanwhile, though per capita consumption in the U.S. is up 45 percent in the past 30 years, in the same period our quality of life as measured by an index of social health has decreased by about the same percentage. Furthermore, not only is the gap between haves and have-nots getting wider at the expense of the middle, The Golden Ghetto points out that the haves are getting tighter."Only 20 percent of rich people make charitable bequests. Households earning in excess of $100,000 a year give a lower percentage of their income (2.5 percent) than those who earn $10,000 a year or less (3.6 percent). In addition, estimates are that the lifetime giving of the more than 2,500 households in America with a net worth exceeding $100 million totals less than one-half of 1 percent of net worth." O'Neill calls that "constipation." It's making us sick."It is time to do a cultural intervention on our abuse of money. We must begin to make conscious choices about the disposition of our wealth before we no longer have the luxury of making any choice at all," O'Neill writes, addressing the affluent.But the problems of freeing up that money are complicated by the general public's resentment of the rich, O'Neill said, recalling a radio talk show. "I remember one woman called in and said, 'Who the hell do you think you are? You don't know what it's like to be poor.' 'That's very true,' I said, "And you don't know what it's like to be rich.' The problems of poverty are by far more demanding and more severe that the problems of the wealthy. However, we don't have to address one population to the exclusion of the other. There's enough good will, love and help to go around for all of us. All I'm saying is let's not ignore the problems of the wealthy. "If we want to save the homeless, feed the starving and put roofs over the heads of everyone in the country -- which we can very well afford to do if we can release that 45 percent of the wealth -- then we have to go to those people who hold that money. And it's very difficult to talk people into letting go of their wealth if we hate them," she said. In The Golden Ghetto, O'Neill analyzes the mistrust, resentments, dysfunctions and pathologies on both sides of the money line in an intelligent, frank and compassionate voice. As radical as her perspective might be seen by many, she stops short of such concepts as "ruling class" and "plutocracy." But hasn't the American dream come to mean rule by the rich? "I say 'yes' hesitantly only because part of me wishes it weren't true," O'Neill said. "I fear we are run by wealth in this country, if not [directly by those] having the wealth, then the desire for wealth. Again, it's that horrible focus on externals, versus what's going on inside... Part of the frenetic, compulsive, addictive quality of our increasingly manic focus on externals is reflected on TV."Does that mean that the suburban sprawl of the golden ghetto has so subtly and pervasively mutated that we are now all co-dependents of the plutocracy, watching each other shoot up in the pits of pop culture? It makes Gatsby's lawn parties seem almost wholesome.In 1925, Gatsby was a new kind of American hero. Unlike the two-dimensional heroes a la Horatio Alger mythology, not only did Gatsby's obsessive craving for the symbols of success overcome all obstacles, it overcame him. He was a wealth addict. His driving and conflicted sense of self-worth was what O'Neill would call "terminal uniqueness." It's another defining aspect of American affluenza.Does our whole culture, like the individual addict, need to bottom out? "Yes, I think we do," O'Neill said. "But the question is, can we bring the bottom up, so that we don't have to destroy our culture in order to figure out that it didn't work. As a culture, are we going to reach a spiritual bottom and say, 'Ok, here are the tools to get better,' or are we going to destroy ourselves?"I don't know. It is my hope and my prayer that we can bring the bottom up." As it happened in Fitzgerald's metaphor, Jay Gatsby never hit bottom. Before he was revealed to others as a fraud, he was killed -- by a cuckolded working-class man. Of Gatsby's demise, Fitzgerald had his narrator say: "I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream." But Gatsby's beginnings, like ours, reveal more than the final malaise because they foretell it. Here's how Fitzgerald sketched the formative character of young Gatsby:"His heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fantasies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing." Gatsby's fantastic conceits are no longer mere preludes to one false and destructive life. The promise has been spectacularly and perversely fulfilled.Today, the stories of our books, films, television and annual reports assume the values of a Gatsby as though they were normal, not novel. Our whole culture lives a reality of unreality and our whole world clings to the tip of a fairy's wing, a fairy that does not even exist. As O'Neill writes:"Many still secretly hope the formula is true and daydream about achieving total fulfillment 'when our ship comes in' or upon winning the lottery. Those like myself who have experienced much sorrow because of wealth, however, unequivocally know that the myth which equates money with happiness and fulfillment is an outright lie."O'Neill will be called a heretic by the priests and acolytes of wealth. Psychologists will welcome her book, but many might question her social commentary. Through a political lens, The Golden Ghetto is bound to spur criticism in all quarters -- liberal, libertarian, conservative and socialist.The fiercest dismissals are sure to come from the right, they of the so-called "values" camp. Ironically, O'Neill's affluenza prescriptions are entirely values-based, but her view of spirituality involves more than blood sacrifice at the alter of mammon. Even honest liberals might scoff at her emphasis on the spiritual. And for non-affluent readers of all stripes, the hardest thing to swallow will be O'Neill's discussion of the problems of the wealthy and "wealthism.""The rich," F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked to Ernest Hemingway, "are different from you and me." Yes," Hemingway replied, "They have more money." O'Neill is not a politician. She's a psychotherapist. "I don't believe that anybody can read this book and not come to some sympathy and some empathy for the problems of the wealthy [and] the problems of the culture," O'Neill said."I am very clear that this is my mission. And I am very clear that that's a risky place to be. I'm calling for people to let go of the American dream... and people don't like to let go." She's more pointed in her writing. "Not only do we refuse, we fight it with immense anger, determination and vehemence. It would amount to mutiny within our own homes and communities for many of us to begin to question the desirability of life in the golden ghetto."Jessie O'Neill, granddaughter of a U.S. defense secretary and inheritor of a General Motors fortune, is calling for mutiny.SIDEBAR ONEThe truth is, we who have so much can't afford to hide fearfully in our golden ghettos any longer. The wealthy control the majority of the earth's natural and financial resources, and we have made a mess of things. Greed and denial prevail over wise use and altruism. We shove our heads deeper and deeper into the sand with the hope that no one will see us, with the hope that someone else will clean up the mess we have made, with the desperate hope that if we look the other way long enough, things will get better. In reality, all the gold in the world can't buy us peace as long as we live separately from each other, from the world, and from our true selves. Money is powerful and transformational, but money has no intrinsic spiritual value. For money to have meaning, we have to control it, creating the context within which it becomes a spiritual entity. It will do what we demand of it, but we must be strong enough and focused enough to know what it is that we want it to do. Left to its own devices, it controls us. Our lives speed by in a flurry of financial caretaking, time-consuming "responsibilities" that allow no opportunities for listening to our hearts or the cries of those around us.The unprecedented affluence that followed World War II has lulled us as a nation into a false sense of entitlement much as it lulls an individual who inherits money. We somehow think that we not only deserve wealth, but that it is our right. We pout and sulk when it does not appear. One only need look back in history to realize what a preposterous and damaging assumption that is. What we have failed to do is to use our affluence for the benefit of the earth and humankind. As a culture, we have been on a mindless, selfish binge to see how much money we can individually accumulate. Material wealth became the earmark of success, the way we kept score; but one day when we weren't paying attention, we became addicted to it. If this much feels good, we told ourselves, then more would feel better.Somewhere many years ago, we lost ourselves in the process. Money was originally invented to barter for the essentials of survival. But then the money itself became the primary goal and the essentials became secondary. We have lost track of what money is for, and it is time to do a cultural intervention on our abuse of money. We must begin to make conscious choices about the disposition of our wealth before we no longer have the luxury of making any choices at all.Because there is currently such a vast chasm in our world between the haves and the have-nots, we have perhaps naively assumed that what is missing is more money -- that if only the poor became rich, then everything would sort itself out. What we have failed to realize is that we don't need more wealth; we need to use what we have differently. But before anyone is going to be willing to do that, we have to understand the nature of the beast. Hating and resenting the rich because they have more than you do is downright counterproductive in terms of eliciting change. No one and nothing changes through hatred. People change when they feel safe enough to look at the darkness within.If you must be angry, be angry with the dysfunctions of affluenza, not with the individuals, perhaps including yourself, who have been unthinkingly trapped in the illusion of the American dream. Make a decision to change individually and to use your resources - financial, intellectual and spiritual -- to make a difference within the cultural institutions that continue to perpetrate the lies about wealth and money.* Excerpted with permission from The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence by Jessie H. O'Neill, Hazelden Publishing. O'Neill solicits stories and commentary on the effects of wealth from people of all economic levels. Contact: Jessie H. O'Neill, M.A., 8940 Upper River Road, River Hills, WI 53217. E-mail: JessONeill@AOL.com

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