Reading 'What Happened' Sent Me Through the Five Stages of Grief
Before acceptance comes a whole lot of anger.
Image by author via Getty.
In What Happened, Hillary Clinton describes how exhausted and broken the 2016 election made her. I can relate because I feel exhausted and broken just reading the book and reliving the election that gave us our current political hell.
Disclosure: I am one of those people who often gets worked up by Clinton and the centrist wing of the Democratic Party that she has come to represent. I've never been shy when it comes to criticizing Clinton, nor have I been quiet about my support for her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. In recent months, I've found myself further and further down the rabbit hole of Twitter feuding with her most ardent supporters, vexed by her inclination to blame outside forces and unwillingness to acknowledge the mistakes she made throughout her presidential campaign, like not visiting Wisconsin, along with her inability to put out a campaign message that inspired enough of Barack Obama's coalition.
Arguing about 2016 on social media is not a good way to spend your time. It's toxic and draining and pointless. Nevertheless, I persist. Some Hillary nuts have called me a sexist for not supporting her; others have responded to my criticism of her by informing me, literally, "You must not be a woman." I've been blocked by an astounding number of pro-Hillary accounts, from Sanders-bashing randos to legitimately prominent journalists. I have one loyal follower who diligently responds to every single one of my Hillary tweets with an impassioned defense of her, and to be honest, I respect the fuck out of his discipline.
Getting into repeated petty and vicious Twitter wars with Hillary diehards is not a pleasant experience. I often ask myself: Why do I engage in unnecessary online drama when I could live a much better life? or tenderly remind myself, Babe, you don't have to do this. Log off! But then, Clinton inevitably pops up in the news again to dole out some of her post-election wisdom, and I get mad enough to tweet about it and I start the cycle all over again.
All that said, I wanted to like What Happened, even though I knew the possibility of that was slim. I'm pretty sure I know what happened and what the major factors of the 2016 disaster were—at this point we can all list them, from Russia to Comey to misogyny to Michigan. And I wasn't charmed by the dozens of pages describing her daily routine and what foods she likes, though I'm sure Clintonistas enjoyed hearing that she likes chardonnay.
But I wanted, more than anything, to be pleasantly surprised by Clinton's memoir. I wanted to like it because I wanted to like her. It was disappointing for me, a millennial feminist woman, to feel at best tepid about the person who could've been America's first woman president. I wanted to catch some retroactive enthusiasm, maybe to understand why the people on the other side of my screen feel so compelled to defend her months after her final campaign ended.
So what happened? Instead, I went through the five stages of grief.
According to Grief.com, which I assume is the best place for this sort of thing, "In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on."
I hit this point in the first chapter of the book, where Clinton writes about the Women's March, asking "where those feelings of solidarity, outrage and passion had been during the election." I wondered if I could go on, how I could go on, and mostly, why should I go on. I was in a state of shock about why—even if she felt those petty feelings—she would include that moment in her book. It's an uncharitable response to a display of incredible solidarity from the people who voted for her. As she has said many times, she won the popular vote—of course there are people who love her! Why admit that their devotion inspires bitterness?
By page 56, I was losing it. "Before 2016," writes the Yale Law graduate with an extensive knowledge of American history, "we'd never elected a President who flagrantly refused to abide by the basic standards of democracy and decency." In the denial stage, apparently you're looking for "a way to simply get through each day." In an effort to simply get to next page and evade shouting "WHAT ABOUT RICHARD NIXON!? GEORGE W. BUSH!? ANDREW JOHNSON!? RONALD REAGAN!?" I began to draw.
(Also, I'm sorry, but the quotes she peppers the book with are stupid.)
"Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process," says Grief.com. "The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal."
By page 120, I was fucking exasperated by the complete befuddlement Clinton has about why she is such a divisive figure—"I'm really asking. I'm at a loss," she writes. But she also provides a lot of explanations for why people don't like her. First off, although she's undeniably a strong, successful woman (which is enough reason, by itself, for some people to dislike her), she also presents herself as a victim. This makes a certain amount of sense, considering the Clintons have been the subjects of plenty vicious and unfair attacks from the right since the beginning of Bill's scandal-marked career.
But sooner or later we all must come to terms with the fact that not everybody is going to like us for both understandable and irrational reasons. This is especially important if we are repeatedly running for president and putting ourselves in a position where at least 40 percent of voters, and probably more, will hate us.
Here, for my money, is a quote that explains quite a lot: "I ran for President because I thought I would good at the job. I thought that of all the people who might run, I had the most relevant experience, meaningful accomplishments, and ambitious but achievable proposals."
That's a good summation of why she wasn't compelling to many folks. Her campaign, like her career, was built on a sturdy foundation of pragmatism and competency and steady-handedness. But many people, angry at the inequality and unfairness so endemic to the country, could not give a shit about those things. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, were preaching revolutions, albeit revolutions of different sorts.
The policies Clinton later outlines in her book are decent, even good, but she makes it clear that she is a realist, not an idealist; fundamentally she believes in compromise and bipartisanship.
Reflecting on the Founding Fathers, she writes, "Somehow they began listening to one another and compromising, and eventually found common purpose." This is her ideal vision of government. But for those who hear "compromise" as "compromise among elites who don't actually care about you," this is an enraging sentiment. She hoped to run as a continuation of Barack Obama's term, as the status quo candidate, and a lot of people turned out to hate the status quo.
Speaking of anger, she is still very mad at Sanders. In recent interviews, she has accused Sanders of being "incredibly divisive" and says he should be doing more to help Democrats get elected. (He's actually doing a lot.) In the book, she complains about Sanders not endorsing her quickly enough, how in the primaries, "Bernie had hung on until the bitter end, drawing blood wherever he could along the way." Aside from the fact that she did the same thing to Obama in 2008, it is infuriating to read her berating Sanders for simply running a pretty good campaign against her.
Pushing back on Sanders's criticisms of her corporate donations, Clinton is unable to see the big deal, writing, "I accepted campaign donations from people on Wall Street—just as President Obama had done." Later, she blames Sanders for "paving the way for Trump's 'Crooked Hillary' campaign," without addressing the legitimate grievances Sanders had about her record.
Clinton frequently uses this kind of logic to shield herself from legitimate criticisms of her political record: Lots of male politicians do the same bad things I did! Why aren't you mad at them?
People, especially people on the left, were mad at these male politicians. But they weren't running for president in 2016.
In the bargaining stage, we often feel a tremendous sense of guilt. According to our friend Grief.com, "The 'if onlys' cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we 'think' we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain."
The guilt crept up on me during the section of the book devoted to family. It is Clinton at her most genuine, and it is endearing even to a Bernie bitch like myself. Her account of her very close relationship with her late mother, Dorothy, reminded me of my relationship with mine. She writes about asking her mother about her abusive and neglectful upbringing, asking her how she managed to be such a good mom to Hillary. I've had those conversations, too.
What she writes about her relationship with Bill is also moving. "He has been my partner in life and my greatest champion. He never once asked me to put my career on hold for his," she writes, weaving in anecdotes about what a supportive husband he is throughout the book's entirety.
I saw Hillary Clinton at her most human and I liked her. I worried I had been too hard on her, that the energy I had put into opposing her—though I ended up voting for her—was wasted.
Inevitably, as Hillary pivoted back to politics, the depression sank in. "Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined," Grief.com explains. Three hundred pages of Clinton's repetitive musings had me feeling grim. I wondered when the book would end. My eyes glazed over her detailed explanations of how much the Comey's October 27 letter about reopening the investigation into her emails ruined her chances of winning. I believed her, sure. I just didn't care.
"This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever." Her book felt the same way.
Her analysis of how and why Russia interfered in the 2016 election was accurate, like much of her book. But it didn't make me care.
Acceptance is not about feeling like everything is resolved. It's about, in the indelible words of Grief.com, "recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it." After 464 pages of Hillary Clinton telling me what happened, I found peace. It doesn't mean I am suddenly inspired by her as a political figure. It doesn't mean I'm cool with her voting for the Iraq War or not getting behind Sanders's single-payer healthcare bill.
But I might be a little less outraged by those things, as they (like Clinton) recede into the rearview mirror.
Toward the end of the book, she writes about love and kindness—themes that, once upon a time, she wanted her campaign to be about. That never really came together, because America, especially in 2016, is not a place where love and kindness can be a winning political message. "More than anything at this moment in America," Clinton writes, "[we need] radical empathy." I agree with that.
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