There's no such thing as a tell-all memoir (nor should there be), even when it's spoken from the heart.

My Republican mom was probably surprised to see Laura Bush's new memoir, Spoken from the Heart, delivered to her Kindle on Mother's Day. My political opinions differ sharply from those of George W. Bush (not to mention my parents), and I've always found Laura Bush to be kind of on the Stepford side. I was never sure if she was just uptight or completely emotionally shut down. But last year, I discovered she was neither. While I was researching my forthcoming project, Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer, a memoir by Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and a close friend of Laura Bush for almost thirty years, I came upon a few personal letters from Laura to Nancy, and I spoke with Nancy at some length about their friendship. (That's not spilling any beans. In Spoken From the Heart, Laura talks about volunteering with Nancy's newborn foundation back in the 1980s in Dallas and tells how the two of them spent time with women in cancer wards in Budapest in 2002 while Nancy was ambassador to Hungary.)

As a writer specializing in the craft of memoir, I was eager to see how Mrs. Bush's book was done, and as you would expect, it is very well done indeed. Michiko Kakutani's opening thoughts in the NY Times review:
Laura Bush’s new memoir, “Spoken From the Heart,” is really two books. The first is a deeply felt, keenly observed account of her childhood and youth in Texas — an account that captures a time and place with exacting emotional precision and that demonstrates how Mrs. Bush’s lifelong love of books has imprinted her imagination. The second book is a thoroughly conventional autobiography by a politician’s wife — a rote recitation of travel, public appearances and meetings with foreign dignitaries that sheds not the faintest new light on the presidency of the author’s husband, George W. Bush.
I agree. For me, the impression of Laura Bush in the front half of the book is much more in keeping with the woman I learned about from those letters and stories. But why would we expect anything different?

Laura Bush is not free to say whatever she wants to say about her husband's presidency. There are rules. And worse yet, there are lawyers. I've been through a number of legal reviews for memoirs ranging from the mom of a sports legend to stage and screen stars to political mover/shakers, and it's incredibly stringent, even for the most low key folks. A memoir by a former First Lady would be subject to the highest level of cross-checking, spin-doctoring, temporizing, fact-checking, tact-checking, buffing, waxing, tweezing...I'm exhausted at the very thought of the "write-arounds" required to get the story from one year to the next. Some material is still classified information, and other material is just nobody's dang business. The question of what to share and what not to share in a memoir is always a complex issue, and for someone in her position, it had to be complex to the tenth power.

In the front matter, Mrs. Bush acknowledges the "talented and beautiful writer" Lyric Winik, a Princeton grad, book author in her own right, and Washington correspondent for Parade magazine, married to bestselling historian, Jay Winik. (Note to self: Never play Scrabble with the Winiks.) The book really is extremely well written--flawlessly constructed with a strong, sweet, consistent voice. Winik did a fantastic job of capturing the warmth of a southern lilt without burdening the book with hokey idioms or other forms of southsploitation.

I wonder if it crossed Winik's mind (though I'm sure it wasn't even an option) to end the book with election night 2000. As a writer, she must have known that the richly personal flavor of the book would turn guarded at that point. Readers are bound to feel that glass door sliding shut, but there was no way it could do otherwise. The moment Laura Bush became First Lady, her words and actions--like her ability to go to the grocery store or stand in line at the post office--were in a larger context, along with the very meaning of the words "freedom" and "isolation." Mrs. Bush doesn't complain about this dynamic, but she does mention it, and it's clearly felt in the change in tone. There's a loneliness about this book that's kind of heartbreaking at times. Maybe that's what's coming through loud and clear in what's unspoken from the heart.

Comments

I really enjoyed hearing about the book from someone with your insight into the memoir-making process. Thanks so much for sharing!
Lois Lonnquist said…
Due to a full schedule this week, I am only part way through Laura Bush's memoir. I can identify with much in the early chapters, the Great Depression and World War II seen through the eyes of a child. I look forward to reading the rest. I have great respect for Laura Bush (and her mother-in-law) two great, strong, very different ladies we can be proud of. Thanks for your book review and the Kindle copy!

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