Book review: Jill Biden's memoir -- like Michelle Obama's -- is not meant to be political
"Where the Light Enters" by Jill Biden; Flatiron; 210 pages
Recently, Jill Biden was in a nail salon getting a manicure when a woman approached her and started to cry. Biden knew what the distraught stranger was going to say before she uttered a word.
"I'm a Gold Star mom," she told Biden, "and I just wanted to show you a picture of my son."
Biden describes what happened next: "She pulled a worn memorial card from her purse with his photo on it, and as she cried, people nearby asked uncomfortably, 'What's the matter? Is everything OK?' But there's no good way to announce to a nail salon, 'Isn't it clear? Our sons are gone and we are shattered.'"
Jill Biden is a former second lady of the United States and the wife of former Vice President Joe Biden, now a presidential candidate. But her role as mother to Beau Biden, who died four years ago this month of brain cancer, is the undulating theme of her new book, "Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself." Who she is now, in the wake of this loss, permeates this slender, often bold memoir.
"Since Beau's death, I am definitely shattered," she writes halfway through. "I feel like a piece of china that's been glued back together again. The cracks may be imperceptible -- but they're there. Look closely, and you can see the glue holding me together, the precarious edges that vein through my heart. I am not the same. I feel it every day. I think every mother who has lost a child must feel this way. Am I able to feel happiness? Yes, definitely. But it's not as pure; there's just not the magic to life I used to feel."
In some ways, this is not the typical memoir of a so-called political wife, which was also true of the blockbuster memoir by former first lady Michelle Obama, whom Biden describes, along with Barack Obama, as "a part of our family." Such memoirs are good news for those of us who've always known that women married to politicians are more complex than the stereotypes of political coverage and bad fiction. As the wife of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, I am not a disinterested party.
Biden's book was released within days of her husband's announcement that he is again running for the presidency. This is unfortunate timing for the author, as it makes it too easy for cynics to dismiss the memoir as just another campaign tract without bothering to read it. Granted, she has included passages obvious in their advocacy for candidate Joe Biden, but he is her husband, and she loves him. She makes clear that she has repeatedly thought he should be president.
She cried when Joe got out of the presidential race in September 1987, over charges of plagiarism, and in 2008 she told him that the family had decided he must run, "and we weren't taking 'maybe next time' for an answer." Joe didn't make it past the Iowa caucuses and was initially hesitant when Obama asked him to be vetted for vice president. Jill pushed him to do it "as the chance of a lifetime."
Her cheerleading has its limits. She was certain that 2004 was not his year to run for president. When a group of party leaders sat in her living room for hours trying to convince Joe that "he was the only one who could take on President Bush," she sat outside by their pool "fuming" until "my temper got the best of me." She used a Sharpie to draw "NO" in large letters on her stomach and "marched through the room in my bikini." Buh-bye, politicos.
Jill Tracy Jacobs was born in 1951, the first of five girls, and grew up in a "'Leave It to Beaver' kind of family" in small-town Pennsylvania. She describes herself as a "rebellious kid" who, as a teen, sneaked out with a friend to run across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, "dodging cars going sixty miles an hour," to enjoy the otherwise off-limits pool at a private swim club.
In four short pages, she chronicles her first marriage, to a "tall, ex-football player" when she was an 18-year-old college student. By the time she graduated, the marriage was over -- but not before he took her to a victory party for Delaware's new senator-elect, Joe Biden. She never met the candidate, but she shook hands with his wife, Neilia Biden. "I thought about how picturesque their family was -- the handsome young senator, trying to better the world; his beautiful, loving wife, representing their family, always there to cheer him on; and three adorable kids."
Barely a month later, Neilia and their infant daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident; their two young sons, Hunter and Beau, were injured but survived.
The basic beginnings of Jill and Joe Biden's now 42-year marriage are well-known, as he has often talked about how "she gave me back my life" by agreeing to marry him and raising his two young sons, Beau and Hunter, as her own.
Jill Biden's version is more nuanced. Her divorce had left her bitter, she writes. At times, she prayed that she would never marry again. Other times, though, she prayed for a marriage like the one her parents had: "Give me a love like theirs. Give me a family of my own."
When Sen. Biden first called for a date, Jill responded, "How did you get this number?" (It was unlisted, but Joe's brother Frank had gotten hold of it.) Joe proposed four times before giving an ultimatum on the fifth try, in the spring of 1977. His patience had run out. He would not ask again, he said, and "I'm too much in love with you to just be friends."
This time, she was ready. "Marrying Joe wasn't just about him. It was about Hunter and Beau as well. They had endured the loss of one mother already, and I couldn't risk having them lose another." By the time she said yes, "we were acting more like a family than two people dating. We were a foursome, and we did everything together." When the boys gave her their mother's engagement ring -- Beau was 8, Hunter was 7 -- Jill joyfully accepted. "It was not lost on me that I was living a love story intended for someone else," she writes.
Soon after the wedding, Beau and Hunter were calling her "Mom" and explaining to surprised strangers, "We don't say 'step.'" She followed their lead. "Before they could even put the feeling into words, the boys had understood intrinsically that sometimes, when people said step, what they meant was 'not real,'" she writes. "It was important to me that Beau and Hunter felt our family was whole, and that meant we got to define our relationship, not anyone else." In late 1980, when she thought she might be pregnant, she "wanted to make sure Beau and Hunter continued to feel included on this journey." She took the boys, ages 10 and 11, with her to the store to buy the pregnancy test (they waited in the car while she went in). When the result was positive, she told them, "You should be the ones to tell your dad." Ashley was born in June 1981.
Jill Biden is a model for how to build a new family without trying to erase the one that preceded it. "I didn't want Neilia's memory hidden away. I didn't want the boys to think they had to choose between us or feel like they had to put aside that part of themselves. And so we made space for her." They included Neilia's parents in their lives, too.
Every year, on the anniversary of Neilia's and Naomi's death, Joe and his sons visited the cemetery. Each time, Jill bought a blanket of white roses -- Neilia's favorite -- for her grave and waited for them at home. Only after Beau died did she go with Joe to Neilia's grave. "I thought about the family we had made together, the three of us. I owed her so much."
Despite 1970s social expectations of senators' wives, Biden knew "from day one that I wouldn't be able to just live his life." She returned to teaching, and over the next 15 years she earned two master's degrees and a doctorate. She prefers to be called "Dr. Biden" rather than "Mrs. Biden" -- "that's Joe's mom's name, not mine" -- and is proud that she ignored the advice of senior staffers and took a teaching job at Northern Virginia Community College.
"I relished the tension of my life, caught between State receptions and midterm exams. Having dinner with the most powerful people on earth, and study sessions with single moms just hoping to find their way to better jobs. Hurrying to change into a cocktail dress and heels in the ladies room at NOVA to make it on time to a White House reception."
Her book closes with more reflections -- perhaps "confessions" is the better word -- of a grieving mother. She no longer attends church with Joe and their grandchildren. "I still have a lot of unanswered questions. Where I once saw order, I now see chaos. Where I once felt that peace that surpasses understanding, I now feel hollow silence. I'm still not ready for sermons or prayers," she writes. "One day, I hope I can salvage my faith."
She worries that she is not there for her children in the way she used to be: "Sometimes I feel like I've forgotten how to be the mom after the death of my son. I worry about my children worrying about me, feeling like they need to be the strong ones. It's not the right order of things. How can I be there for my children when I feel so lost?"
It seems unlikely that Jill Biden will find much comfort in the soul-sucking pace of a presidential primary. Joe "can do a rally with thousands of people and leave feeling energized and ready to take on the world," but Jill is "a bit of an introvert."
She never mentions her husband's decision to run for president this time or how she might feel about it. Perhaps the book went to press before she sorted out her thoughts about that. In the wake of her son's death, she is a different mother, a different political spouse. Perhaps there is no explaining this time.