"How can a woman with a closet so full feel so empty inside?"
That's the question fashion writer Avis Cardella kept asking herself during the depths of her compulsive shopping addiction—one that drove her to shop every day just for the "retail high," to forgo food in order to buy designer clothes, and to fill her closet with bulging but unopened shopping bags.
Meanwhile, her credit-card bills ballooned and her rent went unpaid.
In Cardella's confessional narrative, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict, she traces the deep psychological roots of her dependence—a surprisingly widespread affliction that often gets dismissed as "irrelevant" or "simply what women do." Cardella tries to blame this nasty habit on fashion magazines and social forces.
In September 2001, Cardella reminds us, President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani urged Americans to display their patriotism by going shopping. And even in our current economic crisis—one fueled in part by unconstrained borrowing—we consumers have kept right on spending. Significant reductions in our consumption would transform an economy like ours radically and uncomfortably.
From her more self-aware position a decade on, Cardella looks back at how she used shopping both to define and to avoid herself. In the late 1990s, when she was working as a freelance writer and living in Manhattan, Cardella allowed the men she dated to finance what her writing jobs could not: a "carefully calibrated" image based on a perfect wardrobe, a circle of chic friends, and frequent weekends in the Hamptons. (With her avowed "quest for superficial perfection," the author seems perversely determined to deflect our sympathies.) Yet Cardella was hardly the first, the only, or the last consumer to fall prey to America's "national preoccupation with having more, consuming more, and displaying more of the materialistic symbols of success." Her fellow shopping addicts pop up in three centuries, from Mary Todd Lincoln to Imelda Marcos to Victoria Beckham. Cardella also weaves in research and statistics (at least 6 percent of Americans have a compulsion to shop) to bolster her argument that we have a national shopping problem—and that it must be recognized and resolved.
For all her protestations of outside influence, Cardella's root issue is psychological, not social. She used clothing to shape and reformat herself, creating a polished exterior designed to ward off self-doubt and insulate herself from grief at her mother's death. Her fragile self-esteem funneled her right into "the lacquer of the good life," and she liked this society-approved "external artifice" better than her own self and sense of style.
As she retraces her shopping symptoms—dodging creditors' calls, borrowing money from friends, eating less in order to spend more—Cardella indeed appears unbalanced. Her edgy voice is diffident and biting, yet it is also exaggerated and blasé, replete with sarcastic asides and characterizations that sound witty but unintentionally raise the question of whether she might be prone to prevarication.
Immersing readers in her life like this is risky and courageous—as is Spent's exposure of this undeniably fascinating and important subject. As a narrative, however, Cardella's book comes off much like her mother's embarrassing rabbit-fur jacket: "pieced together from different-colored scraps." Isolated anecdotes are linked by clunky transitions, and the book's tenuous arc seems to mirror the author's instability; it marches ahead with no discernible direction, detailing every retail fix but neglecting certain key events altogether, such as the romantic ruptures that she claims stoked her addiction.
But this aimlessness is also endemic to the topic at hand. Unlike alcoholics or drug addicts, compulsive shoppers can't go cold turkey; there are groceries to buy, worn shoes to replace, and other life functions to meet. Facing the challenge of "recontextualiz[ing] myself as someone who was defined neither by her ability to shop nor by her possessions," Cardella decamps for decidedly less consumer-centric Paris.
If every American embraced "conscious consumption"—a saner retail approach in which customers purchase things to supplement, not suppress, who they are—the ubiquitous and seemingly benign act of shopping might lose the seamy underbelly that leaves us feeling Spent.
Christine Thomas is a Hawaii-based freelance book critic and writer.