By Frank Bruni - THERE are many people who are hurt by Michele Bachmann’s divisive brand of politics, but perhaps none in quite the way that Helen LaFave is.
The two women once shared confidences. They’re family. Some 40 years ago, Michele’s mother married Helen’s father, and when Michele was in college, the house she returned to in the summer was the one where Helen, then finishing high school, lived. Helen craved that time together.
“I remember laughing with her a lot,” she told me in an interview on Thursday in her home here. She remembers Michele’s charisma and confidence, too. “I looked up to Michele.”
As the years passed they saw much less of each other, but when their paths crossed, at large family gatherings, there were always hugs. Helen was at Michele’s wedding to Marcus Bachmann and got to know him. And Michele got to know Nia, the woman who has been Helen’s partner for almost 25 years.
Helen never had a conversation about her sexual orientation with Michele and knew that Michele’s evangelical Christianity was deeply felt. Still she couldn’t believe it when, about a decade ago, Michele began to use her position as a state senator in Minnesota to call out gays and lesbians as sick and evil and to push for an amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would prohibit same-sex marriage: precisely the kind of amendment that Minnesotans will vote on in a referendum on Election Day.
“It felt so divorced from having known me, from having known somebody who’s gay,” said Helen, a soft-spoken woman with a gentle air. “I was just stunned.”
And while she never doubted that Michele was being true to her private convictions, she couldn’t comprehend Michele’s need to make those convictions so public, to put them in the foreground of her political career, and to drive a wedge into their family.
She told Michele as much, in a letter dated Nov. 23, 2003. She sent copies to her four siblings, her father and one of Michele’s brothers, and kept one herself. In the letter she described her “hurt and disappointment that my stepsister is leading this charge.”
“You’ve taken aim at me,” Helen wrote to Michele. Referring to Nia, she added: “You’ve taken aim at my family.”
Michele, she said, never acknowledged the letter in any way.
Helen has spoken with journalists only a few times in the past and never at length. During the Republican presidential primaries this year, she got caller ID to screen all the entreaties from reporters looking for nasty quotes about Michele. She didn’t want to play that game or upset her family, which has been divided on same-sex marriage.
But the imminent referendum, which she described as Michele’s “very, very sad legacy,” compelled her “to speak out for fairness for those of us who are being judged and told our lives and relationships are somehow less,” she said.
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