Kamala Harris Wasn’t Raised to Talk About Herself

Kamala Harris. Photo: Courtesy of Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris’s second book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, is out today from Penguin Press, and unlike her previous, more policy-focused book, in this one the possible 2020 contender gets personal. Harris writes touchingly about her relationship with her mother, whom she credits with instilling in her the sense of duty to others that motivates her career, about the responsibility she has as a person with power, and about meeting her husband Doug.

Below, Senator Harris speaks about the lasting presence of her mother in her life, her discomfort with speaking about herself, her motivation for writing the book, and more.

The book focuses on the urgency of truth-telling, in its many complicated facets. How has your own notion of what “truth” is evolved over the course of writing the book?

So, I think one of the things that over the course of writing the book became clear to me is that one can know the truth but it’s difficult to speak the truth. And it’s a whole other thing to write the truth knowing that writing it, much less speaking it, will create discomfort and sometimes create controversy and it’s probably safer sometimes to just hold the truth to yourself than to speak it out loud or acknowledge it. Speaking openly about [the criminal justice system’s] flaws, as a career prosecutor you know many may not do that, but I felt it very important to speak a truth that I know to be true, which is that there are disparities and there are flaws in the implementation of the system.

So [I’m] doing it again with the point of not trying to create controversy or discomfort, but speaking the truth with the goal of articulating it so that it can then be addressed and we can create a solution.

You write about the emotional contours of speaking up. For example, when you’re challenging John Kelly [during his confirmation hearing, on the issue of DACA recipients] or when you’re challenging the banks about the housing crisis and about the emotional risks you take in doing something like that.

I mean listen, I was raised in a way that one does not talk about themselves or their feelings. [Laughs.]

Can you say a little bit more?

Well, one is expected to do good work, but it’s not about you, it’s not about your feelings. It’s about the thing that needs to get done. And so there was a certain level of discomfort for me about talking about my feelings as associated with those moments. It was an effort for me to speak such things. But I thought it was important to just give insight into how I was actually feeling. Just add a layer of depth to those moments.

Photo: Courtesy of Kamala Harris

You wrestle with the idea of power and how people who are in power help people who are disadvantaged by the system. How do you think about power as somebody who has had a lot of it?

I mean here’s the thing. First of all, my first and my entire career was as a prosecutor. Until I came to the United States Senate. And at a very young age in my life and my career I spoke these words, which I write about in the book, but it was part of my identity which I would declare every time I walked into the courtroom: “Kamala Harris for the people.” And I took it very seriously.

So the concept there, and how I wrote about it in the book, is that “for the people,” not “for the victim” alone, but “for the people” because our system of justice was designed with an understanding that a harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us. And I feel very strongly about that in terms of how we should proceed and then think of and handle any one of us being harmed. We should proceed and think of this as a harm against all of us.

And if you study our system of justice, that’s a value that was a founding principle of our justice system and therefore who we are as a country. And so I’ve used my positions to give power to those who don’t have it. And to those who are at any moment voiceless. Are fighting for a place at the table. And I think that if it’s a fight worth having, then fight we will.

There are two narratives happening in the book, there’s this very personal story about how you came to become a senator from California, but you also a very vulnerable story about your mother and her story. There’s a very poignant moment where you have to reckon with the reality that your mother is dying, which feels like where  these themes of truth and power came to a head. Why did that climax feel important to include?

That’s funny. You’ve hit on something that I guess I don’t articulate in the book but you have absolutely hit on something. When one has the unfortunate experience of suffering a great loss, things become very clear to you. Meaning you have a certain clarity about what’s important and what’s not. And there was a clarity that came out of my grief and the loss of my mother. About how I saw the world and what my role should be in the world.

Can you say a little more about that moment and that clarity?

One of the reasons I wrote the book is to also give the reader an idea of why I fought for what I fight for. Because there’s so much about the experiences I’ve had in life that have informed my policy priorities. My perspective on the health-care system of our country was informed by my mother, around her fight for dignity for women suffering from breast cancer. That’s why I co-founded an auxiliary at the county hospital in Oakland, California, Highland Hospital: knowing that we needed to make sure that the sexual-assault victims and the people who come through that county hospital had the dignity they deserved; to fighting for the Affordable Care Act when it was being challenged by Republicans when I was attorney general; to fighting against the attacks when I became Senator and fighting for Medicare for All today.

It’s something that I feel very strongly about and I wanted to write about the policy and why the policy standing in and of itself is important, but also to just let the reader know this is not something that just occurred to me. It’s actually been a lifetime of, frankly, preoccupation. And priority.

I know that your previous book was more policy heavy. Did you find that there was something different about talking about the personal place that you’re driven from and the stories that are behind the policies that you fight for?

Yeah, I mean it was like I said: I was raised to not talk about myself.

I too was raised to not talk about myself. And I think many women feel like they’re still doing something wrong by telling their stories.

It was an effort! It was an effort, for sure. [Laughs.] It was an effort. Because part of it is, I’m just like, well who cares! Let’s just talk about the issues. I even talk about that in the book, like when I first ran for DA, you know people want you to talk about all these other things and I was like, I just want to talk about the work. And it’s not like I have anything to hide! But the work is the motivation. The motivation to do this is not about myself it’s about the work that needs to get done.

Why do you think people push you to tell these stories that you don’t think are particularly relevant to the work?

I think people are curious and they also want context and that’s part of the reason I wrote the book: context. What motivates you, where are you coming from, what drives you? And that’s a fair question. But back to the way I was raised; I was raised that you know it’s your duty to do work on behalf of others and so it’s not something where you talk about it in the context of yourself as though, you know, “Oh ho ho! I’m so lovely! Look at how charitable I am” right? You know? So your duty is your responsibility. My mother never sat up and clapped when we did things we were supposed to do. You were supposed to do them, right? I don’t expect to draw attention for doing my job.

Now that you’ve produced this book, which is deeply personal, have your thoughts on telling stories about yourself changed?

Probably! Yes. I mean, you know, I’ll see how it all gets interpreted. [Laughs.]

Are you anxious about it?

You know, no. I’m very happy to tell these stories. I think that frankly, the stories that I have to tell are stories that many people can tell and maybe they are stories that need to be told more. And it’s a story about the kind of people who shaped me to be who I am. And there are a lot of people — telling the story about being in raised in a community where the priority was for people to care about one another and give dignity and respect and work hard. And these are stories that I think we all have a lot more in common than most people realize.

Kamala Harris Wasn’t Raised to Talk About Herself