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Friday, February 10, 2012

What birth mothers can learn from Mimi Alford, President Kennedy's intern

Mimi Alford photographed during her 18-month affair with Kennedy
Mimi Alford during her affair with Kennedy. She kept silent for 40 years.
Mimi Beardsley Alford, once a teen-age lover of President John Kennedy, has been all over the tube this week talking about how our boyish, young, handsome president seduced an intern four days after she joined the White House press room. There's plenty of dish in her interviews and in her book (ONCE UPON A SECRET: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath) apparently, with some seamier stuff than just losing her virginity at nineteen on Jackie Kennedy's bed. Yes, really.


The liaison between the 45-year-old president and then debutante Mimi Beardsley began in the summer of '62 and continued for the next 18 months. Kennedy would sometimes summon her from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she would be picked up in a limo at her dorm, and flown to DC to spend the evening with Jack, before returning to school. Though the particulars are eerily fascinating and some are shockingly yukky, what caught my attention as I watched the interview was what she said about how the affair affected and hurt her: It wasn't the affair itself--no, she didn't feel like his mistress, no, she wouldn't call what happened a rape, no, she didn't think what she was doing was Wrong, yes it was a sexual relationship, not a loving one--but it was telling herself that she had to keep this secret deeply buried forever that hurt her the most.

Lorraine
THE DAMNING SECRET
 My ears pricked up when I heard her talk about the emotional damage that secrecy costs. The president's peccadilloes back in the Sixties were off limits to the press, even though the press knew full well about the evenings in the East Wing of the White House and afternoon swims with the attractive intern. The secret service turned a blind eye, and so must have the people in the press office, although the other interns figured out what was up and resented her. The naive 19-year-old told no one. "Blinded by the president's power and charisma, I was fully committed to keeping our affair secret," she writes.

Though she continued to see the president, Beardsley had a boyfriend, Tony Fahnestock, the following year. Her relationship with Kennedy was winding down when they had one last tryst in New York City--shortly before he flew to Dallas, and his death. Alford was with her fiance when she saw the news and the footage of the president being shot, and she freaked out. She fessed up to Fahnestock on the spot. He said he would still marry her, but that she must never tell a soul, and they must never speak of it again. She cut up the photograph of Kennedy he autographed for her rather personally, she pawned the diamond pin and other gifts he gave her. She felt she had to purge the very thought of this affair out of her, and that, she says, is what ate at her through the years. The secret, she says, corroded their lengthy marriage right from the start.

BOTTLING UP BIRTH MOTHER SORROW 

I have so often heard that mothers like us, upon relinquishing our children, are told that they must "forget." Forget this child, pretend that he or she does not exist. A friend was told she had to think of her daughter as dead. Parents and siblings never speak of the child, as if she were never born. Forget. Forget. Forget. As if we could. Fortunately, my social worker did not tell me I would "forget" my daughter--quite the opposite. I remember quite clearly when she said that "though you will never forget her, you will go on to have a life...."

Because my parents back in Michigan did not know, I did keep my sorrow bottled up when I went home to visit and heard about the cousins getting married, having kids, one, two, three. My father died two years later and I threw two roses in the ground atop his casket, one for me, one for the granddaughter he would never know. And I wept. I cried during Christmas mass and I swallowed my tears as much as I could. Keep the secret, tamp it down, hold it in--that is what I thought I had to do. It damn near killed me.


I kept my baby secret from my family for close to a decade. It felt like a lifetime. But at least I told my future husband-to-be Number One before I answered whether I would marry him. Telling my mother and my two brothers was like letting go of a 90-pound rock I had been dragging behind me. Make no mistake, letting go of the secret doesn't wash away the indelible pain of the lost child: that's a lifetime reality. But it does make it easier. You can face the world as you know you are, not as people think you are when you inside know differently. You don't have to feel like a fraud. You are who you present yourself to the world as. What a relief. Husband Number Two knew the day we met when he asked what my last book was about. A memoir about giving up my daughter for adoption. By that time, it was even easy to say it.

But because there are still far too many women living the lie that social workers and family members pressed upon them, the last post--about writing a first letter to a first/birth mother--has caused a stir.  Some searchers think it is a terrible idea to write one's birth mother instead of phone, because a letter might be intercepted by someone who does not know the secret of the missing child. That secret again. 

LETTING GO BETTER THAN ANY LOTION
We have no way of knowing if our writing ever reaches birth mothers still hiding in the closet. They would hardly be Goggling for First Mother Forum, but maybe some do stumble upon us here. Whenever someone writes and says they have become less secretive about their lost child because of us--as someone did the other day--I quietly rejoice. Yet there are still far too many women, even in this day and age when the world is a far different place than it once was, who harbor this secret. They repress their feelings and hide behind an emotional veil. It's got to be awful to feel the need to guard that secret so fiercely. It's got to add years. Letting go would be better than any face cream, no matter how expensive.

Alford, now divorced and remarried, Alford was first outed by Robert Dallek in his 2003 JFK muckraker, An Unfinished Life, as a "tall, slender, beautiful" 19-year-old college sophomore with the pet-name "Monkey", and endured a firestorm of post-Lewinsky media intrusion. She endured notoriety back then, and her current exposure has unleashed more. But history has been written by men for thousands of years, and women’s experiences have been routinely ignored. "Whenever women who have been involved with famous men come forward to tell their stories, there’s always a backlash from those who accuse them of attention-getting, money-grubbing, revenge-seeking, or other unseemly motives—all of which are now being hurled at Alford by countless critics on internet comment threads," writes Leslie Bennetts at The Daily Beast. And it's often other women who are the most critical. (See below.)

Yet with this book, Mrs. Alford, at 68, is taking control of  her life and letting go of the secret. “People are sometimes afraid of openness. I don’t know why it scares people, but it did me,” Alford says. “Now I know all of me, and it’s not 100 percent perfect.” If Alford's anthem of self-discovery and freedom from secrecy reaches some first mothers, she may do some good in a way that she never intended or expected.--lorraine
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PS: Did anybody catch Barbara Walters' nasty interview on The View with Mimi Alford--Why did you write this book, what about the feelings of Caroline Kennedy, etc? I mean, come on--worrying about everybody's feelings but your own is what leads to keeping the baby the "big secret" that cannot be named.

What about Walter's revealing that she had an affair with Sen. Edward Brooke of MA back in the day in her memoir? Her response that I read somewhere was that Walters asked Brooke if she could reveal it--well, did she ALSO ask his two daughters AND SON, AND THEIR CHILDREN how they felt about it, or was it okay because Walters is famous and so of course Brooke's family will be happy to know he slept with Walters? And Mimi Alford isn't, until now, so she is supposed to keep the Kennedy legend more pristine? Everybody knows who cares that he screwed around a great deal on Jackie, and at last we at least have one story on how it happened. His point man arranged it, poured her two daiquiris, and then Kennedy gave her a "tour" of the private quarters.

The tsk-tsking of some of the interviewers is irritating, but Alford handles it well. I'm glad she spoke up. She has a right to tell her own history. For far too long men have been getting away with a droit de seigneur and the girls are just supposed to take it and shut up.

For far too long women were supposed to shut up about their secret babies, and hopefully that is coming to an end too.



16 comments :

  1. I wish I had her courage. I haven't told my kids yet about my first child, but my husband knows. Yes, I am terrified.

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  2. I was firmly locked in my prison of shame until after my son searched for and found me. I was thrilled to be found and embraced him with open arms. I immediately called my family to share the news (I woke my sister up at 2:30 in the morning, after I got off the phone with my son).

    I had told my husband about my pregnancy and relinquishment of my son when we were dating, but I never told strangers or acquaintances Only a few very close friends knew. It was very difficult for me to tell non-family members about my son after he found me, but I did. I would shake and my throat would close up. It was extremely difficult to get past the shame of being pregnant out of wedlock and the resulting condemnation I had experienced.

    I finally got to the point where I told anyone and everyone about it. I was able to do this because I was in a relationship with my son, I loved him deeply (I always had but I had previously felt like I had no right to), I was proud to be his Mother, and most importantly, he was happy and proud that I was his Mother.

    After my son pulled away quite hurtfully, I slowly stopped talking about him or telling people that I was a Mother. It took years of silence from him, but I slowly retreated back into that closet. This time I am in the closet not because of shame but instead in order to protect my heart from hurt. I no longer talk to strangers about my son or my experiences. It is too hurtful. I rarely raise the subject with friends anymore either

    He has contacted me again, but I find myself somewhat unwilling to leave the safety of my retreat. The hurt has been too great, too often, and for too long for me to want to revisit it again. I am reaching out slowly, but it is extremely difficult this time.

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  3. Isabo: I totally understand where you are coming from. After the dance we go through after reunion, it is hard to say, if our child comes back, well, that was then, this is different this time, we are getting along so well, I am sure she or he is not going to hurt me again.

    Ultimately you come to the point where you have to remind yourself that this relationship is not like any other, that there is likely to be retreat again, and you tell yourself you have to accept that it is not the same that you have with your kept children, or anyone close to you. The damage done, as far as I can tell, is too deep to simply undue. As I've said before, Adoption is the pain that goes on giving.

    After having a great relationship with my "found" granddaughter, and have her retreat, I no longer talk about her either. Too painful, too many questions, etc. My good friends know, and I leave it at that.

    Thanks for sharing your up and down story.

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  4. Lorraine,

    Thank you for your kind reply. I am so sorry that your Granddaughter is in retreat. How sad that that seems to be almost a necessary step in reunion.

    I have followed your blog, and I understand how complicated, painful and joyous your reunion with your Daughter was. Unfortunately, through personal experience, I also understand how mentally and emotionally exhausting it is to love someone who is so important to you, but who apparently has a need to cause intense pain or at least cannot avoid causing intense pain.

    I have done this dance with my son for over a decade with multiple pull backs. The end is always the same, although the end the last time was painful beyond measure and unnecessarily cruel. I do not have other children, so I do not have another child to provide love to or to have a more normal relationship with. I am mentally exhausted by this and all my emotional resources are used up.

    I understand your statement that eventually you come to understaned that "this relationship is not like any other, that there is likely to be retreat again, and you tell yourself you have to accept that it is not the same that you have with your kept children, or anyone close to you." However, I have to ask, "what relationship?" Being used and beaten up verbally and emotionally is not a relationship. Right now it is hard to imagine that we can ever make it to a place where there can be a "relationship." He seems to want that now, but wanting and doing are two different things. I am at the babysteps stage, a stage we both skipped the first 5 or so times. I am also waiting for him to do the heavy lifting in the relationship this time. I need for him to show me that he really wants it, and that our relationship is important to him.

    I hope that, in time, your Granddaughter can find a way to integrate you into her life and that you can share a loving and mutual relationship.

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  5. Isabo:

    After the decades of my complicated relationship with my daughter, I think I arrived at the state you describe--okay, you do the heavy lifting, I am in full retreat, I am emotionally exhausted with this dance--with my granddaughter right away. One trial learning, this time.

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  6. My reaction to Alford's talking about the effect of secrecy on her life was "Wow, is she a bithmother?" All the people criticizing her for 'coming out' just shows that some things haven't changed that much. Today I'm feeling very sad. About reunions and pullbacks, right now after 1 phone call in many months(like a brief game of peek-a-boo or hide-and-go-seek) my reunion seems to be in retreat again. Hopefully it's only temporary, This relationship isn't easy but at least my son has never been abusive towards me ,not even verbally. It's just not his style. Sometimes, it seems as though,through my actions as well as the societal expectations, we were thrown into parallel universes and my finding him caused a rip in the fabric of time where we could both peer into the other's world and freely go back and forth- just enough to get angry at what could have been. And now that rip is closing and we both are going back to our own worlds and our own lives(I hope this isn't true)"Where do broken hearts go" "And I'll always love you" All those songs had special meaning(before I was reunited) They always made me think of my lost baby.

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  7. Isabo, you are not alone. I’m another firstmother whose reunion relationship (?)sounds similar to yours Eventually, I too, became emotionally drained. A good read on the subject is Second Chance Mother, a memoir by Denise Roessle.

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  8. Did anybody catch Barbara Walters' nasty interview with Mimi Alford--Why did you do this, what about the feelings of Caroline Kennedy, etc? I mean, come on--worrying about everybody's feelings but your own is what leads to keeping the baby the "
    big secret" that cannot be named.

    What about Walter's revealing that she had an affair with Sen. Edward Brooke of MA back in the day in her memoir? Her response that I read somewhere was that Walters asked Brooke if she could reveal it--well, did she ALSO ask his two daughters AND SON, AND THEIR CHILDREN how they felt about it, or was it okay because Walters is famous and so oof course Brooke's family will be happy to know he slept with Walters? And Mimi Alford isn't, until now?

    The tsk-tsking of some of the interviewers is irritating, but
    Alford handles it well. I'm glad she spoke up. She has a right to tell her own history. For far too long men have been getting away with a droit de seigneur and the girls are just supposed to take it and shut up.

    For far too long women were supposed to shut up about their secret babies, and hopefully that is coming to an end too.

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  9. Diane:

    DO READ THE PS I ADDED TO THE POST ABOUT BARBARA WALTERS AND HE REVEALING THAT SHE HAD AN AFFAIR WITH SEN. EDWARD BROOKE.

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  10. As for Walters being an adoptive mother: In the early years of adoption reform and my coming out, which coincided, she was adamantly opposed to unsealing closed records. She dealt with the issue sketchily on an afternoon ntervfiew show she had. However, she as not alone. Many shows that would not touch the issue when I wrote Birthmark. Subject was too outre, I was too scandalous, too disreputable, too outrageous. Lee Campbell's first appearance on the Phil Donahue Show had her beneath a veil. Can you imagine? It was that shocking to admit the truth about the most important thing that happened to us.

    Later I did see a program that showed Walters' daughter and her birth mother, and boy, did they look alike. What I recall the most is how they both wore these long dangling hippie kind of earrings and had long brown hair. I don't know what happened to her daughter as Barbara never talks about her or how she followed in her footsteps by becoming a newscaster, actor, etc.

    I did catch Chelsea Clinton last night on Rock Center, and when she was shaking her head it was a gesture straight from Hillary.

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  11. Re: Barbara Walters daughter - I recall an article in a women's magazine about her daughter and their relationship. She talked about how they are very different with the daughter having a preference for a quiet life outside the spotlight. The teen and young adult years were apparently tumultuous as the daughter's personality just didn't mesh with the high-flying celebrity world of Walters. Walters used the typical line of the daughter being "curious" about her natural mother and that she did meet her and they have a relationship of some kind. Walters said something about how her financial resources would enable her to take care of both the daughter and mother, which always stuck with me as quite a surprising statement.

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  12. maybe:

    Do you recall the magazine the story was in an approximately when? This is one I'd love to read, and that last statement from Walters is sweet.

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  13. Lorraine, I read the article while waiting in a salon so I'm stretching my memory here - possibly Redbook or Good Housekeeping or Better Homes, 3-4 years ago (or one of the similar type women's mags). I'm kind of amazed that I remember the article so well, but I think I was brand to reunion then, so it really struck a chord!

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  14. Hi there! Will you list me as "Diane"? Sorry, don't want my full email out there.......

    Thanks much!

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  15. I too have been watching Mimi Alford interviews, waiting.....as the media try to pounce on her, attack her credibility, marginalize her. I am consistently amazed at her class, grace, courage, and honesty. I watched with horror as Barbara Walters ripped into Ms. Alford.

    Of course we all feel badly for Caroline Kennedy. She has had to bear an enormous amount of pain. In fact I took my 11 year old daughter to meet her at a book signing, so that she would draw courage from Ms. Kennedy's life story and learn more about the Kennedy's role in US history. Mimi makes it very clear she wishes no ill will to Caroline, but simply desires to speak HER truth, which really, has nothing to do with Caroline at all.

    Hmm, I remember reading Barbara Walters autobiography where she confessed to an affair with a married man, a congressman, or senator, wasn't it? What about this man's wife and her humiliation at having to relive a difficulty time? Oh, guess that only applies to Mimi, not Barbara. Barbara's comments and demeanor were unprofessional and disrespectful of her guest.

    The most telling remark in the View interview was when Mimi commented on how keeping this secret propelled her into a lifetime of disfunction. She began a 30 year habit of pushing her feelings down and running away from conflict. This is exactly the modus operandi of my poor, fragile birthmother. She pushes everyone away at the first sign of trouble, including and especially me. She just can't connect, can't go there, cannot maintain closeness. And when you try to force the issue, she will attack like a rabid dog--kind of like Barbara.

    Perhaps this story hits too close to Barbara, another secret keeper--oh, and let's not forget, also and an adoptive mother.

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  16. I had not known that Barbara Walters' adopted daughter had found her first mother. I remember reading an interview with Barbara where she said that her daughter, Jackie wasn't interested in finding her n-mother. As she (Jackie) put it, I have so many problems with you (Barbara) why would I want another mother to fight with? Jackie also said she was worried that her first parents might be horrible people or drug addicts.

    Also, I see quite a resemblance between Paul McCartney's new wife, Nancy Shevell and Barbara Walters. They are 2nd cousins.

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