"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Kinship–How Families Always And Inevitably Fracture Along The Same Predictable Fault Lines

Laura Bell had a good mind, a decent family pedigree, a modest professional standing, and a steady although at times irregular income.  However, as she turned a consequential milestone (a birthday from which there was only one conclusion), the careful equilibrium she had managed for so long – care for elderly parents, a clientele which had never recovered from the recession, and a precarious personal and social life – began to go out of kilter. 

First an odd degree or two off center, than wobbly, and finally almost out of control   She knew she had to do something, but what? The inner reserves she thought she had – Harvard had to have some psychological worth along with her Magna Cum Laude and the generosity of a loving family – seemed nothing more than weak tea.  She was far more alone than she ever thought she would be.

It shouldn’t have turned out this way. The Bells had been a closely-knit family.  Mother and Dad had never ruled but collaborated and gave their three children an early sense of responsibility and justice.  Her brother and sister had never missed a moment to join the family for weekends, summer vacations, and winter sports in Europe.  For all intents and purposes, and certainly to the casual observer, the Bells were an ideal family who somehow had avoided the divisions, jealousies, and outright greed of many.

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Her professional career – accountancy – although never fully embraced by her bemused family who thought that her fine Ivy League diploma and prestigious graduate school should have assured something more than a tax adviser.  But, true to their respectful and collegial principles, they never let on, praised their daughter whenever possible, and hoped for the best.

Laura, however, was far more than a master of IRS tax law, and thanks to a post-graduate fellowship in estate law and planning and a natural empathy for older citizens, became their confidant. Yes, she negotiated the federal maze and found the best ways to shelter incomes, diversify investments to guard against over-ambitious, risky ventures, and to assure if not guarantee a settled and comfortable old age for her clients.

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Her clients were extremely loyal, not because of the very modest fees she charged nor even her savvy understanding of the financial markets and government bureaucracy, but because of her empathy.  Laura really cared, and although a secure portfolio was little compared to religious belief or bonds of friendship, hers was an emotional value-added, an incalculable benefit to all.

As time went on, however, Laura became disturbingly attached to her clients.  She worked overtime to parse the most impenetrable legalese, to find the most advantageous off-shore legal investments, and most of all to keep up on the fine print of the ever-changing tax codes.  Progressively she became less of a practical consultant than a confessor – someone to whom her clients could turn in family matters.

‘Where there’s a will, there’s a relative’ she knew well, and was very attentive to the first signs of dissension and mistrust.  The Franklin Hobarts, for example, had – like her own family – been closely-knit and trouble free; but an inevitable favoritism had crept into their lives. 

Their daughter, Haley, never quite measured up to their expectations.  She experimented with drugs, had failing marks in school, had a series of dangerous relationships, and was headed nowhere by the time she was twenty-five.  By the time she was forty and when her parents who had married and conceived late in life, were well into their seventies, she found herself penniless, living in a retro-commune, and very much alone.

The Hobarts of course were concerned and compassionate; and as they began to allocate their sizable wealth (Laura had advised pre-decease divestment to avoid the state’s punitive estate tax), they were giving far more to their wayward daughter than to either of the other two children, both of whom had responsible careers, families, and community ties.

As fast as the Hobarts increased their financial support for Haley, the faster she spent it.  Yet, despite this troubling draw down on the family wealth, John and Mary continued.  “She can’t help herself”, Mary had said to John.  “We must be there for her.”

Laura Bell had seen this scenario played out many times.  Although families might start off on a level playing field where all children were precisely equal, they never seemed to keep it so.  There was always some good reason why they had to tilt it and let more resources run off towards one child or another.

Some siblings accept this unequal distribution with understanding and even love.  Impartial sharing of the family’s resources was good only as a matter of first principles; but life being what it is, highly impractical.  One child would always and inevitably require more support than another.

The Hobart children were not so understanding.  To them their wayward sister was no more than a financial sinkhole, disreputable and irresponsible and siphoning off resources that they could far better put to use.  While neither Haley’s brother or sister were not needy by any means, an extra ten thousand here and there, particularly at this time in their lives, would have meant the difference between stagnant employment and a successful start-up, St. Albans instead of public school, and a larger home in a far better residential neighborhood. 

The fighting began.  Not only did Haley’s brother and sister maneuver together for a more equitable share of their parents’ treasury, they began to fight each other.  The squabbles turned into vindictive fights and deep hostilities that would never be erased.

Mr. and Mrs. Hobart came to see Laura to search out her advice on how to stop the bleeding, to restore order, and to do right by all their children.  The two siblings came separately to find out how they could drive a wedge between each other, disinherit Haley, and tap into their parents’ holdings. 
Unfortunately and despite Laura’s best efforts, the Hobarts had not set up revocable trusts and tamper-proof estate plans.  There were many holes, fissures, and openings in the agreements and contracts, and the children, once they realized this, were the first to exploit them.

In nine out of ten cases like this one, Laura Bell would have gone home from the office and slept well at night; but perhaps because of her age, her surprising lack of resiliency during the recession, and the very unsettling noises within her own family, she became faulty in her judgment and over-emotional in her advice.  She had never been this shaky before, and had never once let her intimacy with clients, so highly prized, get in the way of her judgment.  What was happening?

Somehow the similarities between her family and the Hobarts had betrayed her faith.   Families were not at all what they seemed, were all similar in their aspirations and dysfunction; and at heart were no different from every other  acquisitive social membership up and down the phylogenetic scale.  It was a breach in the wall of justice and equability she had always taken for granted.

This would have been all well and good had Laura simply accepted this revelation for what it was and what it meant– a reordering of her emotional priorities, a remove, and a more objective reading of family issues.  Perhaps a less sanguine view of human perfectibility (she had been a lifelong progressive and attentive to if not involved in most social justice movements), a more tolerant view of conservatism and its convictions about human nature; or even a simple few steps back from estate planning and more forward into the world of investment banking.

Yet she could not. Her accountancy practice was based on her personal convictions.  In another life she might have been a rabbi or a psychologist; but some unexplained fascination with numbers, spreadsheets, and deciphering code made her professional choice a good one if not a right one; and that ability linked with a sensitive, natural empathy, led her to this particular brand of advice.

Her weakness was not so much naïveté but the very unique and special ordering of her life.  She thought that actuarial tables, mathematical functions, and highly evolved reason were enough to provide the stable architecture within which she could address more subjective and personal problems.

When the Hobarts fell apart – there was nothing she could do to stop the complete dissolution of the family and the consequent misuse and waste of wealth – and when her own family fell prey to infighting, jealousies, hostilities, and anger, her carefully-constructed life also came apart.  There was no longer an easy squaring of logic in the face of the desperate and perversely twisted emotions of John and Mary and her own beloved family.

Some of the best plays of the American theatre are about such torn, angry, and selfish families.  O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Moon for the Misbegotten, and Mourning Becomes Electra are all about disorder, misplaced emotions, and unfair advantage. Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes is the closest dramatic portrayal of the Hobarts.  Edward Albee who hated marriage but knew that it was the crucible of maturity, offered faint hope of family redemption in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and none in The American Dream. Arthur Miller’s The Price, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman were no different in their pessimistic view of families and moral principles.

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The particular tragedy of this account is that Laura Bell, a well-meaning outsider, was a collateral victim of family dysfunction.  There is no way, she sadly found out, to avoid or distance herself from family disaster.  The only true course is one of diffidence or even indifference; but had she taken that tack, she would have been only a lieutenant at Deloitte or KPMG. Unthinkable. 

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