Champagne Wishes and Crypto Dreams

Of course there are crypto memoirs. But how do they theorize history?

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948
Imp Kerr, Cryptocurrencies and Other Decentralized Entities, 2021

Of course there are crypto memoirs. No boom, bust, or crisis can pass without the publication of seedy tales from the inside, though what reads as provocative in these initial crypto chronicles has nothing to do with novel arguments about blockchain or decentralization. To be blunt: many of these crypto memoirs read like addiction memoirs in tech clothing. Take Dan Conway’s Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire: My Unlikely Escape from Corporate America, which does not leave much interpretive wiggle room about the similarity between investing and ingesting. “Every time I started to think about buying [Ethereum’s native cryptocurrency known as] ETH,” Conway writes, “I had the same feeling I had when I went to Pill Hill.” At his Friday night Twelve-Step meetings, Conway approaches “shaken-looking newcomers,” not to ask about their recovery, but to see whether they’d “heard of Ethereum.”

Then there’s Ethan Lou, who takes a few drugs in Once a Bitcoin Miner: Scandal and Turmoil in the Cryptocurrency Wild West, although the substance driving the action is, of course, Bitcoin. “Thoughts of mining enveloped me like a fever,” Lou writes, and his fever rarely breaks. “I was at a grocery store checkout, I was waiting for a plane, I was watching a movie--it didn’t matter. If at any moment in the day I did not have an internet connection and thus did not know what the price of Bitcoin was, I felt naked and vulnerable. Price determined my entire emotional spectrum.”

It would be easy to continue drawing these parallels between drugs and crypto. There’s no shortage of quips to make about the shared phraseology between these worlds: highs and withdrawals and “federal agents today seized.”

But to view these crypto memoirs purely as outgrowths of the addiction genre is to overlook their other strange qualities. While traditional memoirs partake in the excavation and interrogation of personal history, the crypto memoir is, unfortunately, influenced by Crypto Twitter, which prefers to misread and re-stack history so that crypto always comes out on top. At some point, I started thinking of this ahistorical stacking as the Crypto Sundae--ice cream base, whipped cream, then a crypto cherry finish. Zhu Su, co-founder of Three Arrows Capital, struck me as a particularly skilled stacker, yoking comically dissimilar and bizarrely framed historical events into three crypto-friendly data points for his half-a-million Twitter followers: “American establishment's embrace of crypto is natural bc it is first and foremost a society built on welcoming grassroots disruption and lionizing the underdog; from protestant reformation to American revolution to now crypto civilization.”

By the time that Tweet was posted late in 2021, I was quite familiar with these wobbly Crypto Sundaes, which poured down Crypto Twitter day after day; yet when I began encountering them in crypto memoirs, the re-arrangement of historical events started reading differently. Perhaps it had to do with the physical experiences of reading Twitter versus reading bound narrative trajectories, but in books, the re- and mis-alignment of history didn’t read like a re-stacking of history so much as a…flattening. Dan Conway, for instance, views his own destructive behavior as a family tradition. Yet in briefly retelling the story of the Conways, he equates three anecdotes on equal footing: his sister’s penny stock investment during the dot-com boom, his brother breaking ribs after jumping off a bridge on dare, and his grandfather leaving Ireland to start a new life in America. These are, rather obviously, not similar historical events--it feels stupid to even say this, but his grandfather’s immigration is driven by large economic and political factors, whereas his brother’s injury is driven by American stupidity. But to Conway, who stitches these moments into something of a flat family coat of arms that says “We Dare,” the events form a kind of natural logic. I read the anecdote and thought: this is the sort of person who would view the progression from web1 to web2 and now web3 as flat and inevitable.

By early 2022, the crypto sector had clearly settled on a go-to rhetorical move: crypto as a natural event, or what I kept thinking of as a kind of Automatic History. In a Super Bowl LVI commercial for the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, Larry David played the role of gatekeeper across the eras, negging technological advancements that range from the wheel to the moon landing. The subtext FTX wanted to convey was: see, crypto is a natural progression, no different than these other everyday miracles we now celebrate and take for granted. But there was another subtext as well: history is one long flat thing, it’s too tiring to examine all of it, so don’t bother looking backward behind that curtain. There’s nothing much to see. Besides, it’s so much more fun to look forward, with us, here at FTX.

To FTX, history--that messy, contentious recording and reconstitution of oppressive structures and their ramifications, of chaotic earthen existence-- doesn’t actually exist. History is flat, it’s automatic, particularly to those with a taste for crypto, who so often subscribe to a kind past-lessness. An unintentionally honest line from Ethan Lou captures this mindset: “In crypto-blockchain, nobody cared about who you were before, because there was no before.”

There was no before--no bottom scoop in the Crypto Sundae, no need to examine what the wheel wrought on non-pharaohs, no difference between the Protestant Reformation and American Revolution or between Irish immigration and penny stocks. Crypto was and is. Which may sound appealingly whimsical or heady in a Tweet, but these crypto memoirists have made the bold, deranged choice to share their crypto thoughts and crypto lives in far more than 140 characters. They have chosen to reveal themselves in a genre, memoir, that is nominally interested in some sort of personal archaeology; yet someone like Ethan Lou is radically, almost constitutionally opposed to digging. He describes himself as a “very private person” who “once tried unsuccessfully to list my job title simply as ‘employee’ on a credit card application.” He also tried “to display only my last name on another credit card…and if I could, I would hack into the government database to redact that from my birth certificate as well.”

Lou is a writer who is extremely nervous about revealing aspects of his own personal history, yet narrative conventions demand he construct one, and so he writhes on the page like an earthworm caught on brightly lit asphalt. He repeatedly confides that he’s hip to “a far more interesting story on that subject from another crypto big shot that I’ve promised not to repeat.” A page later, there’s hints of “even crazier tales involving a convicted murderer and local mafia, but that is a whole other story.” When he describes “an event that will perhaps be depicted in another book [where] I literally crawled through mud with machine-gun fire over my head,” it is fair for readers to conclude Lou is either 1) a liar 2) a terrific salesperson who has sold a book by promising to reveal confessions that never arrive.

How else to explain the book’s tone, which is fishy and wriggly and so uncomfortable with, if not downright uninterested in, the past? In the “Author’s Note,” Lou says that sources aren’t included because he is “admittedly lazy and short-sighted”––meaning that he’s too private to be a memoirist and too "admittedly lazy” to be a journalist. At which point, one has to ask: why write at all? It’s not as though Lou’s book or other crypto memoirs are true addiction works, the kind that often implicitly (or even explicitly) operate as a kind of twelfth step in which the memoir “carries forth the message” of redemption to other addicts. So I ask again: why share?

The answer, I think, lies in Bitcoin Widow: Love, Betrayal, and the Missing Millions by Jennifer Robertson, whose name may well invoke immense anger in Canadian readers. Robertson was married to Gerald Cotten, the founder of Canadian cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX. Cotten’s death in India in late 2018 triggered 1) the disappearance of $190 million in cryptocurrency that belonged to Quadriga customers 2) investigations of Quadriga by both governments and citizens, and 3) rumors that Cotten had faked his death as part of an exit scam.

Cotten’s death also initiated a truly horrible caesura in the life of Robertson, who has been accused online of everything from killing her husband to helping him fake his own death. It feels necessary to begin by framing Bitcoin Widow as the tale of a woman who bore the burden for the mind-boggling number of sins perpetrated by a fraudulent tech bro, a woman whose depression in the wake of her husband’s death led to her suicide attempt and, upon surviving, a moment in the hospital where she “grabbed some of the wires and tubes I was hooked up to, wrapped them around my throat and tried to choke myself.”

It is also fair to note that Bitcoin Widow will not exactly quell the conspiracy theorists. This is a book that, despite its quite brave rendering of harrowing psychic pain, still caused me to generate marginalia like “so is she most gull[ible] person ever or is book truly revolutionary act of playing dumb?” When Cotten tells Robertson he won $900k in an “online casino game,” she does not think to follow up on the nature of this win (spoiler: it was almost certainly money rerouted from Quadriga customers). She does not question why, days before his death, he refused to list Quadriga in their will, demanding that “If I die, the company dies with me.” Citizens who lost anywhere from paychecks to life savings thanks to Quadriga’s fraud have quite loudly observed how Cotten’s name was misspelled on his death certificate, how the death announcement was delayed a month, and how there was a closed casket with no autopsy as well as embalming irregularities.

Missing safes, empty safes, deathbed lies to doctors--there’s no shortage of doubt-creating details shared by Robertson, who repeatedly (and somewhat childishly) describes Bitcoin as a kind of “magic.” It would be easy to mock her for failing to understand where her wealth comes from, and even easier to mock her for failing to process the comically fraudulent activities occurring right in her own home; she describes Cotten stuffing literal bills into envelopes and mailing them to customers, “ultimately fulfilling $14 million worth of client withdrawal requests using cash.” But Robertson’s inability (or refusal) to recognize fraud, and her fervent, blinding desire to be a participant in a trusting marriage, combine to create one of the tidiest allegories for cryptocurrency that I’ve come across. Many of her passages about Cotten could double as reasons for why a generation of economically adrift citizens have fallen hard for crypto itself: “When we met, I was struggling emotionally and financially…I needed someone who put me at the center of his world, who centered my own life, who offered me love and the promise of a shared future together.”

I do not doubt that Robertson writes as an act of closure or mourning over the demise of this shared future, but it is also rather clear that––after years of legal struggles that ultimately stripped her of most assets––she writes because she has determined that her own introspection is her best marketable asset left. Robertson's pivot from I possess immense crypto-related wealth to I possess publishable self-reflections struck me as somewhat novel when Bitcoin Widow was published in January of 2022, if unsurprising (many a down-on-their-luck, quasi-celebrity memoirist has made the calculating transition from luxury travel to the nearest literary confessional). But now, months later, with crypto's market crash erasing an estimated $2 trillion in value in mid May and another $200 billion in a single mid-June weekend, it seems I underestimated the degree to which Robertson’s agonizing journey toward some version of crypto clarity might possibly serve as a rough template or arc for those who have seen their assets evaporate. Like Robertson in Bitcoin Widow, many crypto acolytes on social media and Reddit are, unfortunately, talking openly of suicide. On May 13th, the ever-confident Su Zhu Tweeted in a reflective tone that made him sound, dare I say, human: "This has been an incredibly humbling week and its difficult to find the right words." On June 14th, amid rumors that his firm Three Arrows Capital was now insolvent, Zhu sent what I feel confident labeling a historically relevant tweet: ”We are in the process of communicating with relevant parties and fully committed to working this out” (liquidators, meanwhile, have been unable to locate Zhu).

I am less qualified to predict the permanence of these shifts toward hopelessness and humility, respectively. I do not know whether crypto will recover, crash even more spectacularly, survive in restrained forms thanks to tepid adoption, or, in some freak twist, become the world’s prevailing financial system. It has generally been a good strategy to keep betting on the presence of crypto bravado online, which still exists in some dip-hungry corners, despite the prolonged crash, driven by true belief or delusion or spreadsheets or some internal second-wind-generating energy source known only to carnival barkers and other loud practitioners of vacant faiths. To wit: I still occasionally scroll across crypto believers jeering and cheering “ngmi” and “wagmi” alike i.e. that non-believers are “not gonna make it” and that when it comes to crypto’s adherents, “we’re all going to make it.” I have loathed these acronyms for many years and for many reasons. I loathe them because they equate “making it” with personal wealth and not, say, the creation of a world that is hospitable for all people, even and especially those who can and will not “make it” in any sense. But mostly, I loathe these references to “making it” because they imply that belief is a kind of stasis, a sort of “set it and forget it” attitude. “Ngmi” and “wagmi” imply that once a person does or does not get on the perceived “correct” historical track, the rest is automatic, no reflection or introspection required. Just let Larry David tell you a joke as you’re shuttled brainlessly through time.

While I cringe at the thought of crypto hucksters turning to publishing contracts as a way to recoup assets or repair images, I do believe that cryptocurrencies are a seismic if ill-fated reaction to modern capitalism and thus worth writing about. Memoir may seem like a superficial approach to the subject, but no genre is flawless. I have been both supportive of journalists covering this sector and skeptical that certain outlets will be able to properly capture its technical and emotional idiosyncrasies. Crypto’s rise and crash will litter the readerly shore with many future crypto memoirs, and rather than dismiss them out of hand, it’s worth remembering that the genre does have certain special, built-in qualities. Memoirs convey hurt. They speak the language. They allow for proximity to true scuzzballs and provide a compelling narrative vehicle for those who have seen their automatic history turn suddenly and frighteningly manual.