FLOTUS: a memoir
People always ask me how he smelled. It’s an invasive question. And insulting. As if he smelled really bad, and that was evidence I was just with him for the money.
For the record, he smelled good. Like fresh dry-cleaning mixed with buttery sunscreen. That smell told me that he was well put together, that he cared about his presentation and about putting his best foot forward. It was always there, that smell: when I first met him, when we ate breakfast, when he came into my bedroom late at night (if he wasn’t too tired).
He got excited by shiny things. I’ve always liked shiny things; they remind me of the baroque architecture of my homeland. But I had never met anyone with such a carnivorous appetite for shine, and it excited me.
Everyone responded to his charm. Even when he was making people do things they didn’t want to do. “It’s gonna be so good for you. So stop with the hemming, the hawing, and approve da project already,” he told people over meals of steak and cake.
“Weren’t you just arm candy?” people ask.
No! We were a team.
He would put his long arms around me after a successful dinner with a community board member or some other person he needed something from, and he would whisper, “You were the reason they said yes. The questions about his daughter’s recital … perfect.”
They were perfect questions. I always found a way to get people talking about something in their personal life that they cared about.
“The higher up you get, the more people come after you,” he told me.
People came after him all the time. And that made him mad (and a little excited). I knew that sometimes he probably deserved it, that he could have been a little more accommodating. But what did it matter? If he were nicer, they would have just taken more from us and never stopped taking until all the shine was gone. He believed that. So did I, eventually.
For me, however, the lifestyle became something I didn’t want. I was getting older. I was tired of the eyes always on us—always nitpicking me, our relationship, our children, our business.
But he was so much older, and he didn’t want out. So, first it was the separate bedrooms. Then the long stretches at different homes.
Distance became the norm.
That started to change when he ran for office. And when he told me to stop having nude models over for my painting class. And when Leif, my assistant, started to “advise” me about my dietary habits and facial expressions in public.
I had grown too comfortable in his absence, I told myself. I needed to get back to being that person at the dinners (minus the cake consumption). But it was difficult. I now enjoyed painting, philosophy, history. Not smiling, waving, starving.
When my gallery show was canceled just before the presidential primaries, I cried. I also cried when the gallery sued us. And when they took my paintings hostage until we paid.
We never paid.
I think it made him happy. My life’s passion had been extinguished.
“Can’t you get your lawyers to go after the gallery like you normally do?” I asked him.
“I’ll get to it,” he responded.
He didn’t get to it. I should be around for more events, he must have decided. More speeches. More chanting.
But I’m not a violent person.
Too much has already been written about that. I will not profess my innocence again. Not in this book, not to strangers on the street, and not to another law enforcement official.
I want people to see the other side of me, the immigrant who speaks five languages. Who just got her second master’s degree. Who is bursting with creativity and compassion for her fellow Americans.
I want to be the bridge between the tragedy of our country’s recent past and the promise of the future. I know it will be hard. Our wounds are fresh. Our debts, to the banks and to each other, are coming due.
Blame is not the answer. We must embrace this moment. Mine it for opportunities for inspiration, both personal and national.
I have pushed myself to be the most successful person I can be. That drive brought me all the way to the White House. It brought me to the country that I now call home—the country that beckons people like me from afar, tantalizing us with opportunity and freedom and liberty in exchange for hard work and unwavering commitment.
I have done a lot of things that I am proud of. I have done some things that I am not proud of. And I hope to do many more things in the future. This book is about all of that. This book is not about him. Yes, it will include stories about our time together. But it is not about him.
I hope you enjoy it.
OOF: A Compendium
When everything was happening, Strobe and I were in constant contact. One of the many projects we discussed was this compendium. We were both of the opinion that the current political climate was destroying our ability to engage in good-faith discourse about complicated issues. This compendium would be one small effort to catalog and expose this discourse virus, allowing historians of tomorrow to better understand its transmission and prevent its future proliferation.
But now Strobe is gone. All I have left of him is this project and the memories of his unwavering commitment to the low art of chronicling human stupidity.
He was a simple man, always late or canceling. Terribly dressed, usually wearing an ill-fitting T-shirt that read something like “Your With Stupid.” If he was lucky, he could rope someone into this exchange:
“It should say ‘y-o-u-apostrophe-r-e with stupid.’”
“It should say what?”
“‘Y-O-U-APOSTROPHE-R-E WITH STUPID. You’re with stupid’!”
Strobe would smirk and put his hand on his mark’s shoulder. “C’mon, don’t sell yourself short.”
It was never funny. Except to Strobe, to whom the human race’s unrelenting idiocy brought great joy. He was in his mid-forties but openly fantasized about being older, of an age that no longer required him to explain or justify his hermit-like existence. He abhorred parades, offices, or anywhere with a lot of people.
“Business is good because things are bad,” he once told me. “As the human race lurches from one horrendous calamity to the next, I’ll be there.”
His audience’s appreciation afforded him a lifestyle of snarky solitude that I must admit I envied. Every year since graduate school, I was writing more and earning less. Strobe, I could tell, felt bad for me. Which is why I thought he might just be humoring me about this project. Or worse, pitying me—letting me feel like this book would be my lasting contribution to society, the thing that people would remember me for (as opposed to the reality show episode recaps or the in-flight magazine profiles that were my stock and trade). Maybe he was just lazy and wanted me to do the work.
But not all of his audience was there to applaud. His detractors’ appetite for destruction was insatiable. These people, many of whom were running internet surpluses/human-interaction deficits, stopped at nothing to destroy everything that Strobe built. They made him the centerpiece of a story so batshit crazy that a fictionalized version wouldn’t do it justice. Hence, the compendium.
This book won’t bring Strobe back. It won’t stop our society’s sprint to the bottom—a sprint that would be hilarious if it weren’t so real.
But unlike my other stalled projects, I feel compelled by a force larger than me to see this one to its completion. So, behold: OOF: A Compendium.
This collection is intended to capture the essence of the Online Outrage Fiesta (OOF) that led to my friend’s demise. It will be diverse in its sources—news articles, blog posts, tweet storms, emails, transcripts, etc. It will also try to incorporate perspectives from across the fringe-mainstream and left-right spectrums. Using this approach will hopefully provide you, the reader, with a sense of the toxic ingredients that poisoned Strobe Witherspoon’s well.
Where necessary, I provide commentary to contextualize and correct the record, but I (mostly) refrain from editorializing. In some instances, I edited for brevity. Sometimes, I aggregated and summarized the totality of contributing writers and organizations. In a few cases, I thought it best to use individual authors multiple times to create continuity, add depth, and shed light on the larger movements they were connected to.
This book will provide interested readers of the future with a road map for understanding how narratives can snowball into something utterly unrecognizable from the original snowflake. (Can I still use that word?) More importantly, this book will show how outrage on the internet can turn into real-world damage that can’t be deleted.
In FLOTUS: A Memoir, the preface ends with, “I hope you enjoy it.”
I’m inclined to say something similar here. But then again, maybe enjoyment is the problem. Maybe if you enjoy it, you’re part of the problem. Or if you don’t enjoy it, you will come after me on the internet. Which may also be part of the problem. Regardless, here it is. I wish it had a better ending.