Bachmann family values

  • Article by: FRANK BRUNI , New York Times
  • Updated: October 15, 2012 - 9:18 PM

The stepsister of the Minnesota congresswoman looks at her moral crusades with puzzlement, and with a very personal sorrow.

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Rep. Michele Bachmann

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MINNEAPOLIS -- 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 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.

I'm encountering her kind of newfound boldness more frequently than I expected and writing about same-sex marriage more than I anticipated, as surprising voices weigh in, like the professional football players who took up the cause last month.

Helen lives a quieter life than Michele. She's 52 and works as a communications manager for a Minneapolis suburb. Nia, 55, is a physical therapist.

They never hid their relationship from their families, Nia said, though they also didn't force long-winded discussions about homosexuality. Their philosophy, she said, was simply to "put it out there, show 'em who we are and love 'em where they're at, and everything will fall into place." Their goal was one of "killing them with kindness."

They thought that was happening. At get-togethers, Nia received hugs from Michele, who traded an "I love you" with Helen, as the two always had.

But in between Michele's election to the state Senate in 2000 and her upgrade to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006, she nabbed attention and amassed a fan base among religious extremists with her homophobic pronouncements.

She publicly described homosexuality as "personal enslavement," referred to the heartache of having "a member of our family" who was gay and suggested that gays and lesbians wanted to recruit impressionable youngsters, saying: "It is our children that is the prize for this community."

In her letter Helen appealed to Michele to rethink what she was doing, explaining that she and Nia were motivated only by mutual caring and respect and that marriage, if legal, would grant couples like them the rights, responsibilities and financial protections that foster stability.

"Some people, you included, feel like you know the truth about my relationship," she wrote, adding: "I think you also believe you know what God thinks of it."

"Neither you nor I know," she went on to say. "I suspect that we're both certain in our minds, but we don't know."

When Michele spoke at a state Senate hearing in 2006 about her desire for a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, Helen showed up, along with several relatives who supported her.

"I wasn't looking to make a public statement," she told me. "I just thought: I'm going to go there and sit there so she has to look at me. So she has to look at Nia. I wanted her to see: This is who you're doing this to. It's not some anonymous group of people. It's not scary people. It's me. It's Nia." She paused, because she'd begun to sob.

"I just wanted her to see me," she said, "because it just feels, through the whole thing, like she hasn't."

Michele, now waging an unexpectedly tight re-election campaign for her House seat, didn't respond to a request for an interview for this column.

She and Helen have seen each other at family events twice in the last year or so, Helen said, but Helen hasn't insisted on a talk, because it seems pointless to her. On one of those occasions, she recalled, Michele said "I love you," and Helen said it back. But Helen's more confused by that than ever.

As a congresswoman, Michele got tickets to President Barack Obama's inauguration and gave a pair to Helen and Nia, knowing they're Democrats and had rooted for him. Helen thought that was kind, if not necessarily encouraging.

She hopes to marry Nia in Minnesota someday. I asked if she would invite Michele to the ceremony.

She fell silent a few seconds, then shook her head.

"I don't think it would be a very good fit," she said.

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Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist.

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