Jessie O’Neill, author of The Golden Ghetto, grew up in Gulf Stream and lives in coastal Delray Beach. Her grandfather served as U.S. defense secretary. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Jessie O’Neill gained some measure of celebrity after her book, The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, was published in 1996, and an even greater one when affluence was used as a defense for murder in a 2013 trial in Texas.
O’Neill, who has an oceanfront residence near the Delray Beach Club, knows about affluence.
Her grandfather Charles Erwin Wilson was the president of General Motors as well as secretary of defense under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nepotism was common in those days, so Wilson gave each of his six children a car dealership. Her father, Phil Hoyle, wound up with Hoyle Cadillac, a Delray Beach fixture for many years.
Going to the best schools and living a privileged life made O’Neill something of an expert on the subject, and when she was looking for a topic for her master’s thesis, she related her past to her adviser at Goddard College, Ellen Cole.
“We talked about my grandfather’s family, the six children, and how I had watched the destruction that wealth had brought into the different families, and how it wasn’t spoken about,” O’Neill said. “Money was always a god, nobody speaks bad about money, and more is always better, how people buy out of the consequences of their behavior with money, all sorts of things. So she said, ‘There’s your thesis and there’s your book.’ ”
O’Neill became in demand for counseling and speaking, and traveled extensively until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks tempered that demand. “So I took that time to do more one-on-one counseling, either by phone or in person, and less traveling,” she said,
Affluenza made national headlines in 2013 when the lawyer for Ethan Couch, who had killed four people in a car accident in Texas, used it as his defense. O’Neill, 68, never testified at trial but was often interviewed on TV as an expert on affluenza.
“I never said it was a defense for murder,” she said. “I’m sure affluenza had a lot to do with it: He was drunk, there was poor parenting, there was entitlement issues, all the stuff that’s part of affluenza. But even rich kids know the difference between right and wrong.”
O’Neill most recently gave a lecture on affluenza at the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach.
— Brian Biggane
Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A: I grew up in Gulf Stream and went to Gulf Stream School when it was just a couple of converted polo stables. The school was originally created to accommodate the children of the polo players who came down from up North for the season. There were only a handful of us who attended full-time. Full-time was Oct. 15 through May 15, with a month off at Christmas and spring break. I had a horse we kept next door at the stables, which I rode before and after school.
Attending a small school taught me the value of one-on-one relationships, and it certainly allowed me the luxury of a great deal of individual attention from my teachers. Growing up in Florida in the ’50s and ’60s, surrounded by nature and sunshine, has given me a lifelong appreciation for nature and the outdoors.
I graduated high school in 1967 from what was then called Palm Beach Private and is now Palm Beach Day School. I spent two years at Rollins College, then transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1971. I received my master’s degree in psychology and counseling from Goddard College in 1990. My master’s thesis was “The Psychology of Affluence,” which became the basis for my book, The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, published by Hazelden in 1996.
Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: I have had many jobs, but only one profession. In 1993, three other professionals in psychology and I opened the Acacia Clinic, a full psychiatric service clinic in Milwaukee, where I lived with my two daughters. I worked as a counselor there for several years before my book came out. I hit the road speaking, counseling and doing workshops all based on the term “affluenza,” which I defined in my book.
I had much more than my allotted 15 minutes of fame, appearing on many television talk shows (Oprah, 20/20, Inside Edition, etc.) and news shows (CBS, NBC, etc.), doing hundreds of radio interviews and traveling the world working with individuals, families and organizations on the psychology of money, affluenza, and how it affects our relationships, personal and professional.
I am very proud of my work. My driving force has always been to help people, to make a difference in the world. I hope and believe that I have touched the lives of many people in a positive way. I believe I have, and continue to achieve my mission.
Q: What advice do you have for a young person seeking a career today?
A: My advice would be simple: Follow your heart. Whatever makes your heart sing will get you out of bed in the morning to take on another day. As I look at children with affluence, there’s not a money motivator. So when money isn’t motivating a young person, that person has to find out what is their mission, what makes them want to get out of bed. It tends to take children of affluence a longer time to find what path they want to follow.
In terms of an everyday person, what’s changed is there’s this student debt hanging over kids, which is a real problem. So young people are starting to look at other avenues. Maybe going to college isn’t the be-all, end-all. Going to a trade school, opening a coffee shop, something that allows them to make a living but not a four- or eight-year education that’s going to cost them for the rest of their lives. I see a shift in that.
Q: How did you choose to make your home in Delray Beach?
A: I have come back here from various places all over the country. My father, Phil Hoyle, was the first Cadillac and Oldsmobile dealer in Delray. He opened Hoyle Cadillac and Oldsmobile in 1951 and built the core of the building which houses Ed Morse Cadillac now. I am happily semi-retired in our not-so-little-anymore Village by the Sea. I spend my days painting, swimming and playing canasta. Both my daughters and my two grandchildren live here. I am truly blessed.
Q: What do you enjoy most about living in Delray Beach?
A: I love the weather, and I’m fortunate enough to live on the ocean, so I get to look at the ocean every day. The beach. I’m retired, and there are a lot of people down here my age, so even though I’m single there’s no lack of social things to do. I enjoy that, and I enjoy the fact I’m not sloshing through the snow to get there. I enjoy playing cards, and my second career, if you want to call it that, is as an artist. I spend a lot of time painting. I used to have a little studio where I painted and had a few little openings, but it was never a gallery. I’m not that good. But it’s fun.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: I read a lot of whodunits, mysteries, and half the time I don’t remember the name after I’ve finished. It’s not like I’m reading for a great, higher purpose. One I’ve read lately is The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, by Scott Peck. It’s a psychology book. Also, Living a Life of Value, a composite by several authors who have added value to their lives and then shared their stories.
Q: What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A: I listen to a lot of Il Divo, four tenors that sing a sort of pop opera. I also listen to other tenors on Pandora, but they just waft out into the ether. I like harmony a lot. And I like country western for that reason. I like Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood, and on the male side Blake Shelton. It’s kind of an odd duo, but country western also has a lot of harmony. Country western is more for when I’m painting, and Il Divo is more for relaxing.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote?
A: “That which does not kill you, makes you stronger,” by Friedrich Nietzsche. I also like “There is no there there,” by Gertrude Stein. In therapy people have the misconception that they’re going to be better in six months or a year. We do that in life, too; there’s this endless belief that some day we’re going to get there. And the truth is there is no there. It’s a process and one day the process ends. It isn’t so much a destination.
Q: Do you have a mentor? A person who has inspired your life decisions?
A: I had many great teachers and mentors along the way, each encouraging and guiding me in their own way. One was an English teacher at Rollins who encouraged me to transfer to UNC and study creative writing at a “real” school. Teachers at UNC who saw talent when I saw none and showed me the beauty of learning and the joy of achievement.
Also, my adviser at Goddard College, Ellen Cole, who cared enough to hear my life story and help me realize my mission lay within that story.
And my aunt Betty Hunt was a guiding beacon of sanity and love. She showed me what compassion and dedication were and stood by my side at all times. I miss her to this day.
Q: If your life was made into a movie, who should play you?
A: Meryl Streep. Not sure why, except I like her!