What Happened, whose title of course requires no further predicate, occasionally engages in blame, what-happened-wise: of Clinton herself, of Donald Trump, of Bernie Sanders, of James Comey, of Vladimir Putin, of the American media, of many more. It is occasionally dishy, as per the commercial demands of most such post-campaign books (at one point, Clinton refers to Jason Chaffetz as “the then-Utah Congressman and wannabe Javert”). It also, however, takes the performative authenticity so common in those works—the focus-group-approved anecdotes, the personality-by-committee—and attempts to subvert it. “Reading the news every morning was like ripping off a scab,” Clinton writes, and this is probably another thing you would not be expecting to read in a campaign memoir.
One of the ideas that has solidified around Clinton in recent years—an outgrowth of a media environment that once allowed her to believe that a magazine had accused her of bestiality—is that there are essentially two of her, contradicting each other: the persona versus the person, the public figure (controlled, cautious, calculating) versus the private one (warm, witty, capable of holding strong opinions about snack foods). “What’s remarkable,” Henry Louis Gates wrote of the then-first lady, in 1996, “isn’t that she can be funny, spontaneous, and mischievous, and has a loud, throaty laugh; what’s remarkable is the extent to which she has sequestered her personality from the media.” It’s a narrative that grew as Clinton twice sought, and twice lost, the American presidency. In 2016, the writer Rebecca Traister diagnosed the matter as “Hillary Clinton versus Herself.” The journalist Ezra Klein noted that “the Clinton America sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know.” He named the disconnect “the gap.”
You could read What Happened as a post-facto attempt to bridge that distance: Here are 494 pages of concessional humanity, full of the kind of confessional revelations most commonly associated with the first-person industrial complex. Clinton’s earlier memoirs, Living History and Hard Choices, often embraced the prosaic prose of the big tent (“In this world and the world of tomorrow, we must go forward together or not at all,” “One thing that has never been a hard choice for me is serving our country. It has been the greatest honor of my life”); What Happened, which rehashes some of the former works’ aphorisms and insights, does, too. More often, though, it relies on simpler, and more intimate, exposition. It is written in the first person, but often slides into the second. It is cautiously diaristic.
In the book, Clinton discusses the wounds not just of November 2016, but of insults accumulated within a system so often baffled by women who seek power. (“For the record, it hurts to be torn apart,” she writes. “It may seem like it doesn’t bother me to be called terrible names or have my looks mocked viciously, but it does”). She discusses the partially unexpected joy Chelsea’s arrival brought her when she was born in 1980, noting that “getting pregnant was not easy for me.” The woman so often denigrated as “shrill” shares how she once enlisted the help of a linguistics expert to help her make her speeches more appealing to audiences. And how once, in college, she went on a blind date with a man “who wouldn’t take repeated nos for an answer,” and whom, finally, she had to slap to rebuff. (“But he did back off,” she notes, “and I went to bed that night shaken but not traumatized.”)