An Affair to Forget

09.02.13

The ‘Nanny Diaries’ Authors on D.C.’s Most Dangerous Dalliance

Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s new novel, ‘The First Affair,’ explores illicit political relationships, why young women keep quiet, and how D.C. culture perpetuates the cycle. As told to Adrienne Vogt.

Jamie McAlister is a fictional character who, unfortunately, has many real-life examples. She is the “other woman” in a secret relationship with a politician—in this case, the most powerful man on earth, the president of the United States.

We did extensive research on women and girls who found themselves in Jamie’s situation, going back to the time of Mimi Alford, the 19-year-old intern who had her virginity taken by President John F. Kennedy. Of course, certain elements of The First Affair are based on the Monica Lewinsky–Bill Clinton affair, but we wanted to transplant it to our present age of decreased privacy and increased public scrutiny. It’s a different social and sexual climate compared with even the mid-’90s. Think about it—how would the Monica Lewinsky affair been different if she had a digital trail for the world to see, posting to her Facebook and Twitter accounts or texting her girlfriends?

At 22 years old, Jamie is still an adult in training, trying to navigate love, life, and money with little guidance. We love writing about people in their 20s, because it’s such an uncertain yet exciting time. The possibilities seem endless, but that can also be paralyzing. Because professional validation is so elusive, it’s tempting to get validation by being in a relationship.

But if that relationship is with a man of such power—as it is with Jamie’s President Gregory Rutland—it’s obviously far more complicated. We can’t underestimate a man who is capable of winning high places of power, knows how to swing a vote, and is charismatic and savvy to boot. For the woman, it’s difficult to separate reality from the relationship. But when you’re in your early 20s, you don’t really even have a reality yet.

Power is a real currency, and intimacy is a currency of power and access.

The burden of harboring a relationship like this obviously has longstanding negative effects, so we wanted to explore what kind of background drives people to engage in such high-profile affairs. In The First Affair, at its core, Jamie and Greg are simply two people who are both damaged—and he just happens to be the President. She, like other real-life examples, keeps quiet at first because it’s her relationship. She wants to prove herself worthy of his trust and respect. It makes her feel good about herself. But in the end, it’s an impossible setup.

The culture of D.C. is also a major character in the story. It’s a very one-industry town, and it seems like everyone knows exactly what they are doing at all times. Power is a real currency, and intimacy is a currency of power and access. Ultimately, sexuality becomes one of the currencies that those without power use or are asked of in order to accomplish things.

We definitely watch on-screen political paramours like House of Cards’ Zoe Barnes or Scandal’s Olivia Pope, and we wrote The First Affair before either of them appeared on anyone’s radar. They may seem to hold the upper hand at times, but no girl like Jamie ever has any power in such a situation. There’s a moment where she can tell the truth about what she’s experienced, but it comes at a tremendous cost. Even in the recent wake of Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal, we’ve seen the unrelenting public harassment and scrutiny of his targets—and how each of them utilizes their 15 minutes of fame.

We’ve had girlfriends who’ve had affairs with married men. On one level, it’s incredibly validating to be wanted so much, but it’s also hugely undermining to one’s self-esteem. There’s a constant push and pull between feeling “I’m so loveable” and “I’m not good enough.” In the end, it really validates the worst a woman can feel about herself.