Hillary's Choice

Hillary's Choice

3.3 9
by Gail Sheehy

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Why does she stay with him? Where does she go from here? The author who revealed a generation's Passages now answers all the questions about the most talked-about First Lady in American history. In Hillary's Choice, Hillary Clinton is rendered fully human for the first time. Here is the life of a woman that is also the story of a marriage--and the drama of a…  See more details below


Why does she stay with him? Where does she go from here? The author who revealed a generation's Passages now answers all the questions about the most talked-about First Lady in American history. In Hillary's Choice, Hillary Clinton is rendered fully human for the first time. Here is the life of a woman that is also the story of a marriage--and the drama of a presidency.

From her childhood with a demanding father and frustrated mother to her life as a professional wife determined to elect her husband president . . . from the sexual betrayals that nearly broke her to the national scandal that remade her . . . this is the epic journey of a modern American woman, a saga that begins in passivity, moves through self-punishment, and ends in power.

Who was the one "other woman" who posed a serious threat to their marriage? What was the real reason for the health care failure? How did Hillary escape the snare of Kenneth Starr? How has she managed, through it all, to be a good mother? No matter what her future, the mysteries about Hillary Clinton's past have been fully resolved by Hillary's Choice, a stunning achievement from a master chronicler of our times.

Editorial Reviews

Peter D. Kramer

The difficulty with Gail Sheehy's biography of Hillary is right there in the opening sentence: "When under siege she rises early, dresses quickly, and cauterizes her emotions."

Forget that the metaphor is infelicitous. (I suspect the idea is that emotions are like blood; but then to block them the cautery should be applied to their source, perhaps the limbic system.) Set aside that the chapter is about an appearance on Today in January of 1998, when, according to Sheehy, Hillary still disbelieved the Monica allegations and so could express affect freely, namely anger at Bill's enemies. Ignore that much of the rest of the book draws on psychoanalytic concepts (splitting, dissociation, denial) that presume unacceptable feelings are unconscious and so do not need willful stanching.

The insuperable problem in that first sentence, as in the rest of the book, concerns the sort of knowledge required for one person to be sure that on a given morning -- or characteristically, on many mornings -- another person has shut off disturbing emotions. Sheehy promises the reader a close, personal, highly particular understanding of the first lady's emotional life, and then (thankfully, one might add) she cannot deliver.

Sheehy's intent in Hillary's Choice is to write psychobiography. She never focuses for long on politics. The question that interests her regards the first marriage: Why did Hillary pick Bill and why has she stayed with him? The answer Sheehy proposes is at the level of the hypotheses of a psychotherapy: Because in childhood her father did not give her enough praise, in adulthood Hillary became addicted to an emotionally abusive relationship. To satisfy that addiction, Hillary has had to ignore the obvious -- her husband's character flaws and his philandering. The choice referred to in the book's title is "not to know what she knew."

For this analysis to be credible, it would need to be buttressed by evidence of a most intimate sort. Yes, it is a commonplace of pop psychology that empathic failures between parent and child, even ones that fall far short of outright abuse, create in the child an inner emptiness often filled in later life by addiction. But that belief is not an unquestioned truth; it is a distortion of theories largely traceable to a variant of psychoanalysis called self psychology.

The central concept of self psychology is "mirroring," an exact resonance between mother (usually) and child. The theory has it that imperfect mirroring causes deficits in the child's self. Treatment, under this model, requires an effort at exquisite attunement on the part of the therapist. The self psychologist wonders not how most people might have experienced an event but how this patient did in fact experience it. The empathic stance requires openness to idiosyncracy. What might seem an insult to most people may go unnoticed by this patient, and what conventionally seems supportive may cause outrage. Surprise is a common experience in the practice of self psychology -- the constant rediscovery of difference.

Of course, biography is about idiosyncracy and difference. Like psychotherapy carefully done, skillful biography will show evidence of the most subtle listening. Sometimes a writer will have access to a subject's diary or (as in the case of Diane Middlebrook's study of Anne Sexton) even tapes of a subject's psychoanalysis; like a therapist, the biographer sits with this intimate testimony until it gives forth an impression of ways in which the subject's character or choices reflect her development. But despite hundreds of interviews, Sheehy has failed, with a single exception, to find anyone able or willing to give convincing evidence about how Hillary's mind works.

Hillary's Choice is very much biography from the outside in, a method that is especially unsatisfying in the case of a modern political figure whose public appearances are scripted. The sort of context Sheehy provides is immediate and journalistic. A typical sentence relies on irrelevant local color to lend verisimilitude: "An hour after giving Bill his slap on the wrist, Hillary -- soft and feminine -- entered the Pork Producers Rib Feed in Pierre." Hillary's Choice often has the feel, and the substance, of an extended women's magazine article, a just-between-us-girls dishing about Hillary's strengths and foibles, in which continual references to what Hillary wore are meant to signal truths about psychic change. When the "First Bosom," as Sheehy calls it, is revealed by decolletage, we are to understand that Hillary is at last in touch with her femininity or that she has become carefree and assertive -- in brief, ready to reclaim her man and have a run at the Senate.

Sheehy does provide a private look at Hillary in college, and here she has achieved a journalistic coup, albeit one that may make readers uneasy. While at Wellesley, Hillary corresponded extensively with a close high school friend, then a Princeton undergraduate, John Peavoy. Sheehy was given access to 30 of these letters. They reveal a young woman who is driven, intellectually curious and often disdainful of those around her. Hillary is in a constant identity crisis centered on her ambitions. Will she be a mainstream political leader or a social reformer? Her type, she seems to decide, is the "compassionate misanthrope," someone out to help mankind but who does not like particular people very much.

If ethical squeamishness can be put aside, what a reader would most like is access to fuller texts of these letters. As excerpted, they are noteworthy for what they lack, the sturm und drang of adolescence, joy or disappointment in relationships, evidence of any insight into other people, even Peavoy. Here (and really only here -- Sheehy rarely manages to breach Hillary's privacy) is the sort of particularity that might interest a self psychologist: Few undergraduates would send off 30 letters empty of personal upset except as it relates to coursework and career.

Hearing Hillary's private voice in this correspondence, it is hard to put stock in this business of cauterizing emotions. Where did Sheehy get the impression that Hillary needs to squelch her feelings? Young Hillary Rodham has self-doubts, and she suffers a minor February depression, characterized by sleeping too much -- she is quite open with Peavoy about this. But for the most part she does not "do" -- or get -- affect. Hillary wonders what happiness is. She is outraged by Wellesley's muted reaction to the murder of Martin Luther King, but there is no hint in these letters of any personal feeling that would bear suppressing.

Though Sheehy does not see it this way, she has gathered reams of testimony to Hillary's lack of emotional awareness. Commenting on one or another social interchange, friend after friend says that Hillary was just out of it. In childhood, Hillary often appears socially inappropriate, bragging and putting other kids down. Of Hillary in adult life, one colleague says, "She can talk about the finer points of education policy but not notice her best friend might be suicidally depressed."

This last comment is especially disturbing in light of Vince Foster's relationship to Hillary. According to Sheehy, Foster adored Hillary, and she was as close to him as she ever was to anyone. A White House staffer tells Sheehy that Foster was obviously nonfunctional at the end. Hillary seems not to have noticed -- although Sheehy has nothing to say on the topic.

Nor has Sheehy a clue as to how Hillary responded to Foster's suicide. Here is Sheehy's effort: "One can only speculate on the complex emotions Hillary might have felt: sadness, loss, guilt, but also anger..." Sheehy's method is to say that her subject is particular and extraordinary, but then to attribute to Hillary a conventional response to any given event.

The central thesis of the book, that Hillary so craved a father's affection that she had to blind herself to the flaws of men she loved, seems similarly arbitrary -- unanchored by any personal, private evidence. I do not pretend to know more than the next person about Hillary, but reading Hillary's Choice, it strikes me that the critical relationship to her father may not be trauma but resemblance.

Hillary seems like Hugh Rodham in not being especially focused on the nuances, or even the broad strokes, of social intercourse. She may be less self-destructive than constitutionally insensitive -- mistaken in her reading of social cues and, at the same time, focused on career rather than romance. In a man, these traits would be unremarkable; men who have them often marry, and stick with, women who are needy and flamboyant. The less emotional spouse needs enlivening and is willing to pay a price to get it.

From the outside, it does seem a terrible shame that Hillary married Bill. She was a brilliant student and a committed liberal -- the sort of woman we could have used in politics over the past 30 years. Her friends protested bitterly when she drove to Arkansas to marry Bill. Hers is a choice too many bright women in her generation made, at a critical moment letting go of a chance at an independent career. Many pressures led in that direction. Hillary made her move willfully and without looking back. Whether she did it with her eyes open is less clear.

As psychological evaluation, Sheehy's book is hard to make sense of. She seems to have relied in part on the judgments of an unnamed mental health professional close to the Clintons (my colleague Susan Blumenthal is mentioned in the acknowledgments as having "cooperated to the degree [she] could without incurring the first lady's wrath"), but not to have digested the elements of the assessment.

Throwing its unsubstantiated psychological formulations aside, the book has interest precisely because it is confusing. Beyond the unnamed mental health professional, no one interviewed knows what to make of Hillary. Was she prematurely adult as a child, or reluctant to grow up? Is she a political genius or a bungler? Perhaps the important evidence about Hillary is her failure to succumb to biography -- her remaining out of focus.

Hillary may be a tragic everywoman, a romantic felled by injury and addiction; but Sheehy does not seem to know Hillary in a way that would allow her, or her readers, to decide. People are hard to know. Hillary might be Richard Nixon, hungry and self-defeating, but then again she might (surprisingly) have about her a bit of Ronald Reagan. Yes, she seems a fuller person than Reagan did. What I have in mind is Reagan's ability to elicit projection. Those who liked him ascribed feeling to Reagan -- sympathy, concern -- that was invisible to those who disliked him. I wonder about Hillary and her emotional conflict. Did she make a choice, or did she just mistake aspects of her husband's character?

Library Journal
Although as First Lady it is impossible to protect one's privacy, much about Hillary Rodham Clinton's life is not really well known. Sheehy, renowned author of Passages and a political journalist for Vanity Fair, presents an objective portrait of this intelligent and tenacious woman. Not surprisingly, Clinton was a successful student although her parents offered little support. During law school, she found an intellectual equal in Bill Clinton and became determined to make him president. Through interviews with those close to Clinton, Sheehy portrays her as shrewd and passionate about the things she loves and values. Although promoted as an intimate biography of the senatorial candidate, Sheehy's book fails to delve into her true feelings and reactions and instead succumbs to defining Clinton through her husband's antics. In addition, Clinton's role as mother is only briefly examined. Despite these flaws, Sheehy's competent writing, which makes the book feel more like a novel, and the eternal appeal of information about Presidents and their families will make this popular in most public libraries.--Susan McCaffrey, Haslett H.S., MI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
...none of the many volumes on the Clinton scandals has been written by women, and that fact alone makes Gail Sheehy's new book, Hillary's Choice welcome...insightful.
The New York Observer

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Ballantine Books Edition
Product dimensions:
5.51(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.94(d)

Read an Excerpt

Anyone who has known Hillary Clinton, née Rodham, since her budding days remarks on her iron willpower, her desperate ambition to get the best grades, take on the boys, win the competition whatever it may be. What is the source of this inner core of steel?

Hillary was born an adult, according to her mother, Dorothy Rodham. While that is surely an exaggeration, Dorothy's daughter never seemed to lack discipline or drive. Once she settled on a track, she stuck to it like the wheels of an express train. Her favorite lines from the Dr. Seuss books, she has said, read like an internalized motto: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose."

It was the best of times, 1950, in the best of countries, America victorious, when two offspring of Welsh immigrants moved their little family out of the city of Chicago to the suburb where the white people lived, Park Ridge. It was the right place to bring up their daughter, their pride, their Hillary. She was three years old, and the first of her two brothers was on the way. Hugh Rodham, her driven father, wanted the finest house he could afford, although he was too scarred by the Depression to take out a mortgage. Even if he had to work fourteen hours a day--and he did--he was determined to live on Elm Street in a fine two-story stone house and keep a Cadillac parked conspicuously in his driveway. His daughter would have her own bedroom with a sundeck.

Hillary did not want to grow up.
In her shoes, who would? Her world was as rarefied and protective as the elm trees that canopied the streets of her neighborhood. It was nice to look out in spring at those good gray guardians: solid, old stock, rising straight up before spreading their fanlike leaves. By summer, a million of those little green fans lapped at the warm air up and down streets of staid English Tudor-style homes. Only gentle shafts of sunlight were admitted to dapple the grass.

Hillary would spend hours dancing and spinning in the sun. She saw herself as the only person in the whole world and imagined that if she whirled around, everyone else would vanish. But the best part was pretending that the sunlight was intended for her, beamed down by God, and that there were "heavenly movie cameras watching my every move."
She always saw herself as a star.

The Rodhams' world was a suburban incubator of upward mobility, flush with GI Bill checks that bought up the land and paid the taxes for first-class public schools. The original buildings of this English-style village were 150 years old, and some still stood proudly, their white stucco fronts top-hatted with stiffly pointed gables. This quaint base was carefully overlaid by the neat, conformist homes of a middle-class community that would serve as a bedroom for workadaddies who commuted the forty-five minutes to Chicago.

"Back then, moms stayed home" is the wistful recollection of Hillary's old history teacher Paul Carlson, who was born and bred and remains insulated in Park Ridge. "Dads could make enough money to support the family. Mothers did what mothers are supposed to do, provide a gentle climate for the children and the husbands." The mothers shopped and gave coffee klatches and had lunch ready when their kids biked home from school and waited for the crunch of gravel to signal the homecoming of the head of household. The mothers of Park Ridge were always waiting for life to happen.

It was a dry town, literally as well as symbolically: no liquor and no dissenting views to heat things up. All white, almost all white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, its mostly English and German population belonged to the New Class of postwar Americans who invented the suburban dream. Republicanism was as solidly planted in Park Ridge as the American elms. When someone wanted to vote Democrat, there would be a flurry of activity trying to find a ballot for the oddball.

The Arcadian portrait of her girlhood invariably offered by Hillary and her designated friends glosses over important social realities. In status-conscious Park Ridge, most of the fathers wore business suits and were considered professionals. Hugh Rodham commuted to Chicago, the same as his neighbors, and drove home at dusk, the same as his neighbors, but he was not a professional. None of Hillary's playmates or classmates knew exactly what Mr. Rodham did for a living. "I just assumed he was a professional," most will tell you. In fact, Mr. Rodham was a tradesman. His wife had barely finished high school. Their desperate ambition to better themselves was injected repeatedly into their children. It had been ever thus with the Rodhams, a scrappy clan of Welshmen and their long-suffering wives.

Hugh's grandmother Isabella, alone with her eight children, had endured the horrors of a steerage-class crossing from Wales in 1882, to begin life anew in Scranton, Pennsylvania, joining a husband who worked in the blackened pits of the "anthracite capital of the world." The immigrant coal miner had told his sons, "It doesn't always have to be like this. You can be whatever you want to be." Their son Hugh went to work in a Scranton lace mill at the age of thirteen and stayed for the next half century, becoming a pillar of Republican respectability and the father of three sons. His namesake, Hillary's father, Hugh Ellsworth Rodham, managed to go through Penn State University on a football scholarship, studying physical education. But he graduated in the Depression and went to work in the mines, later joining his father at the Scranton Lace Company. Big and burly and bursting with ambition, Hugh Jr. escaped the dreary mining town and literally rode the rails, jumping on and off passing freight trains until he got himself to Chicago and found a better job selling curtains at the Columbia Lace Company.

Hillary tellingly describes her father as "a self-sufficient, tough-minded, small businessman." Indeed, he did eventually become his own boss and the sole employee of a little business. He made draperies for hotels and banks and offices. He took the orders, bought the material, cut and stenciled and sewed the curtains, delivered and hung them. Hugh Rodham was a one-man band. (Except when he put his sons to work helping him on a Saturday.)

The Rodhams emphasized self-reliance: no hands, no help, except perhaps from God or Goldwater. Pop-Pop, as the children called the authoritarian drillmaster at the head of the family, neither offered nor asked for nurturing. Matters of the heart were a fickle distraction in the Rodham household. Life was seen as combat. Hillary's father prided himself on having trained young recruits for combat during World War II. Mr. Rodham did serve as a chief petty officer in the navy, although he himself never saw combat or left the States. Notwithstanding, he gave a good imitation of General Patton in raising his children.

"Well, Hillary," he would demand, "how are you going to dig yourself out of this one?"
In her first book Hillary depicts a deeply religious family: "We talked with God, walked with God, ate, studied and argued with God. Each night we knelt by our beds to pray." Her father did come from a long line of Methodists, but he let his wife and daughter do most of the churchgoing to the First United Methodist Church of Park Ridge. The patrician manners and mores of the New Class were not something to which Hugh Rodham aspired. He swore. He chewed tobacco. He was gruff and intolerant and also famously tightfisted: he shut off the heat in the house every night and turned a deaf ear to his children's complaints that they woke up freezing in the morning. Toughen up was the message. In the Rodham code any emotional display signaled weakness.

"Maybe that's why she's such an accepting person," Dorothy has said of her daughter. "She had to put up with him."

Meet the Author

Millions of readers defined their lives through Gail Sheehy's landmark work, Passages, and have followed her continuing examination of the stages of adult life in her bestsellers The Silent Passage, New Passages, and Understanding Men's Passages.  As a political journalist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Ms. Sheehy has written character studies of national and world figures, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bob and Elizabeth Dole, George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Saddam Hussein, Newt Gingrich, and Gary Hart. The mother of two daughters, she divides her time between New York and California, where she lives with her husband, editor and educator Clay Felker.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

New York City and Berkeley, California
Date of Birth:
November 27, 1937
B.A., University of Vermont; M.A., Columbia School of Journalism

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