by Susan McWilliams Barndt, Pomona College
Betty Ford wrote two autobiographies. One, The Times of My Life (1978), tells the story of a young girl from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who became—much to her surprise—the wife of the President of the United States. The other, Betty: A Glad Awakening (1987), tells the story of a wife of the President of the United States who became—much to her surprise—an alcoholic and drug addict.
Writing two life stories is a funny thing, presumptuous on its face. Ford herself, at the beginning of Betty, admitted this. She imagined a reader picking up the second autobiography and asking, “Didn’t that lady already write her life story?”
Yes, she said, and it was as true a version of her life story as she could tell at the time, in the months after leaving the White House. Betty Ford had a reputation for being honest, and she had tried to live up to that reputation in her first autobiography. The Times of My Life wasn’t a book in which Ford was trying to hide things; she even touched on her addictions in its final chapter.
But in the intervening years, Ford said she realized something important: Every life contains multiple stories. You do not just have one story you can tell about yourself. You have many stories you could tell, all of them true. And each of us gets some choice about what life story (or stories) we tell, some choice about what we share of ourselves and our journeys. Freedom inheres in taking ownership of that choice, and joy inheres in using that choice to connect with, and maybe even help, other people.
But taking that kind of ownership and exercising that kind of choice isn’t easy. It’s harder to do those things than it looks, maybe as hard a thing as a human being can do.
Today, it might seem like we all have a lot of choice about how to tell our stories. We’re awash in social media, with all the opportunities for “personal branding” that those services offer. In our circumstances, it’s hard to avoid thinking about how you look (or might look) online, and it can feel exciting to post stories about yourself on the Internet and be rewarded with thumbs-ups and likes. But I think Betty Ford, if she were here, would push us to think a little harder about how we’re telling our stories to each other, and whether we’re really exercising true freedom and pointing ourselves (and each other) toward true joy.
In Betty, Ford talks at length about how much of her self-presentation over the years was motivated by a desire to please other people. She craved approval and “reassurance from the outside world.” But in craving that approval, Ford said she allowed other people—and her internal ideas about what other people wanted—to dictate how she spoke and acted and behaved.
Who among us cannot relate to that, on some level or another? We all want to be liked by other people, and we all do things, sometimes, for the sake of others’ approval.
And there is nothing wrong with that, said Ford, if you do it in a measured way. There is nothing wrong with, say, maintaining good hygiene or practicing good manners with the idea that other people find those actions pleasant. There is nothing wrong with being polite or friendly or holding your tongue on occasion.
But danger lies, Ford says, when you overdo it, when you seek other people’s approval to the point of losing yourself. Danger lies when even the stories you are telling about yourself, to yourself, are driven by what you think other people want.
Ford knew this because she overdid it. She described a life gradually overcome by the desire for approval from other people. Ironically, Ford’s reputation for truth-telling – a reputation she developed early as a politician’s wife – saddled her even further with internalized expectations. She became beholden to her own created image, and she kept trying to enact the story about herself that she thought other people wanted to see and hear. But in chasing the adulation of others, she led herself astray. Ford described her addictions as only one manifestation of a broader pattern of self-annihilation.
When I look at the college students I teach these days, I worry that they have become habituated to the kind of self-forgetting that Ford warns us about. My students are hyperconscious about self-presentation. They have learned to “gamify” their stories to maximum academic and professional effect. They are resume-minded and obsessed with how things will look to potential employers. They study endless online makeup tutorials. They curate their images on a host of social-media sites.
This isn’t a senseless thing for them to do. As Ford would have understood so well: They want to be liked. They want approval. They want to be successful. And they see lots of people—including people they admire the most—playing the same kind of game. Our technological circumstances make it easy to do so, too.
But I also see, as most professors these days do, how often my students bow under the weight of all this approval-chasing. A lot of them are medicated, sometimes medicated far past what any individual doctor would recommend. A lot of them struggle with anxiety and depression. A lot of them struggle even more with the gulf between the story they show to the world—their resumes, their profiles, their selfies—and the feelings that they’re somehow frauds for failing to live up to the ways in which they present themselves to others. Like Betty Ford, they’re lovely people who are trying so hard to be good for others that they fail to be good to themselves.
The opportunities of the social-media age are also temptations and dangers. In thinking about Betty Ford lately, I’ve been thinking about how all of us need to talk more to each other—but mostly to ourselves—about how to use the technologies of our time in ways that don’t wash us out. And we need to help ourselves, and our children, learn to find ways to connect with each other more than we perform for each other.
While Betty has long been celebrated as an unflinching story of addiction and recovery, I also think we should celebrate it as an unflinching story of the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and how easily we can lead ourselves astray.
I hope we will continue to tell Betty Ford’s story—or, rather, her stories. In the end, Ford said, she decided that the best kind of story you can tell about yourself is one that will help others who are struggling. Few of us will write one autobiography, much less two, but Betty Ford sweetly exemplifies the fact that no matter how lost we might be, we can always do some rewriting.
Susan McWilliams Barndt is a professor of politics at Pomona College, where she has won the Wig Award for Excellence in Teaching three times. She is an elected member of the Executive Council of the American Political Science Association.
- Philosophers have long distinguished between ourselves as we really are, and ourselves as we present ourselves to others. What causes these two selves to be so different from each other?
- In what ways does technology make us more vulnerable to others?
- What secrets about yourself would you insist on keeping to yourself and which would you be willing to share with others? How healthy is it to keep those secrets?
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.