Emotional Investment

Trying to understand my father's get-rich-quick schemes.
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(Illustration: Gary Neill)

(Illustration: Gary Neill)

Several years ago I visited my father one afternoon to confront him on what I had long seen as terrific financial gambles. Decades earlier, when I was eight, my mother died, and, looking back, it seemed to me, that moment transformed my father, too: Afterward he changed jobs habitually, became a rabid Evangelical, and spent every dollar on speculative business deals. His retirement now loomed, and I felt obligated to rein him in.

I saw him as a fool for money wed to get-rich-quick schemes. He tried selling Amway, Herbalife, Shaklee, Bestline, and water purifiers. He once bought a case of no-run pantyhose and tried to cajole me into wearing them; they were sweater- thick polyester the color of Barbie skin. He bought non-existent land in California from a huckster. He invested in a company that built round houses. He got a broker’s license and gave financial seminars at local libraries to audiences of three and four. And long before the financial crash, he taught himself commodities and currency trading.

My father’s investment philosophy, I came to understand, mirrored the philosophy he held toward illness, and toward love: All were searches for the one thing that could change his family’s fate.

I asked him about his schemes (he called them opportunities). I worried about his retirement, yes, but I also worried about whether I’d have to support him, and if I even could. My father was not a blind fool falling haplessly into these ventures. He researched each extensively. He checked his sources. He learned, for example, why a round house was more energy efficient to build and maintain than a rectangular one. He could talk about global currency as if he worked on Wall Street. And yet he failed repeatedly.

Many of his dealings, I was shocked to learn that day, weren’t his doing at all. It was my mother who made him invest in Wedgwood so she could open a shop in our basement. My stepmother had wanted to sell the Amway and Shaklee herself, and he went along to encourage her. My father hadn’t seen these investments as business ventures; he’d seen them as the actions of a supportive husband—as another way to express love.

After a couple of hours, we began to talk about my mother. He told me about a book he’d once found; he couldn’t recall the title—something about “the cancer cure.” In it, a doctor wrote about his success curing cancer victims with coffee enemas and juices. This was the mid-1970s, when I was six or seven, and my mother was in her early 30s. Nutrition hadn’t yet become a multibillion-dollar mainstream industry—TV dinners in foil trays were the miracle cuisine of my youth—and the doctor’s ideas seemed revolutionary. As my father spoke, I suddenly remembered the enormous gray juicer in our kitchen; my father with celery lined up before him on the counter; my mother in bed hooked up to an oxygen tank. A trip to the Mayo Clinic. Dark brown bottles of supplements. A faith healer in Ohio. Hot water and lemon juice cleanses, and endless cards my brother and I made for her hospital stays. It wasn’t that I’d ever forgotten about my mother or the loss of her; it was that her five-year cancer battle had eclipsed my father, and all that he, too, had lost.

At the end of the cancer book, the author included a list of 25 people cured by his methods. My father confessed that he looked them up—all of them. Like a private investigator, he searched old phone books, called Information, spoke to as many survivors as he could. And each confirmed that the cancer had been cured. One Friday afternoon, while my dad played flag football with his co-workers, my mother died. He was then only halfway through the list.

My father’s investment philosophy, I came to understand, mirrored the philosophy he held toward illness, and toward love: All were searches for the one thing that could change his family’s fate. He wasn’t a man on a fool’s quest for gold. He was a man trying to save one wife and fulfill another. He’d invested in the Amways and the juicers of the world for love.

Toward the end of the afternoon, as we sat on a couch that used to be my mother’s and has since become mine, he squeezed my knee. “You know,” he said, “you only have to be right once.”

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