Writer transforms financial losses into spiritual gains

Standing in the kitchen of her Marin home one winter afternoon, Geneen Roth learned that she had lost everything.

Roth and her husband, Matt, had invested their entire life savings in what they thought was a sure thing. A friend of theirs had been investing in the fund for years. The gains were steady, and for a long time, nothing seemed amiss.

That investment, however, was with Bernie Madoff, and on Dec. 11, 2008, while her husband was on a three-week “mancation” in Antarctica, Roth got a call informing her that Madoff had been arrested for running a Ponzi scheme. All the couple’s hard-earned money — nearly $1 million — was gone.

Geneen Roth

Roth’s new book, “Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money,” chronicles her post-Madoff introspection and what she came to realize about her unhealthy relationship with money.

“I had to reorient the way I looked at the entire world,” Roth said in an interview. “It was about really understanding that I had been confusing ‘more’ and ‘enough.’ ”

Roth has worked for more than 30 years teaching, leading workshops and writing about women’s relationships with food. She has published nine books, including the New York Times best-seller “Women Food and God,” about the connection between emotional eating and spirituality.

She will lead a workshop June 10 and 11 titled “Women, Food and God (and Money, Too!)” at the Sofitel hotel in Redwood City.

Roth was raised in New York by Jewish parents, though “we were definitely not religious,” she said. “And yet there was a strong sense of being Jewish throughout my life.”

Her parents were poor early on in their marriage — Roth’s father worked two jobs, seven days a week. But after he graduated from law school, he quickly climbed the corporate ladder, and the money followed — as did the unhappiness.

Most of her father’s family had been killed in the Holocaust, and “there was a sense in my family that God had abandoned us and it was every person for him or herself,” Roth added. “Money became the god.”

Feeling a lack of spirituality in her upbringing, Roth eventually became a follower of Buddhist teachings, many of which are sprinkled throughout “Lost and Found.”

It is perhaps because of her Buddhist beliefs that despite her hardships, and her friends’ losses (some derived their income solely from their Madoff investments), Roth doesn’t feel anger toward the man who defrauded investors of $65 billion. In fact, she

doesn’t feel much of anything.

“I think he was confused,” she said. “But I think the jury system and legal system has handled it, and whatever I feel about Madoff doesn’t really matter.

“I do think he’s experiencing the consequences of his actions,” she added, noting his son’s suicide and his wife’s pariah status.

Life after Madoff wasn’t easy. The Roths had all of their savings invested with him; their combined checking accounts held a total of $5,000, the only other money they had.

“I ate sardines and hard-boiled eggs for a long time,” Roth said.

Eventually, though, things began to turn around. A year and a half after their savings disappeared, Geneen’s book “Women Food and God” hit the best-seller list. Today she is in high demand as a speaker, writer and workshop leader.

But the biggest transformation, Roth explained, came when she delved inward to discover what scared

and discomforted her so much about financial matters. That introspection enabled her to develop a new relationship with money.

“I’m much more aware of what I do have and what enough is,” she said. “I’m constantly aware of that, and that the way I used to see things is not the way they are.”

In the current economic climate, a book about a well-to-do woman’s financial losses may not have obvious appeal to the average middle-class citizen struggling with finances. But Roth insists her story is universal.

“I don’t think this book is about wealth,” she said. “It’s about loss, anyone who’s had any loss at all — whether it’s the loss of a job, a child, a divorce.”

The message, she added, is that everyone has “the ability to survive a loss no matter what that loss is, and everybody, no matter how it appears in the moment, has a few things that they have enough of. And if they begin focusing on those, it changes things.”

Geneen Roth will host the “Women, Food and God (and Money, Too!)” workshop June 10 and 11 at the Sofitel San Francisco, 223 Twin Dolphin Drive, Redwood City. Registration is $295. Information: www.geneenroth.com.