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Villain in the Mirror

Who is that angry, tyrannical, obsessed, monomaniacal trading demon, terrorizing all around him in his relentless pursuit of profit? I don't know, but he looks awfully familiar.

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When I read the galleys of Confessions of a Street Addict, my soon-to-be-published memoir of my years as a hedge-fund manager, I had to wonder who was that lunatic, that nut job masquerading as Jim Cramer for all of these years? I am stunned that I could have been so miserable, so crazed, so angry, so rude, so pissed off, and, most important, so &^%&%^ dedicated to the job that I didn't see or hear or know of anything else in my life.

I can't believe that in the name of performance -- that's right, in the name of percentages at year's end that are the scorecard of managing money -- I would do anything legal to get an edge. I can't believe that virtually everything was sacrificed in the name of beating the competition and, Hyman Roth–like, making money for my partners. (I also can't believe that some clown I fired almost five years ago could write a book saying that I made my tens of millions unethically and get it published around the same time as mine. Why the heck did I work eighteen hours a day virtually every day of my life for the last 21 years if I was such a cheat? Don't cheats work few hours, charter choppers to the Hamptons, and have dozens of mistresses? But that's another story with a last chapter not written yet.)

In my twenty years of stock trading, I morphed from someone who was a decent, hardworking guy interested in lots of different things into a virtual cartoon character of outperformance, who couldn't see what else there was to life besides winning, finishing first, beating everyone else at the game.

I always knew I had a "problem" at the job, that I was addicted, not to the dollar signs but to the public companies and  numbers that came before and after them. I always knew it because in the ridiculous, hubristic ways of youth, I genuinely believed that if I studied hard enough I could predict the closing prices in the stock market. I knew it because I thought I could predict them as far back as fourth grade, and I hadn't been disabused of that notion through four torturous but glory-filled years at Goldman Sachs.

It wasn't, however, until I went out on my own in that great year to start a hedge fund, 1987, that I realized that not only could prices not be predicted, they were fixed every day by a process that combined luck and promotion and could only be gamed by someone much tougher and smarter intellectually than I was. Fortunately, that someone turned out to be Karen Backfisch, who not long after the crash, which she had predicted, became Karen Cramer, half owner of Cramer & Co.

Even with her help, the job totally overwhelmed me. Every year, I schlepped to the office a half hour earlier, until in my last year I set the alarm at 2:45 a.m. so I still stood a chance of beating those younger and quicker than a 45-year-old could be. My ridiculous work ethic became the only security I had in the totally insecure world of daily performance grading. 

But I never knew how tortured I really was until I finished the whole darned book and then read it from front to back, and realized that I was the *%%&% villain. The book was a 300-odd page emotional indictment of someone who sacrificed everything good on the altar of 24 percent gains net of all fees. (Fortunately, there was a heroine: the trading-goddess wife. Without her, the story would simply be too bleak to write, let alone read.) 

Along the way, of course, I wasn't satisfied with simply overachieving in the stock market. No, I had to take a second job, I had to show those folks at the Wall Street Journal (I'd made a large investment in the Dow Jones Company) that if I couldn't be humbled by it, and couldn't buy all of it, and couldn't sell the whole thing to Rupert Murdoch -- yep, I tried to do that, too -- I could at least beat them at their own game. I had to start a daily newspaper on the Web, TheStreet.com, in my alleged spare time.

Of course, for anyone with a masochistic streak as deeply embedded in the cerebellum as it is in mine, the part I most enjoyed writing and reading was the near collapse of everything I mistakenly held dear -- my record at Cramer & Co. -- while my Website grew in value as it accumulated $50 million in losses almost overnight. The agony of seeing my real money go down in value daily as my play money increased exponentially may have been the most perfectly exacting torture I could have devised. Unless you consider the excruciating decline from $73 to 88 cents a share that I had to endure once the venture came public at the height of the dot-com frenzy.

So why bother to write the book? Why put people through my own perfectly crafted gauntlet of pain and paranoia?  Because, alas, I cured the addiction just in time to save myself. That redemption, that beatified decision to get off the Street before it was too late, needs to be shared with all others who believe that somehow the solution is to excel and achieve at all costs, whatever the endeavor.

Ah, I've given away the ending. No matter, it's the addiction that makes the story; the cure, that's still a work in progress.  There are days when I know that if I were back in front of that turret, I would see the tape, that magical progression of numbers, before it happened. I needed this book, if only to remind me of the pain and sacrifice needed to even think you can see those prices ahead of others. Only by rereading my own book that I know I'll stay off the Street for the rest of my existence.

TheStreet.com
Get all of James J. Cramer's stock picks via e-mail before he makes the trades, by subscribing to Action Alerts Plus. A free two-week trial subscription is available at www.thestreet.com/aaplus.

James J. Cramer is co-founder of TheStreet.com. He often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns and articles, both before and after they are published, and the positions that he takes may change at any time. E-Mail: jjcletters@thestreet.com


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