Further Reading

Can a person be addicted to get-rich-quick schemes, and how can I stop my father from ruining himself and my mother?

Dr. Peele:

My father has what I consider to be an addiction, but it is not addressed in any literature that I have read (including any that I could find on your website), so I am unsure of how to proceed.

For his entire adult life, my father has been drawn to high-risk, relatively low-investment get-rich-quick schemes. It does not satisfy many definitions of addiction, because it has not become steadily or increasingly worse, and he has always managed to keep his losses less than devastating, so he does have a certain amount of control over it. But he has consistently lost money, adding up to a considerable lifetime total. And although he is in many ways a very intelligent and competent person, when it comes to these investments, he loses all perspective and reason: he once invested in a perpetual motion machine; in a gold mine in Peru operated by a couple of American teenagers; etc. He also consistently hooks up with other investors who have admittedly lost money on the venture in question, but convince him they are going to turn things around any day now and start raking in the bucks.

I spent my younger adult life trying to distance myself from this and to learn to say no for his requests for money for investments, but things are at a point now where I would like to do some kind of intervention. About three years ago, he made one of these investments that cost him (and my mother) virtually all of their retirement savings and put them in a very difficult situation. My husband and I helped them out somewhat, and things were bad enough that he promised to cool it (even though he immediately proceeded with ridiculous plans to finance another project, but none of his own money was actually spent on it). But a couple of weeks ago he wrote a letter addressed to only my husband, asking my husband not to let me or my mother know, urging my husband to help him with an investment plan for trading on-line. That was the last straw for me and I want to stop just trying to keep out of his way, and I want to try to do something to stop him. Not to mention, to help my mother from living any more of her life just above the edge of poverty.

I am especially concerned because of the stories I have heard of big losses happening very quickly with those on-line trading accounts. I am concerned because my mother is 75, my father 80, and they cannot weather any more of his losses at their age and in their current financial situation. This is tricky because there is no book I can buy on stupid investment addictions or verse from the Bible that I can quote to try to convince both of them that he has a serious problem — he has a thousand excuses and evasions, including "You don't want to take away an old man's dreams, do you?" or "I would have no reason to go on living." And my mother's main concern is always to avoid confrontation and to be a good, supportive wife.

I read on your site that you are against interventions, but what can I do that might reasonably make a positive difference, or at least to protect my mother from further harm?

Any help would be greatly appreciated,


Dear JoAnne:

You have described remarkably well a fairly frequent occurrence, and one that in such extreme cases as your father's merits the label "addiction," marked in this case by the desire to get immediately back into the saddle with a new investment, to recoup the losses of the last scheme.

This is a favorite topic in literature — the individual addicted to the get-rich-quick scheme, the one break that will make over their life. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Wallace Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby — all describe characters looking for a way to make it in an American society that prizes success and wealth above everything.

Let's work backwards. Your father is 80, and he hardly has any money left? He may not have a long time to live, but the idea is to keep him comfortable, and to provide for your mother. But it seems (from his contacting your husband) that, in order to get capital for his next scheme, he needs an injection of money from your household.

Unless I'm missing something, you can nip this all in the bud by letting all his schemes die through lack of funds — who will let your father invest on credit, in stocks or anything else?

You don't need to do an intervention that makes your father own up to his misguided life — which, it sounds as though you agree, is going to be a tough sell. If you wished to take a radical step, you could have him declared incompetent with you as guardian, so that you make his major financial decisions and he can't sign agreements on his own. You could hire a lawyer or find a form book to make this application, then file on your own at your county court house. Remember, competence determinations are not global; they apply to specific areas, so that your father could be declared incompetent in financial matters but retain his autonomy in the other areas of his life.

If you have to explain your actions to your father, you might say, "Dad, you're asking us for money, and you're hurting mom's well-being. I can't let you risk either of those two things. I'm afraid your investment-entrepreneurial career is over."

We could also ask the significance of all of these things for you. Your father disregards you (along with your mom), makes outlandish choices without consulting or listening to either of you, forces you to reject him as a significant figure in your life (while your mother simply "rolls over" to his demands and reckless actions). How has all this influenced your view of yourself, your attitudes towards risk, your choice of and relationships with men? Is some of your bitterness towards him due to the toll all this has extracted from your life?

All best,