May 3, 2013

Once upon a secret


Mimi Alford’s confessional book is not as much of a potboiler as one would expect, considering that it is the story of a 19 year old girl’s affair with President John Kennedy. But it is striking in its own ways. Though the writing skill is mediocre at best, the content is explosive, in the least.



From Mimi’s recounting of her moments with the President, it is clear the President was a nice person who treated the people around him well. He teased and joked with Mimi, was always solicitous, rarely mistreated her, and generally made her feel good. But it is also obvious that he never had strong feelings for her. After her first meeting with the President in a swimming pool, she is invited to meet him again, and decides to go. After that meeting, she ruminates: “If I had missed the meeting, the President would have been slightly puzzled, but nothing more.” While Mimi was head over heels in love with the President, Kennedy regards her with, at most, cordial warmth. What then, is the meaning of love? Is the intensity in ordinary love only brought about by our social circumstances, where we are forced to choose one person to be with us? Did Kennedy never have strong feelings for her just because he could have any person he wanted? The possessiveness, the jealousy, in our relations, are we conditioned to feel that way because we have no options? Would we all be as casual about love as Kennedy if we could have endless options like him?

Mimi recounts how she never resisted the relationship with Kennedy, even though he was a married man many years her senior and she knew had no future with him. She was singled out by the President of America, arguably the most handsome and charismatic of them, for attention. And with the President discussing the Cuban missile crisis in front of her, she felt special, being at the periphery of what the entire world was talking about. No wonder she was flattered and ready to do anything to stay on in the White House. Mimi gradually fell into a pattern where she was summoned by the President as and when he wanted to see her, and went away whenever he dismissed her. The reason she obeyed every command of his, even though she never got to dictate, or even negotiate, the terms of her relationship, was because she was so dazzled by him.

While it’s easy to dismiss the President’s affection as philandering, for Mimi it was the most important experience of her life. She was willing to wait for hours in dingy motels, or hide underneath car seats, just so she could be close to the President. Kennedy’s power was a potent aphrodisiac, and she added to the fact that he was handsome, glamorous, charismatic, and most importantly, the president of USA, (the leader of the free world, as Mimi calls him), and he was a heady mix. Even in real life, people are willing to do many such undignified things for those they love, sometimes even wrong things. This creates a complex dynamic between love and power, with one person holding power over the other. But in real life, it is not always easy to analyze love in terms of power relations, people may leverage anything from looks to charm to eloquence to hold power over the other person. But the stark difference in power between the President and Mimi makes it easy to spot. Mimi’s story offers us a tool to analyze real life relationships in terms of power differentials.

The most striking moment in the book is perhaps Mimi’s first sexual encounter with the President, just four days into her job at the white house: “I had the thought that other women of my generation who were shielded from knowledge about their own bodies must have had: So that’s sex? I didn’t know if it had been good, bad, or indifferent. I did not know if it was meant to be slow or fast. I did not have an opinion about it being “caring” or “meaningful”. I had nothing to compare it to.”

This was a woman in the 1960s in America, but it could almost be a woman in Nepal today. We are still just as naïve. Given our lack of experience and lack of communication regarding sex, we have nothing to compare anything to, not even stories from our friends, no narrative to judge it by. Mimi did not resist Kennedy’s advances, not because she did not want to, but because it never occurred to her. And then she describes the moment when she did find meaning in the sex. “There was a moment when after he knew it was my first time, that he became more gentle and solicitous, and I felt close to him”. And then you realize that sex supposed to make her feel close to the President, but most of the times, it didn’t. Mimi’s confession throws up many questions, like is sex supposed to make you feel close to a person? And why did Mimi want to continue the affair when it did not? Mimi had no answers, and spent the rest of her life figuring it out, letting the question eat her up from inside out and destroy her marriage. Her story highlights the fact that we too need to have honest discussions about such issues, else throughout our lives, we too will wander clueless, trying to figure out what the important moments of our lives mean.

Mimi’s persona comes across as a regular, normal person. She comes from another era when her priority is not to gain press attention or manipulate the media in any way to favor herself. Her priority is to tell a secret, and so we hear a voice that is at all times honest. Since she has had so much time to digest what happened to her, all her responses come out measured. She has dealt with everything, guilt, deception, and has come out with a portrait of herself that is often unflattering in its quest for total honesty. Mimi’s book is a moving example of how love can change us, and make us behave in ways that we never thought possible. I recommend this book to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of what love can do to a normal human being.



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