It’s what she doesn’t say that makes Kathleen Buhle’s divorce memoir, “If We Break” — out Tuesday — so compelling.
For 24 years she was, of course, Kathleen Biden, wife of the notorious Hunter, and daughter-in-law of the president.
In the final chapter, she goes to DC Superior Court to renounce her married name and reclaim her identity as Kathleen Buhle, of Chicago’s working-class South Side.
She never explains explicitly why she abandoned the Biden name, although taunts from Hunter after their ugly divorce played a role. “Are you enjoying your last name,” he would say.
Still, her book makes clear that despite the immense privileges, “being a Biden” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Kathleen makes no mention in the lengthy acknowledgements of any Biden, other than her three daughters, Maisy, 21, Finnegan, 23, and Naomi, 28 — whose November wedding will be held at the White House.
In fact, she says she was always made to feel lower-class and that she wasn’t “a true member of the Biden family.”
Early in her marriage, she recalls: “We were taking family photos and Hunter’s aunt [Val] was running the show . . . At one point she announced, ‘Now let’s do Biden blood only’ . . . My daughter and my husband were in the picture but somehow I wasn’t included.”
When the Secret Service told her before Inauguration Day in 2009 that only Hunter and their daughters would be protected, she felt “embarrassed . . . Did this mean I was less important than my husband and my kids?”
Kathleen fell pregnant within months of meeting Hunter fresh out of college, when they were serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Portland, Ore.
She was shocked at the opulence of his lifestyle when he took her home to his father’s former du Pont mansion in Greenville, Del.
Joe liked to describe himself as the “poorest man in Congress” and Hunter told Kathleen he came from a middle-class family. But she told him: “Hunt . . . a kid from a middle-class family does not have a ballroom.”
“The front door opened into a foyer with a marble floor and double staircase . . . He had a tuxedo hanging in his closet — a tuxedo he used fairly regularly . . .
“Hunter had instant entry into the world of power because he had something better than money: an actual US senator as a father. [He] had grown up in a world of affluence beyond my understanding. He’d talk of those with ‘new money’ [with] disdain . . . I felt a strong sense of not belonging.”
Hunter’s easy job hunt
When they were visiting Joe in Greenville after they were married, someone came to the house to give Hunter “career advice” and offered him a job with the bank MBNA, for “a dollar amount greater than anything I’d ever imagined someone our age earning.”
The inflated salary from his father’s single biggest donor was one of the many benefits of the Biden family’s influence-peddling operation that was turbocharged when Joe became veep, when millions of dollars would flow from shady Chinese and Ukrainian business interests.
But Kathleen, now 53, never knew much about their finances, although she worried that they “lived above our means.”
A financial adviser told them they could afford no more than $170,000 for their first house. A few weeks later they bought a 10,000-square-foot mansion with six marble fireplaces on the du Pont Winterthur estate, near his dad’s place, for $310,000.
Hunter “wasn’t nervous about the price . . . We could afford it, he told me.”
The memoir is a gentle but honest account of her marriage to Hunter, who comes across as an adulterous addict who would stay out all night “working late” and then gaslight her when she expressed concern.
She loved him, so it took years for her to realize he was smoking crack and sleeping with prostitutes, before he had an affair with his brother Beau’s widow, Hallie.
The only time she expresses anger is when writing about the statement Hunter and his father gave to Page Six when news broke of his affair with Hallie: “We’ve been so lucky to have family and friends who have supported us every step of the way.”
She says “anger consumed me” as she read the article.
“They were lucky? Supported every step of the way? No mention of the family he’d left behind?”
She had been suspicious that her husband was spending so much time with his sister-in-law after Beau died of brain cancer, but their therapist told her it “was an important part of Hunter’s grieving.”
The evidence came in November 2016, when her daughters told her in their therapist’s office that they had seen incriminating texts between the lovers on his phone.
“How could I have missed the truth when it was right there,” she writes.
“I thought back to the signs: all the weeks and months that he’d lived with [Hallie] in Delaware. Their trips. The pictures online that made me cry.”
The cellphone from hell
That night, she went through a phone Hunter had left behind when he’d moved out the previous year — and discovered his sordid secret life, which would become public knowledge through his abandoned laptop four years later.
“While I’d felt as if I was losing my mind, he’d been living a strange new life I didn’t recognize at all. The texts were filled with curses and graphic sexual references. He was mean at times, and then strangely tender, with dozens of women — none of whom I’d ever heard of before. I was struck by the number of them who clearly thought they could save him.”
She provides only glimmers of the verbal abuse evident in his communications with her on his laptop. He treats her like an “intrusion” when she comes to visit Beau in hospital, she writes, and calls her an “idiot.”
When he goes on a crack bender in LA at the Chateau Marmont, he tells her he is working on his “sobriety” and she is “crazy” for not believing him. That was “like going to an ice cream shop to work on your dairy free diet,” she quips.
When she was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer, a few months after their 2017 divorce, she does not mention Hunter during the period she endured surgery and chemotherapy. On his laptop there are only two brief mentions by Hunter to friends about Kathleen’s cancer, amid all his vitriol.
But in February 2019, he railed against her in a text message for telling someone named Maureen “I wasn’t there for you when you had cancer.”
There is never a trace of bitterness from Kathleen. She beats the cancer, joins a support group for the former wives of “narcissists” and emerges as a better person than her ex-husband — in her book, but also in real life.