Joanna Schroeder responds to Tom Matlack about Mimi Alford’s confession of an affair with JFK.
It’s my favorite phrase when talking about human behavior and relationships.
Mimi Alford’s confession of an affair with JFK is everywhere this week, including The Guardian and The New York Times, and after reading about it I became fascinated with the process of confession. Who do we confess for? For ourselves, to make ourselves feel better? For the other people in our lives, so they can know the truth? In this case, the “other people” are the American people, those who’ve idolized and even deified president Kennedy.
I emailed Tom Matlack with a link to the article for his Good Feed Blog and said, “think about how our idea of a hero changes when we learn more about them.” He resisted this story, for all the reasons he details in his blog post about the Alford/JFK confession, and asked me, basically, why is Alford just saying this now?
My answer: “It’s complicated.”
I will leave it to an expert to explain theories on why people confess when they do. Rob Brown, whose piece about the disclosure of abuse shares with us insights about how survivors live every day, probably every hour if not every minute, trying to weigh the pain of keeping the secret inside, against the fear of people knowing the truth about what happened to them.
And I imagine that’s how Mimi Alford felt. I can’t say whether JFK raped her based upon details given about her being plied with daiquiris and losing her virginity to him after having just met him that same day. But I can speak to what I believe is an incredible imbalance of power. First, he was her boss. Second, he was someone she and her parents and nearly everyone she knew idolized. He was the sexiest man alive. She was an intoxicated 19 year old. As far as consent, it’s hard to say that any consent she could’ve given would meet our standards of what’s acceptable today.
Did she desire him? Probably. Did she plan on losing her virginity to him? Almost certainly not. Did she say “no”? We’ll never know for sure. But to her own admittance, a romantic affair continued nearly until his death.
Tom and I agree on most of the above, but what haunts me about Tom’s blog post is this line:
“I can see how JFK didn’t act appropriately. But by saying she has no regrets, the former intern is complicit in the affair.”
In a time when female sexuality was both demonized and put on a pedestal, when virginity was one of the most valuable aspects of a woman, when women had very little sexual agency, perhaps Alford had to romanticize the loss of her virginity to survive the pain of what may have been a less-than-consensual interaction. I am against labeling anyone a “victim” if they don’t identify themselves as such, but it’s easy to see how a relationship with this much of a power imbalance was improper, at best.
But in knowing she was going to be shamed for it (her own husband told her to never speak of it again), perhaps her best survival method was to remember that whole time as a whirlwind of sexy, exciting romance. Never mind the age difference, the power imbalance, the fact that a superior at the White House gave a minor alcohol; never mind that her “lover” is known to have had many other mistresses as well as a wife and children.
Saying that not regretting something somehow makes us complicit in that act is a dramatic oversimplification of how we, as human beings, view our pasts. I, personally, have few regrets. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I truly regret almost none of them.
When I was 17 years old, barely younger than Mimi Alford, I went to the Senior prom of one of my friend’s brothers. He was the nicest guy, but I didn’t feel a big spark for him. While at that prom, I agreed to dance with one of his classmates who was awfully cute, in that bad-boy sorta way. The bad-boy leaned in and kissed me, right in front of my date—and I didn’t pull away. My date was devastated, and spent the rest of the night in resigned quietness.
I felt terrible, but for some reason I had this complicated feeling like if the sexy bad-boy was willing to “gift” me with this kiss, I shouldn’t—or maybe couldn’t—resist. I felt terrible, I mean I felt sick about it. But there was an incredibly important lesson in it for me, which eventually grew into the foundation of my sexual agency: I am in control of my sexuality. My “no” is as powerful as my “yes”. So do I regret kissing the bad-boy the night of the nice guy’s prom? Well, it’s complicated. I regret having hurt the nice guy, I regret having looked like such an asshole. But I don’t regret the lesson I learned. I only regret that I learned it at the expense of the feelings of a kind, smart 18 year-old boy.
This relates back to Alford in that perhaps she doesn’t regret it because it is such an important part of the fabric of her life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that she doesn’t look back and wish she—or the President, who was a grown man who should’ve known and done better—had made a different choice. Perhaps it simply means that she doesn’t wish her life had been any different.
The diversions, pit stops, wrecks, and wrong turns on the road to where we eventually find happiness are crucial parts of our complicated journeys. Sometimes it feels like regretting those mistakes would minimize their importance on the maps of our histories.