I knew this wouldn’t be the easiest story. It’s not like you can just send out a mass email saying "I want to talk with rich people on national radio about the very thing that they don’t want to talk about with anyone."
But, that’s essentially what I did. I emailed my friends asking if they had ever had the experience of discovering that someone they knew was wealthy after already knowing them a good while. (For the purposes of this story, I defined wealthy as "never needing to work again if you don’t want to.") I explained that I'd had that experience and wondered, "How did I miss this? It seems like a pretty fundamental fact about that person."
I got a message back saying, “Sean, we used to know each other. I might be able to be of some service on your story. My contact info is below. Adam Blank.” Adam went to school with a close friend of mine. We’d crossed paths a few times almost twenty years ago. At first, I didn’t even know why he was writing to me. Turns out he’d inherited millions of dollars from his grandfather and his father. On the phone, he described himself as a “high net-worth individual.” He suggested we do the interview at his house.
Adam lives in Brooklyn. I live in Brooklyn. I don’t know any other people who live in Brooklyn, the way Adam does. As soon as I walked through his front door I started laughing.
"Conspicuous, is it not?" he said.
"It" is a three-story house with floor to ceiling windows looking out on a back deck and backyard. "It" has a garage. A garage. In Brooklyn. In most other respects, though, Adam is a lot like me. He had crappy jobs as a kid, worked in social services after college, and then in the film industry. In the league of the "stealthy wealthy," he’s about as stealthy as they come.
"You didn’t know I was wealthy because you never came to my house," he told me, in his home office, which has a door. "I don’t dress wealthy. If I had wealthy friends, you probably wouldn’t know me. My peer set is more like you, right? Writers, designers. So I can’t go, ‘Oh! Sean! Whaddaya think about private equity investing? How does it make you feel to have the money that you have?' Because it mirrors exactly how I feel about the money that I have."
As a result, he doesn’t tend to talk about his money overmuch. But it comes up. He told me about a casual conversation he had, with a casual acquaintance, years back.
"We were talking about our kids," said Adam. "And I said what schools they went to and he goes, ‘I don’t mean to be indelicate…’ basically saying ‘I’m going to be indelicate.’ ‘How in the hell do you afford sending your kids to school like that? You’ve got three of them.’ Which indicates a lot of things: he didn’t know that I had money, just based on our casual relationship. And then I had to deal with identity issues for this guy, who was, like, wanting something out of that."
In my adventures with the stealthy wealthy, I noticed a few commonalities among the folks I interviewed. For instance, none of them seemed to know the money was coming to them until it did, and all of them were thrown by it, to one degree or another. Probably the most unsettled among them was Burke Stansbury. He’s a political activist living in Seattle with his wife and son. He remembers the day his dad handed him a four-page printout of his investments, and trust fund, etc.
"I laughed," Burke told me, "More than anything it struck me as totally ridiculous that I would have that kind of money. The absurdity of why I, of all people, should have a million dollars coming to me, it struck me. Like I had never done anything to deserve that money."
Burke was 19 years old at the time. Not long after The Day of the Ledger, he went traveling in Mexico. Soon, he came to the belief that people are poor in the world because other people are rich.
"And because I had just realized that I was a millionaire," he said, "I saw myself on the wrong of that divide. That was a moment where I started to enter into pretty deep depression… because of feelings of shame and guilt around who I was, and my background."
"There’s very little resources for people to go and talk," said Jamie Traeger-Muney with Wealth Legacy Group. She describes herself as a coach and consultant for the wealthy, who draws on her background as a psychologist.
"You know if you say to someone, ‘Wow I just found out that I have a ten-million dollar trust fund and I’m really overwhelmed by it,'" she said, “That isn’t usually met with a lot of sympathy. People are usually like ‘Waaah-waah, I wish I was in your position."
That’s what you were thinking right? Me too.
"I know it’s a lot of fun sometimes to bash the wealthy," Traeger-Muney said. "But it’s sort of a lose-lose proposition. Because people go underground. They don’t use their resources in positive ways and… one of the most important things they want to do is be part of something larger than themselves, make a positive difference in the world. And when they’re caught up with the shame in the guilt and the hiding, it doesn’t allow them to move as freely and to use those resources to benefit the world in the ways they’d like to."
Burke Stansbury was lucky. He found a group called Resource Generation, which mainly helps young, wealthy people leverage their money toward the social causes they care about. He met other inheritors who were interested in issues of economic justice and wealth disparity. As a side benefit, Burke was able to take part in group-discussions about issues that his non-wealthy friends and co-workers would never be able to relate to. These days he’s a lot more comfortable talking openly about his financial situation.
"I call it my rich kids unpack their [expletive] group," said Rachel Schragis, another member of Resource Generation. "And I say to people ‘You are so glad that I have rich kids unpack their [expletive] group. ‘Cause otherwise I might wanna unpack it on you. And that’s not appropriate.'"
Rachel’s a graduate student, studying art and also teaching it in New York Public Schools. She also does "cross-class activist work" and designed a poster that became a totem of the Occupy movement. Artists who come from money aren’t rare birds. What sets Rachel apart is that she weighs her complicated feelings about her class privilege in the work itself.
"It’s okay to have a creative life that takes up a lot of my time,” she told me in her studio, "But if I’m going to do that, I have an obligation to be transparent about the economic realities that make that possible."
Still, Rachael said there are still times when it’s not easy to join a basic conversation – especially when people are commiserating, as people do, about not having enough money.
"At different points in my life," she said, "I would play along… and be like ‘oh I’m broke.’ And realized oh, that’s a game. When I mean I’m broke, I mean there’s no more in my checking account and I just have to transfer some more. That’s not what other people mean! They mean broke! And so sometimes you just have to like… not talk. Right? Like not say anything."