My thoughts upon reading Cheerful Money by Tad Friend

This book was recommended to me several summers ago. I’ll discuss below while I’m only getting around to writing about it now. Anyway, this book is a memoir by Tad Friend (a writer for the New Yorker) about his childhood growing up in a WASP family, anecdotes about various family members, and how he came to terms as an adult with being a WASP. 

I thought I might possibly identify with this book coming from a WASPy family myself. My immediate family certainly wasn’t rich, but I grew up visiting my mom’s parents in Hanover, New Hampshire (home of Dartmouth college where my granddad went) and we spent winters in Tuckerstown, Bermuda (a home which had a walled and sunken garden. There’s a paragraph in the book in which Tad states he was embarrassed to tell an acquaintance that his family’s home in the Hamptons had a walled garden.) My mom had a pretty WASP childhood complete with exposure to drunken acquaintances of her parents as a kid, parents who were frequently away, and more “fun” stuff like trips to Barbados and Jamaica, tennis lessons, ski trips, etc. It should also be noted that we’re Mayflower descendants on my Grandma’s side. So I thought perhaps I could identify with Tad’s tale of being white, privileged and having wacky relatives.

Instead I found the book to be so terribly boring and self indulgent that I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for nearly a year. I picked it up again only because I hate to leave a book unfinished no matter how terrible it is. I wouldn’t say the book is flat out terrible. The man knows how to string sentences together and there are some amusing vignettes about various family members. A lot of it is hard to follow though as apparently WASPs have a mess of relatives and are fond of silly nicknames (things I managed to miss out on growing up) and it’s hard to tell who is who.

This entire story is also the epitome of a mundane tragedy. Most of his anecdotes are about incredibly boring situations like playing tennis, eating dinner with his family and over analyzing these situations to try to point out how they’re unique to WASPS. I can sort of see his point about white, upper class WASPs being emotionally repressed and feelings being hurt while trying to maintain social standing. But is any of that really so traumatic that it’s necessary to spend $60,000 on psychoanalysis to cope with that? He mentions that in his book and the link I added is to a book review which references that part. 

Anyone has any right to spend their money however they wish. And anyone else has the right to privately (or semi-publicly on their blog) judge them for their choices. To me throwing that much money away on what’s essentially a psuedoscience* reeks of someone who’s never had to deal with any financial struggle, never had to truly work to make ends meet, and had everything handed to them, hence just throwing a ton of money away to lay on a couch to look at inkblots and discuss how mommy didn’t hug them enough and that’s why they’re bad in bed as adults. There are portions of the book in which Tad discusses how he’s apparently an inadequate lover because he’s so emotionally repressed.

*I don’t meant to sound like Tom Cruise here. I certainly believe in psychology, psychiatry and recognize that Freud, Jung, et al made legitimate contributions to those fields. A lot of ideas put forth in psychoanalysis seems bizarre and sexist (e.g. penis envy) however and I have not heard of anyone recommending it for treating actual mental illness.

I’m saying all this as someone who has been diagnosed with clinical depression and has family members who have dealt with the same thing. There’s a huge difference between clinical depression and the feeling of “wah, wah, I don’t know what to do with my life, but at least I have plenty of money to fund it!” and Tad Friend comes across as having the latter. 

I’m also curious as to this. Is Tad Friend so narrow in his worldview that he thinks these problems are restricted only to rich, upper class whites? Did it ever occur to him that maybe people who grew up in poor, single parent, or even traditional middle class families also had distant parents but perhaps for the reason that their parents were working rather than pursuing hobbies? What about crazy relatives? Doesn’t everyone regardless of race or socioeconomic standing have a wacko in the family tree? In his book he mentions hardly ever socializing with non-WASPs as a kid, but surely he has met people from different backgrounds as an adult. 

The only conclusion I drew from this book is that he’s an empty, vapid man who’s searching for some sort of meaning in his life. Except his life is so dull he’s left searching for meaning in the most trivial of events. Perhaps that’s what we all do to some extent, but there’s no reason to write a pointless book about it (which honestly seems like a 300 page sneak brag. Refer back to the part about the walled garden, which is only one of random anecdotes that scream “Hey look at me, I’m rich but pretending not to be!”). But hey, someone published his book, so good for him!

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