memoir reviews

When Your Rich Dad Gets Busted For Fraud: Christina McDowell Lives ‘After Perfect’

after perfect

I went to see the Wolf of Wall Street without context, with two friends, totally unprepared for the movie’s unapologetic, intentional excesses. I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper into my seat at the theatre as the movie played on, realizing I’d never watched a character more on screen that I wanted to punch in the face than Jordan Belfort.

So I noted and appreciated Christina McDowell‘s piping hot, fury-laden open letter to the movie’s makers in the LA Weekly, where she called the film out on its pandering to a Wall Street con man, its buying in to the misogynistic and coke-sniffing American dream. Whether you think Martin Scorsese revealed something repulsive in Belfort through his behavior, or glamorized his lifestyle, there’s no denying that McDowell’s voice appeared as another side of the story. A side of the story demanding to be heard.

And now McDowell’s full story is here. In After Perfect, she recounts her childhood as Christina Prousalis (she has since changed her name). She grew up in the wealthy suburb of McLean, Virginia, blocks from the Kennedy estate, in a mansion where Corinthian columns and ivy frame marble floors and chandeliers. As a girl she played with the children of other Washington elites, tended to by a socialite mother and a businessman father who flew his own Porsche Mooney plane around for fun.

The curtain was pulled back on this illusion of wealth when the FBI stormed the McLean estate, guns at the ready, and arrested her father, Tom Prousalis, for fraud.

In his wake, Tom Prousalis left a trail of lies, confusion, and debt. Her mother discovered credit cards in Christina’s name, which Prousalis apparently applied for and used to try to save the family’s lavish lifestyle in the face of financial issues. Their home and belongings were then seized by the FBI and sold at auction. Christina’s mother was faced with entering the workforce and managing wrecked finances, and Christina and her sisters were unable to get clear answers from their father, who kept promising riches and big payouts from his prison cell.

This is the story of a unique type of victim–McDowell was raised with a level of privilege that shielded her from learning basic skills, then she was suddenly thrown into life headfirst. Everything she learned to value as a child, like designer labels and social status, couldn’t help her find a job or balance her checkbook. She finds herself oddly straddling two worlds, homeless in a BMW, hungry for food but clutching onto her designer handbags. She ends up working in nightclubs, drowning her sorrows in alcohol, seeking attention from men who will never replace the father who broke her heart.

This was a quick read for me, and one I told a lot of people about because the story is just so crazy. The writing is simple and honest, and McDowell’s struggles (financial, emotional) read like a roller coaster of desperation riddled with appearances from an ever-emerging Tom Prousalis, who pops up like the energizer bunny of broken promises.

After Perfect on’

Further Reading:

Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions Is An Intimate Look At One Family’s Struggle With Addiction

A little less lip. A little more faith. A little more higher power. A little more prayer, a little less wine. Cut the crap. Cut the line. Tuck the chin. Look left, right, faster, slower. Pick seven dandelions on the first day of spring. Hate less or more. Work harder. Chew slower. Be better. Look to god, God, GOD. Watch your language. Watch your back. Collect rocks. Lick ’em clean.

Review – Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman

orange is the new black book cover

Yes, Orange Is the New Black was a memoir before it was a hit series on Netflix. For those of you resisting the future of television: What happens when a nice girl gets locked-up? Orange Is the New Black: My Year In a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman tells us, as she recounts her journey through the American prison system.

The Smith-educated, upper-middle class, white, blonde Kerman had a happy life in New York, working as a freelance producer and living with her magazine editor boyfriend, when two Federal Customs Agents showed up at her door and changed her life forever.

Her past, long-forgotten, caught up with her in the form of a federal indictment. As she explains in the memoir, the mild-mannered Kerman sought adventure post-college, eventually falling in with a heroin-smuggling, bulldog-faced, world-traveling lesbian from the Midwest (this is why memoir works–you seriously can’t make this stuff up). Although Kerman and her smuggling girlfriend traveled to exotic locales and had some really good times, they also casually laundered cash like no big deal and eventually, Kerman smuggled cash herself. Thus, customs agents at the door, and federal prison time. And then, a memoir and streaming television series.

FCI Danbury, where Kerman does her time.

FCI Danbury, where Kerman does her time.

Despite its flippant title, Kerman tells us in her memoir that orange is decisively not the new black, for herself or anyone else who gets stuck in the American justice system. The book comments as much on the prison system as it does on Kerman’s struggles within that system. Kerman seems aware, as a writer, of the risks she takes as a wealthy white women writing about jail time: too much complaining about the facilities could come off as a woman spoiled and not willing to do the time for her crime; too much exposé on her bunkmates could read as exploitative of women not wanting or able, for their own reasons, to tell their stories at a public level. Kerman seems to walk a fine line both in prison and in her writing, acknowledging her place of privilege without discounting her own experience.

Orange Is the New Black is carried by Kerman’s charm, and the memoir owes much of its fun vibe to her easy banter with fellow inmates, combined with self-deprecating stories revealing both humor, insecurities, and a hugely inept prison system. In prison, she seems to get along with most and form touching bonds with many, and she identifies with the other prisoners despite prison guard’s efforts to separate her from her fellows.

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman on Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black"

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman
on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”

“So, is it like the show?” This is what people ask when I tell them I’m reading Orange Is the New Black, if they aren’t surprised to learn the hit Netflix series is based on an actual memoir.  The series stars the saucy and endlessly watchable Taylor Schilling, star of cancelled NBC medical drama Mercy, as Piper Chapman, whose character is based on the real Piper Kerman.

The memoir and the TV show have similarities, but they aren’t so similar that reading the memoir after watching the show will create a sort of discordant echo that creates confusion. Remember, though, that the memoir is exclusively Kerman’s story. It contains not only humorous snippets from her time inside, but also facts and experiences about our prison system any reader can easily get upset about. After reading Orange Is the New Black, I understand how Kerman is now active in organizations for reform in the prison system. I see how she must fight against what she experienced and saw others experience.

The Netflix series, while staying true to Kerman’s basic storyline, belongs to the women in prison other than the Kerman/Chapman character. The show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, called Kerman’s character her “trojan horse” in an NPR interview:

You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.

So read the book understanding Kerman isn’t able to give background or history on her fellow inmates, as that isn’t her story to tell and that was the choice of the Netflix show’s creator, Kohan.

Some surprising elements of the show, which actually happened (spoiler alerts!): Kerman does end up in the same federal prison as her ex-girlfriend, the heroin-smuggling lady who partially was responsible for Kerman getting into the whole mess. They do work things out, but they don’t sleep together. Kerman does offend Pop, the actual strong-willed woman who runs the kitchen by insulting her cooking.  Kerman does end up working in electrical where she trains herself by reading a huge manual, and yes, there is a pacifist nun in federal prison along with Kerman.

Orange Is the New Black on – Kindle edition is $5.99 right now!/

Piper Kerman’s website

Related links:

Review – Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

coming clean3

Considering its grim subject matter, Coming Clean is a surprisingly upbeat memoir. Kimberly Rae Miller takes us back, as much as she may be able, to a home raised by hoarding parents. Growing up, the kitchen was often too messy to eat in, and the family (Miller, her mom, and her dad) would gather on the parents’ bed, the only clear space in the house, to eat a family dinner. At times the water and plumbing would break down and fights with neighbors were constant. As a girl Kimberly picked another house near her own, and had her friends’ parents drop her off their after playdates so no one saw the disrepair of her yard. As an adult, she has dreams where she is back in the squalor of her childhood home, where “wet mashed newspapers, between [her] toes, not so different from the way sand feels as you inch closer to the ocean.” When the living conditions became too much for the family, abandoning homes entirely seemed an easier choice than cleaning the mess they’d created.

Despite the neglect Miller suffered as a child, and the responsibility she takes on for her parents’ hoarding issues as an adult (repeatedly attempting to help them clear out stuff so they don’t literally die in their own filth), her parents are both portrayed as sympathetic, loving, and likable people. I think this is part of the memoir’s charm–above all, this is a story of a family’s struggle with mental illness. As Miller grows into a more self-aware adult, her role within her family is able to change. She broaches the subject of hoarding with her seemingly oblivious parents (her father continually implies that she is just very clean, rather than him having any sort of issue), passes along a book on hoarding, and eventually takes it upon herself to write this book. These choices make ripples, and these ripples can make waves: near the end of the book, another young woman sneaks up to Miller at a party, and asks if she is writing about hoarding. Miller is sort of panicked, still not sure if she is “the kind of person who regularly told people that my father is a hoarder.” The young woman quickly says that her mother is a hoarder too, and the two women compare stories “like grizzled war veterans.”

There are always bunches of memoirs of notable or unremarkable life experience, and one thing I appreciated about Coming Clean was Miller’s restraint when it came to self-analysis. Right at the start, she admits she may not be fully over her traumatic childhood, and I don’t think this book was written as an attempt to find herself or better herself. I’ve had to stop a few memoirs because I felt so bogged down by the author’s moody, indulgent pontification on their upbringing.

I also liked that Miller acknowledged, at the end of the book, that this was (to a great extent) her parents’ story. Many memoirs cover the area of childhood and upbringing, and many do it well, but these stories can skip dangerously close to biography–who are these mothers and fathers that children have assumed to know so well? Do mom and dad wish to chime in? Maybe Miller was able to acknowledge and have the support of her parents in writing Coming Clean because of their still strong relationship, despite all the stuff accumulated between them. Miller notes that upon finishing Coming Clean, her father said: “Wow, that’s quite a story. I’m sorry that it was yours.”

A quick note here: Coming Clean is available to borrow from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, if you have a Kindle and are an Amazon Prime member. One of the perks of Prime/Kindle I often forget about, but there are some gems available to borrow amidst all the rest!

Coming Clean on