The story reads like a modern fairy tale: A down-on-her-luck writer publishes a heartfelt essay in her hometown paper that goes viral. Within days, news crews are camped out on her lawn. Two weeks later, she lands in New York, pitching three publishing houses in one day and signing a book deal before the sun goes down.
But debut author Christina McDowell is long over the whole happily-ever-after thing.
Her piece — styled as an open letter and published in L.A. Weekly at the end of 2013 — was written in a fit of pique after seeing the Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street, which detailed the high times and high crimes of Jordan Belfort, an erstwhile colleague of her father, Thomas Prousalis, also jailed for fraud (charges, and an association, that he denies). Her letter took the filmmakers to task for making larceny look a little too glamorous.
Published last month, her book, After Perfect, tells the expanded tale of her personal hell. McDowell arrived in Los Angeles in 2004 to attend Loyola Marymount only months before the FBI swooped down on the family manse back in Washington, D.C. Her family lost everything in the wake of her father’s arrest, and McDowell legally changed her name after finding herself saddled with nearly $100,000 of debt her father had secretly racked up using her identity.
After Perfect chronicles her father’s legal troubles, her family’s disintegration and her own downward spiral — snorting cocaine through $2 bills in the Hollywood Hills, living above a crack addict near Picfair Village, months of homeless couch-surfing. There’s also a trip to a swingers club in the desert, and the time she showed up at a family wedding high on Adderall, marijuana, whiskey and allergy medicine — before her subsequent efforts to get sober, rebuild her credit and reconstruct her life. The book has made must-read lists in the Village Voice, PopSugar, Oprah's O magazine and People.
None of which she says she envisioned when she asked a friend to pass her letter along to L.A. Weekly.
“I felt I had an opportunity to stand up for myself and to stand up for other victims of fraud," she says. "People want to make the argument about art and satire. I understand that, but for me personally … I just kept thinking about all the young men and boys who would see this and aren’t sophisticated enough or educated enough or old enough to understand. To see the misogyny and the lifestyle … the real wreckage that it can cause.”
But then her inbox started to fill up.
“It’s been so powerful to connect with people. The responses have been really touching. There was only a little bullying that happened,” she says, adding wryly, “mostly from men.”
As her letter burned through social media, and racked up more than 3.7 million page views, the Guardian, Daily Mail, Paste magazine and Jezebel all ran stories on it. By the time the TV crews arrived, it all started to feel like a bit too much.
“I was like, ‘I said my piece; I don’t need to talk to anyone,’” she says. In a panic, she called an agent she'd already been working with. “I said, ‘I’m a little shaken here.’ He said, ‘Let me handle it.’ And he did.”
Already seven years and 200 pages into her memoir, McDowell ultimately signed with Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
McDowell was hardly the first person to cry foul on Wall Street abuses (or criticize the movie). But something about her raw take struck a resounding chord.
“She was channeling the fury against Wall Street and billionaires and the broader inequality,” says Sam Polk, a former Wall Street trader turned founder of the L.A. nonprofit Groceryships, whose recent New York Times op-ed on our toxic money culture presages his own memoir, due out in early 2016.
Polk has hope that personal stories such as McDowell's can help move the needle on public policy. “What she has is personal experience, and a willingness to be open and vulnerable about that,” he says. “It takes a ton of courage to take a swing like that.”
Throughout her book, McDowell retains an awareness of the sense of entitlement wrought by her upbringing and her ongoing privilege — like the time she was rescued from homelessness by an old friend from D.C., the daughter of billionaire David Rubenstein (co-founder of the Carlyle Group).
“I don’t think anyone should be exempt from the working world just because of some other family member’s financial success,” she says in the interview, ruefully wondering if she might have picked up better survival skills holding down a part-time job during her teen years, rather than attending musical theater camp in the Catskills. “What if there was no such thing as having an inheritance? I love this idea—how would it change parenting?" (Or democracy. For the record, Thomas Jefferson had some similar concerns on this front.)
Neither of her parents emerges from her memoir unscathed, her mother at times coming off as ineffectual and self-serving. “I don’t agree with a lot of her choices, but I have a lot of compassion for my mother,” she says. “She was 23 when she married my father. She was so young.”
A knight in shining armor could be particularly seductive for women of her mother’s generation, McDowell notes, while trying to win love from her father "took me to dark places." Part of her reason for signing with Gallery was that her deal paired her with a female editor, who she felt would better understand the story she wanted to tell.
Among the many responses to her missive was an open letter of his own from her father. Published in a Costa Rican outlet, it takes McDowell to task for tarnishing his identity, among other things. In it, he also likens their family situation to a Greek tragedy.
McDowell says her relationship with her mother has improved greatly as of late, but at this point she remains doubtful that she’ll ever speak with her father again. "I’m not a doctor, but it seems to me that he would need to get some kind of mental help in order for me to feel comfortable enough to be in contact with him," she says. "Because otherwise … I can fantasize all I want about a reunion. But the reality is, if he’s not willing to do his part and be accountable, I’ll only be re-victimizing myself.”
Over the past year, she's used her advance to cover her expenses while readying the memoir for publication. She says she took comfort in tragic true stories such as Alice Sebold’s Lucky, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Now that her book is out, that money is gone. The day after our interview, she would fly to D.C. for a couple East Coast readings. Beyond that, she says it’s hard to say what comes next. The childhood dream of becoming an actress, which brought her to L.A., she now counts as another childhood fantasy.
She’d like to try for a career in journalism — she's recently published pieces in Marie Claire and Porter magazine. And she'd love to go back to school, finish the degree she started back when she could afford college, maybe majoring in psychology or history. “I love people and their stories,” she says.
At 30, McDowell still looks the part of an ingénue: petit, with scant makeup and a long mane of straight, dark hair. She arrived at the Larchmont Village coffee shop Bricks and Scones in a black batwing blouse with skinny jeans and silver sandals, on one of those strangely overcast July days marked by actual clouds instead of a marine layer. McDowell has lived in this neighborhood for the past four years, in a studio apartment along with her Havanese — those small, long-haired dogs hailing from Cuba — named Zelda Fitzgerald. “It's a small community. I see the same people all the time, I know all my neighbors," she says. "It feels really nice.”
Back in 2004, when McDowell was fresh off the plane from D.C., she dated a guy from nearby Hancock Park, and “I kind of fell in love with the neighborhood,” she says. “It reminded me of a time that was still adventurous and fun.”
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