Barry’s Imaginary Girlfriend

There has been a lot of hilarity today over the revelation that the “New York girlfriend” who plays a significant role in Barack Obama’s autobiography Dreams From My Father did not, strictly speaking, exist. Rather, she was a composite or “compression” of several girlfriends that Obama now says he had after he graduated from college. To be fair, Obama wrote in the introduction to his book that “some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known,” so the reader was forewarned. Whether a typical reader would have imagined that the “New York girlfriend” was such a composite, and that various incidents attributed to Obama’s relationship with her never happened, I don’t know.

The revelation comes from a forthcoming biography of Obama by David Maraniss that is excerpted in next month’s Vanity Fair. Like most Vanity Fair articles it is just about interminable, and I haven’t yet had time to read it all. But already, several interesting points emerge.

There actually was a New York girlfriend. Her name is Genevieve Cook, and Maraniss interviewed her for his book. Not only that, she kept a journal that included the time when she dated Obama, from which Maraniss quotes. She is by no means hostile to Obama, but her account of their relationship diverges from his, in Dreams From My Father, in a number of ways.

For example, in his book Obama says that he broke up with the New York girlfriend. Not so, replies Ms. Cook: actually, she chose to end the relationship as a result of what she saw as Obama’s remoteness. But the one who writes the autobiography gets to tell it his way.

In his book, Obama tells a story about taking his New York girlfriend to a play. The story is important because in Obama’s telling, it led to the end of the relationship. The play, as you might imagine, dealt with race:

One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.

Only Genevieve Cook says it never happened. No such play, no such dialogue. Maraniss charitably supposes that the event involved a different, later girlfriend in Chicago who was part of the “composite” girlfriend character. But Obama places the play in New York, not Chicago. My guess is that the incident never happened at all: one nice thing about fictionalizing an autobiography and including fake characters is that it gives you license to include events that didn’t happen but, from an artistic standpoint, should have.

It was striking to me that when Genevieve met Obama he was a 22-year-old college graduate, but hadn’t yet figured out what his name was. In high school, he had generally been called “Barry,” but by this time he apparently was looking for something more formal:

She called him Bahr-ruck, with the accent on the first syllable, and a trill of the r’s. Not Bear-ick, as the Anglophile Kenyans pronounced it, and not Buh-rock, as he would later be called, but Bahr-ruck. She said that is how he pronounced it himself, at least when talking to her.

I find that very odd. Think how fundamental a part of you your name is: when you were in elementary school, did you have any doubt about what to call yourself? At 22, Obama was still trying out names.

The Vanity Fair excerpt talks about another girlfriend, not the “New York girlfriend” but a woman Obama had known at Occidental who spent a summer in New York and dated Obama. Her name is Alex McNear. McNear, unfortunately, kept the love letters that Obama sent to her. They are hilarious, and tend to confirm the perception that Obama is a hopeless bullshitter:

I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?

That, folks, is not a parody. It may provide a hint as to why Obama’s college and law school grades remain a well-kept secret.

In one respect, Maraniss’s account of Obama is endearing. He describes how Obama became a community organizer; one problem was that he wasn’t quite sure what a community organizer does:

Obama had focused his ambitions on organizing since his last year at Columbia, while acknowledging that he was not entirely certain what it meant.

You and me both, Barry. More to come.

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