it comes to living large on pilfered cash, Martin Frankel -- who is accused of making off
with $335 million -- deserves all the attention he has been getting. Here was a guy nervy
enough to make a to-do list on which item one was launder money. A guy who secured the use
of the Vatican's bank account for his financial chicanery. An essentially geeky guy, by
all accounts, whose tastes in spending ran to satellite dishes, computer terminals,
bondage videos and bodacious female "retainers." (Yeah, baby!) Yet Frankel's
saga of economic malfeasance hasn't held my attention the way the saga of Leonard and
Elfreda Massie did.
Now the Massies were no Martin Frankels. They were debtors, not swindlers. Their tastes
were bourgeois. But like Frankel, they, too were creatures of this economic moment:
outsize spendthrifts who hid in plain sight amid the countless other cases of what the
economist Robert H. Frank calls "luxury fever."
Working as public-school administrators (Elfreda Massie was the leading candidate for
superintendent of schools in affluent Montgomery County, Md.), the couple earned a total
of $180,000 a year and lived in a $350,000 home. Alas, the Massies had 24 credit cards,
and they liked to use them. When they finally filed for bankruptcy, they were more than
$800,000 in the red, with $10 in cash and no savings. Of the couple's chronic
overspending, Elfreda Massie said, "In hindsight, it seems like a poor
I first read about the Massies just after looking over my own latest credit-card bill
-- and a sobering little document it was. Just how many natural-fiber bedsheets did I
really have to own, anyway? And what about those weeks of fines on a video we'd rented but
never watched? The Massies' spending behavior was remote from mine, but not alien. They
embodied all the complacency that comes of living among the stock-owning, S.U.V.-driving
classes. I imagined them chatting with their neighbors -- Hey, how was Aruba? -- tossing
collection notices into a bottom drawer, perhaps figuring that there was always the escape
hatch of bankruptcy.
And the Massies' story is only one among many. Just as we are seeing a proliferation of
stories about economic envy, so too are we seeing a proliferation of stories like theirs
that pique the delicious theme of economic Schadenfreude. Reporting about them
almost constitutes a genre unto itself -- a kind of pornography of debt in which "the
urge to splurge," as U.S. News puts it, is explored in all its lascivious and
In a way, there is nothing surprising about the appetite for such accounts. Personal
bankruptcies have doubled over the last decade, to about 1.4 million annually, according
to the most recent figures. (To help stem this tide, Congress has recently taken up
legislation to make it harder for people to declare bankruptcy -- a control that was
eagerly advocated by the credit industry.) The average American household has 11 credit
cards and carries $7,000 in debt on them. Fewer than half of all cardholders pay their
bills in full each month. And on and on. Naturally a nation of debtors wants to read how
other people, doing what the rest of us do only more so, finally go off the rails.
True, the fascination with fortunes seized and squandered is not new. "In this
republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life," Nathaniel
Hawthorne wrote, "somebody is always at the drowning-point." But at a Gold Rush
moment like this one, when new riches seem easy to procure yet hard to delineate,
curiosity about other people's money becomes simply irresistible. And debt itself takes on
an airy-fairy aspect: like this strange new wealth that so few of us understand, it exists
only on paper -- at least till the credit agents start calling.
Paradoxically, the many articles about debt (often unconvincingly packaged as helpful
service pieces) end up confirming our own profligacy. Sure we just ordered $250 worth of
gourmet kitchenware, but hey, at least it wasn't $15,000 in "knickknacks and
household furnishings from places like the Christmas Tree Shop," the particular
indulgence of a credit-card debtor recently featured in The Boston Globe.
The best debt porn relies on a first-person voice -- Credit Cards Ruined My Life"
(Teen magazine) or "Confessions of a Credit Card Queen" (Essence) -- and a
familiar narrative arc: temptation leads to excess leads to a downward spiral of spending,
evoked for our disapproving pleasure. Then -- wham -- rock bottom: she breaks down while
forging a credit-card application; he realizes he has never opened half his purchases. The
language of addiction and recovery kicks in: they must acknowledge they have a problem,
then submit to counseling, prayer and support groups. Reform, however, does not mean
abstinence -- this is the 90's -- but instead higher-level consumption. To the
self-professed credit-card queen in Essence, the worst thing about her habit was
sacrificing "long-term financial goals." "I had become so passive about my
finances that I believed things like owning a home, buying a new car and taking fancy
vacations were dreams I'd never fulfill. Silly me."
Ultimately, credit confessionals give us a way of working through our fears of a
financial crash, which, in the current economy, are always present, often repressed.
Credit-card bingers are not a new phenomenon, but the way their fevered spending seems to
mirror the economy as a whole is. Stories of this genre --parables of overconfident
overspending, comeuppance and a happy righting of the debtor's course -- serve as
metaphors for our overall financial health that are bracing but not truly disturbing. They
offer us an occasion to worry about financial stability without worrying about financial
inequality. They lend middle- and upper-middle-class consumers a smug sense of maturity
and responsibility. They don't tax our powers of empathy very much. They are the hard-luck
stories of the century's end, and they really aren't so hard at all.
"Forgiving Debt: How To"
1. We came to believe we were powerless over debt -- that our lives had become
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of ourwrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure
them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we
understood Him praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this
message to compulsive debtors, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Copyright 1999, The New York Times Magazine