The Labrador puppy at the foot of her bed on Christmas morning. The $2,000 Tiffany watch at 14. The BMW for graduating from high school.
Never-ending gifts. Possessions. Things.
“In hindsight, it was really empty. It was really lonely,” said Christina McDowell, an erstwhile aspiring actress who grew up among the one-percenters in McLean, Va. She remembers a charming dad who filled the vacuum of his emotional detachment from his family with “a lot of stuff” — before, she says, he used her identity to rack up nearly $100,000 worth of credit card debt and she changed her last name to escape the stigma of being related to him.
Money was at the root of her family relationships. It was wrapped up in her childhood spent on a sprawling Georgian estate around the corner from the Kennedys’ Hickory Hill, and summers in the house in Nantucket, Mass. It was in the Porsche Mooney airplane her lawyer father flew so low over their home that she could see him waving in his classic aviator sunglasses. Yet it was never talked about, even after he went to prison in connection with a massive penny-stock fraud and was ordered to pay nearly $13 million to his victims.
So she wrote about it instead, in her memoir “After Perfect,” released last month.
Returning to the scene of her father’s crimes, McDowell, now 30, will give her first reading in Washington at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street NW.
In 2004, when she was 18 and halfway through what turned out to be her first and only year at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, McDowell’s father, Thomas Prousalis Jr., was arrested. He decided to plead guilty after the government brought in Jordan Belfort — the penny-stock shark later immortalized by Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” — to testify against him. Several of Prousalis’s previous companies were taken public by Belfort’s Long Island firm Stratton Oakmont.
A week after New Year’s 2005, McDowell drove her beloved dad to the airport in the family’s white Range Rover so he could report to prison. She believed he was innocent, and she continued to think so even after he had her open a bank account for some associate in Boca Raton, Fla., to wire money while he was behind bars.
How could she have been so clueless? Striking, with rigid cheekbones, clear blue eyes and dark hair parted sharply down the middle, McDowell says she was always taught it was rude to discuss money.
“I was never financially educated. I think most of us are not,” she mused last week after arriving in Washington from her new home base in L.A. “We leave it up to our parents to guide us or tell us.”
Which was a problem because her mother, Gayle, was left in crippling debt without any tools to survive in the world without money. “I think she trusted my father and said ‘Okay, you take care of the money and I’ll take care of the children. Those will be our specific roles to make this family work,’ ” McDowell said.
When Gayle and her youngest daughter were forced to leave their McLean home, they moved into a Pacific Palisades rental house way above their price range. “Everything still looked good, because there was such fear around poverty and having no money,” McDowell said. “We were still trying to keep up.”
But Gayle had been out of the workforce for 20 years and had never truly supported herself. Within a few years, she divorced Prousalis and remarried. “Part of my journey was struggling so much with seeing my mother need a man to save her,” her daughter said.
Meanwhile, McDowell worked a string of crummy waitressing jobs and tried out for D-list acting gigs like the reality show competition “In Search of the Partridge Family” alongside a baby-faced Emma Stone. If McDowell made any money, she purged it immediately on drugs and partying. She had started to feel ashamed of “all the stuff” she grew up with.
“For a long time, I felt like I didn’t deserve to have any money because Dad’s stealing from people,” she said. She was questioning her entire childhood. “Who’s my dad? Who’s my mother? Who are these people?” she exclaimed dramatically. “We let the external define us for so long. If you have so much stuff, where’s your sense of self?”
Even now, after the debt was eventually removed from her credit report, McDowell still gets the sense that some people out there think she owes them for her father’s crimes. When she sold her memoir, she fended off Internet backlash suggesting that she should give the advance to her dad’s victims. “You’re implying that I should be responsible for my father’s crime when I was 8 or 9 years old,” she said. “If he’s bad, then I must be, too.”
Now trying to leverage her story and make a career as a freelance writer, McDowell still has a complicated relationship with money. The fear lingers that it could all go away. “I have people tell me I exhibit the symptoms of someone who lived during the Great Depression.”
For her, it’s about striking a balance between living frugally but without the shame of wanting money. It’s a big reason she gave up acting, which she associates with her dad’s constant hustle to keep up appearances.
“I do believe there are moral and ethical lines between what is living an abundant life and what is far exceeding that to the point where it is just greed,” she said. It’s okay to want stuff, she said — just not so much that it’s all you’re left with in the end.