Long ago and far away, I married an insurance salesman.
I suppose I share some of the responsibility for my husband’s chosen profession. Pre-marriage the guy worked as a barroom bouncer, and throwing unruly customers out of bars wasn’t going to support the needs of our forthcoming baby, or even those of a middle-class princess like me. So when B. ran into an old high school friend who, with no college or special training, was making pots of money selling life insurance, it didn’t take much to persuade him to go into the business.
I had an immediate instinctual aversion for the insurance business, which at the time I couldn’t explain or articulate. At eighteen I knew next to nothing about how the world worked, but the notion of men buying insurance so that if they died their wives and children would be financially secure gave me the creeps. It highlighted my reality, the reality of all the middle-class wives I knew: we were helpless creatures incapable of providing for ourselves in any way, shape or form. I may have been young and ignorant, but inside I was already the person I eventually grew into: independent-minded, proud, and fiercely feminist.
This is how life insurance works: take someone you love, your spouse or sibling perhaps, and go find a stranger who’ll accept a really big bet that this person you love will die prematurely. To clarify: you’re betting he or she will die, while the stranger is betting they’ll live to a ripe old age. The whole concept is seriously creepy.
B. sold mainly life insurance, a booming business in those days—it was where the companies made their biggest killing—but occasionally he also sold medical insurance. My best friend’s brother-in-law bought a medical policy for himself, his wife, and their as-yet unborn baby. Six months later, the baby turned out to be twins. At five months old, one of the twins got horribly sick and died. The tragedy touched a wide circle of friends: none of us had yet experienced this kind of capricious evil. When the grieving parents submitted their hospital bills to the insurance company, they discovered that infants under six months old weren’t covered. Nobody, including my husband, had read the fine print. To B.’s credit, he busted his ass trying to help, and felt like crap when he couldn’t (but not crappy enough to leave the biz).
As the wife of an insurance salesman, it fell to me to throw dinner parties for his colleagues, and every so often to attend conventions. I welcomed the conventions as escape from my stifling suburban life. While the men went to meetings, the other wives and I would lounge by the hotel pool or go shopping; occasionally the company planned little tours for us to places like glass factories or gushing geysers.
Much about these events disgusted me. I have never forgotten the first keynote speech I sat in on, where some older hotshot executive said he’d never known a successful salesman whose wife “asked him to pick up a quart of milk on the way home.” He pontificated on this theme for a good ten minutes. It was no accident that the wives had been invited.
I left B. after six years, two toddlers in tow. Friends could not believe I’d leave a marriage in which the sex was still good. My family couldn’t believe I was leaving a hard-working Jewish man and my lovely house (it was) in the ‘burbs. When I refused to accept alimony (which I now heartily regret) my mother nearly had a heart attack.
But by that time I was a budding Marxist and hippie. When I drove my kids to their preschool, modeled on A.S. Neill’s free school movement, I was embarrassed to let the other parents see my shiny new Corvair, and I wouldn’t allow B. to pick them up in his Cadillac. I was conflicted and burdened by our growing pile of possessions; I wanted to give everything away and drive cross-country in a Volkswagen van. This B. refused to do.
But I digress. My point is, from the first moment this country began talking about health care reform, I have not understood why politicians insist on keeping insurance companies in the process. Or why the dialogue always begins by saying X number of people don’t have insurance. It isn’t insurance we need, it’s health care. Throw the goddam companies out and start from scratch. A middleman only means another potential level of corruption.
In this latest round of health care reform talk, President Obama insists we have to keep the insurance companies, when once upon a time he was in favor of single-payer health care. Why is everyone, from the most conservative Republican to the President, scared of the insurance industry? True, a few people aren’t: Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, a scattering of ngo’s pushing single-payer–but this is hardly a groundswell of support. I wonder what it would take; hundreds and hundreds of stories about the mercenary motives of HMO’s and insurance companies haven’t put a chink in their armor.
(For a really good assessment of why single-payer isn’t being embraced, as well as a list of groups supporting it, see an article by Michael Lerner in Tikkun.)
Listening to the judicial hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, I began wondering about Judge Ruth Ginsburg, who last year had pancreatic cancer. I’m amazed she’s still around, because my experience with pancreatic cancer was when a friend’s sister, a dirt poor fifty-something woman who didn’t see a doctor for back pain because she couldn’t afford it, was diagnosed with the same thing. She died less than four months later. To quote a line from the poet Amiri Baraka,
Can you imagine anything more horrible than capitalism?