Book Review: ‘Both/And,’ by Huma Abedin


BOTH/AND: A Memoir, by Huma Abedin
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When Huma Abedin was a young, single aide to Hillary Clinton, she was already a subject of great fascination. “Hillary’s Mystery Woman: Who Is Huma?” ran a 2007 headline in The New York Observer. Abedin was known to be private, savvy and stunning — all of which contributed to the firestorm that ensued when the man she eventually married, then-Congressman Anthony Weiner, self-immolated via serial sext.
At first, Weiner was simply a goofy tabloid villain; but his compulsion eventually landed him in prison — and possibly cost Clinton the presidency, as an investigation of his case sparked yet another investigation (soon dismissed) related to Hillary’s emails just days before the election. The original set of questions about Huma — What was she whispering in Hillary’s ear? And how did she get to be the chosen whisperer? — was replaced with another: Why would someone like her marry someone like him? Why did she hang on as long as she did? And how did she remain standing through all of it?
In her new memoir, “Both/And,” Abedin attempts to answer some of these questions, with varying degrees of success. One senses at times that when she falters, she lacks insight rather than sincerity, which is itself a kind of honest answer: Abedin may be one of the most politically astute and well-traveled women in the world, but she portrays herself as far from worldly, at least in affairs of the heart.
It’s clear from the outset that this book is not a sidekick’s tale, but the story of a person of substance — someone determined to tell her own story, with her name pronounced correctly, for once: She clarifies that it is more like “Humma” than “Hooma.”
Abedin begins with tales of her childhood in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where her Indian father and Pakistani mother had moved, after meeting and starting a family in the United States, to pursue prestigious jobs in academia. She contrasts her relatively cloistered days in Saudi Arabia with carefree summers back in the States, setting up the unusual background that would prove so valuable in government service (and also explains, in part, the title of her book). Abedin delivers on the promise stated in her preface to “track the migration of a family across the course of generations,” introduces relatives who prized women’s education, presents the early, tragic loss of her father, and ultimately arrives at her seemingly destined path working for Clinton. I made it a dozen pages into her first two years working at the White House, started to grasp just how much ground Abedin intended to cover over the course of this 500-page book — and then did what perhaps you are tempted to do right now as you read this review: I skipped ahead to the more dramatic events of her personal life.
Abedin’s life in the White House and the Clintons’ orbit could theoretically have been compelling enough to stave off that urge: Abedin was by Clinton’s side through many of her own soul-trying years in politics, accompanied her on historic visits to hot spots and to events attended by the most elite guests. But even when I went back and read “Both/And” in its entirety, I had the sense that in the sections about Clinton, the book was serving as a kind of body woman — that Abedin could not help functioning, even in her own memoir, as someone habitually burnishing Clinton’s image for posterity. (Here is Huma on the moment Clinton recognized that Obama had won the nomination: “When it was time to concede, she would do it as she always conducted herself: with grace.”) Even those who consider Clinton extraordinary will pause to wonder if she has weaknesses beyond the few Abedin acknowledges (such as: French fries with dinner — sometimes). Abedin says she served Clinton by “helping her to tell the story she thought was important at each of these destinations,” and she is still messaging, rather than writing with the kind of voice that brings a reader close to history.
Abedin herself does not fully come to life on the page until she actually meets Weiner — which is when the reader also better appreciates how much her upbringing as a faithful Muslim distinguished her in the circles in which she moved. Weiner, whom she started seeing at age 30, appears to be the one and only romantic involvement she ever had, short of a few chaste dates that went nowhere. Weiner was witty, curious, competent and ambitious, and wooed her with the full force of his charisma.
“When I was with him, I thought nothing bad could ever happen to me,” she writes. Even before they married, she glimpsed an email to Weiner from a woman that struck her as inappropriate at best; but she moved forward anyway, despite other warning signs including her family’s evident lack of enthusiasm and her own teary outburst shortly before a small Islamic marriage ceremony. Abedin does not examine her disassociation from her own feelings, but she does describe it: Twice in the book, she recalls noticing that she was crying only after receiving other sensory input — hearing the sound of the sobs or detecting tears on her cheeks.
What Abedin does offer is an unflinching recitation of the blows to which she was subject: the polite but cold requests that she and her husband not show their faces at a social event or a food bank where they found solace volunteering; a humiliating and terrifying investigation from Children’s Services that threatened their custody of their young son; the confirmation, from close colleagues on Clinton’s campaign team, that yes, the late-breaking news pertaining to the emails on Weiner’s laptop — which were from Huma — could be decisive in a race that close.
“I do not know how I am going to survive this,” she wrote in a notebook at the time. “Help me God.”
The catalog of her Job-like suffering — the shame to which she was subject for actions other than her own — is at times excruciating to read; but it is as if in uttering those episodes aloud, she ensures that they do not own her. Huma still fascinates, not because of any lurid details she exposes but because her story serves as a parable, a blinking billboard of a reminder that no one is exempt from suffering. She is far from psychologically minded; but there is, somehow, something comforting in her refusal to find bright sides of the story or purport to share great wisdom as someone who is still standing despite it all. The only way out, she seems to say, was through, which is perhaps not original, but has the benefit of being true.
The book does sometimes suffer from Abedin’s apparent feeling that she cannot afford to seem less than saintly toward others. When she learns that colleagues on Clinton’s campaign team called for her removal, she says, “I didn’t blame anyone for how they felt and knew it must not have been easy on any of them.” Along with those staff members, Clinton, too, was disappointed that Abedin had given a press conference supporting her husband’s bid for mayor, even following more ugly revelations; but she called Abedin to her home to say she did not think Abedin should “pay a professional price for what was ultimately my husband’s mistake, not mine.”
Abedin, who is now divorced, reveals so much of her personal travails, but clearly would never have written a political tell-all, despite all she has to tell. Her memoir is an unburdening, an apology and an attempt at restitution. For all its darkness, it is also a gesture of gratitude.
Susan Dominus joined The Times as a Metro columnist in 2007. She has been a staff writer with The Times Magazine since 2011.
BOTH/AND: A Life in Many Worlds
By Huma Abedin
Illustrated. 544 pp. Scribner. $30.
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