Apr 7, 2022 - Politics & Policy

First look ... Excerpt: "Growing Up Biden: A Memoir"

Cover: Celadon Books

This is an excerpt from "Growing Up Biden: A Memoir," by Valerie Biden Owens — President Biden's sister and one of his closest confidants. The book will be out Tuesday.

The big picture: Owens describes the night Joe Biden's wife and daughter died in a car crash. Biden had just been elected to the Senate, and took his oath of office in the hospital.

Joe’s suffering and anger radiated outward from him like a heat signature. His rage was incandescent, horrible, and I could tell that he was nearly breaking under its weight. Joe was a kind man. Rage was unfamiliar to him. It seemed to bend his frame. He didn’t want his boys to see the black thoughts that were consuming Daddy—for them he smiled, he was tender. He squared his shoulders and showed them Daddy would make things all right. Just beneath the surface, though, he was howling in pain.


My most vivid memory of December 18, 1972, is just a sound: clack, clack, clack.

  • Joe and I were alone, hurrying through the vacant marble hallway of the Capitol, our heels echoing into the emptiness. The Senate was in Christmas recess, so there was no one in sight. We’d been using Senator Byrd’s empty office to interview prospective staff. The desk was piled high with résumés of people clamoring to work for my brother, the twenty-nine-year-old kid from Delaware who’d just landed himself a Senate seat out of nowhere. Minutes before, we had been on top of the world; now it felt as though we were alone in the universe.
  • Our brother, Jimmy Biden, had called me just a few minutes earlier. “Come home,” he said. I don’t remember anything else he said during that call, just the feeling of ice that filled me. Neilia, Hunter, Beau, Amy—Joe’s entire family. A tractor trailer. A massive collision. I hung up with the unbearable knowledge that Neilia and Amy, Joe’s wife and baby daughter, were dead.
  • My mind drifted, visualizing an intersection a few hundred miles away, somewhere back home, where ambulance lights flashed against a twisted-up Chevy station wagon. My mind recoiled from envisioning what was inside.

Joe turned to me, eyes stricken, voice choked. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”

  • I remember his eyes. I wish I didn’t. Staring into them at that moment was like staring straight into hell.
  • I answered with the only words that would come. “I don’t know.”
  • I didn’t have the strength in me to tell him the truth, but he knew me too well, so the words didn’t matter. Joe and I had always known how to communicate without speaking, and while that gift had served us so well throughout our lives, I cursed it now. Joe spoke my language, so he knew the truth. Yes, Joe, I had said to him. Yes, it’s true. The worst thing you can imagine has already happened, and I don’t have the strength to say it out loud. I saw the truth settle into his bones, where I couldn’t root it out if I tried.

Memories of that night are buried deep within each of us, like pieces of shrapnel that stopped just shy of killing us but are impossible to extract. Here are the events of that night, as best as I can reconstruct them. Jimmy had gotten breakfast that morning with Neilia, the boys, and Amy. They were discussing some political issue, something related to Joe’s staffing or the campaign. It’s all lost to history now. After they parted ways, Jimmy went to the campaign office to do some more work while Neilia piled Amy and the boys into the car to take them to get a Christmas tree.

  • Neilia had been broadsided by an eighteen-wheeler as she was crossing the two-lane highway. The truck was coming off a very steep hill, and it was a massive collision. Apparently, the car was in the air 150 feet, hit three trees, and flipped over. The boys were severely hurt. Hunter had some serious head injuries, and Beau had so many broken bones, he was put in traction. Amy and Neilia had both passed.
  • I still wonder about Jimmy, alone, learning all of this. Poor Jimmy, having to spread the news around like some airborne contagion. He arranged a private plane for Joe and me—a two-seater, a fragile thing buffeted by heavy winds. It kept dipping and rising as we flew to Wilmington. Neither of us spoke a word; we simply prayed. What point was there to words? I kept one hand on Joe’s leg, maybe to comfort him, maybe to keep myself from feeling like I was going to fall off the face of the earth.

An accident this tragic doesn’t stay quiet for long, especially not in a close community. Once it became known that the family in the crash was Joe’s, word spread like wildfire. This beautiful young couple, these magnificent little children, this young man who had so recently conquered the world—it was horrific, and it attracted crowds. There was an invasive outpouring of love, concern, morbid curiosity. Crowds outside the hospital, news trucks, microphones, the whole bit. Inside, calls were washing up on the switchboard like a tsunami. While we were in Saint Francis, at least, none of those curious, prying voices reached our family.

  • The next few days passed in a blur. The sun went up and down, but it felt like opening and closing our eyes on the same never-ending day.
  • After their surgeries, Hunter and Beau left the ICU and were moved to a room where we could stay with them. Joe went into his boys’ hospital room to explain that Mommy and Caspy, the boys’ nickname for Amy, were gone. The nurses brought in a bed so that Joe could sleep in the room with his boys—and another cot so that Jimmy could sleep near Joe.

Jimmy became Joe’s silent guardian, never leaving his side. If Joe woke up at 4:30 a.m., racked with anger or sobbing quietly, Jimmy wanted to be there, and he was. Joe would shake him awake and they would go out for a walk. Jimmy would follow Joe outside onto the streets of downtown Wilmington, Joe never saying a word. The understanding between them was unspoken but clear: Joe was looking for a fight. And Jimmy was there for whatever happened.

  • There were people who told us it was God’s will. God’s will. Every time I heard that phrase, it burned inside me. I wanted to scream in all their faces: God didn’t want this! If any of us had had a baseball bat, we would have smashed every window in that hospital, shattered the windshield of every car. I was so angry I wanted to crack the surface of the earth.
  • The awful irony of it all was that it was nearly Christmas. Hunter and Beau weren’t going to be discharged from the hospital until after the New Year, so Christmas morning, whatever it looked like, would happen in their hospital room.

On December 23, Jimmy went out to Strawbridge & Clothier, Delaware’s version of a Macy’s, and pointed to the huge artificial Christmas tree in the display window, covered in ornaments and tinsel.

  • “I want to buy that tree,” he said. The clerk looked at him, aghast.
  • “Sir, you can’t buy that,” he said. “It’s our display tree.”
  • Jimmy said, “I want that tree. And I’m buying the fucking tree.”

Well, what Jimmy wanted, Jimmy usually got. So there he was, God love him, striding through the revolving doors of the hospital with the biggest, sparkliest fake tree you’ve ever seen, raining tinsel and glitter behind him. Some members of the hospital staff (understandably but unwisely) tried to intervene and stop him.

  • “You can’t bring that into the hospital,” someone said.
  • “Watch me,” said Jimmy.
  • At that point, some of the nurses figured it out: this was for the little Biden boys, who had lost everything. They turned their heads. “I don’t see a thing,” one of them declared. And that is how Hunter and Beau wound up with a fully decorated, department store Christmas tree lighting up their hospital room. It was the only source of light at that time.

Neilia’s funeral Mass and burial were private, just for the family. But first, Joe had to figure out where she would be buried. We were so young, still in our twenties, so none of us had a burial plot picked out. Neilia’s parents had their own family plot in upstate New York. “We’ll bring her home,” Mr. Hunter said. “This is home,” Joe said quietly. He wanted the boys to be able to visit their mother’s grave. Later, Joe chose an inscription that summed up the depth of his loss: death lies upon her like an early frost upon the sweetest flower of all the fields. A quote from Romeo and Juliet, commemorating another love lost too soon, a life cut cruelly short.

  • After our family Mass, we set the date for a public memorial, which would take place after Christmas. So many Senators and other elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, had called and sent prayers. Even President Nixon had called. Many wanted to come to Neilia’s memorial, but Joe said no.

Only one man refused to listen.

  • It was Jimmy who first spotted Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia, standing in the rain outside the church along with all the others who had come to pay their respects. Jimmy brought Senator Byrd inside to meet Joe in the vestibule, and the two men shook hands. Joe disagreed with Senator Byrd on many things, but the look on Joe’s face when he saw this old lion of the Senate, drenched through his clothes, was beyond politics.
  • As the boys recovered and Joe maintained his bedside vigil, it became clear that Joe would soon have to make a decision about what to do next. He was candid with any reporter who asked him about it: “Delaware can get another Senator, but the boys can’t get another father,” he told the Wilmington News Journal. The swearing-in ceremony took place in the hospital. Joe refused to leave the boys, so the Secretary of the Senate, Frank Valeo, came to Wilmington to administer the oath.

The hospital staff set aside a room for us, and Beau and Hunt were rolled in on their hospital beds. It was a mournful scene: Joe raising his right hand and taking the oath, standing over a makeshift lectern in a corner room of Saint Francis Hospital; Hunter, up and moving, in his short pants; Beau still in traction. In his brief remarks after having been sworn in, Joe said he wasn’t sure he would be more than a one-term Senator, or that he would even finish out his term.

  • Watching him, I struggled with a confused, displaced sense of pride: my brother, the Senator, assuming his role amid ruins. The whole scene felt like a ghoulish parody of our dreams and ambitions.
  • Not long after, Joe told me it—Washington, DC, the Senate— wouldn’t work. It would mean taking the boys away from their only remaining family. He and Jimmy started to make other plans. They talked about moving to Vermont, and maybe Joe would start a law practice in a little village near Sugarbush Mountain. Joe told Jimmy to call the Governor to send a replacement for the Senate seat. That was it; the end.

One of the only reasons Joe Biden didn’t become a small-town Vermont lawyer, then, is because of the kindness and persistence of his soon-to-be Senate colleagues. They wouldn’t leave him alone. Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana and Senator Kennedy, in particular, reached out to him to dissuade him from resigning. “Just try it,” they said. “Six months. See how it feels.”

  • “Val, what do you think? Can I really take this job? What about the boys? How can I do this to them? I just don’t know how we’ll ever make it work.
  • I didn’t second-guess my answer to him, which seemed to arrive out of some clear place inside me I wasn’t aware of: “You have to try, Joe.” Sometimes, the bigger the stakes, the clearer the choice. For starters, I thought he owed it to the country. Maybe that sounds grandiose, but we had been raised with a strong sense of duty, and Joe had run—and won—on important issues: Stopping the war in Vietnam. Asserting Civil Rights. Preserving the environment, at a time in history when few even mentioned it. Voters had responded because they, too, believed. Those issues were just as pressing after the accident as they were the morning of December 18, when everything was right in our own little world.
  • Second, I thought Joe owed it to Neilia. We had just done the impossible, and Neilia gave everything she had to help him fight that battle and get him elected. I couldn’t imagine what she would have thought if he had just walked away.
  • And finally, he needed a reason to get up in the morning. Joe Biden needed a cause, something to devote himself to that was bigger than him. That was part of his identity, was integral to who he was.

If he disavowed that part of himself during his greatest moment of crisis, he might truly be left with nothing.

  • “Look,” I said. “I can help with the boys. I’ll move in. You have to do this, Joe.”
  • There was no big discussion about my moving in, nothing that felt particularly heroic about it. I just said I was coming, and that I would stay until it was time to go. Joe’s simple head nod settled it.

Little Hunter was quiet in the back seat that first night out of the hospital as I drove him home in my red Opal station wagon. I kept talking and talking, trying to fill the silence, trying to be fun and upbeat, hoping to hold back the darkness that seemed to be pressing in on us.

  • But I knew I wasn’t getting through.
  • When I sneaked a look back at that sweet, nearly three-year-old child gazing out the window, I realized I hadn’t the foggiest idea what was going on inside his mind.
  • He was neither demanding nor sullen. He was simply quiet. Processing. There was nothing I knew how to say to make him feel secure. As we neared my apartment, I quelled my terror and helplessness, smiled wide, and brought him inside. He slept with me in the bed, the two of us curled around each other like little animals.

Shattered into many pieces, the Bidens began to pull together and assemble into a new shape.

Go deeper