Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, should never have been written. Or maybe it’s a “feminist manifesto.” Or perhaps Clinton’s book is an unwelcome post-mortem, inspiring little more than “dread” and an audible “collective groan” from fellow Democrats. Maybe. Or maybe that response is just base misogyny, an “attempt to silence Clinton and her book.” Maybe Clinton needs to stop “looking in the rearview mirror” or “No, Hillary Clinton the First Woman to Win a Major-Party Presidential Nomination, Does Not Need to Shut Up About It.”
Or maybe What Happened’s very existence is important because Clinton “was so close to the glass ceiling that she could see the way it reflected the light.” Or maybe the book’s publication is just more unneeded “fuel to the fire.” Or maybe both the book and Clinton herself are the “apotheosis of Leaning In.” Maybe What Happened is “unguarded” or maybe its “authenticity still needs a bit of tweaking.”
The early reviews and write-ups of Clinton’s election post-mortem (with a few exceptions) are less about the literary or historical merit of What Happened itself, and more about the lingering feelings around Clinton, her policies, and the Democratic party. It is either a book about the hurt of everyday sexism played out on the grand scale of American politics or it’s a book where Clinton the failed candidate is unable (or unwilling) to grapple with the criticisms of her campaign and policies. In short, What Happened is whatever you need it to be. It’s either a book that’s a “howl from the gut of Hermione Granger — the embattled cry of the hyper-competent woman who desperately wishes the world were a meritocracy.” Or it’s further evidence that Cersei Lannister and Clinton “are the same person.”
These both are ridiculous, eye-rolling comparisons, but they are telling in their need to fracture Clinton through the prism of fiction. The heroine and the villainess are both familiar roles for Clinton and the responses to What Happened embrace the opposing fictions created both by and for Clinton. The perception of Clinton will always, in some respect, occupy the realm of fiction, living in the deep crevices of metaphors that haunt identity, particularly gendered identity. What Happened doesn’t do much to break-free from those fictions—I’m not certain such a feat could be accomplished by a single woman or a single book—but instead brings a bit of complexity or, as Clinton emphasizes, humanity to both.
And yet, for all of the acrimony that’s preceded the book, and the more that’s sure to follow, What Happened lays claim to one overlooked piece of history: it joins the “literature of defeat” as the first written by a woman, the first to directly address the role of sexism in American politics. What Happened delves directly into Clinton’s feelings about sexism, recounting sadness and her post-election wounds with unusual candor. Writing the book, Clinton writes, “has been cathartic.” She alludes to “painful memories,” and a post-loss life where “Reading the news every morning was like ripping off a scab.” She writes after the election she practiced “self-care.” If Clinton is wounded, then she sees her hurt as representative of a divided nation and of an electorate who has “salt [rubbed] in their wounds,” by brutish Donald Trump.
The first third of What Happened is a straight memoir, confessional in its tone, and a kind of therapeutic to the women who supported Clinton. She draws a line between the sexism she experienced during the election and the Clinton supporters who were forced to join “secret groups” after being bullied online. What Happened addresses a kind of sisterhood (it’s no surprise that the chapter “Being a Woman in Politics” is included in a section called “Sisterhood”) that, again, will appeal if you value such rhetorical relationships which many Clinton supporters undoubtedly do. It’s an appeal to a sisterhood that understands sexism in an identical form, played out in Clinton’s candidacy: the private versus the public self, the forced smiling, holding back tears, the casual slights, and physical intimidation. If you felt that Trump was speaking directly to you when he infamously uttered the phrase “nasty woman,” then Clinton’s sisterhood and wound sharing will be compelling. “For the record,” Clinton writes, “it hurts to be torn apart.”
But if Clinton is concerned about the sexism that’s easy to identify, she is also deeply concerned about that narrative of authenticity, particularly the criticism that she lacks such a quality. Authenticity haunts Clinton throughout What Happened. She laments that her origin story—the “becoming” story so central in political hagiography—is uninspiring. Unlike Barack Obama’s, Clinton’s was a “perfectly ordinary” childhood, middle-class and warm but uninspiring. But, Clinton writes, that is just the surface story (those surfaces and the inability to tell more complex narratives seem to plague Clinton), dig deeper and there is “a story of revolution.” The revolution is, of course, feminism, a movement that Clinton writes that she has “helped lead.” She recounts her feminist bona fides, adding that, “I’ve never figured out how to tell this story right. I’m not great at talking about myself.”
The Clinton who is uncomfortable talking about herself is the private Clinton. Though her public persona radiates grit, confidence, and self-control, that is the public mask that she, and, by extension, every woman, must wear. She insists this one is not an authentic image but rather one born of sexism that makes contradictory demands on women (politics demands a personal story but culture teaches women not to brag is essentially her argument). The public Clinton exists in stark contrast to the private Clinton who, as she tells it, wears yoga pants, plays with her grandchildren, and goes hiking. Clinton bears the “burden of putting on a happy face or reassuring everyone that I was totally fine,” she writes.
Clinton is clearly plagued by the question of authenticity. “What could I do to be ‘more real?’” she asks. It’s not a rhetorical question. She contends that if she had been herself, she would have been ripped to pieces by the press and public. If What Happened is the authentic Hillary, then the authentic Hillary is a mixture of score settling (with everyone from Bernie Sanders to James Comey and Jason Chaffetz), cozy pleasures (she quotes from Hamilton and a sign in her home that reads, “It is hard to be a woman. You must think like a man, Act like a lady, Look like a young girl, And work like a horse.”), in-depth policy solutions especially on gun control and abortion, deep empathy for Americans who have faced real tragedy (Mothers of the Movement and parents of Sandy Hook victims), and evasion of critical disagreements. Notably, Clinton is at her most authentic—at her most compelling, even—when she is in the policy weeds.
In a section on new feminist phrases (“mansplaining” and “emotional labor”), Clinton writes of the emotional labor she performed both at work and at home. “In my marriage, I’ve definitely been the one to perform the bulk of emotional labor,” she writes rather quizzically. It’s here where Clinton frustrates the most—she wants to lead a revolution but directs it on the path of the catchphrase empowerment rather than real upheaval. Clinton acknowledges that “intersectionality” is a new feminist concept and acknowledges that white women voted in larger numbers for Donald Trump, but can’t quite name why that is. Clinton writes of resentment and anger and of Americans who are “skeptical and critical of somebody who doesn’t look like and talk like and sound like everybody else who’s been president,” but can’t quite bridge the fact that many of those Americans look and talk like her. Which is not to say that Clinton doesn’t address race, it’s simply that she fails to connect the dots between gender and race.
But that’s because Clinton is a woman invested in political norms. She is a Democratic stalwart who deeply believes in the goodness and strength of America’s political institutions, despite the abuse of Comey’s own power during her presidential campaign (her burning thoughts on Comey are worth re-reading, particularly for those who have recast him as a romantic hero post-firing). “Authoritarianism,” she writes, “sows mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, the experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.”
It’s a questionable claim that invests the preservation of democracy in the people at the top, for and within authority figures. But that belief in “honest leaders” is a recurring chorus in American politics, one in which the Democratic party is invested and Clinton is too. Clinton calls out Bernie Sanders for not being a Democrat and supporting anti-abortion candidates, but has little to say on her own party’s support for similar candidates (one, however, hopes that the Democratic leadership will read Clinton’s impassioned defense of abortion care). It’s why Clinton can prescribe “radical empathy” and “building bridges between communities” as a solution to our current political woes. “I can carry around my bitterness forever,” Clinton writes, “or I can open my heart once more to love and kindness. That’s the path I choose.”
At its heart, What Happened is a book for the most dedicated Hillary supporter. It’s a book for those who will chuckle when Clinton attributes “the internet” with the quote, “But her emails.” It’s a book for those who, like Clinton, locate their childhood bullying on the same spectrum as boardroom and political sexism. It’s a book for those who find catharsis in sharing the wounds of sexism and empowerment in such sisterhood. It’s a book, too, for those who believe in the endurance of the Democratic party and its institutions. It’s unlikely to change the opinions of those who gleefully chanted “lock her up!” or move those who cast an apathetic vote for Clinton. It’s equally as likely to anger the Left whose criticisms of Clinton will be quickly confirmed with every turn of the page. What Happened is a book that, like the treatment of Clinton herself, can be whatever you want it to be.