See Jane Run… to Jail
It’s fitting that the College Admissions Bribery Scandal’s biggest star, Lori Loughlin, can expect her criminal sentence the very week the fall academic semester begins at USC, the university she and her husband duped into accepting her two daughters. Still, I can’t stop thinking about another blond cheater mom who touched me personally: Jane Buckingham.
Jane was the marketing whiz and parenting author who paid $50,000 for a proctor to take the ACT for her son Jack — so he, too, could nab a place at USC. She was once my friend. The cringeworthy story of how I got dumped foreshadowed the same impulses that would drive Jane and her co-conspirators to commit felonies fifteen years later: the siren song of social advancement. (I heard the song too, but only enough to get egg on my face.)
I got to know Jane when our kids attended preschool together — a charming school located in a beautiful church in Beverly Hills. A friend had recommended it, saying it was excellent (it wasn’t), cheap (not really), and a quick drive down Coldwater Boulevard from our house in Laurel Canyon (this last part was true). But it was cleaner and more appealing than the makeshift schools we had toured in the muddy back yards of bungalows closer to home.
On the other hand, it was chock full of celebrities (Jodie Foster, Kelsey Grammar, Larry King and others) and we didn’t know if that was a positive or negative. Jane was a friendly face in a sea of botox, huge engagement rings and thousand dollar shoes. She was attractive, successful, connected and rich, but she also seemed pretty down to earth.
Our kids became friends, and so did we.
Young Jack had trouble making friends with the boys. He was socially awkward, a bit of a drooler. Our daughter was happy to play with him, though, so Jane and husband Marcus sought out our friendship. At first, there were playdates for the kids’ sake; then little by little we parents developed a friendship. Our families got together on weekends; we left our daughter with their babysitter and the four of us would go out to dinner. My husband remembers me being “very excited” about our new friends because they were beautiful people (ouch). But more than that, I think we were all having fun.
One Saturday, we had plans to hang out at the the Buckinghams’ home in Beverly Hills. What we didn’t know was that Jack had by now made friends with a boy classmate, obviating the need for our daughter — and by extension, us. We headed to their house with a picnic dinner from Whole Foods and a bottle of wine. A short while in, another family showed up: Billy Baldwin, his wife Chynna Phillips and their six-year-old daughter. We hadn’t heard they were coming, but no biggie. Everyone was nice. Everyone swam and socialized.
At one point we were chatting in the kitchen with Jane and Marcus. Our daughter walked in to announce she was hungry. I proposed breaking out the picnic. Marcus gave his wife a meaningful look and exited to the pool. Jane then gently confided, eyes full of sympathy, that “unfortunately, they had made dinner plans with the Baldwins.” There was an awkward pause as the meaning of her words sunk in: uh… what? Suddenly, we’re no longer their friends; we’re Piggy getting the boulder dropped on his head in Lord of the Flies. Minutes later, we had packed up our swim things and fled in shame. I’m pretty sure we left the picnic behind.
We were hurt and embarrassed. We also felt betrayed, as you would if you’d been suckered by an actual friend. Probably we should have seen it coming.
“Why had we ever imagined these people wanted to be our friends?” I lamented to my husband on the way home. I’d often heard about beautiful people behaving badly, but never been on the receiving end — at least, not this up-close-and-personal. Luckily, our daughter was too young to catch the drift, but my husband and I had no such excuse. We were just stupid.
People become friends for a lot of reasons, but the hard truth is, there’s always some kind of mutual gain. Either it’s about reinforcement — you share values and lifestyles — or the new friends somehow raise your status or “self-concept.” People generally don’t befriend someone they perceive as “beneath them” unless there’s a very good reason (i.e. their friendless kid). Despite our similar educations and fields of work, the Buckinghams clearly saw us as beneath them, while viewing themselves as VIPs-in-the-making, busy navigating their glittering social ascent in Beverly Hills. We were expendable.
And that was the end. No apology, no attempt at amends. We were cancelled.
Looking back, I suppose I had naively assumed that privileged, educated adults couldn’t possibly behave so badly. Turns out, that’s exactly how they behave, and there’s scientific evidence why.
In an article titled, “Why rich parents are more likely to be unethical” for the science, news and technology website Phys.org, David M. Mayer, a Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan writes that “wealthy and privileged [people]… are willing to violate norms of appropriate and socially agreed upon conduct.” Jane and Marcus made a quick calculation that throwing us under the bus for the sake of a dinner with the Baldwins was worth it. It was cold, but who knew what that dinner would lead to? And clearly we weren’t going to bring them any more upside, now that Jack had a male friend at preschool.
The same principle justified cheating Jack’s way into USC. “When it comes to the wealthy and privileged, a sense of entitlement, or a belief that one is deserving of privileges over others, can play an important role in unethical conduct… Because they feel deserving of more than their fair share, they are willing to violate norms of appropriate and socially agreed upon conduct …[and] lie, steal and cheat more to get what they desire.” In other words, to get Jack his due, Jane had to shatter another child’s college dream.
Kids, of course, play a critical role in their parents’ self-concept. “The success, or failure, of one’s children often has implications for how parents view themselves and are viewed by others. They are more likely to bask in the reflected glory of their children. They seem to gain esteem based on their connection to successful children. This means parents can be motivated by self-interest to ensure their children’s achievement.”
Your child’s admission to a college like USC confirms not just his success, but yours. And if he doesn’t get in, that’s a direct hit to you. But it’s hard to get into a good college. So what do you do if your kid isn’t USC material? If you’re a wealthy and privileged person, the idea that any door is closed to you is simply unacceptable. So you do what you gotta do.
It’s not about the kids. It’s about the parents.
Recently, I came across Jane’s book while cleaning out my garage.
She had proudly given it to me shortly after publication back in 2004. With its bubblegum pink cover and 1950s-style graphics, I remember thinking it looked more like a Spanx catalog than a book. That may not have been unintentional. Like the underwear, the book promises to smooth the unsightly lumps and bumps of your less-than-lovely real life.
“[This book] will let you cheat without getting caught — or even feel like you’re cheating… It’s living for dummies and living the best life you deserve.” “Dummies” is no euphemism; in a section called “How to sound smart at an art gallery opening,” Jane assures her readers “you only need to know four or five painters” and offers a one-page primer. By contrast, there are pages and pages of recipes.
My daughter, who grew up read everything in our house, reminded me of a dinner party hack that once bewildered her eight-year-old self: “send your… willing male admirer out to Mickey D’s to pick up three orders of large fries,” which you then warm up in the oven and pass off as your own. Talk about a priceless bit of foreshadowing.
The first Guide was eventually followed by a Guide to motherhood and a Guide to “Sticky Situations.” (The latter became a gold mine post-scandal for mean memes.) The thesis of all of them is that life should be approached with an attitude of blithe entitlement. Entitlement to what? you might ask.
Jane never addresses this question, probably because to her, the answer is self-evident: that access to the right parties, the right places and the right people is seen simply as a worthwhile end in itself.
It’s Sex and the City without the irony —and also pure Hollywood. Jane’s dream, I finally realized, had always been to attain the star status of the celebrities she worked so hard to rub shoulders with.
On March 12th, 2019, I was driving home from work when Larry Mantle of KPCC reported that dozens of wealthy parents had been caught trying to game the admissions systems at Yale, Stanford, UCLA, USC and other big-name colleges. This was just prior to the announcement of college acceptances to nervous high school seniors, including my daughter. So when I heard Jane Buckingham’s name, my brain flooded with schadenfreude. With a mixture of horror and relief, I rushed home to tell my husband and daughter.
Soon, parents everywhere were being treated to the media skewering of these apex predator moms and dads. Jane was ridiculed as the “parenting expert” who gaslit her own son and posted “Dont [sic] Cheat” messages on her Instagram. Poor Jack was hounded and quickly apologized: “I was unknowingly involved in a large scheme that helps give kids who may not work as hard as others an advantage over those who truly deserve those spots.” We felt for the guy.
For me, reading the indictment was like revisiting the restaurant where you once got food poisoning. “I know this is craziness, I know it is,” Jane purrs to Singer in her widely quoted call. “I need you to get [Jack] into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East.” The breezy tone, the sassy humor, the blunt expectation of getting the best of everything no matter who you have to step on, gave me a nauseating sense of déja vu. I could almost hear the little laugh at the end of her speech, as if to say, “Sure, it’s wacky, but we VIPs do what we gotta do!”
But character, as the saying goes, is destiny.
Last fall, in the ultimate poetic twist, my daughter began college at USC. She worked incredibly hard to get there and we’re bursting with pride.
Last fall also saw Jane Buckingham’s life change significantly. Boston’s federal court sentenced her to three weeks in prison for fraud and conspiracy. (I admit I thought of Gore Vidal’s famous remark, “It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.”)
So yes, perhaps I reveled a little bit when Jane finally got her comeuppance. At the same time, I know that long-ago mortifying encounter showed me a little too invested in an “upwardly mobile” friendship. Social ambition was the bug that bit both of us.
Check out my other articles on Medium, including Love Among the Ruins: When Reproduction Goes Wrong, Two Bald Eagles Inspire.
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