Barack Obama, Fabulist
June 18, 2012 - 7:12 am
Or, to borrow Protein Wisdom’s headline, “The book belongs in the category of literature and memoir, not history and autobiography. The themes of the book control character and chronology.”
The book in question is Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father. David Maraniss’ new Obama bio strongly suggests that Obama’s book isn’t so much autobiography as self-invented, self-centered myth.
In Dreams, for instance, Obama writes of a friend named “Regina,” is a symbol of the authentic African-American experience that Obama hungers for (and which he would later find in Michelle Robinson). Maraniss discovers, however, that Regina was based on a student leader at Occidental College, Caroline Boss, who was white. Regina was the name of her working-class Swiss grandmother, who also seems to make a cameo in Dreams.
Maraniss also notices that Obama also entirely cut two white roommates, in Los Angeles and New York, from the narrative, and projected a racial incident onto New York girlfriend that he later told Maraniss had happened in Chicago.
Some of Maraniss’s most surprising debunking, though, comes in the area of family lore, where he disputes a long string of stories on three continents, though perhaps no more than most of us have picked up from garrulous grandparents and great uncles. And his corrections are, at times, a bit harsh.
Obama grandfather “Stanley [Dunham]‘s two defining stories were that he found his mother after her suicide and that he punched his principal and got expelled from El Dorado High. That second story seems to be in the same fictitious realm as the first,” Maraniss writes. As for Dunham’s tale of a 1935 car ride with Herbert Hoover, it’s a “preposterous…fabrication.”
As for a legacy of racism in his mother’s Kansas childhood, “Stanley was a teller of tales, and it appears that his grandson got these stories mostly from him,” Maraniss writes.
Across the ocean, the family story that Hussein Onyango, Obama’s paternal grandfather, had been whipped and tortured by the British is “unlikely”: “five people who had close connections to Hussein Onyango said they doubted the story or were certain that it did not happen,” Maraniss writes. The memory that the father of his Indonesian stepfather, Soewarno Martodihardjo, was killed by Dutch soldiers in the fight for independence is “a concocted myth in almost all respects.” In fact, Martodihardjo “fell off a chair at his home while trying to hang drapes, presumable suffering a heart attack.”
Most families exaggerate ancestors’ deeds. A more difficult category of correction comes in Maraniss’s treatment of Obama’s father and namesake. Barack Obama Sr., in this telling, quickly sheds whatever sympathy his intelligence and squandered promise should carry. He’s the son of a man, one relative told Maraniss, who is required to pay an extra dowry for one wife “because he was a bad person.”
He was also a domestic abuser.
“His father Hussein Onyango, was a man who hit women, and it turned out that Obama was no different,” Maraniss writes. “I thought he would kill me,” one ex-wife tells him; he also gave her sexually-transmitted diseases from extramarital relationships.
It’s in that context that Maraniss corrects a central element of Obama’s own biography, debunking a story that Obama’s mother may well have invented: That she and her son were abandoned in Hawaii in 1963.
“It was his mother who left Hawaii first, a year earlier than his father,” Maraniss writes, confirming a story that had first surfaced in the conservative blogosphere. He suggests that “spousal abuse” prompted her flight back to Seattle.
Every family has stories that have been passed around, but which no one can really verify and which do no real harm. But Obama set his family and self tales to book form and used them to create a false image of himself. That false image formed the identity on which he based his run for the presidency. We should have learned that Barack Obama is a family fabulist four years ago when he first sought the office in which he would do so much damage to the country. But the media was too caught up in hope and change to bother with vetting him.
Exit question: Do Maraniss’ revelations make it more or less likely that someone other than Obama actually wrote Dreams From My Father?