Memoir talks candidly about wealth
Months ago, when Jennifer Risher was gearing up for her new book, “We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth,” initially set for release in May, she knew she would be offering a candid look around what she saw as the universal conversational taboo of money.
Then the pandemic hit, and her book release was pushed back to September. Now amid an entirely new landscape, it makes her book perhaps even more uncomfortable, but all the more necessary during what has been an economically devastating year for many Americans.
In “We Need to Talk,” Risher chronicles her relationship with money after she fell into great fortune, joining Microsoft in its early days and, on her first day there, meeting her future husband, David Risher, who would go on to become a head of a startup known as Amazon. The current climate makes Risher’s honesty about the nature of her family’s wealth especially striking — Risher’s husband was once Amazon’s secondincommand, behind CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, whose skyrocketing fortune has often served as the primary example critiquing the nation’s wealth disparity.
Yet most of the wealthy, Risher says, exist outside our imaginations of greed and excess.
“Eight out of 10 people with wealth grew up middle class or poor, so they are you, and they’re hidden in plain sight,” Risher says. “They’re more ordinary than the stereotype.”
Indeed, much of the book revolves around Risher’s largely quotidian anxieties as she struggles to come to terms with her growing riches. Breaking the silence around money, big and small, she says, can help build a more equitable country.
Risher, who lives in San Francisco, spoke by phone from Napa — her family escaped the city early in the pandemic, as “is typical of my demographic,” she admitted — about her new book and what needs to be done to alleviate income inequality.
Q: Did you have a particular audience in mind for this book?
A: I really was writing to help millions of Americans who are like me — who have more money than they had growing up, or who have more money than their extended family, or who have more money than their friends. I’m hoping that by sharing my story it could help other people to understand their own.
Q: Do you worry that your book might be offputting to many readers who are not rich or financially secure?
A: I do want to get us out of an “us versus them” mindset. … We all have a money story, and we all have a relationship with money. It doesn’t matter how much is in your bank account. It’s uncomfortable to talk about, so my goal is to help us get uncomfortable and have those conversations.
And then there’s this other group of people — and we’re in the millions — who really have been super lucky, and we’re not talking to each other, either. … And when there’s a large influential segment of the population that feels isolated and estranged, they’re probably not at their most generous and empathetic and they’re probably not holding themselves accountable or inspired to make change.
Q: You indicate toward the end of the book that you sympathize with the refrain that “billionaires shouldn’t exist.” As the wealth gap widens and billionaires get richer, should they be held responsible for the inequities in the country?
A: Well, “they” is lumping them all together into one person. They have money in common — that’s all. It’s a group of individuals. When I think about what needs to happen, it’s something at a government level. Philanthropy is wonderful, but it’s a small drop in the bucket when you look at the money that needs to be spent on the structures that help our whole society.
Q: What do you think should be done at a structural government level to alleviate economic inequalities? A:
There definitely has to be a shift in our thinking at the government level, economically. I want to pay more taxes — let’s put a structure in place that allows me to do that and allows us to buoy everyone in this country.
Q: In May, you and your husband started the HALFMYDAF initiative, which asks the wealthy to give half of the money in their donoradvised fund to nonprofits of their choice by this month. What was the motivation there?
A: We realized our money can go further if we had people join us. At the same time, we also realized that there’s a lot of money sitting in donoradvised funds — $120 billion in fact — and our goal was really to inspire giving. So we put up $1 million in the form of matching grants to any nonprofit that anyone wanted to give to.
Q: Did you learn anything about your relationship to money through writing the book?
A: I still drive around the block looking for free parking on the street. I still find myself thinking, “Well, I can’t buy those raspberries, cause they’re way too expensive.” It’s really hard to get rid of those things that are instilled in childhood, and I wonder if you can really get rid of them.
I don’t think money has changed me as much as I’d have expected. In fact, I don’t think it’s changed me at all. It’s revealed more of who I am, and then I have to kind of look at that.
“We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth” By Jennifer Risher (Xeno Books; 280 pages; $26.95)