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‘Finding My Voice’ by Valerie Jarrett struggles to find its voice

She is a remarkable, accomplished woman by any standard -- but her memoir is, alas, fairly wan, with little that is surprising.

"Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward" by Valerie Jarrett. (Penguin Random House/TNS)
"Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward" by Valerie Jarrett. (Penguin Random House/TNS)Read morePenguin Random House / MCT

Finding My Voice

My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward

By Valerie Jarrett

Viking. 305 pp. $30

Reviewed by Randall Kennedy

Valerie Jarrett was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama during both his terms; is a close friend to Michelle Obama; directed an important real estate firm; and has served as chair of the Chicago Transit Authority Board, chair of the Chicago Stock Exchange and chair of the board of trustees of the University of Chicago Medical Center. She sits on the boards of directors of Ariel Investments and Lyft and is a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. Jarrett is, in short, a big deal.

In Finding My Voice, she recounts her journey to the White House and beyond. She writes that her memoir stemmed from an interview for a Story Corps oral history conducted by her daughter, who asked her mother to advise a younger version of herself. “It turns out I had a lot to say,” Jarrett declares, “and not just to a 30-year-old me, but to women and men of all ages.”

Finding My Voice can be divided into three sections. In the first, Jarrett describes her remarkable family and unusual childhood. She spent the first five years of her life in Iran, accompanying her parents on adventures around the world — Ghana, Egypt, the Soviet Union. Homesick, they returned to Chicago, where Jarrett’s accent, shyness and light complexion attracted unwanted attention from African American neighborhood bullies. For the most part, however, she seems to have had a healthy, fun, love-filled childhood. Yes, she did have encounters with racists. But this daughter of college graduates attended Stanford and the University of Michigan Law School.

The second section of her book focuses on Jarrett’s efforts to create a suitable career and household. Both fronts proved difficult. She was bored by corporate law practice. Worse, she married a surgeon who, in her telling, quickly showed himself to be selfish and unreliable. Notwithstanding her doubts, she had a child with him, only to find herself and her baby cruelly abandoned. Things turned around for her dramatically, however, when she left her private-sector job to work for the administration of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, and after she obtained a divorce. By dint of poise and perseverance, connections and luck, she climbed the municipal bureaucratic ladder, becoming a significant figure in Chicago civic affairs.

The third section of her book is dominated by the extraordinary events that have stemmed from her affiliation with the Obamas. When Jarrett was deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, she hired and befriended a young lawyer, Michelle Robinson, who introduced her to the man Michelle would soon marry, Barack Obama. Jarrett developed a close bond with the young couple, supported their ambitions, and moved upward with them as they conquered the Democratic Party and then captured the White House.

Jarrett seems to be, in many of the most important respects, a thoroughly admirable person. Alas, Finding My Voice suffers from faintness of voice. Jarrett’s diffidence precludes the self-revelation that a reader rightly expects of a memoir. She does describe the unraveling of her marriage, which she portrays as the single biggest pratfall in her otherwise blessed life. But even in that portrayal, she pictures herself guilty only of naïveté. What about subsequent romantic companionship? Was she open to that? Or did she forswear such relationships? Finding My Voice is mute on these questions.

Jarrett’s account of her doings in the White House is similarly wan. A major reason some observers will be drawn to Jarrett’s memoir is her well-publicized closeness to the Obamas. She discloses nothing about them, however, that is remotely striking. For the most part, though, she offers superficial accounts that avoid self-criticism or controversy. She says not one word about the politics of abortion. And she says little in response to criticism that the Obama administration was too easy on Wall Street, insufficiently attentive to homeowners facing foreclosure, or evasive about racial conflict. Jarrett offers no opinion regarding the extent, if any, to which the administration bears responsibility for the ascendancy of Trumpism.

Jarrett depicts herself as a race woman, self-consciously concerned with advancing the fortunes of black Americans. But she largely overlooks the intra-racial debates that vex politically self-aware black Americans. She says nothing, for example, that discloses her thinking on the extent, if any, to which blacks of her station — i.e., those who have “made it” — should affirmatively support historically black institutions, particularly colleges and universities. Nor does she disclose whether the racial makeup of her child’s companions matters to her.

Jarrett alone, of course, is ultimately responsible for her book. But it appears to be a product of the sort of commercial collaboration that is inimical to originality, insight, and authenticity.

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein professor of law at Harvard Law School.