Published December 11. 2012 4:00AM
Author Jared Dillian details his time working at Lehman Brothers and battling mental illness
Jared Dillian's book "Street Freak: Money and Madness at Lehman Brothers" gives a vivid look at his life as a trader at Lehman Brothers up until the company's dramatic collapse in 2008. It details the culture there and the personalities, the thrill of making a good trade, the fear of making a bad one.
But the nonfiction work also does something much more personal - and affecting - than that. "Street Freak" provides a visceral look at Dillian's struggle with bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders while working in that pressure-cooker job.
Dillian, who graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1992 and the Coast Guard Academy in 1996, left Lehman to become a writer - on a daily basis as well as in the form of his book. He publishes a financial newsletter called The Daily Dirtnap. His "Street Freak," published by Simon and Schuster's Touchstone imprint in 2011, was released this fall in paperback.
Dillian, who now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., spoke about his book and his life in a recent phone interview.
"Street Freak" doesn't lack for dramatic moments. Dillian was in the financial district, prepping for a Lehman interview, on Sept. 11, 2001. He saw the fire burning the World Trade Center. He heard the gasps as those on the ground saw people jumping from above. Dillian says he had post-traumatic stress disorder for a while afterward. He remembers going on runs along the Hudson River and seeing where the World Trade Center used to be. As a kid, he lived for several years on Governors Island and used to see the towers from the apartment window.
While at Lehman - where he fought to prove himself and felt like a blue-collar kid in an Ivy-League-alum-heavy environment - Dillian eventually worked his way up to being head trader of exchange-traded funds. It was a hugely stressful job, one that took its toll.
"In the financial markets, you have control over nothing. Prices move, and you can't affect them at all," he says.
That lack of control in some ways seemed to propel his OCD.
Dillian has since recovered, but says that OCD "can be crippling. I know people who have it worse than I did. I guess that's the only way I can describe it - it's crippling, because just routine tasks become insurmountable," he says.
In "Street Freak," he gives a sense of what that's like, that frantic mental fixation. He describes trying to catch the bus but repeatedly feeling compelled to return home to check: is the door locked? is the refrigerator closed? He tries to reason himself out of it but simply cannot stop.
He also writes compellingly about his bipolar disorder - the manic highs and desperate lows - and checking himself into a mental ward.
Writing came first
Dillian's fascination with the financial world wasn't the result of family heritage; as he cheekily writes in his book, there was "no history of ardent capitalism in my family." His mother was a teacher who eventually ran a nonprofit drug-and-alcohol treatment agency. His father was in the Coast Guard - as was his grandfather. Jared Dillian became the second third-generation Coast Guard Academy graduate in the history of the school.
Before entering the academy, Dillian recalls spending hours paging through his father's CGA yearbook. The images were of guys who looked like supermen.
"Growing up, I was not an athletic kid, definitely not a cool kid. I was kind of a nerd. ... These guys in the yearbook, they were tough, they were smart, they were in great shape, they would sail to Europe on the Eagle and get girls and go on port calls. I was, like, man, this is great. I figured that was my ticket out of being a nerd," he says.
Dillian became interested in finance while he was in the Coast Guard. When he was on a ship, one of his classmates would check out the money section of newspaper whenever they pulled into port. He told Dillian he was looking at his mutual funds.
"Keep in mind, we were, like, 22, 23 years old, and the guy had mutual funds," Dillian says. "I basically was jealous that he had this hobby that I didn't have. That's kind of how it started. That's when I started to do some research on it, and I just got hooked."
His enthusiasm for writing blossomed much earlier. Dillian won an International Council of Teachers English Award for writing while he was at NFA. He wasn't voted class writer, though - he was class musician instead. He played a variety of instruments and earned money in high school by being an organist at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Norwich. (His hobby now: DJing. He does probably four or five gigs a year.)
Dillian, who helped organize his class's 20th NFA reunion this past summer, says that one of the things he and his fellow graduates talked about was how much of an advantage they had over everyone else when they got to college because of the education they got a NFA.
He delved more into writing at the Coast Guard Academy. Professor Jordon Pecile was a huge influence, and Dillian recalls the electives he took with Pecile, including a writing class he says is his favorite class to this day.
Looking back, Dillian thinks fondly of his time at Lehman Brothers.
"Lehman Brothers was - and I'm not being corny at all - it really was a magical place, it was a special place," he says. "I have really good memories of it, and I have a lot of friends I still talk to."