Selected as one of the year’s “Fifteen Books You Need to Read” by the Village Voice, Christina McDowell’s unflinching memoir is “a tale of the American Dream upended.” Growing up in an affluent Washington, DC, suburb, Christina and her sisters were surrounded by the elite: summering on Nantucket Island, speeding down Capitol Hill’s rich back roads, flying in their father’s private plane. Their life of luxury was brutally stripped away after the FBI arrested Tom Prousalis on fraud charges. When he took a plea deal as he faced the notorious Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort’s testifying against him, the cars, homes, jewelry, clothes, and friends that defined the family disappeared before their eyes, including the one thing they could never get back: each other.
Christina writes with candid clarity about the dark years that followed and the devastation her father’s crimes wrought upon her family: the debt accumulated under her identity; her mother’s breakdown; her own spiral into addiction and promiscuity; and the delusion that enveloped them all. She shines a remarkable, uncomfortable light on a family’s disintegration and takes a searing look at a controversial financial time and also at herself, a child whose “normal” belonged only to the one percent. A rare, insider’s perspective on the collateral damage of a fall from grace, After Perfect is a poignant reflection on the astounding pace at which a life can change and how blind we can be to the ugly truth.
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About the Author
Christina McDowell is the author of the critically acclaimed book, After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir, as well as the author of Cave Dwellers. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post; The New York Times; Los Angeles Times; HuffPost; The Guardian; O, The Oprah Magazine; People; LA Weekly; Marie Claire; USA TODAY; and The Village Voice, among others. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Christina is an advocate for restorative justice and criminal justice reform. She lives in Washington, DC.
Read an Excerpt
After Perfect -1-
The roads were quiet, and white frost covered the otherwise green hills of Virginia. No one could hear the engines of several government-marked SUVs traveling one before the other, like soldiers down Dolley Madison Boulevard.
Like every other typical morning in our house, my father was the first awake. He was leaning over the marble sink in the master bathroom in his boxer shorts shaving the outer edges of his Clark Gable mustache with an electric razor. His collection of Hermès ties hung on a rack alongside the open closet door opposite his collection of Brooks Brothers suits. In the background, CNN reported on the television screen behind him: “Jury selection began Tuesday in the Martha Stewart criminal trial, where the self-made lifestyle maven will try to defend herself against charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and securities fraud.” The NASDAQ and Dow Jones numbers crawled along the bottom. I asked my father once what the numbers meant. He replied, “Don’t worry about it, that’s your dad’s job.”
My mother was sitting in front of the gold-framed mirror at her vanity table just down the corridor. Her hair pulled back with a navy scrunchy, she was examining her wrinkles and moving her skin with her hands to see how she would look with a face-lift.
Sometimes she forgot how beautiful she was. As a little girl, strangers would pull me aside at the market and ask, “Hey, kid, is your mom a movie star?”
She wrapped her silk bathrobe around her nightgown and headed to the kitchen to put on the morning coffee.
Chloe was upstairs grabbing her gym bag and lacrosse stick. Her boyfriend kept honking the horn of his Jeep Grand Cherokee out front.
“Coming!” she yelled as if he could hear her.
The SUVs continued on, passing an unmarked security house where, next to it in the gravel path, a sign had been planted: George Bush Center for Intelligence CIA Next Right. Hardly noticeable for the average tourist passing by on the way to Dulles International Airport, intentionally inconspicuous as all of the secret intelligence of the world lies just a mile down what looks to be a harmless suburban road. It was the winter of 1993 when I found out what it was, in the car with my mother on the way to school, and a secret agent stopped us at the red light. He questioned her. I remember asking what for, and she explained to me what was hidden down the street. A gunman had opened fire on several cars entering the CIA headquarters, wounding three and killing two employees. I understood then, despite the quiet feeling in our neighborhood, that things happened all around us every day that we weren’t privy to.
The SUVs turned onto Georgetown Pike, gaining speed, passing the Kennedys’ Hickory Hill estate to the left down Chain Bridge Road, and the little yellow schoolhouse on the hill to the right, a place my sisters and I used to march to with our Fisher-Price sleds each winter. But when the vehicles approached the corner to our street, Kedleston Court, a quiet cul-de-sac of mansions, Chloe flew out the front door, struggling to whip her backpack over her shoulder and lugging her lacrosse stick and gym bag in her other hand. She hopped into the passenger’s side of her boyfriend’s Jeep, and they took off, passing the SUVs without a second thought. It had been three years since 9/11; since US Air Force F-16 fighter jets flew so low to the ground they shook our beds at night. The days of my father flying his airplane above our home were long gone. We had become accustomed to this quiet feeling. We trusted that we were safe.
The SUVs came to a screeching halt, blocking our driveway and forty-foot stone walkway. The slamming of car doors and the heavy clicking of loaded guns disturbed our quiet morning routine when a dozen men covered in black bulletproof vests with yellow emblazoned letters on the back fanned out across the lawn, toward the front door of our estate, framed by Corinthian columns that beckoned the movers and shakers of Washington, DC—the entire property engulfed by green ivy and willow trees.
My mother was leaning against the kitchen island, sipping her coffee as she watched the morning banter of the Today show’s Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. If only she had turned around, had the TV not been so loud, she would have seen through the open shutters the infamous emblazoned letters—
If she didn’t look the other way, maybe she would have known. It was too late.
“Get on the ground! Get on the ground! Now! Now!”
She dropped her mug, shattering it to pieces at her feet, spilling coffee all over the marble floor, running for the front door to find it wide open. My father was being handcuffed, his face smashed against the pink Persian rug in the foyer.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you do or say can be used against you in a court of law . . .”
My mother shook, begging my father for an explanation as she asked a series of cluttered and hysterical questions. He pleaded with her while the FBI lifted him to his feet. He told her he was innocent. He told her not to worry. He told her to call Bernie Carl. Had his hands not been handcuffed behind his back, he would have been pointing his finger at her.
My mother, watching from the foyer as my father was thrown into the back of a black Suburban, crumbled to the floor, barely breathing, heaving from shock.
She didn’t know.
The year was 2004, and America was unaware that it was about to fall into its worst economic recession since the Great Depression. George W. Bush was president, the “War on Terror” had begun, Lehman Brothers still existed, the real estate industry was skyrocketing, and everyone was happy stretching the limits of his or her livelihood on multiple credit cards and second mortgages. The rich grew richer. The poor grew poorer. And I—well, I had been lucky. Most who knew me then would have said that I was from the 1 percent. Although I never knew how much money my family was worth, how much liquid cash we had, or how much was sitting in crooked stocks. I have since discovered that one’s financial security is often an illusion, although I didn’t always feel that way. At eighteen years old, I had never paid much attention to the feeling of safety—of security. It was never discussed. It didn’t have to be. I grew up a few blocks west of Ethel and Bobby Kennedy’s Hickory Hill estate, and a few blocks south of the CIA in McLean, Virginia—the affluent suburb of Washington, DC, filled with politicians, spies, and newscasters. “Security” was just a privileged afterthought lingering in my subconscious somewhere as I floated through my seemingly fairy-tale life without a care in the world.
I was the girl who had everything: The mansion, the private plane, the Range Rover, summers on Nantucket Island. I was popular, had loving sisters who were my best friends, happily married parents, and dreams of being a movie star. Raised among the American elite, my father had created the epitome of an American Dream.
We looked perfect.
My father didn’t come from money. He built our life for us from the ground up. The grandson of Greek immigrants, the eldest of seven children, born and raised a sweet, southern boy from Richmond, Virginia, who spent his summers watching ball games at Fenway Park in Boston with his grandparents. “I ate all the cherries on the cherry tree and broke windows playing baseball in the backyard. I remember seeing the last baseball game in 1960 between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees at Fenway Park when Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle played against each other. The Red Sox won.” He loved to tell that story.
Being the grandson of immigrants, he was proud of the life he worked so hard to build. He was the first of his family to graduate from college, the College of William & Mary in the historic town of Williamsburg, Virginia. The alma mater to the founding fathers James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson, the blue blood that shaped the principles on which this nation was built. Once, my father took me to a tavern for lunch in Colonial Williamsburg where all of the employees dressed up as pilgrims. He wanted me to engage in its history. I remember our server reminded me of Mammy the housemaid from Gone with the Wind, my favorite film growing up. She was a round African American woman dressed in a white bonnet and blue smock. As she set my plate of meat loaf and grits on the table, I looked at her, and instead of feeling like beautiful Scarlett O’Hara, I felt racist. I swore to myself I’d never go back there. I’d never, ever be seen with all those pilgrims wearing buckled shoes.
But my father looked back on his college days with great nostalgia. He was young and broke, and told us stories like the time he broke into the school cafeteria and ate all the Jell-O because he didn’t have any money for dinner. Or how he charmed all of the wealthy New England girls into cooking for him. After graduation, he was drafted during the Vietnam War and served his time dutifully in the air force, where he learned how to fly fighter jets. He went on to attend Howard University Law School, the prestigious all-black university in Washington, DC, where he wrote for the law journal and became a clerk at the White House in the still rippling years and aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. It was less expensive than a place like Harvard. When someone would ask me, as a kid, where my father went to law school, and I replied, “Howard,” they would respond as if they hadn’t heard correctly. “Harvard?” “No,” I’d say, “Howard.” Without fail, there was a moment of confusion for the other person. With all of the wealth we accumulated, people found it hard to believe he was a die-hard liberal. When I was older, my father would explain to me the importance of equal rights, affirmative action, gun control, and health care. Always rooting for the underdog in the quest to achieve the American Dream.
It would be years before I put together the pieces, the truth about my father, and the truth about myself. I had no idea the day the FBI came that I was being propelled into a reality that would strip me of everything I ever knew to be true, where all my life the lie was the truth and the truth was the lie, how the silver spoon would be ripped from my mouth, and how, in the end, denial would fail to save me.
I wasn’t there the day the FBI arrested my father. It was the narrative I created and replayed over and over in my head when my mother called me two hours later, as I had been fast asleep in my boyfriend’s bed in sunny California.
Blake placed his hand on my bare back as I glanced up at the blurry numbers of his alarm clock. I let out a groggy groan, still hungover from the night before, and switched sides of my pillow to face him; his sweet brown eyes looked at me. It was one of our last mornings to sleep in together before I headed back across town to finish my second semester of freshman year at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. We were nestled in the northeast corner of his father’s mansion in Hancock Park, a high-profile neighborhood where rows of giant palm trees line the sidewalks of English Tudors and Mediterranean mansions. Home to consulates, studio executives, and movie stars—where old money lives.
Blake pulled down the covers as he kissed me and then pushed my left shoulder, turning me over on my back, exposing my naked body to the morning air, and I shivered as he kissed farther down my torso. My phone started ringing. It was the original Nokia ringtone, the one everyone hated—“do-do do do, do-do do do, do-do do do do”—it wouldn’t stop. I would have ignored it, but my heart was pounding, and I had this feeling: someone’s died. It was too early for a phone call. I put my fingers through Blake’s wavy hair and whispered, “Sorry,” as I scooted up toward the headboard and grabbed my phone off the nightstand.
“Are you serious?” Blake quipped, stranded at the foot of the bed.
I answered. “Hello?”
“Honey?” It was my mother. Her voice was trembling.
“Hi, Mom,” I replied, my heart thumping out of my chest. I yanked the comforter off the bed, wrapped it around my body, and turned away from Blake, who made his way over to his turntables and put on his headphones, annoyed by my rejection.
“I have some bad news,” she said, her voice moving into a higher register, the way she sounds when she’s trying not to cry.
“What’s going on, Mom?” I just wanted her to get it out and over with.
“The FBI came to the house this morning. They arrested your dad on fraud charges.”
“What?” I wasn’t sure I had heard correctly. “What do you mean, ‘fraud charges’?”
“You know Martha Stewart? It’s—it’s sort of like that.”
I knew by the way she hesitated that she was unsure of how to explain it. “You need to get a job as soon as possible,” she continued. “There’s no money left. The bank is going to take our home.”
As my mother’s words pierced through my conscience, I began stuttering from shock. Then I asked a series of my own hysterical questions: “Is he guilty?” “Is he going to be in the news?” “Is he going to prison?” “What do you mean, the bank is taking our home?” Each new question charged with escalating tears, and my mother didn’t have an answer to any of them. She claimed to know nothing but that it would only be a matter of days before we would lose everything. She couldn’t have known in that moment to what extent everything meant. Her intention of the word everything was used to imply material possessions. Houses, planes, cars, jewelry, clothing—the things that defined us, the things that made us worthy, the things we thought we needed—somehow, in the end, destroyed us. Neither of us knowing how lost we’d be without them, floundering in a world where love was no longer the answer. She couldn’t have known what would painstakingly prove to be the greatest loss of all. All of those things we could never ever get back: ourselves, each other. Family.
I hung up the phone and wiped my tears. Blake took off his headphones and looked at me. “Divorce?” he said, buttoning his pants, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. His tone wasn’t a question, more like he knew why I was crying and didn’t need to ask because he’d been entangled in his parents’ bitter divorce battle at the age of five, watching them rip each other’s hearts to shreds; a childhood wound still raw and untouched given the way he would, or most of the time, wouldn’t, talk about it.
“No,” I replied, staring into a blurred distance. Blake lit his cigarette, waiting for an answer—any answer to explain my sudden fugue state.
“The FBI came to my house this morning. They arrested my dad on fraud charges,” I said in a wave of eerie calm, as if the words had come from someone else, someone I didn’t know yet.
Blake’s eyes met mine. He inhaled his cigarette and then exhaled. He stared at me, thinking of what to say, the smoke lingering between us. Blake shook his head with confusion. “What?”
An instant sense of urgency kicked my system into overdrive. I leapt out of bed and kneeled down over my sprawled-out suitcase on the floor, searching for my favorite vintage 20th Century Fox T-shirt Blake had given me. I threw it over my head; the iconic gold block letters were faded from years of someone else’s wear and tear. I jumped up, putting one foot and then the other inside a new pair of Seven jeans that Mom had allowed me to put on the credit card.
“I have to call my sister,” I blurted out, turning around in circles, disoriented, trying to button my pants, not remembering where I put my cell phone. I searched for it, throwing pillows across the bed, lifting the top of my suitcase and throwing it over my pile of clothes spewing from all sides, shoving Blake’s skateboard upside down next to the door so it banged against the wall, and finally pulling the entire comforter over the bed with both hands, as if I were a magician getting ready to whip a tablecloth out from under the china. “Where is it?” I screamed. The comforter went flailing behind me with the sound of a pathetic thud as my cell phone hit the dresser and, at last, fell to the ground.
“Hey, hey, hey.” Blake rushed over, restraining me as I tried to get past him to pick up my phone. “Slow down. Breathe,” he said. I glared at him as he held my upper arms in place just below my shoulders. “Why don’t we go for a drive?” he suggested, knowing that nothing he could say would fix the overwhelming confusion that overtook any chance of my having a normal day.
“Okay,” I said, and then took a deep breath, “but don’t tell anyone about this. Not your dad—anyone.”
“I won’t,” Blake promised.
I didn’t know whom I could trust. I had known Blake for just over a year. We met at the Hollywood location of the New York Film Academy, a summer program that only the offspring of the affluent can afford, where students are given a vintage 33 millimeter film camera, all-access passes to the Universal Studios back lot, and a suite at the Oakwood Apartments, infamous for housing its rising Disney stars or the next Justin Biebers of the world. Blake was unfazed by it all. He broke all the rules, drove a fast car, smoked weed, had neon blue hair when I met him. He was the antithesis of Ralph Lauren, Ivy Leagues, and loafers—the guys I was surrounded by in Virginia. I was instantly drawn to him. He’d sneak me into forbidden places, like the haunted house from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where we once found loose nails from a previous film set, then climbed to the rooftop and carved our names into the rotting wood. Blake’s carefree attitude came from being raised in a family of Hollywood lineage tracing back to the golden age. His father grew up next to the likes of Judy Garland and silent film stars such as Harold Lloyd, and was friends with Hugh Hefner.
One time at a private party at the Playboy Mansion when I was seventeen, I was pulled from the kids’ table (yes, there was a kids’ table) by one of the Playmates, who said to me, “Oh boy, when Hugh gets his eyes on you . . .” I remember staring down at my double-A-size breasts. “Oh, don’t worry about that, honey; he’d take care of it,” she said, like it was no big deal, like just another trip to the grocery store. By the end of the night, I found myself being chased by wild peacocks in the backyard amid naked, spray-painted Playboy bunnies while fireworks burst through the sky.
I was on the edge of adulthood in a city where your wildest fantasies become distorted realities; where boundaries become blurred lines. A far cry from the rigidity of a nine-to-five in public service in our nation’s capital for which I might have been destined otherwise. I longed to be a part of it all: the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll. Fame. My father had always told me I was going to be a movie star: a frail brunette beauty like Audrey Hepburn, he said.
Blake and I climbed into my BMW—a gift my father had given me the day before my high school graduation. Covered in a red bow, and tucked in the windshield was a note that read “Dear Christina Bambina, you owe me an airplane, Love Dad.” Later I found out my father had sold his airplane to buy the car. Money had been tight, but I never knew. My family, we never discussed that sort of thing. I never, ever had to think about money. In fact, I was told it was rude to discuss money.
Blake drove, and I sat in the passenger seat and called Mara, who was starting her junior year at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Mara and I had always been close. Even after she left for boarding school when the the academic pressures at the National Cathedral School for girls became too intense and my parents decided it would be better if she finished high school in the Swiss Alps, where there were more snow days than school days. I never understood the choice to go from the culturally eclectic boarding school in Switzerland, with Saudi princes and princesses, and the future successors of oil tycoons, to the finest breeding ground for the next Mr. and Mrs. George Bush. I suppose there wasn’t a difference. Either way, she was my cool big sister who taught me how to freak dance and who cried when Kurt Cobain died.
The phone rang, and I knew I would feel better once we talked.
“Hey,” she said. Her voice was raspy, as though she had been crying.
“Did you talk to Mom?”
“Yeah, and I just talked to Dad.”
“You did? How?”
“Mr. Carl bailed him out. He’s going to call you when he can.”
Bernie Carl was one of my father’s wealthiest friends, a banker. He and his wife, Joan, a Washington socialite, and their three children were close family friends. We traveled together on each other’s private planes, spent summers in Southampton, Nantucket, and St. Barths, and Thanksgivings in London and Scotland.
“What else did he say?” I wanted to know everything.
“He said it’s all a misunderstanding and that the government is trying to make an example out of him.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “Okay,” I said. “Have you talked to Chloe?”
“No, she’s at school. I don’t think she knows yet.”
Chloe was a freshman in high school. She had become an avid lacrosse player with more friends than anyone could keep track of and a bit of a wild card, as no one ever knew whether she would bring home an A on an exam or hijack the Range Rover when our parents left town. Once, when she was five, she decided to swing from the gold chandelier in the family room with her best friend. Like two monkeys swinging from tree branches. The mischief ended in a near-fatal accident when the chandelier came crashing to the floor, shattering lightbulbs across the room. She and her friend were lucky they ran away unscathed.
I never spoke to Chloe that day, and it would be years before she would ever talk about what it was like for her when she found out about our father’s arrest.
Mara was rambling on about possible job options already. “Stripping?” she joked. Was it a joke, though? It was too overwhelming. I told her I had to hang up. For once, I didn’t want to keep talking.
Blake pulled the car over somewhere near the top of Laurel Canyon and Mulholland Drive. We got out, and I hurdled the metal guardrail along the cliff and sat with my feet dangling over the edge. Blake hopped over and took a seat next to me. He pulled out a joint from his pocket and sparked the end.
“Here,” he said, passing it to me. I took a long drag, hoping that in minutes I would be numb to the world.
I squinted, looking out over the hazy Los Angeles skyline. The Hollywood sign was barely visible in the morning fog; its alluring presence waiting for the sun to shine before it mocked the dirty streets of Hollywood. It would be hours before the hustlers readied their star maps for tourists, before the dancing Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonators sweated beneath their costumes, proclaiming their dreams of stardom next to a lone “Jesus Save Us! I Repent!” sign held by some angry protestor, each praying that one day they’ll be noticed.
Had I known what was to come, I would have been on my knees in the dirt praying for the answers, because the power of money—the loss of money, the need for money, what we would do for more money—would rip through my family, denying any chance of a resurrection. With each passing day, losing who I was and not knowing who I would become. I didn’t know how any of it would happen, how the truth would unravel, and how it would unravel me.
I passed Blake the joint. I thought about the possibility of my father being guilty. “But he wears Tommy Bahama T-shirts,” I declared. “My dad. He wears Tommy Bahama T-shirts.” Blake and I bent over laughing. Laughing so hard my stomach hurt.