Hunter Biden was lying from the moment he met his future wife, Kathleen Buhle, in 1992. The less-favored son of Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, insisted he came from a normal middle-class background. During her first visit to the sprawling Biden estate in Delaware, Kathleen explained to Hunter that "a kid from a middle-class family does not have a ballroom."
The only member of Buhle's family who saw any red flags was Grandpa Dutch, who served prison time for armed robbery. "What does he want from us?" he wondered after meeting Hunter. His first impression of the Biden estate: "Who's buried here?" Game recognize game, as the saying goes.
If We Break is Buhle's account of how becoming a Biden changed her life—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till divorce they did part. The book is quite obviously the product of years of therapy, candid self-reflection, and recovery from trauma—one of the many ways it differs from Hunter's crack-centric memoir, Beautiful Things, which opens with a quote from Bukowski and likens the author to an artistic genius in the mold of Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Morrison.
Buhle quickly came to realize being a Biden had its perks. Six months after marrying Hunter, she gave birth to their daughter Naomi and was ushered into a large private room—"a gift from the hospital"—where the doctor asked her to deliver a letter to her father-in-law. If that all sounds a bit legally and ethically dubious, keep in mind that Bill Clinton was president so casual grifting was the vibe. Shortly thereafter, Hunter "met with someone to get career advice" and returned with a lucrative job offer (including signing bonus) from the Delaware-based credit card firm MBNA, as in "the senator from MBNA," aka Joe Biden. An early addition to a résumé composed entirely of peddled influence.
The author's clear-eyed assessment of her privileged status, among other things, makes her more reliable and relatable as a narrator than Hunter, whose own memoir suggests his admission to Yale Law School had nothing to do with his father's prestige and everything to do with the quality of the poem he included with his application. She enjoyed the perks of being a Biden: living in big houses, driving fancy cars, sending the kids to expensive private schools. Hunter's career really took off after Joe became vice president, and Kathleen jetted off to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America on the taxpayer's dime. She peddled influence in her own right, bringing Joe along as a special guest to help raise money for her friends' nonprofits.
Life was good, until it wasn't.
Hunter comes across as an insufferable prick at the best of times, a spoiled rich kid who "listened to Johnny Cash's working-class ballads but drove a Porsche" and constantly expressed his "disdain for the showiness of new money." As tragic as his story is, he is not a sympathetic character. At the worst of times, he was an absolute monster.
Buhle thoughtfully recounts the hell Hunter put her through when his addiction spiraled out of control, her efforts to keep it all a secret, and her gradual descent into madness while attempting to "solve" his drinking problem—she didn't find out about the crack and the (many, many) prostitutes until much later. Anyone who has loved an addict will relate to her struggle with codependency. The frantic searches for empty bottles, the paranoid stalking, the propensity to forgive. The endless lies.
There are, perhaps inevitably, some major discrepancies between Kathleen's and Hunter's version of events, which is a polite way of saying that Beautiful Things did not undergo an extensive fact-check. It could be that Hunter was not even aware that, according to Kathleen, she wasn't the first to learn about his affair with Hallie, his brother Beau's widow, by finding text messages on his iPad. It was his daughters. Maybe he doesn't remember. Maybe he would rather forget.
The divergence is downright comical at times, a Rashomon saga for degenerate élites. For example, they both agree they had a frank conversation while hiking along the Potomac River on their 22nd anniversary in 2015, and met with a couple's counselor the following day. According to Hunter's version of the counseling session, Kathleen shot down his suggestion that the hike had been "cathartic" and told him, "I'm never going to forgive you." He stormed out of the session and "drained" a bottle of vodka.
Kathleen's version is slightly different. "Hunter, I forgive you," she recalls saying. "Yesterday's hike was a turning point for me. ... We never need to discuss your infidelity again." To which Hunter responded, "Thank you. I'm sorry. I have to get back to the office," and walked out. The next morning she found Hunter passed out on the couch and a broken crack pipe in his ashtray. Allegedly. Who's to say which one is telling the truth—the crackhead or the woman scorned?
Joe, meanwhile, is conspicuously absent from this telling. He appears early on, introducing himself to Kathleen by putting "his hands on my cheeks and [looking] me in the eyes, his nose almost touching my own." Classic Joe. He shows up again years later, heroically attempting to stop a woman from playing in a golf fundraiser because she'd never swung a club in her life. "Honey, you can't golf if you've never played before," he told Kathleen. For once, he wasn't wrong. Otherwise, the Biden patriarch looms over the entire story as the source from which Hunter's lifelong immunity from consequence flowed.
Kathleen's former family, which once kicked her out of a photo restricted to "Biden blood only," was presumably happy to let her bear the brunt of Hunter's burden, especially after the death of the other, better son. As president, "Sleepy Joe" seems to have adopted a similar approach to the nation's problems. Whether due to age, incompetence, temperament, or all of the above, his leadership in a time of crisis leaves much to be desired. Kathleen Buhle dropped the "Biden" in 2019 and seems to be doing well. America may yet recover, too.
If We Break: A Memoir of Marriage, Addiction, and Healing
By Kathleen Buhle
Crown, 304 pp., $21.99