Jun 212010

Life throws us all a few curves sometimes and we have to adjust to changing circumstances. It is hard, however, to watch a close friend or  loved one suffer a setback of any kind, especially when you don’t know what you can say or do to help.

The Bag Lady Papers by Alexandra Penney, based on a blog written for The Daily Beast, is an interesting tale about surviving loss. Ms. Penney has had an interesting and varied career, primarily in the fashion industry, and rose to become the editor of Self magazine. She earned and saved enough money to support her work as an artist full-time. While Ms. Penney will not admit her age (guesses are between 45 and 89), it sounds to me like she was edging toward retirement when, all of a sudden, she lost the vast majority of her life savings in the Bernie Madoff fraud.

Overnight, she went from having a comfortable existence to worrying about running out of money and living on the streets. The shock led to contemplation of suicide and a compulsion to clean everything in sight. Ultimately, however, Ms. Penney starts to put the pieces of her life back together. This book isn’t a fairy tale about how everything turns out just fine in the end but an autobiography about how her whole life has really been about adjusting to change. She weaves together a very interesting tale of her life in the fashion industry and as a best-selling sex book author interspersed with the story of her life in the first two months after the Madoff fraud was uncovered.

As background on Ms. Penney’s Madoff woes, you can click here to watch Alexandra Penney on CNNs Madoff: Secrets of a Scandal.

What struck me most about this book was the number of wonderful friends Ms. Penney has and the things they did to support her during her crisis. Below is my compiled list of 4 things we can learn from Ms. Penney’s good friends about supporting a friend or loved one’s comeback.:

1.   Stay in touch. It is a natural tendency to avoid people when we aren’t sure what to say. We might fear that we will say the wrong thing or that we will feel uncomfortable talking about whatever sadness has occurred. Staying in touch, however, is critical. When Ms. Penney attends a cocktail party, she feels that people are avoiding her. A friend finally comes up to say, “I’m not going to ask how you are. I know how you are!” At a minimum, send a quick note or email just to say that you are thinking of the person.

“If you’ve had a bad thing happen to you and someone takes the time out from a very busy life to set pen to paper, or to write a thoughtful e-mail, the world seems a more humane, habitable place indeed.”

-Alexandra Penney, The Bag Lady Papers

2.   Believe. While driving my children to their activities recently, the car radio flipped to one of our local Christian channels. The preacher was discussing how it is relatively easy to say, “I love you.” but that it is a far harder thing to say, “I believe in you.” One of the lessons we see from Ms. Penney’s good friends is that one of the first messages they give to her is, “We believe you are going to come out of this OK.” Within 24 hours after the Madoff scandal, Ms. Penney’s tax lawyer, Bob, visits her to lay out some short-term plans. He reassures her: “I know you. You’ll make money again. I’m sure of it.” Similarly, Ms. Penney’s cleaning lady, Carmina, who has become like family to her, says in response to Ms. Penney’s revelation of her financial problems, “Everything will be all right. Really. You work very hard, you’ll be okay. I’ll be okay, too. Really.” So, in addition to the “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” one of the best messages you can give a loved one is “We’re behind you and believe in your future success!”

3.   Give the gift of laughter. Ms. Penney has a good sense of humor and after her financial downfall, she signed an email to a friend, “AP, aka Person of Reduced Circumstances (PoRC).” If you are someone with the talent to make people laugh and the person in trouble has a good sense of humor, your skills are incredibly needed and valued.

4.   Make small gifts that allow the person to maintain things that are important to them during the transition. While most people have a hard time accepting charity and don’t want to feel the object of pity, Ms. Penney did express her appreciation for a few thoughtful gifts from her friends. One friend paid the rent on her art studio for a time, another paid for her hair coloring appointments, another sent her a new white shirt (her signature style piece) from Brooks Brothers. An anonymous donor gave her a grant through a non-profit agency to allow her to continue her art.

“Good friends . . . might be the best cure for bag lady syndrome.”

-Alexandra Penney, The Bag Lady Papers

When you read how wonderful Ms. Penney’s friends have been to her, you have to think that Ms. Penney must be a very good friend herself and that all these kindnesses are in part a result of her “paying it forward” for many years with her own generosity. She doesn’t really discuss this in the book but there are two examples of the type of generous spirit that she is. One Christmas she runs down in her slippers and bathrobe to deliver a fine bottle of champagne to the policemen in front of the building to thank them for their service to the community. Another time, when she was living above a vintage clothing shop, she befriended the owner and would pop down to help out periodically when the shop got busy (presumably as an unpaid volunteer).

“[E]ven if you think you have no options, think again. Unless you’ve been mummified you have choices and alternatives.”

-Alexandra Penney, The Bag Lady Papers

The other key message of this book is that you have to be open to change. Ms. Penney’s story of her career history, which involves both hunting The New York Times classifieds and receiving unsolicited fashion editor positions from friends, shows that Ms. Penney is a resilient spirit. Even her art has undergone change over the years from oil painting to photographing plastic sex dolls. She used her experience to create a series of images called After Madoff. “I posed the girls as they deflated in car accidents, drowned in luxe swimming pools, were hanged by their Gucci silk scarves, and collapsed into their own fake Birkin bags . . . .” You can see and read about the images here. (Warning: adult subject matter.)

This book is a very fun read, which you might not expect from such grim subject matter.  I wish Ms. Penney well and hope that her story continues to evolve in a positive direction.  Her hardworking spirit is an inspiration to us all!

What are the most helpful messages you have given or received in a setback situation?  Please share in the comments.

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2 Comments to “Motivating A Loved One’s Comeback”

  1. avatar Lou says:

    These 4 ideas for supporting comebacks have come at a most opportune time for me! Sometimes things happen that are awkward, uncomfortable and so nobody calls/writes to say anything. It’s like you don’t exist anymore. So, just staying in touch is a big deal. Now, much more often I’ll say, “I believe in you!” What a great message! The ability to see the humor in circumstances is one of life’s best coping skills. I don’t know where I’d be without it. The #4 idea lets everyone maintain their dignity, and helps givers give some thought to what really matters to someone in need. What an uplifting message.

  2. avatar Ruth says:

    Let’s just say a couple of gifts that made my year that I remember all the time are from A—. After having my son and being so sad about not having the time nor energy to work out and get my figure back, the gift of a brand new pair of Gap jeans and matching gorgeous red top in my size rocked my world!! That was like saying “I love you and believe in you and you can still look fabulous!”

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