Saturday, February 11, 2012

Whose Story is it Anyway?

I'm sure that most have have by now heard of the White House intern who had an affair with the President. No, that that intern. Mimi Alford, the intern who had an affair with John F. Kennedy when she was 19 years old. I've seen a number of interviews in the last few days because people are treating this story as if it is blowing the lid off of Camelot. Of course, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago.

What interests and concerns me, though, is the side-eye approach coming from some people discussing the story. What had seemed to me to be a hint of cynicism became a full-bodied implication in Barbara Walters interview with Alford on "The View" this week. The women on the panel had already discussed the story on Hot Topics and asked why she was telling this story now. During the interview, Walters said no less than three times that "this book is going to make you a lot of money." She said it before the interview began, again after she (or someone) asked if Alford had thought of Caroline Kennedy when she wrote the book, and at least one other time later in the interview. Each time, just below the surface, I heard an accusation of exploitation.

I thought Alford showed dignity and respect in the face of a subtle effort to shame her. When Whoopi asked why she chose this moment to write the book, she answered that keeping this secret had set up a pattern in her life of silencing and secretiveness, that she felt as if she simply did what was expected of her in that moment with the President, and that this lack of agency, especially for young women, was not a good thing.

Most important for me, though, was the suggestion that she did not have the right to tell this story. That writing this book, with lots of detail no less, was an affront to Caroline Kennedy and her children and so much time had passed anyway that she should just let it go. While Alford does not say that this was an assault and acknowledges her own desire and complicity, she is also clear that this is her story that she's telling. It's not the President's story. If anyone is concerned for other people's children and family, some of that concern should go to Alford's family and that part of her that was hidden from them for years. Even if all she wanted to do was make some money from a passing encounter with a famous man, she can do that--for better or or worse. If he didn't want the story told, he should not have relied on cultural pressure to silence women for forty years. Keeping the secret doesn't erase the fact of what actually transpired. Having an affair is not cool, even if you're 19 and a virgin. But you can tell people if you want to.

There's probably something to be said here as well about the parallel conversations going on now about contraception and all of the other ways that women's bodies are up for discussion. I can't even go there now, though.

Let's just agree not to poo-poo women, okay?

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