May 26, 2016
People may assume a famous name and wealth guarantee a ticket to Easy Street. But Doris Buffett, sister of Warren Buffett, knows otherwise. Today, she uses her wealth to help people, which brings her great joy. But her life wasn’t always so happy. In her new book written by Michael Zitz, Giving It All Away, The Doris Buffett Story, she reveals her difficult upbringing and family struggles with depression.
Doris remembers growing up in what looked like a “model family” to the outside world. People saw her mother, Leila Buffett, as “bright and cheery and interested.” Just the sort of person people want to get to know and be around– but there was a darker private side –one caused by undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder.
As a very young child, Doris remembers listening for her mother’s voice from her bed each morning after her father left for work. The way her mother sounded dictated how Doris approached the day: cherishing a few quiet moments of escape from her mother’s tirades, or cowering in tears as her mother berated her in front of her younger siblings. Her brother, Warren, and sister, Bertie, both acknowledge that Doris was their mother’s target. Yet, as is often the case in children of a verbally abusive parent, Doris says “I spent my entire life trying to please her. . . . It never did any good.” Her mother’s unrelenting criticism made Doris feel worthless. Every day, Leila told her she was stupid. As a result, Doris grew up thinking she came from the “ideal family, and I was just the crummy person that just happened to be born to them.” She viewed her brother, Warren, and sister, Bertie, as “bright,” and wondered, “how come I’m dumb?” She explains, “I had no concept of who I was. I could tell you what was wrong with me from my straight hair to my big feet.”
Believing badly of herself contributed to Doris marrying a man with equally low self-esteem who was depressed. His mother was an alcoholic, and his father had taken his life. Doris says, “He just wasn’t equipped to deal with the real world.” They had three children and he became unemployed, unable to function and go to work. Doris later realized all they had in common was that they were escaping from their mothers.
Doris tried to understand her family’s dysfunction and find a way to make sense of her mother’s behavior. She once created a family tree on which she placed yellow, red and blue circles for histories that included such things as suicide, mental hospital stays and drug use. “By the time I finished, it looked like a Christmas tree,” says Doris.
Despite the Buffett family creed to “never, never admit needing help,” Doris did see a psychiatrist after her father’s death. He diagnosed her with depression, and helped her recognize that as children who felt powerless, she and her siblings never spoke out about the misery in their home. Doris realizes now that her mother’s threats of sending her away to an orphanage were attempts to control her. Doris believes that if there had been some way to “bring it out in the open,” particularly her mother’s problems, her family might have been helped.
Now in her golden years, Doris Buffett is helping others to find success and happiness much earlier in life than she did. Doris’s organization, The Sunshine Lady Foundation, Inc., provides scholarships to individuals who have found themselves in dire straits through no real fault of their own. Doris Buffett, derives great joy in her role as the sunshine lady, and is known as a fairy godmother of sorts, to people who may have suffered at the hands of others—often due to undiagnosed, untreated mental illness.
Many of the people Doris’s foundation helps, too, suffer from depression, just as Doris did. She helps domestic violence victims gain self-esteem, earn a degree, and make something of their lives. Statistics show that approximately 60% of battered women suffer depression, and 25 to 50% attempt suicide. But with Doris’s help, these women who “slither in under a safe house door thinking they’re worthless . . . who’ve been told they’re stupid every day of their lives” move into happy, successful lives.
“Helping people takes some capital,” she says, “and the payoff is changed lives. Then their children’s lives are changed, too, so it’s an endless multiplier.” She admits that, as has been the case throughout her own life, every day these women fight the effects of their past abuse. But now, she says, “They have a degree. And they are all turning into nurses and teachers and counselors, and you know they’re all giving back in one way or another.”
This giving back element is a big part of The Sunshine Lady philosophy. Foundation beneficiaries are asked to pay forward the help they’ve received. “What we’re sowing is faith in yourself and faith in humankind,” Doris says. She has found a niche that brings joy, self-worth, hope and meaning to her life.