My Private Heartbreak Became a Public Scandal. Telling My Story Helped Me Reclaim It.For decades, my ex-husband's shattering betrayal was engulfed by one of the biggest media stories of the 1990s, whose memories I thought I'd boxed up for good. Could writing my memoir, and unpacking those ghosts, finally set me free?
August 4, 2021
Editor's Note: With Everything Is Perfect, author Kate Nason revisits the turmoil that upended her life when her husband's secret affair—with a woman at the center of a presidential scandal—was exposed to the world. Here, she explores how writing her memoir helped her chart an arc of her life that begged to be deciphered.
Sometimes the story chooses you.
Call it a haunting.
And by haunting, I mean the memory-ghosts of events in our lives that we turn over in our hearts and minds for years. The patterns that repeat and hound us. The arc of a life that begs to be deciphered.
For years, the decade of my 30s—bracketed by huge personal loss—played through my mind like a mythical journey, complete with heroes and villains. Trials, tests, and triumphs. I lived with these memories, turning them round and round, in an attempt to make meaning from my trajectory.
I knew someday I’d have to write it.
When my marriage blew up in the wake of my husband’s betrayals and infidelity and the national scandal that engulfed us, I collected all the newspaper and magazine articles from those days: The Oregonian, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, People. Articles sent to me by friends in Tokyo, England, and Germany, containing pictures of me they’d clipped from the pages of their hometown papers. I gathered them along with my journals and scraps of paper scrawled with my musings, and stuffed them all into a bulging banker’s box labeled “The Bomb.” A time capsule I banished to the attic.
Photo of the author by Marri Savinar
After I divorced “Charlie,” my life was consumed with raising my kids. Single motherhood is like running a daily marathon, barely leaving time to breathe, let alone write. I did not date, certain it would bring disaster; I was done with that. I was busy growing my design business. I surrounded myself with dear friends. Life was full, I was serene and happy.
Not until my oldest was in college and my youngest was in high school did I dig into that box and begin to write my story.
Correction: my story wrote me.
Writing this memoir was my way to wrestle with my ghosts. It wasn’t easy.
Often at dawn, before my head came off the pillow, the first sentence of a “chapter” would download fully formed into my brain. Those first sentences unleashed a trove of memories. All those ghosts came out of hiding. Joseph Campbell says, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” I had entered the cave. And I wrote my way out of it.
For years, my ghosts had hibernated while I worked to gain perspective and understanding. Writing this memoir was my way to wrestle with my ghosts. It wasn’t easy. As any memoirist will tell you, to write past events is painful and arduous. Often, writing a difficult scene is to relive all of the pain and humiliation again. And still, I felt compelled to write it.
Campbell also said, “If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.”
I’ve often wondered why I had to go so big. While writing Everything Is Perfect, I was keenly aware that my big story had a big problem. How to tell my story when another woman’s story is tangled up in mine? In particular, a woman whose story has been told by herself and others. A woman who maintains a public presence and has worked to grapple with her own ghosts just as I have. And then, of course, there was an American president and a first lady. At first, I tried to write this story without them in it. In the end, the magnitude of these events in my life was so pivotal that to write them out was impossible. This big story was my big story, and to not tell it as it unfolded felt like a self-betrayal, a deep dishonoring of myself and my journey—which for me was a spiritual one, and which I wanted to share.
Collage by Kate Nason
While writing my memoir I made the decision to change everyone’s names. Call it an act of self-preservation. If I’ve learned anything it’s that I alone am responsible for my well-being. Those who suffer from PTSD know people and places associated with trauma hold a charge. Whether experienced as a momentary electrical shock or a lightning bolt, both are painful. Certain names held such a charge for me—I didn’t even want to type them. Changing them lightened the burden of writing and helped to shift the focus of the big story to my story. A story of understanding the folly in ignoring my intuition, and the curious and often devastating places I had landed in as a result. A story of the roles women fall into, of how I got into a bad marriage, and how I got out of it.
There are as many ways to be in this world as there are beings. I only know this one: to believe that all we experience, however difficult, holds a gift—a lesson, if you will. In the epilogue to my memoir, I put it this way: “I know every misfortune, every stone in my path, has contained a hidden gift that has caused me to examine my life and make better choices as I’ve charted my way forward.…a course correction that has led the way to my best life.”
Always a storyteller, I’m great at a dinner party. I process my life out loud.
To narrate my book for Audible was a full-circle moment. After writing in solitude for years, I now had the opportunity to tell my story, start to finish, with all its crazy plot twists and lessons learned. Chapter after chapter, I gave voice to the memory-ghosts who’d haunted me, who’d compelled me to write them—and in reading them out loud, I set them free. An alchemy that transformed 10 years of trials into a journey that taught me to trust my intuition.
At the end of that long week in the recording studio, I knew I had honored those memories and finally shared my story, just as I had intended. I believe our stories are important, and that each story, each voice, helps us chart our way forward. Now, I share my story with you.
Photo credit, top: Ross William Hamilton, The Oregonian