When the word privilege enters the conversation, it often seems as if everyone hears what they least want to. The folks who have it assume that they’re being accused of being bad people for having been born with advantages. Folks who don’t may pick up a resistance to discussing structural issues that contribute to inequality. The solution might be for everyone to read Frances Stroh’s “Beer Money,” a sharply observed memoir of what it’s like to be shaped — more misshaped — by privilege, and what it’s like to have your privilege stripped away.
Stroh grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., as a scion of the Stroh Brewing Co. family, her youth coinciding with the years when her relatives were in the process of running the business into the ground. Stroh Brewing bought other brands, expanded into real estate and biotechnology investments, missed out on the light-beer trend and launched a wildly sexist ad campaign at precisely the wrong time. Ultimately, it became clear that the company couldn’t survive as an independent entity, and that the Stroh relatives who depended on the business for an income would need to figure out how to live in the world without being protected.
“Beer Money” could have been another rich-people-have-problems-too story. What lends it a particularly salient zing at this moment, though, is Stroh’s argument that her family’s privilege also came with substantial costs. The financial cushion the company provided, and the prospect of jobs there, became an excuse for the Strohs not to develop important aspects of their characters and to learn the skills that would have made them wise stewards of the family business or have pushed them to succeed in other areas.
Stroh’s father, a talented photographer, did not pursue his artistic inclinations, except as part of a mania for collecting that extended Frances’s family beyond their means. Her brother Charles cycled in and out of rehabilitation programs, financially supported by the family until his death. Her uncles and cousins got their jobs at the brewery because of their last names, and were unprepared for the differences between running a regional business with one main brand and a national one with many. Her grandmother spoiled her with fancy outfits and luxurious trips in the hopes of finding her an eligible husband only to be disappointed when Stroh “opted out of the society that was my birthright” by pursuing a career as an artist. And as Stroh herself discovered when the family trusts gave out, that dream had been dependent on the assumption that she would have the money to back it up.
“My father was not equipped, I knew, to live without a substantial income. I wondered if he would spend the rest of his life regretting his choices, or perhaps even wishing that he’d been born into another family, one that hadn’t taken such good care of him, up to now,” Stroh wrote, reflecting on the moment she realized she would have to find a way to support herself, and her discovery of a career in investments that would give her true independence. “Striving for something gives life its meaning, regardless of whether we succeed or fail. The problem was, my father had never had to strive for anything.”
None of this is to say that it’s inherently better to be born into a family without money than to be born into wealth, or to romanticize the struggles of underprivileged families. “Beer Money” is simply a reminder that money doesn’t make up for deficiencies in character, motivation, marriage, management and long-term business planning, and that handled poorly, it can delay important life lessons and reckonings past the point at which people are capable of absorbing them.
This seems like a particularly valuable observation at a moment when the president of the United States has been similarly shaped by his family’s extreme wealth and the protection he’s received from the consequences of his disastrous business decisions and his private behavior as a husband and father. I don’t know if Donald Trump would be a different person if he had grown up in a different family, in a different city or in a different era. His first few months in Washington may have demonstrated that Trump would be better off for having had life experiences that taught him to deal with adversity instead of denying it and emphasized that it can be worthwhile to consider others’ needs along with his own impulses. But age 70, as “Beer Money” reminds us, may be too late for Trump to develop new capacities, much less to become a new person.