Friday, July 21, 2006

Not Worth the Investment

Liz Perle, Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash (Henry Holt and Company, 2006).

In the prologue to Money, A Memoir, Liz Perle states that she hopes the book “will encourage women to take a look at their own complicated feelings about money and what money means to them” and thereby “move closer to liberating ourselves from the fears and fantasies that keep us from asking to be paid what a job is worth, or from saving for our retirement, or that leave us mired in intractable debt.” She explains her decision to write a memoir on this topic rather than a self-help book in these terms:

Because for me, there’s no better way to examine life’s troublesome questions than through the show-and-tell of others’ experiences. Because all the theory and how-to books either scared me, or shamed me, or, to be honest, put me to sleep. Because I’m not the kind of person who has ever had a lasting transformation from a self-help book.

Perle’s Money is indeed a memoir but it's also thoroughly laced with self-help style analysis. The memoir part of it is often compelling. But the analysis, for the most part a crude amalgam of 1980s feminism (of the Carol Gilligan In a Different Voice variety) and biological determinism, undercuts the whole book.

Let me offer up several excerpts to illustrate my point:

- “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 psychotherapist […] 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.” (pp. 25-26)

- “Brizendine pointed out that three hundred million years of brain development informs my Inner Stewardess and her drive to mollify. She reminded me that women are hard-wired for behaviours that are affiliative.” (p. 73)

- “Thus a huge part of the Mommy Wars lies not only in the conflict of roles, identities, even ways of valuing ourselves, but in an intractable standoff between two biological imperatives: the need to love and reproduce and the need to have an income.” (p. 90)

- “There’s another distinctly female force at work that affects our salaries. It goes back to our hardwiring. Since it is in the nature of women to survive by keeping relationships and networks in working, mutually supportive order, behaviours that might involve pitting one person against another—even in the name of making more money—are not going to feel right or comfortable.” (109)

Perle acknowledges early on that such statements are rife with generalizations about sex and gender, but proceeds blithely on in this vein regardless: “These may be gross generalizations, but that doesn’t make them any less true.” (p. 31) With this rhetorical move, Perle renders her book part of the problem rather than part of the solution. For it seems to me that much of the trouble that women experience in relation to money is linked to precisely these sorts of generalizations—whether it’s parents, spouses, bosses, or women themselves buying into them. Thus it strikes me as both ironic and futile to attempt to use such generalizations to illuminate the problem. Women’s relationship with money is a complex subject which demands a much more complex analysis than this.

Perle’s book isn’t all bad. As I said, I found her own financial story quite compelling and this narrative kept me reading to the end. Her moment of epiphany in the midst of negotiating a child-support agreement resonated with me:

Two things were clear: I needed money. Absolutely. But what I definitely could no longer afford was an indirect, somewhat coy, and extremely emotional relationship with money. It was time to separate what a dollar could buy emotionally from what it purchased at the grocery store. There were emotional needs and material ones, and I wasn’t going to be able to distinguish between them if I didn’t face the fact that I could no longer afford to play the “Oh, I don’t talk about money” game or pretend that money wasn’t important to me. I was going to have to own up to my material desires and make some peace with them.

Linked to that final point, there are some very interesting insights threaded through the book about the tendency of many in modern American society to experience want as need.

Clearly Perle could have written a much smarter book about women and money and I wish that she had done so instead of reverting with such frequency to assertions about men's and women’s hardwiring. Rather than thinking more deeply about my own fraught relationship with money when I closed the book, I congratulated myself on having made the sound financial decision to borrow this one from the library rather than buying a copy to keep.


litlove said...

Hmmm, I can see what you mean. In our household I'm far better at dealing with the finances than my husband as he is the one with the emotional relationship to money. He hoardes it, whereas I see it simply as a resource than requires management. It is a shame the book doesn't quite hit the nail on the head as it could be a fascinating topic in the right hands.

sassymonkey said...

Well I'm glad I opted to be put on the hold list at the library for this one rather than buy it. I'll try to gloss over the hardwiring parts.

Have you read Balancing Act? I found it to be a decent woman-focused personal finance book with lots of personal experience in it. Plus it's Canadian. But I may have been influenced to like it because it's one of the few books that didn't tell me that I *NEED* to buy a house.