How an Award-Winning Biographer Figured Out Barack Obama’s ‘Memoir’ Was Fiction

AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David Garrow first released his biography about former President Barack Obama titled Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama in May 2017. Obama had just finished his second term in January and the media had breathlessly devoted all of its attention to then-President Donald Trump.

During the research and writing process, Garrow received access to Obama and those who had known the president in his younger years. While Garrow’s tome did briefly make the bestseller list and receive good reviews at the time, the obsession with Trump and Obama’s retreat from public life after his presidency led some of the revelations from the biography to go under-reported. 

That all changed last week when Tablet published a lengthy Q&A with Garrow about former President Obama. Garrow told writer David Samuels that Obama is “as insecure as Trump” and would make a “terrible” Supreme Court justice, which made headlines.

On Thursday’s show, Garrow joined Megyn to discuss how he became interested in Obama as a subject after reading his 2005 memoir Dreams From My Father and why he immediately identified the work as “historical fiction.”

Why Garrow Was ‘Intrigued’ by Obama

As he explained it, Garrow’s interest in Obama began in early 2008 when his presidential campaign started gaining traction. He purchased a copy of the then-senator’s memoir and read most of it while on a vacation in Portugal. “Right from the get go, it’s pretty clear that it’s not a work of history,” he said. “It’s telling his life story, but it’s transparent that most of the characters have pseudonyms or are composite figures – and that very much intrigued me.”

For the rest of 2008 and into 2009 when Obama was inaugurated, Garrow said he read everything he could about his life up through when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2005. “I made the decision to start doing interviews that focused on his years as a community organizer in Chicago from 1985 to 1988 because that’s really the centerpiece of Dreams From My Father,” he noted. “I wanted to solve this large number of mysteries as to who were these people that he worked with, and so my focus very much was on the organizers who hired and trained him and the local people in the far South Side community with whom he worked.”

Finding Sheila Jager

Many of the people Garrow was able to track down had never been publicly named or interviewed. One such example was the former president’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Jager, who he proposed to twice. The two lived together in the Hyde Park section of Chicago in the 1980s when he was working as a community organizer and she was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

Garrow found her by having his research assistant at the University of Chicago pull the student directories from the late eighties to see who lived at Obama’s address. “It’s so fascinating because, of course, we’re used to people doing exhaustive bios and deep dives on our presidents and yet you were the first to find Sheila Jager,” Megyn noted. “And her response upon you – a Pulitzer Prize-winning author contacting her – was something to the effect of ‘I’m so glad it’s you who found me.’ And she really did have a story to tell.”

Jager, who is of Dutch and Japanese heritage, was not named in Dreams From My Father, but Obama did discuss a breakup in the book that he attributed to his girlfriend not embracing his newfound racial consciousness after seeing a play by Black playwright August Wilson. 

Jager’s account to Garrow differed tremendously. She said they ended their relationship after a fight the couple had following a visit to Chicago’s Spertus Institute exhibit about the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the one of the organizers of the Holocaust. According to Jager, Obama refused to condemn Chicago mayoral aide Steve Cokely’s antisemitic rhetoric.

Garrow noted that Jager has a personal connection to the Holocaust. Her paternal grandparents lived in the Netherlands during World War II and “actively worked to protect Jewish people,” he said. They were recognized by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Israel for their efforts.

‘Historical Fiction’

When Megyn pressed Garrow on why Obama would have misrepresented the breakup, he said it was typical of the book’s amalgamated style. “In Dreams From My Father, Barack portrays the break up with the unnamed, somewhat composite girlfriend,” he noted. “The woman is some parts Sheila, some parts Alex McNear, his first girlfriend, some parts Genevieve Cook, his second girlfriend.”

While the book was called a “memoir,” that did not denote its factual accuracy. “He was writing a work of historical fiction, crafting a life story about himself that was nowhere fully accurate about Chicago or fully accurate about even his high school years and in Hawaii,” Garrow said. “I went and met his closest friends from high school, and they, like Sheila, have different accounts of stories than are in the book.”

Ultimately, Garrow does not regard the work as fact – regardless of what the former president may think. “That’s a consistent thread concerning Dreams From My Father,” he concluded. “And I can certainly say that Barack was unhappy and indeed angry that I concluded that the book is a work of historical fiction.”

You can check out Megyn’s full conversation with Garrow by tuning in to episode 605 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.