As a little girl, I’ll never forget how magical it felt to drive a few hours south to LA to visit my Aunt T. I knew she was rich, but I had to learn the hard way just how she earned her money.
We rarely made the trip south to visit her place. She came to visit us a few times at our modest, middle class house in the San Joaquin valley, her pack of Samoyed show dogs in tow, along with five or six of her foster kids. She always had a pack of dogs and a pack of kids with her. From as early as I could remember, they were all boys (the kids, not the dogs) and all of them (the kids and the dogs) slept out in front of our place in a big, new RV that she drove up in.
All of them but Aunt T and one of the boys, that is. They shared a room – my room – while I slept on the couch. I didn’t mind because Aunt T was always gracious to me and one year she even brought me a treasured gift; a beautiful, softer-than-soft, gray fur hand muff that I cherished. She said she picked it out just for me because I was always complaining how my hands were cold all the time (they still are).
There were whispers and innuendos made by the ever-gossiping adults in my family about the relationship she had with this one particular boy, but since she was in her late sixties and he was around fourteen or fifteen, I just assumed that she kept him away from the others for good reason. I had a brother of that age and I knew what he was capable of! Especially when we were unsupervised.
Of course, having family that loved juicy gossip and who didn’t care if young ears were tuning in, I also heard the rumors of why she wasn’t allowed to have foster girls at all anymore and how she had paid off CPS officials to stay out of the trouble she had gotten into but I tried to put that out of my mind. To me she was just a nice lady who looked like an older version of my dad in a wig.
It wouldn’t be until much later in life that I finally came to terms with the possibility that my aunt probably was a horrible human being on every level, on par with the likes of Ghislaine Maxwell. But it was long before that realization that I learned the awful truth about how she made at least some of her wealth.
We were down visiting one summer when I was around twelve. After playing with the dogs, swimming in the huge pool and marveling at the enormous fish tank that was built into the wall dividing the living room from the kitchen, one of the foster boys I had befriended asked me if I wanted to see what was in the basement. Full of adventure and complete naivete, I happily went along and followed him through the maze of giant, vaulted rooms filled with thick carpeting and fine furnishings. We made our way down endless hallways that had more doors than I could count, until we finally reached the door which led to the basement.
As soon as he opened it, a rush of cold air and a funny smell hit my nose and I hesitated.
“It’s okay, you’ll like it!” he assured me. He hit the light switches on and we made our way down the concrete steps. I trusted him although I didn’t know what I expected to find down there. I just knew it must be something good!
My excitement immediately turned to horror as I came face to face with a wall of cages. They were stacked floor to ceiling and reminded me a bit of my hamster’s cage only not quite as nice. The smell was now pungent. Inside each cage were several gray, furry balls, some with big, blinking eyes. They shuffled around and tried to hide from us but the ones I could see were absolutely adorable! And there were hundreds of them! I had never seen a chinchilla before so I had to ask what they were and, more importantly, why she had so many.
“Remember that fur thing my mom gave you a couple of years ago?” he asked. I nodded, still not making the connection.
He explained, in graphic detail, how my aunt raised and then sold chinchillas for their fur. My beloved hand muff… came from… these?? And my mother’s coat and my sister’s hat, too? All of these gifts my aunt had brought us… came from these?? I shuddered at the thought.
He didn’t seem bothered that the life of luxury he was being given by his foster mom came from the blood of these adorable little creatures crammed into cages. She obviously didn’t love them like I loved my hamsters. He actually seemed pleased that it bothered me, and kept going on as boys tend to do, explaining the entire killing and de-furring process until I ran upstairs crying.
I couldn’t wait to get out of that house of horrors, get back home and throw away my hand muff!!
For years the thought that my aunt made her living selling chinchilla fur was enough to make me not like her anymore and now, looking back at everything I’d overheard as a child and considering the lavish lifestyle she lived, I can see that she probably was willing to do, or sell, anything for money.