'Our Middle-Class Shame Thanks to Enron'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s how this reader begins her personal indictment of the infamous energy company:

Neal Gabler’s article will stick with me for a long time. I know the feeling of being down to your last $5 while carrying a full load of middle-class debt that was hard-earned.

In the spring of 2002, my husband and I were married for four years, had a modest new home, and had just adopted twin babies from Russia. We watched the nightly news in horror as the Enron scandal started to devour the company he had been with since college, Arthur Andersen. At the time, Lou Dobbs was the host and our hearts thudded as we watched, along with 20,000 other employees, the company go down in flames.

My husband worked in Pittsburgh on the business consulting side of Arthur Andersen. The responsible parties worked in Houston on the accounting side of the Enron project. No matter. The SEC went whole hog after everyone and everything.

We, like the author, borrowed from my husband’s 401k for a life event. In our case, the adoption (which we hadn’t anticipated, but we discovered we were diagnosed with infertility) cost the entire lot. We were both 34, so replenishing the 401k seemed absolutely plausible over time. My husband was on the cusp of making partner.

Then, literally in a span of weeks, he had to pay back the entire sum for the adoption ($25,000) and was unemployed.

I don’t think my husband ever emotionally recovered from the pain and humiliation and helplessness of having the rug pulled out from under our feet. I know we never really financially recovered either. We had to borrow money to pay off the money we owed and then use credit to piece together life until he started a new job.

Then, ironically, I got pregnant.

Years later, in 2008, his world crashed again because of the economy. We were underwater on our house and had to short sell it. Business consultants and hundreds of other professions have literally no job security. We have no unions, we have no pensions, we have no voice.

Oh and Arthur Andersen was exonerated from any wrongdoing in the Enron scandal years after it was put out of business.

The fact is, no matter how much you plan or try to do the right thing, there are disasters that will crush you financially—but you still open the door to your lovely house and drive your car and put on your suit and hope that the shame of your situation is never discovered.

If you’re interested in more reading on the Enron scandal in The Atlantic, check out Jack Beatty’s “The Enron Ponzi Scheme” (March 2002) and P.J. O’Rourke’s “How to Stuff a Wild Enron” (April 2002).