Some see Buzz Bissinger’s tell-all article in April’s GQ as the wicked April Fool’s gag of a gifted writer. If so, it wouldn’t be the first. But others, including this columnist, believe it’s truly the tragic, awkward confession of sex and shopping addiction by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has apparently ridden off the rails.
Either way, it’s burning up the Internet as I write this.
Ill-advised prank or painful confession, it’s tough to ignore Bissinger’s tale of unbridled consumerism on steroids, since it runs (or rants) at more than 6,000 words. In it, Bissinger claims to have spent more than $600,000 fueling a clothing addiction that also led the husband and father down dark alleys of sexual experimentation and substance abuse. He also confesses that he’s “mildly bipolar,” a term I’m not sure appears anywhere in that psychiatric bible, the DSM IV.
This author of Friday Night Lights and I have more than a little in common, as we both worked at the Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer. Prior to reading the piece, Bissinger was a journalistic hero to me. However my opinions of him have changed, I’ll reserve my thoughts here to his behavior, as I don’t believe in the sort of naked, confession-for-the-sake-of-confession that Bissinger indulges as if trying on yet another flashy leather accessory.
And unlike my colleagues at Slate and The Daily Beast–who’ve written about Buzz with a rubberneck-the-wreck sort of breathlessness–I want to focus on how Bissinger’s story plays out for all of us as consumers. For in Bissinger’s bizarre behavior, we see a dark side of ourselves that we’re often loathe to acknowledge in America: a side that believes against all hope that yes, money can buy happiness. Or that he or she who dies with the most Gucci really does win.
First off, take a look around your closet as I do the same. Some of you — yes you, with walk-ins stuffed full of shirts and shoes by the shovelful — may suffer from a shopping addiction you don’t realize, or haven’t come to terms with yet. If so, I can sympathize. In my late 20s, as my earning potential exploded, I routinely went on shopping binges. In the process, I’d buy $1,000 worth of dress duds on a whim. And over the course of a few years, I acquired some 80-plus pairs of Converse All-Star sneakers, in every hue you can imagine and a few you shouldn’t. (Day-Glo orange, anyone?) Guess where those shoes are today?
Yup: in a dingy storage locker on Chicago’s North Side, likely not to be worn again until I finally get around to selling them on eBay, most likely for pennies on the dollar.
I’m proud of writing for a website that’s doing its life insurance. But nothing can lift the spirits like retail therapy, or a brand new Beemer smelling of leather, purring like a well-rested panther about to pounce.
What’s more, it’s not like we (and Bissinger, for that matter) ever take much time to consider what we’re up against. In Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, author Juliet B. Schor writes how the average 10 year old has memorized some 400 brands, while the average kindergartner can identify some 300 logos. My 8-year-old daughter, already longing for her first computer, has duly informed me of recent that she wants an Apple and not “one of those PCs.”
Like four-star chefs making a reduction sauce from many, many lemons, the ad men and women of this world distill very powerful messages into something small, but that can lick at your limbic system with seductive force. They preach how their products will fill some hole in your life, some spiritual or emotional void. Think about how often the words “dream,” “spirit,” “love,” “soar,” or “perfection”–just to name a few–are used in slogans for the products we’re conditioned to crave.
Bissinger goes into great detail describing the clothing he’s bought: the Gucci ostrich skin leather jacket at $13,900; another Gucci jacket of Persian lamb’s wool at $22,500; on and on and on. It gets numbing after awhile. And to what end? Bissinger writes how, during one of his binge shopping trips, “a fellow invitee said I looked like ‘Bon Jovi,’ a compliment that at this point in my life means more to me than any piece of writing.”
Really, Buzz? A hip, sophisticated journalist and observer of the human condition like you who can’t see the irony and sheer ridiculousness of that statement? I hope it’s an April Fool’s joke, because even at the height of his youth and good looks, Bon Jovi’s always been sorta laughable: a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, and the ideal starting point for any satire of shallow, big-haired New Jersey rock of the ’80s. (I grew up in Joisey with great big hair; I should know.)
Why sell your life out — and the financial future of your kids — for an attainment so hollow? And why tell your story of binge buying when the conclusion leads you here: “All stories like this should and do end this way, the slaying of the beast. Bullshit.”
No, Mr. Bissinger.
And no disrespect meant, since I’m borrowing from your own parlance. But your conclusion is bullshit.
Your dismissive kicker assumes we live in a world (or that you live in a world) where redemption is not possible. You don’t get to rewrite the rules like that, though you may flaunt them at your personal peril, and the peril of those you love. Saying that the beast can’t be slain may sound all hipster and post-modern. But every day, real people in financial pain make decisions to get help. It’s not inspirational claptrap, Buzz: It’s coming to terms with reality. People just like you take a look at the messes they’ve made with their money habits, and they humble themselves.
Speaking as a guy who’s overcome many financial demons — and still fights a few from time to time —the decision to break bad habits, and to give up the toxic temptations that would spend us into a hell hole, will always start and end with us. To the under-30 readers here: Maybe you’ve asked your parents for years to treat you like an adult. If so, it’s time to walk the talk. Show them that you take full responsibility for your financial lives, the good and the bad parts.
If you’re battling spending addictions and take the words “shop ’til you drop” too literally, know that it’s never too late to get help for your shopping addiction, and to change. Your issues may very well be biochemical, and there’s help on that end as well. What’s more, the same positive behaviors that have helped you achieve success in other areas of life can help provide a playbook where you can learn how to do things differently. Check out the resources at Debtors Anonymous or similar 12-step programs, or consider seeing a therapist as a courageous first step.
And if it helps, take it from a once-conspicuous consumer. I used to wait by the mailbox every few days for a new pair of Chucks to come. They’d make me happy … for a while. But the happiness always wore off. Then I began to look at my young, growing family, and asked myself if they deserved a husband and father that weak and shallow.
So I learned to let go of the stuff. Stupid me. You see, I have to confess: I don’t miss those shoes at all. Buying less stuff means working fewer hours, and working fewer hours means I’ve just won back the one thing that cannot be purchased, ever:
Time with my family. Time with friends. Time to create. Time to kick back in a coffee shop. Time to find joy that doesn’t wear off when the new car smell does. Free, and yet priceless. You see, Buzz, it’s about time.
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