New York Times writer/subprime victim draws fire for what his memoir left out

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New York Times (NYT) economics reporter Edmund L. Andrews shocked his readers recently by revealing that he was on the verge of losing his house due to an ill-considered subprime mortgage. In his upcoming book Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown, he details how he was sucked into buying more house than he could afford for his soon-to-be wife and her family. He also exposes the Wild West mentality that led to this disaster.

Last week, however, The Atlantic's Megan McArdle called his account into question, because Andrews failed to mention that his new wife, Patty Barreiro, had declared bankruptcy twice in the years before they hooked up. McArdle contends that this represents a pattern of financial irresponsibility that would color the perceptions of a reader of his book. "I think this matters," she writes, "because the story Andrews told was basically about the subprime crisis, and the book casts him as a sort of everyman, lured in by cheap credit and a likable scoundrel of a mortgage broker."

Andrews responded to these accusations both publicly, on PBS's NewsHour website, and in a statement he wrote to me last weekend. In his note to me, he repeats his assertion that the bankruptcies had nothing to do with the subject of his book, the subprime mortgage calamity. He explains that Barreiro's first bankruptcy occurred after she discovered that her then-husband had failed to file tax returns for five years.

The second bankruptcy, filed after they were married, resulted from an unpaid debt Barreiro incurred before she moved from Los Angeles to join Andrews in the Washington area. She had reportedly borrowed money from her sister, who sued her when repayment was not forthcoming. "When Patty couldn't repay," Andrews wrote, "her sister followed her east and sued her. I offered to pay off the loan by withdrawing money out of my 401(k), but I wasn't allowed to because the purpose didn't qualify as a 'hardship.' Without an alternative, Patty had no choice but to seek bankruptcy protection."

While I found McArdle's original post exposing Barreiro's misfortunes a bit lurid, I agree with her that this history adds important information about her character. I'm not, however, convinced that this background automatically brands Barreiro as a foolhardy spender. Andrews writes that he didn't include the bankruptcies because they had no impact on the story and he wanted to save his wife the embarrassment.

Although Busted is a compelling story as it stands, and I expect it to be a hit, I actually think it would have been even more illuminating if we knew more about Barreiro's state of mind at the time her and Andrews's finances were unraveling. Perhaps that's a story to come -- the meltdown from her point of view. Having read and very much enjoyed Busted, I'd eagerly read her take on it, too.

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