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Kristin Collier| Longreads | November 2021 | 6,596 words (21 minutes)
I open the email at 9:30 a.m. in my retrofitted, windowless office on the second floor of a high school in St. Paul. The fluorescent lights are so bright and the walls so white that sometimes I look up from my computer screen and feel as if I’m in a dream. Everything blurs and bends. Here, I shield myself from my students’ bodies, from their breath, in between teaching classes. I remove my mask, just briefly, to eat lunch while refreshing a COVID Tracking Map. November 3, 2020: 1,040 people died in the U.S. from COVID-19.
I read the email’s subject line: “The results of your request are now available in a paperless inbox,” before noticing the sender is American Education Services, a private student loan servicer. The body of the email informs me that AES has added a message to the inbox: something about new loan terms that will require me to begin payments in December. I minimize the screen and scan the room quickly as if the desk lamp and the growing stack of compostable knives can see the message. I pull the screen up and read the email again, willing the language to be different this time, but it’s not. My AES account, along with accounts from a handful of other private loan servicers, was settled in 2018 after protracted and painful negotiations that had begun years earlier. What remains, or what I thought remained, is $2,000 in federal student loan debt. But now there appears to be a new loan, something left unsettled. I close the computer screen. Elbows on white table. Head in hands. I cry.
The email from AES is the first I have received from them in over six years, part of a halted but lengthy correspondence that began, unbeknownst to me, on July 29, 2004, when I was 18 and my mother took out the first of many private student loans in my name. That July day was cold in southwest Michigan, a detail I researched years later when I wondered: What went on in her world that day? It rained. There was little sun. In the morning, my father drove to his corporate office to design washing machine parts, I drove to a golf club where I worked in their food shack, and sometime that day, my mother contacted Bank One, a student lending arm of Chase Bank, and requested $15,000 in my name using my birthdate and Social Security number. I’ve never been able to ask her how the fraud was committed — if she told the bank that she was applying on my behalf and would get my approval later, or if, pretending to be me, she filled out an application online. It’s unclear if Bank One, who partnered with AES for loan management and collection, asked her the questions they should have, the questions that might reveal that she did not have my approval or that she was not me. I’m unsure if the bank account she funneled the money to was one she opened in my name or hers. I do know that on the loan application she forged my signature, which I’ll see years later — the swoop of the cursive “K” larger and fuller than mine.
Over the course of the next three years, as my mother’s gambling addiction escalated, she took out another student loan, and then another, and then so many others that the amounts and institutions from which she borrowed knotted together into something big and impossible to disentangle, but the accumulation of which was about $125,000. It seems that none of the private lenders were alarmed by the rapid acquisition of increasingly large amounts of money — more than I would ever need for my state-school tuition — a record of lending they would have seen when they pulled my credit. It might be that they noticed and didn’t care.
While I didn’t know about my fraudulent debt in those years, I did know that my mother had her own. At home during university breaks, I often fielded calls from credit card debt collectors, the phone company, or the internet company. I learned to recognize the callers’ scripts, and the moment they departed from them, becoming angry with me for refusing to put my mother on the phone, threatening to shut off our services if we didn’t pay. And there were other signs her gambling problem was growing big and wild. Bounced checks. Denied credit cards at the supermarket. My mother, home late with handfuls of cash, tipsily offering my friends and me $50 because she’d won on slots that night.
In my early 20s, I watched my debt total increase like some people watch an eroding shoreline. The interest rates on many of the loans were unfixed, so some years the shoreline stayed constant. Then, as if overnight, a wave touched my toes. At my debt’s peak, when I was 30, I owed about $386,000, and the water overwhelmed what little land was left. Thirty-five now, I recall the day I first learned of my debt in foggy, tender detail. I was 21 years old and graduating from college in two weeks. I was just applying for my first credit card, and then an hour later, I was learning that I was a victim of ongoing identity theft by my mother. Debt decides the future for you: At 26, I would be paying $600 a month in loan payments to barely cover the mounting interest. At 30: telling someone I loved that to be with me would mean entering into a life of economic peril. The future that debt chose for me — indeed the future it chooses for many people — included a lot of shame, confusion, and pain.
I walked home from the bank, rejected credit card application in hand, as if walking toward certain death. In place of the steady hum of college students commuting to class, all I heard was the hollow sound of the wind as I slid my boots across the slick sidewalk. Home now, seated on my bed in a new world, frozen still, I held the credit report in front of me, counting the listed debts: $10,000 owed to JPMorgan Chase, $20,000 to ACS Education Services, $15,0000 owed to someone else. I didn’t yet know that the majority of these were private loans protected by the federal government. This can’t be right, I said to myself over and over again. Part incantation, part desperate plea.
When I called my mother to tell her and ask for her advice, she begged me not to call the police. “I’m so sorry, honey. But it was me. All of it was me.”
In late March of 2020, as the first wave of the pandemic spread across the country, Congress passed the CARES Act, a $2 trillion aid package marketed as relief to struggling Americans. While the act provided much-needed relief for those most impacted by the pandemic, it didn’t provide enough. The $1,200 received by poor and working-class Americans was spent quickly on essential items, which, sadly, included debt.
As part of that act, Congress included several measures to support student debtors. First, their employers — if they were lucky enough to be employed — were able to provide them with up to $5,250 in tax-free student loan repayment benefits. Before the CARES Act, only about eight percent of employers were making contributions toward student loans, and as businesses and institutions closed, most employers reduced benefits rather than expanding them. During the first four months of the pandemic, at least four million workers had their pay cut, and nearly six million workers were forced to work part-time. In other words, though this measure could have helped student debtors, there’s very little evidence to suggest that it did.
The second measure affecting student debtors was an automatic suspension of payments on federal student loans, a relief extended several times and now set to expire after January 31st, 2022. As part of this moratorium, loan servicers cannot collect loan payments, including on defaulted loans, and interest rates remain at 0%. Roughly 35 million student debtors are eligible for this temporary relief, collectively owing $1.5 trillion. I’m one of them: Of the $14,000 I knowingly took out in federal student aid, about $2,000 remains. It’s worth noting that the many millions of borrowers whose debt is privately held are excluded from these benefits. Few private lenders, if any, deferred interest, and most offered only a three-month suspension on collection.
April 2020 marked the first month since I graduated college 13 years earlier that I didn’t pay a portion of my wage, at times nearly half of my wage, toward my student debt: either my own federal debt or the $125,000 that my mother took out in my name. For many people, the moratorium is a lifesaving pause. Those who are unemployed can perhaps afford a car payment or a home payment or the co-payment necessary to see a doctor. The employed can also make dignified decisions to care for themselves and others. They can fix the broken heater in their car. Buy medication and a working phone. Or something more banal and essential still: groceries.
Employed as a teacher and earning a living wage, my own debts didn’t force me to go without shelter, food, or basic utilities, a fact that was tested in my 20s when I had trouble finding landlords who’d rent to me because of my credit score. When the moratorium went into effect, I increased my contribution to my 401(k), which had recently sent me a message saying that based on my modest savings goals, I would not be able to sustain myself in old age. I also bought a winter coat, the first I’d purchased in seven years. The old one had thinned so much that it was porous, and the Minneapolis wind moved through me in the winter. This was not the first time in seven years I’d had enough money for a coat. Rather, having lived with financial anxiety for so long I struggle to decide what to spend money on, what’s worth depleting my small but growing savings account, even by a couple of hundred dollars.
I return to AES’s message, this time from my home, where I teach virtually the second half of the week. After attempting to log on to the account, I soon realize I no longer have the information. This account, like all of them, was created by my mother and managed in secret for the years I was in college. It was opened after her gambling problem bloomed into an addiction, after she’d spent her and my father’s savings, along with the money she’d borrowed from his mother and from her parents, and money she’d stolen from her employer. It would have made sense for me to reset everything once I learned of the account’s existence, but I never did. I wonder now if I conflated this step with an acknowledgment that the debt was mine. Often the tiny protests I waged in my 20s hurt me: I lost paperwork, passwords, loan correspondences. I missed details that would have made managing my mounting debt easier. But I didn’t want to manage it. I wanted to pretend that it wasn’t there.
After I discovered the debt, the boundaries between myself and everything else became cloudy. At first, it was just my mother begging me not to file criminal charges. She called me regularly in those days: “You can’t send me to jail,” she said over and over, her voice rushing around me, familiar as the sound of the wind.
I agreed not to, not so much because I believed that she would be capable of helping me like she promised, but because I didn’t have a clear sense of where I ended and my mother began. After she was released from her incarceration for workplace theft only a few months into her sentence, my father and grandparents asked me not to file charges. “Your mother won’t survive it again,” they told me. “She doesn’t deserve it.” “You’re young. You’re strong,” they said. “We’ll help you figure it out.” I didn’t want my mother to suffer and didn’t believe that her criminal conviction was a requirement for my justice and healing. But beyond my love and my politics was the sense that I was beginning to dissolve, and self-preservation felt impossible in the face of this rapid depletion.
Outside in Minneapolis, it’s 70 degrees: a warming earth in disguise as a lingering summer. I search through my email for clues to the account information. Nothing comes up in my search, so I make a guess at the username and am diverted to a series of security prompts: Name of first pet. Paternal grandfather. Name of elementary school. I’m not sure if my mother answered as me — Jesse, Jim, Brown — or herself. Sometimes, to navigate my debt is not to imagine myself as my mother, but to imagine myself as my mother imagining herself as me. If she loved me enough she wouldn’t have done it, I thought for much of my 20s. I wore that belief like a warm but itchy sweater. And even though at 35, I now understand that my young belief was not protective, but harmful and untrue, each failed guess feels like a rock in my stomach, a reminder of a personal betrayal within a systemic one.
Alas, I figure it out: She answered as me.
AES explains that I must begin to make payments on my loan, the first of which is due in early December. I’m surprised to realize that, unlike federal loans, private loans such as this one are not covered under the moratorium. More than that, I’m surprised this loan exists at all.
Looking at the details of my loan feels like looking at a hand that has appeared suddenly before me, attached to my own body. Part of me but not mine. The loan is through a private student loan program (ALPLN) that often requires young borrowers to enlist co-signers, locking both parties in for long repayment plans with variable interest rates that fluctuate according to the market, but rarely to the benefit of the borrower. The original balance of this loan was $25,000 (the equivalent of two semesters in-state at the University of Michigan in 2008, or a down payment on a home in a middle-class Minneapolis neighborhood today), but today I owe $30,549.08 (two semesters + living expenses) and were I to finish paying this loan, I would pay in total $40,051.86 (a nicer house, another semester).
For all of my 20s, I worked multiple jobs to keep up with the $600 monthly loan payments. In 2013, for example, I taught sophomore English at a high school in Chicago, working from 7:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. On Tuesdays, I led our school’s literary magazine club till 5:30 p.m., and for six weeks each semester, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I taught night school classes till 6:30 p.m. for students who needed credit recovery. On Saturdays, I picked up ACT administration work, and on Mondays, I picked up ACT tutoring. After I got home at 7:00 or 7:30 p.m., or later, I wrote the next day’s lesson plan as I picked at my dinner. If I also had to give students feedback on essays, I worked until 10:00 pm, falling asleep with the next day’s schedule pulsing beside me. Up at 6:15 a.m. to do it all again. By the time I turned 30, I had paid off about $60,000 of the debt, an amount that barely touched the interest. It was not enough. The debt kept rising, not by $10,000, but by $100,000, and then another $100,000, more than doubling the principal balance.
In ancient civilizations, debt repayment was a promise secured by the body. In India an unpaid creditor could show up at his debtor’s door, sit on his doorstep, and stay there, indefinitely, publicly starving to death until he was given what he was owed. In Egypt, a debtor pledged their repayment on the dead body of a loved one.
You could maim someone according to ancient Hindu law, and if that did not yield repayment, you might take his cattle, his sons, or his wife — or simply enslave or kill him. The same punishments were allowed according to ancient Roman law, with an addendum: A debtor who was killed for unpaid debts might have his body divided for creditors, sliced up proportionate to the amount of each one’s claims. A severed head for the largest debt, I guess, and just a foot for something smaller. This Roman law would spawn the “pound of flesh” Shylock seeks to collect in The Merchant of Venice and all the cultural references it, in turn, generated. Though this grotesque form of accounting has little documentation, debt slavery was common.
So, too, was debt imprisonment, which existed in the barbarian kingdoms that followed the Roman Empire in the West. Still later, as feudalism declined, the Catholic Church encouraged and enforced imprisonment for unpaid debts. Those debtors who died without leaving enough money to cover their remaining debts were denied a Christian burial, their very bodies unwelcome on holy land.
Debtors’ prisons followed colonists from England to the Americas, where they remained in practice until the mid-1800s. According to many of the colonies’ laws, sentences had no fixed length: One could remain incarcerated for a month or years, whatever amount of time satisfied the creditors. While the prisons’ upper-class debtors were often assigned well-lit rooms where they could write or paint, the poorest prisoners slept in the cellar, sometimes sitting in near darkness day and night, hungry and cold, threatened by disease. In this case, the punishment was not labor or mutilation, but isolation and stagnation: a body left alone to rot.
Living in New York City in my early 20s, I began my first year of teaching, and my mother began her trial for workplace embezzlement. I’d learned of her arrest earlier that summer — standing in a dorm room in Queens where I was undergoing teacher training. Just out of the shower, my wet hair dripped into puddles on the floor as my aunt explained over the phone that my mother had been stealing from the dentist she managed medical billing for. When we hung up, I didn’t feel anything. I considered what my aunt thought she had stolen — around $40,000 — and all I could think of was, “that’s all?” It was nothing compared to what she owed me.
After my mother began her five-month sentence, I moved through my life as if I were underwater. On land, I was required to participate: laugh with colleagues, cook dinner with my roommates, engage in conversations about the future and the past, both of which I wanted to avoid. Submerged in the water, I was alone, stranded in a perpetual present. For weeks I lived like this, allowing the calls from debt collectors to hover over me like ships on the surface, and then suddenly, I would come in from the sea — awakened by a nightmare at 3:00 a.m., or sitting at a student-desk eating my lunch, I would suddenly be thrust back into the bright, loud world. And then I would feel the full weight of it all: hundreds of thousands of dollars that I’d pay until I died.
I slept poorly during those years, plagued by severe stomach pains and recurrent UTIs that sometimes reached my kidneys. Once, after a week of particularly distressing calls with debt collectors, I woke on a Saturday morning to a full stomach, even though I hadn’t eaten. Throughout the morning, the fullness increased, as did the pain, like barbed wire wrapping my insides. When I moved, I could hear acid swish inside me. I started puking in the afternoon, and when I hadn’t stopped by early evening, I walked to Mount Sinai Hospital, where I spent the night. I cried when a nurse held my hand, asking me to swallow the cool medication that would allow her to see inside of me. I didn’t tell anyone I was sick because, at the time, I was estranged from both my parents, and there was no one to tell.
Debt was still a promise held by my body, and absent of the money, my body paid in other ways. I learned from the endoscopy that I had an ulcer and had developed gastritis. The cystoscopy was inconclusive, but years later, in my early 30s, I’d begin to notice pressure on my left side: the feeling of a tiny fist punching softly outward just below my ribcage. After doctors told me it was nothing for several years, I’d find the right doctors who gave the right tests, and I’d learn that my kidney had died. Perhaps, my doctor said, it had died when I was young, lost its blood supply through a misfire in design, or it might have died later as a result of the many escalating UTI infections. A stomach for AES, to which I owed $51k, a kidney for JPMorgan Chase to which I owed $30k.
Debt’s impact on our health is well-documented. Good debt — a manageable mortgage, for example — corresponds with positive health outcomes. It’s also indicative of a higher household income. But bad debt — debt that is or feels unpayable, debt incurred through unjust systems, predatory debt, debt that makes it hard to live — corresponds with high blood pressure, stress and depression, and overall worse health. Chronic stress can be especially dangerous because it continually triggers the body’s fight or flight response without allowing the body to recover when the stress has passed. The body’s attempt to protect itself impacts all of the body’s systems. It leads to hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes. It gives us stomach aches, bloating, heartburn, acid reflux, and weakens our intestines, making us vulnerable to bacterial infection. Professor Elizabeth Sweet, the author of a study on the relationship between debt and health in Social Science & Medicine, reminds us that in addition to all of that, chronic stress associated with debt can also suppress the immune system, impairing the body’s ability to fight infection.
As a market economy emerged in the 1700s, according to Jill Lepore in a New Yorker essay on the historical treatment of debtors, debt punishments shifted away from imprisonment — which also meant that punishments shifted away from the body. Individuals, she explains, had to take on debt to acquire the things they needed, a relationship that necessitated debt relief, which came in the form of bankruptcy.
However, that relief has come with limitations, especially in the field of student loans. Until 1978, students facing unmanageable debt could petition for bankruptcy — though it’s worth noting that in 1978 the semester tuition for a four-year public university was $777, so fewer students took on debt to begin with. Through the combination of the Education Amendment Act of 1976 and additional legislation in 1978, 1984, 1990, and 1998, students gradually lost more and more protections, a loss that coincided with a precipitous increase in tuition fees. First, students could have their federal debts discharged after they had made payments on them for five years, then that time period was extended to seven years, and then extended to the lifetime of the borrower. Finally, the lifetime sentence was extended to private student loans as well as federal.
What that means is that people are paying off their student debts into old age. People are dying with this debt based on decisions they or their families made when they were 18. Sometimes these decisions were made with counsel from for-profit colleges that promised salaries and degrees they couldn’t produce. Sometimes these decisions were made with counsel from private lenders, who offer predatory interest rates that make it nearly impossible to pay loans down. Other times, racial or structural inequality or bad luck forced students out of school, funneling them into jobs that would never yield the salaries necessary to pay off even relatively small amounts of debt. In other instances, students graduated and found employment, but because the cost of tuition has ballooned and wages have flattened, they are still stuck with this debt sentence, even after falling on the right side of luck, the right side of privilege, even after they did everything right.
Those who suffer most from the current student-lending structure are the same people who suffer because of historical and structural inequity: descendants of enslaved people, people of color, women, poor people. Black women hold the highest levels of student debt, and because they make 61 cents for every dollar that a white man makes, they struggle to pay this debt down, even as they work multiple jobs, even as debt extracts their health and their labor.
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The decision to enter into my loan agreements was not mine, of course, but my mother’s, a fact that I communicated to the debt collectors with whom I tried to negotiate in my early 20s. In one of the many calls I remember, I’m standing at the corner of 78th Street in the early evening, just as day tips into night.
“You don’t understand,” I tell the debt collector. “This debt isn’t mine. I didn’t take it out. My mother did.”
“That’s not our problem,” he says, “You should take it up with the police.” He sounds young.
At the time, I didn’t know that collectors are required to verify contested debts. However, this requirement is widely ignored by debt collectors, one of the many abuses — along with harassment, threats, and the disclosure of debts to family and colleagues — that the Federal Trade Commission documents.
I cup my hand around the phone, to muffle not the wind but my own voice. I don’t want the couples leaning against the railing or the people running with their dogs to hear me. “Why would I need this much money in private loans to attend a school with an in-state tuition of $13,000 a year?”
Occasionally I did this, said things that required the collectors to imagine a human from the numbers listed in front of them: a one, a two, a five, and so many zeroes unwound into legs and arms. Sometimes, the collectors sounded sad for me. At least a few times, they said they were sorry. But, still, they recorded what they were required to, the distillation of which was that I couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. And then my name was added to the next escalation in collection efforts: another letter, another call, eventually a court order and wage garnishment.
The collectors’ emotional disengagement is a necessity of a cruel industry. To respond to me humanely would make the task nearly impossible. While debt cleaves to bodies, its collection requires severance from them. To them, I’m not a terrified 21-year-old too ashamed to take the call in her apartment, but a name, an interest rate, a monthly payment, a total debt paid, a number yet to collect.
I call AES a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving. It’s been years since I’ve last spoken with someone representing the lenders, and I’m haunted by all the conversations that I’ve already had. When I speak, my voice sounds distant and caffeinated.
“This can’t be right,” I say to her, the same thing I said sitting on my college bed 13 years earlier, holding the credit report printed for me by the bank. No longer an incantation, but an elegy.
My disbelief is an evolution of the original, a shared origin with a new context. At the nadir of my indebtedness, unable to save enough, unable to pay enough, I met with several lawyers who said they couldn’t help me. The first told me that to file a criminal charge and potentially transfer the debt would endanger my grandparents — my mother’s immigrant parents — who, unclear on the US lending system, had co-signed on many of the fraudulent loans. “The banks will go after them and they will likely lose their house,” he said, mapping an elaborate spider-like diagram of the debt. He called in several colleagues to consult with, explaining the complexities of my case. At the center of the drawing was me, alone in a thick, black circle. The second lawyer, who I met with a few years later, said criminal charges couldn’t work even if I wanted to pursue them because the statute of limitations had passed. Later, a lawyer friend recommended a bankruptcy attorney. I met the attorney, Todd, in his office in the middle of a late fall blizzard. I was buoyed by his fancy brass lamps and sprawling Persian carpet. I needed him to help me and he did.
While my loans were protected through the bankruptcy codes, we’d use my bankruptcy petition to pause collection while I could pay down the credit card debt my mother had also taken out through the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan — a plan traditionally used to help people keep their homes. I’d also pay off the federal debt, which I had taken on knowingly. We’d use the legal framework to force a conversation with the lenders that refused to communicate with me otherwise. These conversations were logistical hurdles because locating all my lenders required piecing together credit reports, old statements my mother had sent me, and statements the lenders pulled. No one database records all private loan debt. At least once, we thought we’d found it all only to realize we’d missed $50,000 from a loan servicer I’d never heard of.
Our strategy was bifurcated: I moved through the traditional bankruptcy process, taking the required financial management classes, showing up to court dates, sending monthly checks to my trustee, and Todd ushered me through fraud proceedings according to the requirements of the lenders, proceedings which mostly relied on handwriting analysis. I signed my name a hundred times. I wrote addresses and numbers in cursive and print, or random men’s names, seemingly taken from a list of Dickens characters. When the lenders rejected my fraud claims on the basis of my handwriting, we hired our own expert. Eventually, my mother, shielded by the seven-year statute of limitations on criminal convictions, signed an affidavit that the debt was hers, and after a settlement with the lenders, the loans were moved from my body back to hers, though the lenders have never reached out to her. They’re likely aware that her economic position, as a minimum wage worker, makes the debt uncollectible.
“I have a legal agreement with the loan companies,” I tell the woman. My voice is thin and wet. “It’s from several years ago. I have the signature of someone representing AES. It’s a legal document,” I say again.
“I have you paused for bankruptcy but now you’re done and there is nothing about any settlement,” she says.
I catch my partner’s eye as he walks into the room, alerted by my rising voice that something is wrong. I’m self-conscious of how I sound, the way I’m escalating the conversation, begging her to put someone else on the phone, which she doesn’t do. When I ask her if I can email her the settlement, she says it’s impossible: They’ll only accept faxes and snail mail. Eventually, she suggests a convoluted form I might fill out that will put someone in touch with me over email.
“This isn’t fair,” I say to her before we hang up, a sentiment that startles me in its naivete and desperation. Of course it isn’t.
In my early 20s, I took a free poetry class through my teaching program, and when we practiced writing exercises for imagery and metaphor, I wrote about my debt. A red balloon for each dollar: 125,000 balloons, enough to fill a city block. They follow me as I walk around the city, west on 77th to the train station or east on 77th to the river. Cloud-like, but alive, each bobbing and swaying separately. The balloons cast a long shadow. Sometimes, I stand beneath them looking up. No more sunshine. They’ve ushered in a new world, a red sky.
After I speak to the collector, I ignore the new set of emails, the mail correspondence, the alarming language of delinquency. Already the last three years — the years without large monthly loan payments, without collectors — seem far away. A shadow gathers above.
My lawyer thinks this new debt is a forgotten one, a lost one now found. When I call him, he’s surprised to hear my voice.
“This can’t be right. We settled all of this,” he tells me. But we haven’t. After cross-checking the settlement details and the loan, I discover it’s not listed on the settlement. It’s also not on the list of all the private loans that we painstakingly gathered piece-meal to guide our strategy. When I explain this to my lawyer he says, “But that list came directly from AES. So, if there is an error, it’s theirs. Or they didn’t have the loan at the time.”
This new loan, this zombie loan as I’ve taken to calling it, belongs to National Collegiate Student Loan Trust (CSLT), which is neither a lender nor a servicer but an investment opportunity: It’s essentially a bucket of private loans, which are sold off as bonds to investors. Right now, the National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts — which includes 15 trusts — holds nearly $12 billion in student debt, more than all the stars in the Milky Way.
When I learn that CSLT owns the loan, I imagine the people who have benefited from the events that upended my life. These investors are likely the same people that escaped to second homes during each of the pandemic’s sharp peaks. As ICUs filled up, as lungs broke down, as the poorest in the country struggled to breathe, they ordered in their groceries, worked from home offices with ergonomic chairs and stand-up desks. Their isolation tethered to the exposure of others. One body in exchange for another.
Those who’ve been most at risk in the pandemic are the same people with shifting red skies above their own heads: They are working class, they are Black people, Indigenous people, Latinx people; they are people whose race or economic position has forced them into frontline jobs. They are people whose debt makes their bodies more vulnerable to the virus to begin with.
“We’ll get this figured out,” Todd says to me before we hang up. His belief in justice encourages me, even though this time, he might be wrong.
These days, my mother and I see one another twice a year. Once, in mid-summer for a three-day weekend when we take walks along Lake Michigan, comment on how high the water is, how small the stretch of beach that guards the housing along the bluff. My mother is always tanned from the hours she spends walking along the lakeshore, collecting rocks that she’ll glue to picture frames, lamps, candleholders, and doormats. In the years following her incarceration, my sister moved away, and my father and her moved into a rental across town after losing their home to bankruptcy. Then he died of cancer, and so did one of her cats. Another disappeared into the purple-blue of the early evening, never to return. Now, on summer weekends, my mother sells these rock items at art fairs where mostly out-of-town rich people buy them to commemorate their vacations on the lake. To supplement her small art fair income, she cleans homes for other rich people, scrubbing away the memories of family BBQs and beach days to make room for the next. I wonder if the homes and her art are painful and constant reminders of a domestic life that’s been altered.
I see her a second time at Christmas, driving 10 snowy hours from Minnesota to a house remade into a memory — each wall, shelf, and furniture decorated with a Christmas-something from my youth. As we prepare the deviled eggs for the family dinner, I compliment her on the Nativity scene or tree lights, and she always says, “It’s just not the same putting them out by myself. Next year, maybe I won’t.” My cousins, uncle, and sister join us for dinner, and we swap stories of our distant lives across the midwest. At some point in the evening, when I’m telling a funny or detailed story, I look up to find my mother watching me, hungrily taking in these narrative threads. For this has been the true cost of what she stole from me: She doesn’t really know me.
We talk on the phone once a month or so, and when people ask me why we still talk at all, I give them a constellation of incomplete but honest answers: I can’t bear her loneliness; she’s suffered enough; she, too, was a victim — of addiction and a predatory lending system; I love her. When she and I talk it’s not about much. Mostly, I ask her questions about her art or my grandmother who has Alzheimer’s and whom she cares for. We don’t talk about the debt that is all around us, trapping us, shouting at us so loud we can hardly hear. Despite trying my best to kill it so that we can escape, it lives, and though it was born from us — her decision acted upon my body — it seems to live beyond us now, dwelling in the data systems of lenders and banks and credit reports. Sometimes, I want to yell to my mother above its roar: I am so, so sorry. An apology big enough to hold it all, big enough for both of us. But I don’t.
Historically, there were ways to free us. The introduction of debt in Mesopotamia, in the form of interest-bearing loans, led to social fragmentation, according to David Graeber in Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. In years when the harvest collapsed, for example, farmers witnessed the seizure of their land by wealthy merchants who had lent them money. Unable to pay back what they owed, the farmers were forced to enlist their family members in debt bondage. These loved ones lived in exile, working to pay off their debts. Sometimes, exile was self-inflicted when people fled their homes before they could be sold off to debt peonage.
Families forced apart, scattered, ripped from their intimate bonds threatened to destabilize society, so it was tradition for kings to periodically issue massive “declarations of debt freedom,” called jubilees. Graeber reminds us that the earliest word for freedom came from the Sumerian word amargi, which means “return to mother.” It was only when debts were canceled that debt peons could drop their sickles, pack their small bags, and return to the place where they were not an engine of labor, of repayment, but a daughter.
COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated existing crises — brought about by our economic, political, and healthcare systems, our inability to contend with and repair our history as a slave-state, and brought about by debt. Any ongoing relief efforts that don’t address the complex relationship between disease, vulnerability, and indebtedness don’t go far enough. Canceling student debt would be a start. As I type this, the total federal student loan debt is $1,811,629,805,092, but in a few seconds, that number will be inaccurate, and in a week or month even more so. The debt grows rapidly. Unable to exchange those numbers for narratives, all I can say is that those loans are owned by people who want to go to school, who want very badly to have agency, to lead meaningful lives.
Through an executive order, President Biden could cancel all federal student debt. At any moment of any day. This declaration won’t impact my private debt, but it could change the lives of millions of others. Though lenders, servicers, and trusts make students into investments, into delinquents, into lists of interest and payment, Biden’s jubilee can do the opposite: see us as humans.
Heal us, free us, give us back our bodies.
Kristin Collier is a Minneapolis-based educator and essayist. She’s currently at work on a book about student debt.