“We didn’t see ourselves as wealthy.” “It was all completely mysterious to me.” “We didn’t know we were rich.” “I actually believed I was somewhat poor.” “I found out I was wealthy when I was twenty-one.” “I grew up not knowing that my family was rich or that I too would be rich one day.” “My parents behaved as if we didn’t have money.” “All we ever heard was how much we did not have.”
— Interviews from The Legacy of Inherited Wealth1

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While attempting to stir up a few memories for this column, I wrote this line: “When I was a kid, I didn’t know I was rich.”

In the peanut gallery of my brain, I imagine someone shouting derisively, “Oh yeah? Well I sure as hell knew I was poor!” Cue uproarious laughter as I slink offstage.

What is this autobiographical trope of childhood “not knowing” among the hidden rich? Could it really be true? Did I grow up in a snow globe? Well, yes, insofar as I grew up in a small upper-middle-class enclave. It was only in college that it hit me I was richer than my friends and really only when I got my inheritance that I felt a gulf open up between me and practically everyone I knew. The doubters get exasperated with me for this denial. I had to have known. I stutter explanations, reach for copies of Piaget, or better yet, a French phenomenologist.

“What a lot of proper nouns come to wound, rag and break the anonymous child of solitude!” — Gaston Bachelard.

Yes, yes! How could I have known? I lived in the land before language. I was a primordial child. Yeah, that’s it. How does a child come to “know” anything? Define “know.” Define “rich.”

Here’s Whitman:

“A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands”2

See? A child doesn’t know what grass is, let alone “richness.”

Bachelard again:

“When all alone and making mud-cakes, the little child knows nothing of corn futures.”

In truth, childhood innocence was not on my mind when I typed, “I didn’t know I was rich.” I was trying to convey a distinct “before” and “after” feeling about the inheritance itself. Before it, I was just a person. Afterwards, I was a “rich kid,” a “trust fund baby.” An inheritance makes you a permanent child to the casual, judging outsider. So “I didn’t know I was rich” also means, “There was a time when I was not self-conscious about having money.”

“I didn’t know I was rich” has operated as an algorithm, commanding my brain not to remember. Lift it, and memories of awareness of “richness” start to come back: A tell-the-class first-grade homework assignment on “What does your father do?” A memory of a grim middle-aged man telling me to get off the hood of my mom’s Mercedes. I can still hear myself protesting in a small voice, “It’s our car” before sliding down. A fourth-grade teacher yelling at a classmate in school for making fun of a boy because his father was a truck driver. The outraged teacher chastised with her own form of snobbery, “His mother has a Ph.D.!!” A visiting school friend who constantly referred to my family’s money, perhaps instructed in the language of class by her own wealthy parents. A factory worker at my dad’s company who wouldn’t shake his hand like the other guys. The day my nanny left to get remarried when I was 6.

Beyond the workings of memory, beyond the facts of plentitude and individual psychology, I think the claim “I didn’t know I was rich” is a shorthand way to describe collective beliefs about money passed down from generation to generation. Forthwith, two recurring themes:

Reason No. 1 for claiming “I didn’t know I was rich”:

Inheritor parents try to inoculate their children against the disease of “affluenza”3 by concealing their wealth until the kids come of age.

Affluenza is the atrophy of life skills that results from never having your will opposed. If your net worth is north of $50 million, “no” refers only to a form of masked classical Japanese drama. Great wealth has a tendency to act on emotional intelligence the same way several months in orbit acts on bone density and muscle tone. The deterioration of qualities like patience or the ability to compromise often goes unnoticed. You may devote much time to exercise and physical stamina, but when your lower lip starts to tremble upon being informed that the restaurant is out of orange roughy, it’s time to seek treatment.

Witnessing a serious affluenza event is traumatizing: ask any flight attendant. It’s no wonder that parents try to deny or hide their wealth to protect the kids. Unfortunately, it often backfires. Instead of making money a non-issue, it becomes an icky subtext. The kids can tell that something at the core of their family life is a secret. This is good if you want your child to grow up to be some kind of artist or alcoholic, but otherwise, tread carefully. When you insist on driving 20 miles out of your way to a Dollar Store to buy rope for your 19th-century colonial schooner, it will not instruct your son or daughter in thrift. It will tell them you don’t like yourself.

Many hidden rich parents will say so be it, we can live with that. They fear another, more dreadful presentation of affluenza, depression. For those who have all roads available, there can be no fantasy about the road not taken—it was our own damn fault. At crucial junctures in life we tell ourselves, “I’m not turning this down because I’m afraid, it’s just that someone else could use that (job) (fellowship) (admission slot) (sperm) more than me.”

Amid this drama of the (monetarily) gifted child, we breast-beat at the altar of the Protestant work ethic,4 the church of you-are-what-you-do, and proclaim ourselves unworthy, incapable, incompetent. I’ve cleaned toilets to feel better about myself, and I am not alone. Menial labor does something for us. A stern spiritual practice can be excellent too. To those so inclined, an inheritance can cue up the abstinent flip-side to entitlement.

Reason No. 2 for claiming “I didn’t know I was rich”:

I swear to god, I thought everyone lived in a mansion with a groundskeeper’s cottage.

I’m kinda swayed by this argument. I mean, how would you know if you’d only seen people like you. Actually, the “I never had anything to compare it to” claim has venerable antecedent in the most famous “I didn’t know I was rich” legend of all time. Twenty-five hundred years ago, a coddled 29-year-old prince sneaks out of his family’s lavish compound for the first time. On seeing a strange creature hobbling by the side of the road, he asks his driver, “What is that? What’s going on?” The driver informs him that he shouldn’t worry, that was just an old person. Later the young prince talks about this with his dad, the king. Dad downplays it. The next time the prince goes out he sees a sick person, and then a dead person, and finally a poor person. He returns home and is like, “Why didn’t you tell me, Dad?!” He leaves all his monogrammed “SG” towels on the bed, along with the fancy notepaper reading “From the desk of Siddhartha Gautama.” He gives it all up to be the frickin’ Buddha. That’s right, the original rich kid, the mf-ing Buddha!

Can I still claim with a straight face that I didn’t know what it was like to be rich as a kid? It would be more accurate now for me to say I don’t yet remember what it was like to be rich as a kid, but I’m working on it. It’s like trying to taste orange juice right after brushing your teeth. Gotta stop using that Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God brand toothpaste.

It’s amazing how hard it is to walk away from the “poor little rich kid” scenario. Let others sneer and play air-violins. Hey, poor little rich kids? I love you guys.

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1 Edited by Katherine Gibson, Barbara Blouin, and Margaret Kiersted, 1995.

2 The poem continues, “You’re kidding, right? You’re asking me what grass is. Are you messing with me? Are you seriously asking what grass is or are you messing with me. You’re serious.”

3 A coinage referring not only o financial privilege but also to First World consumerism and waste. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affluenza

4 Father was raised in a boxcar. Now he owns Massachusetts. That’s a tough act to follow. See Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood and Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. In Sirk, it’s all about atoning for youthful rich-boy antics; in PTA, it’s just about getting the hell away from Daniel Day Lewis.