Dead, broke

What it’s like to inherit nothing but debt.

Cory Doctorow
7 min readMay 19, 2021


Engraving from Gustave Doré’s 1861 illustration of Dante’s Inferno, showing Charon the ferryman bringing souls across the river Styx while the damned thrash in the shallows.

Of all the moving, wrenching accounts of death during the pandemic, Molly McGhee’s “America’s Dead Souls,” for The Paris Review stands out: haunting, furious and sad, a rude awakening of the status quo that denies any possibility of inaction.

I’ve known McGhee a long time, since she worked on my book INFORMATION DOESN’T WANT TO BE FREE from McSweeneys, a professional association we renewed when she landed at Tor.

During the pandemic crisis, I’ve had two different connections to her: on the one hand, the consummate professionalism of her emails as we published my novel ATTACK SURFACE in the middle of the lockdown.

On the other hand, I knew her through her wrenching and deeply personal Twitter account of the personal tragedies she’s endured over the same period. Her Paris Review essay brings those tragedies into sharp focus and uses them to pin a huge and heretofore ill-defined feeling.

McGhee’s mother died during the crisis, but the death was the culmination of years of hardship: “[earning] less than $10,000 a year. Suffering from debilitating depression while caring for her aging parents…chronically unemployed, undermedicated, and overstressed.”

Her mother’s debts were on public display through searchable databases, and her life was haunted by both con artists and bill collectors who carpet-bombed her with calls, letters and emails.

She was too poor to fight back: her wages were garnished by the IRS “for back taxes calculated from a years-old misfiling they refused to correct.” McGhee sent her months of her salary, but it wasn’t enough.

She had no answer for her mother’s rhetorical questions, “Why are these people harassing me? What good does it do them?”

Because the answer is obvious and insufficient: “The people in power don’t care if we live or die, as long as they get paid.”

It only took two days after McGhee’s mother died for her creditors to begin harassing her for her mother’s debts. The state of Tennessee seized the house, but Wells Fargo expected her to make good on the mortgage.



Cory Doctorow

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