Last week, publishing company HarperCollins hosted an event to help raise money for local bookstores. In their timely exploration of the human experience extrapolated to the universality of the human condition, actress Laura Dern and writer Samantha Power mingled in a conversation that was not simply an overview of Power’s life story, but instead a discussion of the driving forces at play in her new memoir, “The Education of an Idealist.”
As the former U.S. Presidential Ambassador to the United Nations under Barack Obama and as someone who is in many ways legally bound by public opinion, Power’s memoir demonstrates her effort to expose the roots of her fierce commitment to empathy. She wants to make you, the audience and the reader, more aware of the parts of her life that manage to defy the myth-making of American success. She wants you to know all this because she’s aware that there’s a chance it might resonate with her readers’ lives.
During the conversation, which was hosted by Literati Bookstore in conjunction with a network of local bookstores nationwide as a fundraising effort, Power worked ardently to demystify the shadow life haunting the background of her success by discussing the transmission of her idealism from a patrilineal line down to her: a transmission mirroring the spiritual guidance she offers in the form of a dazzling, knocked-down romanticism for the endurance of the human condition that refuses to stay down. Through her resistance to power structures known to oppress and marginalize, Power refuses to rant or lay blame on individuals.
Rather, both during the conversation with Dern and in her memoir, Power turns the magnifying glass of reporting on herself. In doing so, she resists the polarizing idea that politicians are only interested in the power encircling their roles in government. She also repeatedly emphasizes the importance of mapping the universal onto the particular, atomistic functions of the human in isolation, whether it be quarantine-induced or the belief that you are uniquely alone with your burdens.
In the process of doing so, she delved deeper into her personal background than most politicians and their staffers tend to disclose outright, even in the aftermath of publishing a memoir.
Dern, a clear admirer of Power, magnified Power’s commitment to empathy and how it’s manifested in the form of a powerful, trail-blazing curiosity.
“That’s not normal (or) innate curiosity,” Dern observed.
Power expanded upon Dern’s observation — as she excelled at doing throughout — by explaining how, when she was growing up in Ireland, the constant exposure to her father’s catalog of narratives from customers at his pub played an oversized role in shaping her empathically-leaning interests. She further explained that, due to the vividness of her father’s storytelling, it felt as if a cast of characters sat beside the rest of her family at the dinner table as she came of age.
Power expressed an avid appreciation for the moral integrity displayed by her father while she was growing up.
“When you’re at the pub, everyone’s equal,” she said, referencing her father’s views on the human condition. “What people (in the pub) care about is … Can you tell the story’s arc and hold an audience?”
Power continued on to say that, “what (she’s) inherited from (her father) is the ability to tell a story and bridge a distance.”
While this type of storytelling might be expected given the framing of a memoir, what I didn’t expect was the interpersonal validation shared between Power and Dern, across two disparate professions, politics and acting — that of finding themselves to be the only woman in a room. Where the promotional literature of both the memoir and the event may have streamlined their experiences as that of prototypical American success, Dern and Power seemed intimately entangled in a more significant way: Each woman spoke of the impacts of resisting repression and silence.
This segment of the conversation began with Dern asking Power about a scene in the book where she is summoned to a meeting with other women working in government. Power recalled being initially annoyed by the perceived disruption of this summoning but then described how she reconfigured it as “one of the most cathartic experiences of (her) life” while she was drafting it into the book.
Another, personal throughline Power emphasized during the conversation dealt with the damaging emotional ramifications of her father’s death from alcoholism. Specifically, Power disclosed that, despite becoming aware that it wasn’t her fault through therapy, she questioned her own possible role in it. Dern didn’t shy away from pointedly asking Power how she managed to endure the self-interrogation required for the narration of her life — the articulation of its nuances in the writing of her memoir — in the wake of her grief:
“What I want to understand is, how did you survive the guilt of responsibility … How did you feel such a deep sense of self and let go of old stories?” Dern asked, referring to Power’s mounting sense of guilt after her father’s death, as well as the coping mechanisms she utilized as a witness to atrocity.
In response, Power explained her initial resistance to the idea of therapy, as both a woman working in American politics as well as a first-generation immigrant. While she credits it with her healing, the long answer, for her, is that the trauma dealt with in therapy never really leaves you or drains away through the cathartic conversations had between therapist and client. Even still, she added that if you are lucky enough to do so, you can conduct the energy constructively. Power informed Dern that the guilt of her father’s death was at the core of her decision to go to therapy.
The exchange was initially propelled by the pair’s personal experiences characterized by a mutual understanding of what it means to build careers in male-dominated workplaces. But it was the accumulation of those same experiences, by way of what Dern called a “massive journey” through the political realm, that ultimately secured Power’s firm place as a feminist icon. That is, as a voice that grapples openly on the page with the toxicity built into the work environment.
In the midst of the desperation to be right that so often defines the modern American body politic, the refreshing commiseration between Dern and Power seemed to channel their desires, as an actor and politician respectively, to embrace the microphone and to speak for the betterment of the collective through its sonic force.
Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.