People write me about student debt

And some of them are talking about wanting to end their lives. They are not speaking from “weakness” or “stupidity.” They’re just tired. They feel done. “I’ve never had serious issues with suicidal ideation, but damnit, this is causing that for me,” one woman wrote – she ended up having trouble with her loans due to mounting health problems. Debt collectors are harassing her 81-year-old grandmother. Every time she applied for a forebearance, her paperwork was conveniently “lost,” she says. She suspects they wanted her to go into default early. Are we honestly going to be OK with it when it happens to more and more people?

Since my piece on student debt was reprinted by AlterNet, I’ve had all sorts of trolls showing up here, in the meantime. Here they are, distilled to their essence:

Pay the money, bitch!
It’s gone, baby, gone. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be willing to negotiate with the loan company for a fair amount, considering all of the money I have already sunk into my loans. If I’m in a position to negotiate, I will do so. Neither am I above asking for help with my loans. But most of the people close to me are also having financial troubles.

You’re a thief! You planned this! Got a fancy education then decided you didn’t have to pay the money back!
Ha ha. Ha ha ha.

Coward! You ran away to Russia!
I’m in Russia on a work visa. As a former USSR citizen and wife of a Russian citizen, I am entitled to residency – but in Moscow, that’s a prohibitively expensive process for me at the moment. In my husband’s hometown, it doesn’t make economic sense. I didn’t “run away” – though working abroad was ultimately a smart decision for someone with my skills and background. Many people in similar situations cannot say the same.

That’s what you get for being uppity and a part of the “me generation”
What about the generations that came before? Our collective values as such that people are considered “uppity” for wanting to get a good education. And they’re such that a good education comes attached with ridiculous costs. And they’re such that when you are 18-year-old, you are told that student loans are “a good way to build credit.”

Now responsible people like me will have to pay for your sins!
Responsible people have ended up bailing out Wall Street. At this point, we need to re-think the entire system of lending in this country. Not to mention re-thinking higher education and its costs. I could be quiet about my debt problems, or I could go public with the issue – but not as a means of going, “Hey guys! Take responsibility for my problem!”

Well, you just suck. As opposed to me. I mean, look at me! *hold on, let me dust off the halo for a second* Where was I? Ah, yes. The only thing your example proves is that some people in our society are bad apples. I worked hard all of my life – and will never be in the situation you’re in. I’m not a freeloader or a thief – and neither am I an entitled jackass who thinks that everything ought to be handed to me on a silver platter. That’s the difference between you and me. That’s why I matter. That’s why you don’t matter – aside from being an example of how not to live one’s life.
I had a guy tell me once that the only reason I *needed* student loans in the first place is because I was not smart enough to get into university “on merit.” Smart people can always score a full ride to a school of their choice, you see. Everyone else should not go to school – or have the good grace to be born rich. Of course, he and his family would never end up in my shoes. Except that years later, they did. When their eldest daughter got a rare illness and the insurance company screwed her. That was when their financial free-fall started. The man who said those hurtful words to me now works as a sales clerk – way past retirement age. His family home has been repo’ed. I’m not saying this because I want to gloat – what happened to them is a goddamn tragedy. And it goes to show. Under the current system, none of us are safe from harm.

Its your parents’ fault! They should have saved up for college!
College costs too much in the United States. Most normal families can’t afford it. It doesn’t seem like a problem at first – because of course something great ought to cost a lot! Right? It made sense to me as a kid. If we don’t think that people ought to have adequate access to health care, when it comes to education, we’re even worse. And we’ve completely devalued vocational schools and made apprenticeships obsolete, which compounds the problem.

They ought to strip you of your citizenship! You ought to have your child taken away! I hope the lenders DO drive you to suicide!
I’m including this as an example of how vicious ordinary people are to other ordinary people. Pitting us against each other is clever. It’s something that has always been done, throughout the ages, by those in power. Throw a few bones to the rabble. Let them fight each other for scraps. Sell them a convenient fairy tale about how they have every chance to become the next Bill Gates in the meantime – even though an entire economic system’s existence depends on a bunch of them being in poverty, while the rest cling desperately to middle-class status. It’s a fool-proof plan. Or is it?

First Addie Polk, Now the Rajarams

The thing about financial crises is that they destroy lives. If you think I’m exaggerating, look back at 1929. It wasn’t that long ago, especially when you think about it in terms of how young the United States of America is.

When I was living in Durham, NC, having graduated, unable to find a reasonably well-paying job, unable to make payments on my student loans (which are totally unregulated and predatory, mind you), I was facing an increased sense of desperation.

This was before the sub-prime crisis and before people were honestly and frankly talking about debt and its consequences. To me, being stuck in a position of not being able to pay my loans was shameful.

This was what I was taught to believe – if you don’t have money, you ought to be ashamed.

It didn’t matter one whit that my family was in a much better place financially when those loans were taken out, that we were secure enough that we thought they wouldn’t be too big a problem. It didn’t matter that several members of my family had recently become seriously ill, making financial constraints even bigger.

It didn’t even matter that universities in general do little to explain the lending practices of Sallie Mae – the high interest rates, the protection that Sallie Mae enjoys from the government, and even the way that Sallie Mae seems to encourage the idea of people going into default – and simply encourage you to sign those forms insisting that they’re part of “financial aid” (“aid” is a misleading word in this context).

You’re supposed to feel ashamed either way, and while some people cope with shame better than others, I am not one of those people.

So while I don’t know exactly how elderly Addie Polk felt when she shot herself in the chest, I think I have a pretty good idea. When you’re in a panic, suicide seems like the “honourable” way out, a way to say “I was brave, see? I wouldn’t accept being humiliated.” It’s a horrible feeling. It’s completely wrong, but I know where it comes from.

I don’t want to in any way imply that Karthik Rajaram, who killed his entire family before killing himself, should not be blamed for his actions. There isn’t any excuse for what he did. Yet we can also imagine his desperation, and his pain. Think about it this way: many people still consider going to therapy to be something one must be ashamed of as well. I have almost no doubt that Karthik Rajaram was one of those people. His letters indicate that he meditated on his situation for a long time. He needed help, and he couldn’t get it.

And hell, with the medical industry being the way it is, who can say that he could even afford it?

I was lucky; after graduating, I discovered that Duke had a cheap mental health clinic run by PhD students that I could attend (God bless that place). I was also lucky in the sense that I had good friends and a good man I could lean on. Besides major dental problems, ones I worked to alleviate at the UNC School of Dentistry (God bless that place as well), I was able-bodied and could work. My family helped me out in all the ways they could.

I’m not out of the woods, and I won’t be for a while, but I can tell you one thing: most people in my situation were not nearly as lucky as I have been. And furthermore, we have been trained, like dogs, to write off any difficulty, any crisis, any unfair and unjust situation onto the person suffering the most. To have even the flimsiest of safety nets for people amounts to “communism,” and “they don’t deserve it,” and “they don’t work hard enough.”

The supposed “taint” of financial failure is like the “taint” of rape – it wouldn’t have happened to you if you hadn’t worn that skirt/let the nice man help you with the groceries in the parking lot/pursued your dream of getting an education or having a home.

Is this the result of the Cold War? The strenuous practice of constantly defining ourselves against the rest of the world? Against “evil Russians”? Against the “silly French”? I don’t know. I can only guess.

Is irresponsibility to blame for our present financial woes? Sure it is. But it’s the blame that we share as a society. The federal government sees no problem with massive, overwhelming debt, so why should the American people?

The funny thing is, people may be shamed for falling onto hard times, but in the past, they have been equally shamed for not being able to keep up with the Joneses. The credit industry thrived on this. It takes a strong and level-headed person to resist their advances, especially as they pile up in the mail. And then again, your situation today may be very different from your situation five years from now. We plan for the future, but we don’t control it.

As the presidential candidates argue over the economy – my only hope is that things are going to CHANGE. I don’t think they’re going to change much if McCain is elected; considering the fact that while Obama views health care as a right (the costs of health care is one of the main reasons why I eagerly took a job abroad), and McCain simply does not and is open about saying so.

When you, like many Americans, suffer from an illness, or simply get too old – the lack of adequate healthcare will send you into a tailspin. Reading the accounts of the relatives of people who killed themselves over their loans, I often run into a familiar pattern: the person gets sick, the person is unable to keep up with payments as the result, the person sees that the only way out is suicide.

The ones who don’t commit suicide and end up surviving? Well, they just get hounded by collection agencies, shamed and humiliated for essentially not taking the “honourable” way out. They get punished for living.

John McCain, with his who-the-hell-knows how many homes, is still a nice guy, I believe. But his desperate insistence that Obama simply “doesn’t get it” leads me to believe that he, McCain, is the one not kept up with the times much at all. In McCain’s mind, we’re still embroiled in the Cold War, greed is still good, and anyone who says otherwise is “un-American.”

Is Addie Polk also “un-American” for having nearly lost her home and her life?

D.C. Madam commits suicide, pigs sprout wings, and the aliens bring back Elvis

Forgive me for being just a tad suspicious in the wake of this death.

Deborah Palfrey, the famous D.C. madam, probably knew a lot of secrets. Her continued existence was inconvenient and irritating to many people. She could have easily written the sort of bestselling memoir that could make publishers weep at her feet (though she would have had to turn repentant for that, and something tells me she wouldn’t have repented).

Now she’s gone and offed herself. How convenient.

Even if Deborah Palfrey did not have any “help” when it came to ending her life, her death is still a huge indictment of our politicians and our country, a country where “bad boys” are ushered to the bosoms of their communities and allowed to go on with their lives, while women pay the price for indiscretion.

When it comes to shaming, the ladies are just as bad as the men. Self-styled feminists have no problem saying that “scarlet women” are not to be trusted, or that they are complicit in their own harassment. Celebrities who get paid big bucks for their good looks get all huffy when they notice other women showing off their charms, whether for pay or for fun. The people who amuse me most are the chest-beating madonnas who gnaw their manicured nails in terror at the thought of teenage Madison Tyler being exposed to challenging lifestyles and ideas on account of some people’s contention that women (and men) in the flesh business should be treated like human beings. The idea of raising their own damn kids never crosses their minds.

Oh God, deliver me from the stupid and the cruel. And rest the soul of Deborah Palfrey

See Feministe for more.

Bullet in Tennessee

Bullet in Tennessee

This was how it ended.

People found comfort in the fact that it was “meant” to come down to a blood-spattered backseat of a grim new-model Chevy with a hood bent like a crocodile muzzle, to a hole in your delicate, mysterious brain; what better way to exorcise genius?

The note that they found on you was addressed to your sister, “whom [you] loved.” It wasn’t meant to dismiss your parents, this note, it was borne out of your love of precision.

Your parents lived mostly in their thoughts: somehow managing to talk above your head even when you became a head taller than both of them, or else lapsing into “cool” phases, offering you wine and unsolicited advice about condoms. Your sister was near and keen, mouth hanging open in wonder at everything you did: college math in the seventh grade, tae kwan do black belt, balancing a spoon on your nose and explaining stochastic differential equations at the same time.

You dutifully went on double-dates with me, knowing that my best friend Ruth pressured me to “not just be the freaking third-wheel all the time.” For Ruth’s benefit, you brushed strands of hair out of my face and, with a look of desperate teenage longing, whispered things in my ear: Continue reading “Bullet in Tennessee”