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Book Review: Lost and Found: One Woman’s Story of Losing Her Money and Finding Her Life by Geneen Roth

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Having devoted a good portion of her literary life to demonstrating that eating disorders had little to do with food and everything to do with emotional problems, bestselling self-help guru Geneen Roth turns her attention to financial disorders in Lost and Found: One Woman’s Story of Losing Her Money and Finding Her Life, and perhaps unsurprisingly discovers that they are simply eating disorders in disguise. Food, money, drugs, whatever — they are all simply manifestations, symptoms of deeper emotional problems. The new book now available in paperback from Plume is the story of how she came to that awakening.

It all began one morning when, pondering what she might like for lunch, the phone rang. It was a friend with some news. Bernie Madoff, in whose fund she and her husband had invested their life savings, had been running a sophisticated Ponzi scheme and was on his way to jail, and she along with a gaggle of other well-off dupes, were no longer well-off, they were now merely dupes. Devastated is perhaps the best word to describe her feelings and the feelings of those of her many friends who were also invested with Madoff. Yet despite the depth of her new monetary problems, she found herself having difficulties changing her freewheeling spending habits.

She had always had problems with food, cycling between binge eating and crash diet and exercise; turns out she had also been something of a compulsive shopper. Just as she hadn’t been able to control herself when she set her mind on a quart of ice cream, she was unable to control herself when she saw a new sweater or a pair of slacks she just had to have. It’s one thing to spend carelessly when you have a million or so invested at six percent, it is quite another when the million or so has gone to buy some con man a fancy Manhattan apartment and a yacht. So a few days later when she finds herself ready to buy some new eyeglass frames that she really doesn’t need at a price tag of one thousand dollars, she ultimately realizes that there may be something wrong with the way she’s been dealing with financial matters all her life.

Although Roth is adamant that she is not a “lemonade out of lemon” type of person, this is clearly a book that belies her protestations. She loses all her money, and learns all sorts of valuable lessons. Money doesn’t make you happy. Use it wisely while you have it, because better you use it for what you value than you lose it as eventually you must. Compulsive shopping is the equivalent of binge eating. Even after the loss of their fortunes, she and her friends are still better off than a large majority of others around the world. Before the arrest of Madoff (BM as she refers to him, not quite lovingly), there was never enough money: “Getting and spending,” the poet tells us, “we lay waste our powers.”

After Madoff: at the beginning of December 2008 Roth and her husband “had more money than most people in the world, and I didn’t believe we had enough. On December12, we had nothing, and after the first few days of feeling devastated, I knew what enough was because, for the first time in my life, I had it.”

Now while some might argue with some of her conclusions, as for example, her idea that money is better used, albeit for good purposes, than put aside for some future that may never come. Some may be reminded of grasshoppers and ants, but when it comes right down to it, she doesn’t really advocate using one’s money haphazardly. What she is really pushing for is taking responsibility for finances. Instead of parking your money with some expert with systems you can’t understand, make sure you know what you are doing and your investments and expenditures are representative of your values. Still, in a financial climate as complicated as today’s real understanding may be a bit much to ask from non-professionals.

Despite Roth’s avowed distaste for optimists, they “get on my nerves,” she says, Lost and Found seems to me another example of what has become known as Ronald Reagan’s favorite jokes. One child, a pessimist, is given a room full of toys. He is miserable for fear that they will break. A second child, the optimist, is given a room filled with horse manure. Immediately he begins to happily to dig. “What are you doing,” he’s asked? “There must be a pony.” Lost and Found is Geneen Roth’s pony.

About Jack Goodstein