The disease struck in January as predicted, felling thousands of Americans with its debilitating effects – from general malaise to total collapse – and soon it had reached epidemic levels. It was not the flu, although the flu did make its annual appearance; it was a newer virus that lasts not for two days but forever, if unchecked, and for which there is, as yet, no vaccine and no sure cure. “Affluenza” was first diagnosed in 1996 by the psychotherapist Jessie H. O’Neill in her book The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence. “I describe it as a dysfunctional or harmful relationship with money and wealth or its pursuit,” she explains on the phone from Milwaukee, where she directs a string of affluenza-related projects and wealth-in-crisis interventions. “We worship money in this country, but we don’t understand how powerful and how dangerous it can be.”
In the first three weeks of 2000, however, following a spate of highly infectious tech-stock splits, mergers, and IPO sellabrations, the perils of prosperity began to sink in as news of affluenza’s contagion spread on NPR and ABC and in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post. Anxious financial advisers began to hunt down O’Neill, seeking confirmation of their diagnoses, and begged her for remedies to save the country from the distinctive symptoms of the disease – which can range from listlessness, bad temper, and low self-esteem to tyrannical egotism and drug addiction. Worst of all? It hits children the hardest.
The Post called the disease an “affliction that distorts the values and saps the initiative of privileged kids,” the London Evening Standard spoke of “the risks faced by the children of the superrich,” the Financial Times denounced affluenza as “a malady that turns rich kids into spoiled brats,” and last week the Wall Street Journal ran a cover feature on the plague, headlined bratlash! and asking how the “ruin of the next generation” could be prevented at a time when the country is “floating on the froth of la dolce vita.”
Luckily, O’Neill knows the answer, because she is not only an affluenza expert – she is a survivor. As the granddaughter of Charles Erwin Wilson, past president of General Motors and Eisenhower’s secretary of Defense, she grew up in the affluenza hot zone. “My grandfather was quite a wealthy man,” she recalls. “My mother was one of his six children. When my mother died, I was 28, and I inherited about $3 million. The first thing I did was go out and buy an ounce of cocaine.” Twenty years later, she has overcome her affluenza so successfully that today, her daughters’ idea of treating themselves is to “adopt” a number of poor families at Christmas and lavish generous gifts on them. O’Neill calls it the “joy response” and says it can heal what she calls “money wounds.”
Other preventive campaigns are under way. Merrill Lynch has implemented a “Financial Parenting” program for all its clients, with special advisers working to inoculate the children of its Private Client Group – families that have a net worth of $100 million or more and are therefore highly at risk. “We try to help educate kids about how wealth can be beneficial,” a spokesman explains, adding that the idea is for newly minted enfants de privilege to seek gratification through philanthropy instead of wallowing in wealth like a “trust slug.” Good Morning America called in Ivana Trump, who reassured the public that she had already taken steps to protect her children by prescribing summer construction work for Donald Jr. and modeling for Ivanka.
But O’Neill says that more must still be done to keep the virus from spreading, and that even the common man is not immune. “The wealthy are like a petri dish; because we focus on them in the media, it’s much easier for the common man to see how money affects the wealthy,” she explains. “But affluenza is as much about the factory worker who spends his whole life fantasizing that he has to win the lottery. It’s a very American disease.”