Is depression a disease?

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What if depression is more than a chemical imbalance? What if depression and suicide are about despair?

By Jacque White Kochak

OK, there’s been an awful lot about depression and suicide in the news lately. That’s good. Maybe talking about these dark subjects will save some lives. 

I know something about depression and suicidal ideation. Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think I have a disease, and I’m concerned about the “medicalization” of depression. If depression is nothing more than a chemical imbalance, then of course the cure is medical – pop a pill to get those brain chemicals back in sync, right?

But what if depression is about more than a chemical imbalance? Humor me here. What if depression and suicide are about despair?

 I’ve battled spells of depression since my middle teens. I used to wonder whether someone could cut off an appendage, maybe a finger or an arm, and measure the pain. I know what it’s like to feel like I’m wading through molasses to get the simplest task done, and to struggle to get out of bed. I know what hopelessness feels like.

I’ve researched and devised elaborate suicide schemes. I guess I have the cred – and the medical diagnosis, actually. And yes, I’m probably biologically predisposed to depression, just as I’m biologically predisposed to sunburn. I ought to be medicated, I suppose.

But if depression and suicide are about despair, we have the uncomfortable task of looking at this problem in a different way. For one thing, we have to look at conditions in those states where suicide has increased by 30 to 40 percent in the last few years, and we have to look at our own lives and what we can aspire to change. Sometimes, we have to change our own attitudes, ways of looking at the world, and the messages we tell ourselves.

In a shocking recent report on suicides nationwide, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control found that more than half of those who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition. Relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems and job, money, legal or housing stresses often contributed, the CDC admitted.

Still, I keep reading personal accounts of people who have suffered from depression,     pleading, “I have an illness. Don’t tell me to ‘cheer up.’” I’m pretty sure the brand of tough love I’ve imposed on myself is going to get me branded as insensitive, but let me speak my piece.

When I read accounts of depression I say to myself, “But you do have some control.” I ask myself if these people may have experienced something different from me, and maybe they have. But any mental health professional would likely reaffirm my diagnosis. Many in my extended family take antidepressant medication. Some have been diagnosed as bipolar. At multiple times in my life, I would have hit all the high points on a checklist for major depressive disorder. It hasn’t been easy.

So how can I possibly say I’m not sick, and I have some control? On the “sick” part, I know (and most people would agree) that I’m a lot saner than some people I know. And how can something that is so common really be considered a disease, rather than part of the human condition?

Explaining the “control“ part is more difficult. I began grappling with depression at quite a young age, and it was severe. My life was affected, and I’m sure I would be in a different place than I am today if not for my life-or-death struggle with that black dog. The fight took all my energy and destroyed my confidence, and I don’t want to minimize the pain or the destructive effect on my life. But I survived, and over time I developed coping strategies.

I learned to look around me and realize there were a lot of people who had lives a lot worse than mine. I learned to put problems in perspective. I learned not to grapple too long with an insoluble problem, but instead move on. I learned not to ruminate, to take one step at a time, and see the positive. I learned not to think in black-and-white terms and not to berate myself with negative pronouncements about myself. I learned to identify what specifically was getting me down, and see whether there were solutions.

Here’s an example. At one point in my life my time was completely consumed by a man, and when that relationship ended I was destitute. Anyone would have been devastated, of course; the icing on the cake for a person like me, prone to depression, is that I was convinced I was radioactive, all the fault was mine, and no one would ever want to be my friend, let alone be more.

Then I looked around me and saw that almost everyone, no matter how obnoxious, seemed to have a friend. I realized I probably didn’t have to be alone, so the trick was figuring out where to meet people with whom I might have something in common. I put the plan into effect.

That’s a very, very simple example, and probably not a very good one. Since I have a tendency to severe depression, perhaps I should have sought pharmaceutical relief. At some point, however, I discovered my approach has a name, and that name is “cognitive behavioral therapy,” or CBT.

Briefly, CBT can help to restructure negative thought patterns, to recognize the source of depression, and to change the actions that exacerbate it. Study after study has shown that CBT is about as effective as antidepressants, and somehow, through trial and error, I mapped out my own approach.

Consider this: According to the National Institutes of Health, about 20 to 40 people out of a hundred people noticed improvement in their symptoms within six to eight weeks if they took a placebo. Among those who took an antidepressant, about 40 to 60 out of a hundred people saw improvement in six to eight weeks.

Read that again. If you take a placebo, you’ve got a 20 to 40 percent chance of improvement. If you take an antidepressant, you’ve got a 40 to 60 percent of improvement. Them ain’t great odds if you’re struggling with a demon.

This is not to completely discount medication, but I think of antidepressants as being something like aspirin. Aspirin helps the pain, but doesn’t cure the problem (which might not be a “disease”). One friend describes an antidepressant as a way to “take the edge off,” and another requires a mood stabilizer. Neither is a miracle cure, and neither is really enough. A will to change is also required.

Abe Lincoln is often raised up as an example of someone who struggled with severe, chronic depression, so it’s interesting that people usually forget what he supposedly said: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

That’s not the whole story, but it’s something to think about.

 

                                                                                   

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‘No son of mine is going to take charity’

President Trump’s proposal to provide $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by his tariff policy has got me thinking about where I came from. Words from an old Highwaymen song keep coming to me, slightly altered: The wind blows hard across the Kansas plains, makes some people go insane. Makes still others pray for rain, that’s where I come from.

I’ve lived in western Kansas, eastern Kansas, the New York City metro area and the Deep South. Believe me when I tell you that people’s general character varies by region, and people from the heartland are definitely not like those in the East. I know these people, and I fear that President Trump and most of his advisers don’t. Maybe things have changed since I was young, but we’ll see.

Here’s an example. As generous as he was to others, my Grandpa White had very strict ideas about taking handouts from the government. When Uncle Joe, Daddy’s older brother, was discharged from the Navy as World War II ended, he sought to take advantage of government programs for returning veterans. Part of the GI Bill was the 52-20 Club, which directly paid veterans $20 a week for 52 weeks while they looked for work.

When Uncle Joe walked out of the house to go down and sign up for the benefit, Grandpa White was working in the yard. He asked his oldest son where he was headed, and Joe told him.

“Dad hesitated a moment and said, ‘If you do, all your clothes will be on the front steps when you get back. No son of mine is going to take charity,’” Uncle Joe remembers. “I knew the conversation was over and I said, ‘I won’t go.’”


The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel.

 

The lesson stayed with Joe, and Daddy too, I guess. Uncle Joe says that when he turned 67 and went down to sign up for Social Security benefits, he was thankful he didn’t have to face his father—even though Social Security doesn’t fall into the category of a “handout.” And for all the years when I was growing up, times when we didn’t have enough to eat and couldn’t pay the rent, I’m sure it never occurred to my father to accept a government handout.

That self-reliance and disdain for anyone who takes a “handout” are ingrained in the people in my part of the country, the vast expanse of flyover country most people will never visit unless they drive west on I-70 for a vacation in Colorado. After that long trip, they’ll grimace and say the drive is awfully flat and very boring. I was born right in the middle of the United States, where the rolling prairies rise to the High Plains, inching upwards toward the continental divide at the summit of the Rockies. People in the more populous states to the east and west tend to dismiss us, repeating “Kaan-sas?” with mocking incredulity when we tell them where we’re from. That, or they immediately ask about Dorothy and Toto from Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

The treeless, windy North American steppes were the last part of the growing United States to be settled, because the landscape was so alien and barren to a people whose sensibilities were shaped by the wooded contours of first Europe and then the eastern United States. As an editor from West Virginia once told me, it feels like there’s no place to hide. The first time my eight-year-old son accompanied me to visit my parents in western Kansas, his initial reaction was terror at the immense sky and the slanting shadow of a rainstorm in the distance. His second reaction was to ask why they didn’t build some buildings since there was so much empty space.

I find most people imagine that the people who settled the region were losers pushed out of the more comfortable environs to the east. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel. The luxury of clapboard homes would come later, when the railroads shipped in wood.

The natives joke that you’ll know a Kansan because his grandmother drives 70 miles per hour in a snowstorm. In the Deep South they try not to drive at all in a snowstorm, and that’s not surprising. But they’re also reluctant to drive in New York City, where snow is common. I think that tells you something.

When we lived in the New York suburbs, a little lake up the street froze over every winter, metamorphosing into a natural ice-skating rink. The sport’s popularity was a revelation to me, because in Kansas the wind is too cold and too piercing to ever enjoy outdoor activities. I was awed to learn that below-freezing weather isn’t particularly unpleasant when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and there’s no such thing as a wind-chill factor.

School tended to be canceled with only the slightest dusting of snow, however, and one snow-day my young son wanted to invite a friend to ice skate. “Oh honey, none of these mothers will drive in this weather,” I cautioned. Joe called his friend Will anyway, and a half hour later Will’s mother turned up on my doorstep, her son in tow.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I ventured.

“No—Western Slope, Colorado,” she proudly replied. I nodded in recognition of a kindred soul.

My friends in the Deep South avoided driving in the snow because of lack of experience. In New York, however, the attitude was different. People seemed to wonder how Mother Nature dared to be so impertinent. In the Kansas of my youth, by contrast, people had few illusions about their importance or their right to expect anything of the weather. They didn’t think they were entitled to anything, ever, and so were thankful when their hard work brought modest rewards.

My roots twist deep into the black prairie soil, and I’ve got dust in my blood. I was born a Kansan, and Kansas is the reddest of the red states. The Big First—the sprawling congressional district that encompasses western Kansas—is one of the most conservative districts in the entire country. These are the people liberals love to hate, and by all rights I should be one of them. 

I’m not, but I think I’m beginning to understand why rural people don’t trust those big city folks and their self-serving plans to fix all their problems. Indeed I do.

— Jacqueline White Kochak

Celebrity mothers, this is important

This isn’t just about you. This is about millions of women who need family-friendly workplaces in order to balance the demands of children and work.


I’ve got a bone to pick with Dr. Sarah Parcak, the celebrity Egyptologist who is an associate professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She annoyed me so much that I impulsively unfollowed her on Twitter, but don’t worry, I’ll be back. I’m an archaeology junkie.

What could this bright, funny young academic possibly have done to annoy me enough to forswear feeding my addiction to daily snippets of archaeology news? Nothing much, except tweet one sentence, accompanied by clapping hands. “Anybody who asks me about work and family in future will get the same response,” she said, with a finger pointing down to an excerpt from an interview with author Laura Groff. The interview appeared last week in the Harvard Gazette.

Gazette: You are a mother of two. In 10 years you have produced three novels and two short story collections. Can you talk about your process and how you manage work and family?

Groff: I understand that this is a question of vital importance for many women, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.

OK, bear with me, because I know I’m swimming against the current here. The Twitterverse has been full of praise for Groff, and the Huffington Post crowed, “Pushing back to sexist questions has been a slowly emerging sea-change for those in the public eye.”

The need for family-friendly workplaces: Here’s the problem for me, Dr. Parcak. This isn’t just about you. This is about millions of women who need family-friendly workplaces in order to balance the demands of children and work. Not even a rewarding career; just plain old work to put food on the table. They need successful women who will talk about the difficulties of managing both, without sugar-coating, and talk about the need for subsidized child care, paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and flexible, family-friendly work hours.

So why am I calling out Sarah Parcak and not Laura Groff? I suppose a little background is required. I know how Laura Groff does it, because I’ve done it myself. A writer has that most necessary prerequisite for having a family—flexible time.

When my children were young, I worked from home as a contributing editor for a national trade magazine. I woke up at 5 a.m. to write and was able to get by with a babysitter for a few hours a week to conduct phone interviews and take the train into New York City to visit the office. Full-time childcare for several children would have been much too expensive. I met deadlines shortly after giving birth and kept my newborns with me while the older children were in preschool or childcare. I nursed my babies to keep them quiet while I interviewed company execs.

Dr. Parcak is different. Although her work is glamorous, she doesn’t work for herself. She is beholden to an employer; she works for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, so her situation is more like that of most women. To do what she does, she needs an amenable workplace, a supportive spouse, or family nearby who help out. Ideally, she has all three.

I work for a university in Alabama too, so I know she’s got plenty of sick and vacation time to take off when one of her children is up all night crying with an earache. Only 46 percent of service workers and 47 percent of workers in construction, extraction, farming, fishing, and forestry occupations had paid sick leave benefits as of March 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And clearly her husband, Dr. Greg Mumford, is supportive, since she works in partnership with him to survey and excavate projects in the Sinai and the Nile delta. For many women, however, Prince Charming turned out to be a jerk. They don’t have that kind of support, and the cost of daycare is killing them.

Using satellite imagery and other remote sensing tools, Dr. Parcak explores subtle differences in topography, geology and plant life to expose forgotten sites from multiple lost cultures, explains Smithsonian magazine.  “She and her team have expanded the civilization’s known scope, spotting more than 3,000 ancient settlements, more than a dozen pyramids and over a thousand lost tombs, and uncovered the city grid of Tanis, of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame,” the article notes.

I admit it, she’s living my dream life. But that gives me a clue that maybe, just maybe, Dr. Parcak also gets help from her family, or at the very least a live-in nanny who likes to travel. For all my flexibility, there’s no way I could have managed a working trip to Egypt with my kids in tow, since my family lived more than 1,500 miles away.

None of this is to criticize Dr. Parcak. She’s amazing. But she is a woman of talent, intelligence and, yes, privilege. We need women like Dr. Parcak to tell the world that children need lots of time and attention. They aren’t always easy. They can be messy and inconvenient. They aren’t like wind-up dolls that can be put away on a shelf when you’re through with them.

A bigger problem: There is a bigger problem here that is talked about only sporadically, which is that the U.S. population, sans immigrants, is not replacing itself. The “replacement” fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age is generally considered enough to renew the population. In 2017, the total fertility rate dropped to 1.76 in the US, continuing a slide downward that started in the early 1970s.

Given concerns about resources, some might say that is a good thing.  This “replacement level,” however, is considered an important measure of demographic health and determines the stability of a population. Young people are needed to replace an aging workforce. And they are needed to generate stable tax revenues to continue to fund programs like Medicare and Social Security, whose costs will balloon when the population skews geriatric.

I don’t think there is any way to pretend that one of the reasons the birthrate is plummeting is because the rate of women in the workforce has soared—from 37 percent in 1962 to almost 61 percent in 2000, according to the Brookings Institute. In fact, it is my observation that men often expect their wives (or significant others) to work, valuing their role as cash cows over their role as mothers. And let me tell you, combining a career and  parenting is damn hard work, whether the primary caretaker is man or woman, and even if they completely share responsibilities.

It is interesting to note that, starting in 2000, the trend toward more women in the work force slowed, with women’s participation falling from 60.7 percent in 2000 to 57.2 in 2016. It is too early to tell if this means anything, but it is also interesting to note that the average woman today says she’d like to have about three children (actually 2.7 children, but that sounds a little scary), up from a low of about 2.3 children in the early 1990s. I’m not making this up; this comes from Lyman Stone, an agricultural economist and a research fellow for the Institute of Family Studies.

People have been talking about the demographic crisis in Europe for awhile now, but the fact is we’re starting to close the gap. Countries such as France and Japan have put pro-family policies in place to encourage couples to have babies. France now has the highest total fertility rate in the European Union (at 1.96), with Scandinavian countries and their generous pro-family also having having higher fertility rates than the EU of average of 1.6 children.

In fact, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that family-friendly policies introduced by the Nordic countries over the past 50 years, and the associated increases in female employment, have boosted gross domestic product per capita by between 10 percent and 20 percent. We need to think about doing the same in our United States.

“We need society to decide that it’s worth listening to women and easing the path to their desired family life,” economist Stone wrote in the Boston Globe, talking about the country’s “historic collapse in childbearing.”

I’m old enough to be Dr. Parcak’s mother, so forgive me for seeming old-fashioned and not appreciating how “sexist” it is to ask about managing full-time work and full-time children. I am of an age where I had friends who were discouraged from being anything but nurses or teachers. My widowed grandmother told me to never stop working, because men die or they go away. And my father told me I’d have to work twice as hard as any man to get the same recognition. I’m glad those days are over.

“Having vulnerable, beautiful, beloved dependents is like having had my own heart replicated and sent out into the world,” Laura Groff also told the Harvard Gazette. “Nothing feels more urgent to me than that.”

She gets it, and I’m sure every other celebrity mother who will stop and think about it does, too. And it would be most helpful if Laura Groff and Sarah Parcak and every other celebrity mother out there talked about the challenges, because I will certainly tell you that being a parent was the most demanding and difficult and fascinating job I ever had.

—Jacqueline White Kochak

 

How women got the vote (with my uncle’s help)

By Jacqueline White Kochak

I like to say my grandmother’s uncle won women the right to vote.

The state of American politics these days has got me ruminating about the uncle who died six years before I was born—a minor character in the drama of history, a forgotten footnote to a very important chapter.

He’s also my hero, a testament to the consequences of personal and political courage.


I pray that today’s legislators will learn to be true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.


Albert Houston Roberts was first a schoolteacher, then an attorney, then governor of Tennessee. He took office in 1919—just in time to help change history.

That year, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, 39 straightforward words that inflamed passions nationwide. If ratified by 36 states, the amendment would enfranchise women.

One by one, 35 states signed. One more was needed to complete the “Perfect 36,” but none of the recalcitrant Southern or Western states looked ready to budge.

August 1920 was muggy in Nashville. If Tennessee failed to pass the amendment in special session, it likely would die. Family lore says Roberts passionately believed women should vote. Opposition in Tennessee ran high, so Roberts called in every favor and used every ounce of influence to force the issue. In a close vote, the measure passed.

As a child, I discounted the story. My children still do. But journalist that I am I sensed a story. I wrote to American Heritage magazine, suggesting I research the story and record the process.

If the editor deigned to answer, I expected a thin letter. Instead, I got a thick packet. The story—far more dramatic than I imagined—already had been written.

That oppressive summer, the nation focused attention on Nashville, which teemed with reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington and Boston. Suffragists wrote letters, staged rallies and canvassed legislators. Telegrams shot back and forth between the White House and the State House in Nashville. Tempers flared.

Supporters wore yellow roses. Those opposed wore red. Legislators showed their sentiments by pinning roses to their lapels—and the roses showed the amendment would be defeated, 49-47.

A motion to table was defeated when one legislator switched sides. A vote on the amendment was called, and again legislators split, 48-48. A second vote was called, and young Harry Burn—red rose pinned brazenly to his collar—broke the deadlock and voted to enfranchise women. Pandemonium erupted, and Burn climbed out a a third-floor window to escape the mob. He hid in the Capitol attic.

Later, Burn explained that he wore a red rose, but in his pocket he carried his mother’s telegram. His mother’s wishes won out over political expediency and superficial coalitions. He voted for the controversial amendment.

The battle wasn’t over, however. Opponents managed to delay official ratification. Anti-suffrage legislators fled the state to avoid a quorum, and their associates held massive rallies. The coalition held, however, and Tennessee reaffirmed the vote.

On Aug. 28, my uncle signed the bill. Two days later, women earned the constitutional right that white men had possessed since the nation was born, and that black men had possessed since the 1860s.

What did Roberts’ courage win him? Absolutely nothing, in the pragmatists’s view. He’s not mentioned in the history books. Family legend says he was considered for inclusion in Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage but missed the cut. He failed in his bid for re-election and took up the practice of law with his son in Nashville.

He left a legacy, however, a legacy of which his family, his state and his country can be proud. Now, as a government shutdown threatens and rumors of corruption are rampant, I pray that our legislators will become true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.

Photo: Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts (1868–1946) certifying the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Memphis suffragist Charl Williams stands watching. Photo credit: Nashville Tennessean (in the Tennessee State Library and Archives).

My cousin Paula

On Sunday mornings, strange thoughts waft through my cluttered mind. Oh, the blood (and DNA) will tell!


Jacqueline White Kochak

I do my best thinking about people when I’m sitting in a choir stall at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on a Sunday morning, gazing out at hundreds of mostly white faces. I’m euphoric as my choir mates and I sing, but then my mind wanders. I know I should be minding Father Bill’s pithy homily, but the temptation to ruminate about people and their foibles, with such a wealth of examples laid out before me, is irresistible.

I watch a trim, handsome widower as he links arms with a young woman who once attended Mass with her former husband and their young son, and I wonder how the transition came about. I look for my friends. I wonder why that skinny teenager is dressed as though she is going to the beach. And often, the thought that wafts through my cluttered mind is that I’m more closely related to Paula Whatley Matabane, a “black” woman, than I am to any of these parishioners.

Most of the people in my church are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Polish and Italian and Irish and German immigrants from Europe, the Catholic refuse that washed up on America’s shores. I am separated from these people by many, many generations, and we share little but pale skin. My family, on the other hand, has been here since the 1600s and early 1700s, fanning out from Virginia and moving west.

I am separated from Paula by a mere five generations, and my mother is even closer to her—and my grandmother closer still. We both know the sad history that made us distant cousins, and that is another thing I ruminate upon. How could I, in my amnesiac present, not know that my family owned slaves? Many slaves, apparently.

I’ve seen their names in my forebears’ wills, parceling out Sally to a daughter, Tom to a son, sometimes with specific instructions that one not be sold, but that her “increase” be divided among the heirs. The passage of many years and many miles is part of the reason my family has been blessed with amnesia. Otherwise, the understanding might be unbearable.

Editor’s note: The artwork is from my daughter’s current show in Miami. Paula and I are writing down our thoughts about our new relationship, so I might share a few of them here. You can learn more about Natalya Kochak’s project here. And here is an interesting article on the subject of skin color. 

A hacker stole my money

A 73-year-old widow by the name of Margaret thought she met a nice man on match.com. In fact her suitor was a hacker who stole $20,000 from us, and she laundered his money. You could be a victim, too.


Last April, I took a guided tour through the world of cyber-crime. I learned brand-new (to me) words like “phishing” and took a peek into the dark world of catfishing and romance scams. I was lucky—my education cost only $20,000. Others have gotten the same education but it cost them 10 times as much.

The cast of characters includes my husband, my adult daughter, a lovesick lady I don’t know who lives in the Chicago suburbs, and a South African scammer. And the cast includes me, of course, as well as a hapless realtor and the executives of a prominent Chicago realty firm.


She wasn’t talking with the real estate agent. She was chatting with a hacker who may have been in South Africa.


The story starts in midtown Chicago, where my daughter Emma lived in a tiny, crowded basement apartment with her significant other and young son, Damien. The little family needed a bigger place. When my husband’s father left us a substantial inheritance several years earlier, he stipulated that part was to help our children buy homes.

My excited daughter, Emma, started condo shopping. Working with a well-known Chicago realty firm, she found a nice, updated condominium with wood floors and a new kitchen, located on a tree-lined street near busy Lincoln Square on the city’s north side. Once she found the property, she communicated via email with the realtor, who I’ll call Sheila Kennedy.

The realty company, @properties, is the largest real estate brokerage firm in the state of Illinois and one of the top 12 residential brokers in the U.S. With more than 20 offices around the city, the company is respected and successful. We certainly didn’t expect any problems.

CHATTING WITH A HACKER: Emma frequently exchanged pleasantries with Sheila. We later learned, however, that she wasn’t talking with Sheila much of the time. She was chatting innocently with a hacker who may have been in South Africa, someone who had commandeered Sheila’s account against her will and without her knowledge. Maybe it was that 400-pound hacker working from his bedroom that then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump mentioned during the first presidential debate?

One imagines hackers as brilliant guys who know all about various programming languages and how to write code to exploit weaknesses in a network. They seek out open ports in a system, figure out a way to crack passwords (that’s why strong passwords are so important), give themselves administrative privileges, and create backdoors so they can get back into systems. Then they take over, wreaking havoc if they wish but usually just sneaking around gathering information and hiding their “footprints” as they go.

If that sounds complicated, it is. And that’s probably not how the hackers got access to Sheila’s email. They probably used a simple “phishing” scheme, meaning they sent her an innocent-looking email from someone she thought was a friend, asking her to click on a link or download a PDF. Somehow—I’m not knowledgeable enough to know how—communications from my daughter to Sheila were then diverted.

“The scheme was very sophisticated,” I heard over and over again from bank and police officers both at home in Alabama and in Chicago.

Sheila’s last real email was dated April 8. She asked that a check for $2,000 earnest money be mailed to Dream Town Realty. Her following e-mails—from the same gmail account, with all the same addresses and slogans at the bottom—came from the imposter. The new emails even boasted, “Top Agent Magazine, 2014 & 2015,” and “Chicago Top Producer 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 & 2014.”

“I have a busy schedule today with closings and meeting, I will wait on your email,” says one. “I hope you are keeping safe from all the storms and tornadoes,” reads another, and “I hope you had a nice Easter,” says yet another.

The one thing all the emails had in common was continual reminders about the necessity of wiring the $20,000 down payment to the title company. The emails continued to be friendly, their tone casual.

“Sorry I was in a showing since 8am, just got your email, I am walking into another meeting till 4pm, Let me know once the wire has been done,” the hacker wrote, for example.

AN ARDENT SUITOR: In the meantime, a 73-year-old widow by the name of Margaret thought she had met a very nice man on match.com. A devout Catholic, she lived in the northwest Chicago suburb of Algonquin and had built a reputation as a talented artisan, arranging beautiful floral arrangements in collectibles such as vintage china or a tiny child’s wooden sled. Margaret’s Swiss-born husband, Walter, had died recently, so she was testing the waters after many years of marriage. She was the perfect prey for a romance scam—catfishing, it’s called.


Her suitor was a businessman building a hospital in China, and he needed emergency funds.   


Romance scammers prey on nice people. They look for kind people, people with empathy. They build trust, setting their snares. When they need help, the nice lady or the nice man responds. Margaret is lucky she didn’t lose a lot of money; the criminal behind this particular elaborate scheme only wanted a legitimate bank account in the Chicago area where the marks—my husband and me—could wire money without our suspicions being aroused.

Margaret wasn’t suspicious, either. Her suitor was a businessman building a hospital in China. He had a need for emergency funds. When the money was wired into her account, she immediately sent it on to China. At least that’s where she thought the money went. Police later told me they traced our $20,000 to South Africa. Technically, Margaret was a money-launderer. Nobody thought of pressing charges, however.

We would have been on guard immediately if we had been instructed to wire money to a foreign account. In fact, we were on guard soon after, when “Sheila” asked us to wire another $60,000 as part of the purchase price. We knew that didn’t sound right because that money should have come from mortgage proceeds, and we hadn’t completed the process. We immediately started asking questions.

As soon as we confirmed that Sheila knew nothing about the $20,000, we contacted an @properties vice president I’ll call Wayne Kelly. He let slip that another couple turned up for a closing that same afternoon, thinking they wired $60,000 to a title company. As I researched the subject, I found this type of wire fraud is common in real-estate transactions. People have wired hundreds of thousands of dollars into bank accounts controlled by criminals.

AVOID BEING A VICTIM: What would I tell someone to do to avoid being a victim? Some states actually require that funds be transferred before closing via wire transfer—ironically, to avoid scams using fake cashier’s checks. When you get wire instructions for your closing, call your closing agent or your real estate attorney to verify those instructions. And use the phone number you’ve been using with them, not a new phone number emailed to you.

Also, absolutely refuse to communicate with your realtor or any other party to the transaction if he or she is using a free email server like gmail. Free email accounts are more vulnerable because they don’t have the firewalls, virus protection and other security of company-issued e-mail accounts. Any real estate company that hasn’t warned its agents is negligent—but the law is sketchy, so that can be hard to prove in court.

If you don’t want to be an inadvertent money launderer (or worse, get scammed yourself), be cautious on dating sites. Anyone can put up a fake photo of a debonair gent or beautiful young woman, and these scammers will spend hours drawing you out and listening to your dreams and schemes. If they profess their love too soon, be suspicious—especially if they’re in a foreign country and claim to have no family.

Some are more patient, though, and will spend months wooing you with intimate conversation. As soon as they ask for money, though, run the other direction.

I’ve tried to find Margaret to learn more about her experience. She’s no longer at her home in Algonquin, and her phone is disconnected. I tracked her down on Facebook and learned she’s moved into a retirement community. I tried sending her a message but got no reply. I’m sure she’s embarrassed, but I bear her no ill will. I just want to share the story so others will be careful.

I’ve had to tell the story to bank officials, our investment adviser (who took care of wiring the funds), and police officers in two states, as well as filing a report with the FBI and Equifax. The worst thing was enduring an interview with an embarrassed representative from a local senior services agency, who was tasked with determining whether I was in full possession of all my faculties.

As I talked to all these people, I learned that variations on wire fraud scams are shockingly common. One wealthy man in the small town where I live lost over $250,000. Fortunately he could afford to lose it, a police officer told me.

Most of us can’t, so be careful.