When I set out to write my new book, Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing, I was keenly interested in exploring how it felt to be a woman in this particular moment in history. It was 2018. More women than ever were running for office; the Me Too and Time’s Up movements were bringing brave new voices to the forefront; more previously apolitical women were recognizing their agency and their value. I didn’t set out to write a “political” book but I did, certainly, understand that so much of what women do right now can make a statement and pave the way for other women, even in small ways, even with quiet steps.
Cleo McDougal is a senator, yes, but what I really hope she is, in fact, is a representation of the barriers that women face, of the double-standards we have to address, of all the ways that women have to be better, more likeable, less angry, more composed, friendlier, happier, prettier and less ambitious than men. Which, of course, is ridiculous. So I wrote toward those notions—and also wrote in the post-Hillary Clinton election world. I wrote a book that I hope young women can read and see themselves in, and I wrote a book that I hope older women can read and be inspired by. Cleo McDougal isn’t perfect, but then that is entirely the point. Women don’t have to be. We shouldn’t be expected to be. We are just as we are, and as I hope she shows, that is exactly right.
The book begins when Cleo’s old best friend writes a devastating op-ed about her, which, as these things do, takes flight across the internet. How she handles it and what it unearths leads her on an unexpected journey of self-discovery. Here are the opening pages. I hope you love it as much as I love Cleo McDougal and all that she represents.
Cleo McDougal is not a good person. She does good, yes, but doing good and being good aren’t the same thing, now, are they?
Cleo McDougal did not see the op-ed or this opening line in said op-ed on the home page of SeattleToday! until approximately 7:15 a.m., after she had completed her morning at-home boxing class, after she had showered and meticulously applied the day’s makeup (a routine that she admitted was getting lengthier and more discouraging at 37, but Cleo McDougal had never been one to shy away from a challenge), and after she had roused her 14-year-old from his bed, which was likely her day’s hardest ordeal.
Of course, she had not yet seen the op-ed. By the time she did, the political blogs had picked it up and run with it, which was why it took off, blazing around the internet and Twittersphere. (SeattleToday!, a hipster alternative online “paper,” would otherwise really never have landed on Cleo’s radar.)
She had made a rule, which was clearly a mistake—she could see that now—to give herself one hour in the mornings before checking her phone. This was not a hard-and-fast rule, and obviously she scrolled through the news and quickly glanced at her emails while still in bed, before the sun rose over Washington. But it had come to her attention that, well, she needed to be a little more … Zen. Voters liked Zen.
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But they also liked tenacious and prepared and simultaneously calm and confident (and a laundry list of other things—pretty, warm, tough but not too tough, sharp-tongued but not a grandstander … you get the idea), and so when Gabrielle, her chief of staff, said that her own therapist advised taking one hour in the morning to unplug so that she absolutely did not completely lose her mind, Cleo thought it might not be a bad idea to test-drive.
It was only day four. She was liking it. She did indeed feel a little calmer, a little more serene, at least until she had to wake Lucas, when the previous hour’s tranquility usually spiraled into a bit of a spat, but she defied anyone to enjoy their morning with a teenager who mostly communicated by grunting.
Surprisingly, Lucas was the one who saw the op-ed first. Perhaps not all that surprising, since he and his phone were nearly telepathically connected, but surprising still because Cleo was, need it be said, a senator, and theoretically her staff should have given her the heads-up on a hit piece published in her childhood hometown, which then took off online like a match to gasoline.
“Who’s MaryAnne Newman?”
Lucas was hunched over the kitchen island in their three-bedroom condo, picking over an Eggo, one of the few things he’d agreeably eat for breakfast, and Cleo wasn’t sure she had heard him correctly. She had never mentioned MaryAnne to Lucas, rarely talked about that time in her life. It wasn’t that she didn’t think of MaryAnne—she did. But she also spent a lot of time trying not to think about her. How can you drive away from your past without even glancing in the rearview mirror? That kind of focus took effort.
“What?” Cleo turned toward Lucas, her coffee perilously close to sloshing over the rim of her mug. (Gabrielle had also recommended that she limit her coffee intake, but that was when Cleo pulled rank and told her she would sooner sleep with William Parsons, the Senate majority leader, who bore a striking resemblance to a walrus, than abandon coffee, and Gaby knew it was not a battle worth pursuing.)
“MaryAnne Newman,” Lucas muttered, which was one step above a grunt, and thus Cleo was almost delighted.
“Are you—are you on Facebook?”
Lucas rolled his eyes, which was much more like him. “No. Have you not seen this?”
He held out his phone, and Cleo stepped closer.
“She wrote about you. And … I guess me? I got a news alert.”
“You have a Google alert on me?”
Lucas’s eyes could not have gone farther back into his head. “No. Jesus. It came up on my phone alerts. They do that now, you know, like, send breaking news to your phone.” He shrugged. “I guess everyone who has an iPhone probably got it.” He swallowed. “Also, I’m assuming what she wrote wasn’t true? Or is it? Because then—”
Lucas stared at her, eyelids lowered, an indecipherable mix of teenage disdain and ire and, Cleo detected, something more. Her heart rate accelerated. MaryAnne didn’t even know Lucas; their lives had diverged well before he came along. What could she possibly be writing about?
Cleo patted her pockets, in a slightly more desperate search for her own phone now, then realized it was still in her home office / boxing studio / guest room (though they never had guests), resting, waiting, recharging, like it wasn’t an imminent time bomb.
Lucas pulled his screen closer, read the opening lines.
“Cleo McDougal is not a good person. She does good, yes, but doing good and being good aren’t the same thing, now, are they? In fact, her whole life, Cleo McDougal has been a cheater. She cheated in high school, on the debate team, on the school paper, for a summer internship, and from there it only got worse.”
“That is not true,” Cleo said to Lucas. Though maybe it was, just a little? Leave it to MaryAnne to thread the needle between rumor and fact. Cleo almost snorted, it was so familiar.
“Keep reading,” he said, passing his phone across the counter.
Cleo skimmed the next paragraph, detailing old grudges that felt irrelevant twenty years later, until she saw it. The reason for the hint of whatever it was in Lucas’s eyes.
“I have recently learned that this pattern of cheating extends all the way to Cleo’s personal life. I support women and their myriad choices, but when these choices reflect on their moral and ethical compass—something we must all agree is critical for presidential material—it bears stating publicly. A reliable source recently reached out to me, knowing we grew up together, to disclose that while at law school, Cleo had a torrid affair with a married professor, and, I quote here, ‘many people have since suspected that he could be the father of her son.’ I share this information not to shame her—”
Cleo slammed down the phone; she didn’t need to read further. Of course MaryAnne would play the smug card! she thought. That. Conniving. Bitch.
“Is that true?” Lucas’s voice was softer now, more like the kid he used to be, less like the man he nearly was. Cleo’s stomach nearly leaped through her throat.
“No. Sweetie, no.” Cleo reached out and mussed his hair, which he did not particularly like and which did not play nearly as naturally as Cleo hoped, a ruse to buy her time. “You know that isn’t right—I was already pregnant at law school. MaryAnne is just passing on gossip that she didn’t even bother to fact-check. I assume that’s why she published it in . . .” Cleo batted her hand around, as if she were shooing a fly. “Whatever this ridiculous excuse for a news website is.”
Lucas chewed his lip and digested this. They’d been over this—his father. They’d had long discussions about it, and damn you, MaryAnne Newman, for bringing this back into their lives all over again. Cleo had settled it for Lucas—that his dad wasn’t involved and didn’t want to be, and that it was just the two of them, it had always been just the two of them, and that was fine. Lucas used to ask more questions about it when he was younger, but lately they’d somehow silently agreed that, like many things, especially in DC, where alliances were often fluid, it was ancient history. His father wasn’t around, and that was that, and Cleo and Lucas were peas in a pod. (They weren’t really, now that Lucas was an ornery teenager, but Cleo tried to remember that this was all very developmentally normal.)
“So who’s MaryAnne Newman? And why would she write this?”
Cleo blew out her breath. She tried to tell herself that she was more perplexed than alarmed, but that wasn’t really true. She was alarmed. She was shocked out of her brains and also terrified too. How on earth had MaryAnne Newman heard about Alexander Nobells? Gaby and her whole team of advisors—Cleo had a staff of 35 in her DC office alone—had warned her: If you toy with a run for the presidency, everyone will emerge, cockroaches and rats and all sorts of vermin from your past, to share their own stories.
But Cleo had led a (mostly) clean life. There was Lucas, of course, the unplanned pregnancy her senior year at Northwestern—not at law school, thank you, MaryAnne—but she’d kept him! And she’d loved him! And she’d raised him! So no one on either side of the aisle could point fingers. She’d tried to make the best choices—strategic choices, true—but also at least decently moral choices (there was a sliding scale on most things), always with the eye that one day her record, her history might come to light.
This didn’t mean she didn’t have regrets. She did. MaryAnne Newman knew that too. She was just wrong about this one. Cleo reached for Lucas’s phone and tried not to think of Nobells. She hoped she didn’t look as shell-shocked as she felt, with the memories of the affair now reawakened. Fuck you, MaryAnne Newman.
“MaryAnne was my best friend until my senior year in high school,” she said, and her voice did not shake even though for most people, in light of such a public takedown, it would. But she had years of debate team triumphs and of speaking on the Senate floor (she had been elected at thirty-one, among the youngest senators in history) behind her. Her voice would not quake, even in her kitchen with her son handing her such a grenade. “And she shouldn’t have written such lies, much less from an anonymous ‘reliable source.’ And they should have fact-checked it, and I have no idea why they didn’t.”
She did know actually—because in today’s environment, lurid half-truths garnered eyeballs, and no one really cared to differentiate between fact and fiction when they hit Retweet. Cleo made a mental note to have Gaby call the editors at this “paper” and go absolutely batshit on them. “But you know how it is these days, especially when you’re a public figure. People say anything about you, and half the world takes it as truth.” She looked Lucas right in the eye. “But, buddy, we know our truth. And this isn’t it.”
Lucas shoved the Eggo in his mouth, held it in his teeth. Cleo wished that he took better care of himself, but any time she suggested it, it morphed into a fight. He was so handsome, with dark eyes and near-black hair, neither of which he got from Cleo, who burned at the first sign of sun and whose hair wasn’t quite blond but wasn’t quite brown either. She was tiny, which caused everyone—mostly men—to underestimate her, while Lucas was shooting up like a wild plant that wouldn’t stop sprouting. Cleo knew he got all that from his dad. Still, Lucas always looked a little bit unkempt, a little . . . dirty. Maybe that’s what fourteen-year-olds liked these days. She wasn’t too old to know . . . but really she was.
Lucas brushed back his bangs, which hung about half an inch too low for good vision; bit down on the waffle; chewed; swallowed; gave it some thought. “She really seems to dislike you. For a former best friend.”
Maybe this should have bothered Cleo, but she was long past seeking the approval of anyone other than her constituents. And Gaby. And Lucas.
“A lot of people dislike me. That’s part of the deal of holding office. It’s only going to get worse if I run for president.”
“If?” Lucas said. This had been an ever-present discussion between the two of them as of late. Cleo wouldn’t do anything without Lucas’s green light, but she very much wanted him to give her the green light. As a senator, Cleo’s life was mostly undisturbed outside the Capitol. All that would change in the White House. Lucas seemed to think it would be “all right, I guess” if he were the First Son, which Cleo took to be a near go-ahead, and from there she had dropped it.
“When. Well, if. Probably when, though,” Cleo said. “When I run.”
Cleo grabbed the phone, reread the story, which was less like an op-ed and more like a thinly veiled personal vendetta. Talk of her presidential run had grown louder lately: The Today Show had done a walk and talk with her to introduce her to a national audience; she’d done Meet the Press last month and fared well. She needed some big endorsements and she needed some bigger checks, but Gaby thought they had momentum, and Cleo had always been one to use momentum in her favor.
“So then, what’d you do to her?” Lucas asked. “Besides, I guess, cheating on the debate team and whatever?”
This was a longer conversation than they’d had over breakfast for at least two years, since puberty had kicked in, and though the subject was dire, Cleo was also delighted. Parents of teenagers took what they could get. “I didn’t do that stuff either,” Cleo said. “It wasn’t like that—she and I did the same activities. I was just better at them.” This was an unkind assessment, but then again, MaryAnne had thrown these punches first. Cleo set down his phone and headed to her office to grab her own. There would be texts; there would be emails. Gaby would already be working with her team on crafting a media response. “Don’t worry about this, bud. It’s nothing.”
“That’s what people say when they’ve done something that they shouldn’t have,” he called after her.
“Have you brushed your teeth?” she called back. “We’re leaving in ten.”
“Yes,” he said. “Stop asking me that. I’m not eight.”
Cleo suspected he was lying about his teeth, but he was right: He wasn’t eight anymore; he had to learn about consequences. This was part of her parenting strategy: consequences. Unprotected sex led to unplanned pregnancies; abandoned best friends led to op-eds twenty years later. Choices are made, regrets are managed, consequences arise.
She’d learned all about them too.
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