When Barack Obama met Genevieve Cook in 1983 at a Christmas party in New York’s East Village, it was the start of his most serious romance yet. But as the 22-year-old Columbia grad began to shape his future, he was also struggling with his identity: American or international? Black or white? Drawing on conversations with both Cook and the president, David Maraniss, in an adaptation from his new Obama biography, has the untold story of the couple’s time together.
To see a picture of Obama and former girlfriend Genevieve Cook, pick up a copy of the June issue.
Adapted from Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, to be published this month by Simon & Schuster; © 2012 by the author.
Barack Obama transferred from Occidental College to Columbia University in 1981, his junior year. Although he left Los Angeles with enough ambitious propulsion to carry him into a more active period, he instead receded into the most existentialist stretch of his life. As he put it himself decades later during an interview in the Oval Office, “I was leading a very ascetic existence, way too serious for my own good.” In most outward ways, compared with what had come before, his life in New York was a minimalist one, without the sprawling cast of characters that had surrounded him at Oxy and in Hawaii and Indonesia. He felt no attachment to Columbia or to the first jobs he landed after graduation. But it would be a misreading to say that he was tamping down his ambitions during that period. Just the opposite, in fact. If anything, his sense of destiny deepened. He was conducting an intense debate with himself over his past, present, and future, an internal struggle that he shared with only a few close friends, including his girlfriends, Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook, who kept a lasting record, one in letters, the other in her journal.
“Where Am I Going?”
It is exponentially easier to look back at a life than to live it forward. In retrospect it becomes apparent that New York was crucial to Obama. If he had not quite found his place yet, he was learning in which directions not to go and how to avoid turns that would lead him off the path and into traps from which it would be hard to escape. Even when he was uncertain about much else, Obama seemed hyper-alert to avoiding a future he did not want.
At age 20, Obama was a man of the world. He had never been to south-central Kansas or western Kenya, the homelands of his ancestors, yet his divided heritage from Africa and the American heartland had defined him from the beginning. He could not be of one place, rooted and provincial. From his years living in Indonesia, where he was fully immersed in Javanese schools and culture; from his adolescence in Hawaii, where he was in the polyglot sea of hapa and haole, Asians and islanders; from his mother’s long-term commitment to development work overseas; from his friendship with Pakistani students at Occidental and his extended visit to their country—from all of these he had experienced far more global diversity than the average college junior. He knew the ways of different cultures better than he knew himself.