Like many people, I had often wondered what makes Laura Bush tick - or if she ticked at all. I unconsciously assumed she was a Stepford wife whose robotic vocabulary consisted of "Yes, George," "Thank you" and the occasional, "Oh my!" After reading Spoken from the Heart, I can confidently say Laura Bush not only ticks, she talks.
Bush's voice is strongest at the beginning, where she recalls her childhood and formative years in lyrical detail. After she and George arrive in Washington, the book reads more like a redacted report of meetings and events, complete with wardrobe and culinary details - about as revealing as a recitation of the Dewey Decimal system, which this former librarian knows off by heart. Anyone hoping for insights into her husband, daughters, in-laws, Dick Cheney or anyone else will have to look elsewhere.
Laura Bush is what George might call "a good girl." She doesn't drink, studies the Bible, is a loving mother, loyal friend, does not speak badly about anyone and is still shocked by the way people openly derided her husband during his term in office. As first lady, she was a strong advocate for literacy, women's health and education in Africa and Afghanistan, and human rights in Burma.
But it is her early memories and observations, many of which are remarkably dark, that tell us the most about her. The book begins with the story of her mother's "vanished babies," one boy and two girls, all of whom died shortly after birth, leaving Laura a lonely only child. The tone and subject matter initially make the book feel more like a prairie-Gothic novel than a former first lady's memoir:
"I don't know if my mother cried for these babies when I was out playing in the yard … if the tears came when she smoothed sheets in the linen closet or hung wash on the clothesline to grow stiff and dry in the hot Midland wind. Or if she trained her eyes to look away whenever she caught sight of a baby carriage or glimpsed a big, boisterous family being herded into a wood-panelled station wagon. In those times, in West Texas, in the 1950s, we did not talk about those things."
Bush paints a depressing portrait of her early life in Midland, Texas, with its relentless wind and sand. She recalls reading a book from the 1920s called The Wind, by Dorothy Scarborough. "In it," Bush writes, "a woman who has moved to West Texas ranchland eventually goes mad from listening to the wind's constant howl and groan." Bush goes on to muse about the desert strewn with "the bones of would-be prospectors" who attempted to cut through Texas on their way to California.
Bush was deeply affected by two tiny photos her father brought back from the German concentration camp he helped liberate: "They were pictures of row upon row of bodies of the dead, some bloated, some so skeletal that they were little more than bones with the last remnants of skin stretched over them, stark white, sunken torsos in which you could count every rib … looking like hastily wrapped mummies in half decay. The rows of human beings stretched out beyond the buildings." Her grisly description continues for two more long paragraphs - to the point where her obsessive detailing of the horror distracts from that which she can't stop describing, and in the end has little relevance.
A similar fascination with the macabre emerges when Bush writes about her great-grandmother, who bore seven girls and one boy. After the boy died, Bush's great-grandfather headed out into the field. "He had his shotgun with him," Bush writes, "loaded, and he held it to his head and pulled the trigger. The family whispered that he did it because of all those girls. I sometimes wonder if any of those same girls were tasked that day with helping their mother carry their father's corpse."
Bush's gruesome fixation reappears later in her vivid descriptions of the Rwandan genocide and the ravages of AIDS in Africa. That Laura Bush's most lucid memories seem to be about the most morbid things betrays not a deranged mind, but a deeply sensitive soul. It is as though she experiences shocking things on a more profound, visceral level than most people.
During George W. Bush's first presidential campaign, a dark secret emerged from Laura's past. When she was 17, she drove through a stop sign and into the car of Mike Douglas, a friend from school, killing him. Oddly though, Bush never told her own daughters about the accident until the story was leaked to the press. Odder still, she never spoke to Mike's parents about it, believing she was the last person they would want to see (an assumption she now admits was probably wrong). Her prolonged silence seems strange given her Christian beliefs and community, where one assumes honesty and forgiveness should come more naturally.
"I can never absolve myself from the guilt," Bush writes. "And the guilt isn't simply from Mike dying. The guilt is from all the implications, from the way those few seconds spun out and enfolded so many other lives. The reverberations seem to go on forever, like the ripples of an unsinkable stone."
This week on Larry King Live, Bush came out in favour of gay marriage. Her pro-choice stance was already clear from her Katie Couric interview in 2000, about which she writes, "While cherishing life, I have always believed that abortion is a private decision, and there, no one can walk in anyone else's shoes." The book contains a hint of her gay-friendly proclivities; before the election, she had talked George into "not making gay marriage a significant issue," despite his disagreement with it.
Unlike her husband, who apparently sees things only in black and white, Laura Bush's vision includes rainbows and myriad shades of grey. Who knew that the wife of the president who idiotically claimed after 9/11, "You're either with us, or against us," turning a world of allies into enemies, was such a nuanced thinker herself?
As many of us have learned the hard way, just because you marry an idiot doesn't make you one. Laura Bush grew up in small-town Texas, in a different era; she was called an "old maid" when she married George at the age of 31. Whether you find it to her credit or not, Laura Bush has such a big heart, she can even love George W.
Anne Fenn is a journalist, satirical songwriter and screenwriter.