In a Memoir, the Impeachment Witness Fiona Hill Recounts Her Journey From ‘Blighted World’ to White House

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By Jennifer Szalai

The arresting title of Fiona Hill’s new book, “There Is Nothing for You Here,” is what her father told her when she was growing up in Bishop Auckland, a decaying coal-mining town in North East England. He loved her, and so he insisted that she had to leave.

Hill took his advice to heart — studying Russian and history at St. Andrews in Scotland, sojourning in Moscow, getting a Ph.D. at Harvard and eventually serving in the administrations of three American presidents, most recently as President Trump’s top adviser on Russia and Europe. “I take great pride in the fact that I’m a nonpartisan foreign policy expert,” she said before the House in November 2019, when she delivered her plain-spoken testimony at the hearings for the (first) impeachment of President Trump. But for her, “nonpartisan” doesn’t mean she’s in thrall to bloodless, anodyne ideas totally disconnected from her personal experience. She wrote this book because she was “acutely aware,” she says, “of how my own early life laid the path for everything I did subsequently.”

Sure enough, “There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century” weaves together these two selves, slipping back and forth between the unsentimental memoir reflected in its melancholy title and the wonkish guide promised in its inspirational subtitle. The combination, however unlikely, mostly works — though by the end, the litany of policy prescriptions comes to sound a bit too much like a paper issued by the Brookings Institution, where Hill is currently a fellow. When recounting her life, Hill is a lucid writer, delivering her reminiscences in a vivid and wry style. As much as I wanted more of Hill the memoirist and less of Hill the expert, I began to sense that giving voice to both was the only way she could feel comfortable writing a book about herself.

Looked at from afar, Hill’s story seems like a triumphant tale of striving and accomplishment. Born in 1965, she grew up in a “blighted world.” Her father followed the men in his family into the mines when he was 14; as the industry started to collapse in the 1960s, he found a job as a hospital porter. Hill’s mother worked as a midwife. As late as the 1970s, Hill’s grandparents lived in a subsidized rowhouse without “mod cons,” or modern conveniences, including indoor plumbing. Her grandfather had been pierced by the “windy pick” — the pneumatic drill — and had to wear a brace around his pelvis “to keep his battered insides in” for the rest of his life.

Hill recounts all of this with immediacy, tenderness and a good bit of gallows humor. She recalls how the people of Bishop Auckland started calling the crumbling town “Bish Vegas” — finding scraps of comedy in their depleted circumstances was how they reconciled a degraded present with a once-bustling past. She describes working a string of part-time jobs to help her family, including one at a medieval banquet hall, where she had to wear a ruffled costume that kept falling down her skinny frame. Her mother crafted a bosom for her from pantyhose stuffed with tissue — “this worked well enough,” Hill writes, until she slipped on a patch of “wayward mashed potato” and fell to the floor, thereby “dislodging the boobs.”

Costumes are a recurring motif in the book, as are self-deprecating glances at previous humiliations. Growing up, Hill wanted her clothes to disguise her family’s financial need, but they were more likely to give it away. Her mother sewed her a pair of trousers from heavy fabric left over after making window treatments — earning Hill the school nickname of “Curtain Legs.” Hill interviewed for a university spot wearing a homemade skirt with a heraldic pattern and a cardigan that was “nice,” she writes, “if you were 80.” Later, she had the resources to fashion the kind of self-presentation she wanted. She recalls being in a shop in 2019 with her mother, who yelled out: “Hey, Fiona, there are some suits on sale over here — might you need one for that impeachment thingy you’re doing?”

As for that “impeachment thingy,” Hill doesn’t say much about the actual hearings, though she has plenty to say about Trump. Instead of making the usual insider-memoir move of fixating on all the brazenly outrageous behavior — the bizarre comments, the outlandish tweets — Hill notices his insecurities, the soft spots that, she says, made him “exquisitely vulnerable” to manipulation. Yes, she writes, the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 election — but unlike the #Resistance crowd, which insists that such meddling was decisive, Hill is more circumspect, pointing out that Vladimir Putin wasn’t the force that tore the country apart; he was simply exploiting fissures that were already there.

Just as concerning to her was the way that people around Trump would wreak havoc on one another by playing to his “fragile ego” — spreading rumors that their rivals in the administration had said something negative about Trump was often enough to land those rivals on what the president called his “nasty list.” Hill says that watching Trump fulminate made her feel like Alice in Wonderland watching the Queen of Hearts, with her constant shouts of “Off with their heads!” In Hill’s telling, Trump’s norm-breaking was so flagrant and incessant that she compares him, in her matter-of-fact way, to a flasher. “Trump revealed himself,” she writes, “and people just got used to it.”

But neither Trump nor Putin — who was the subject of one of Hill’s previous books — is what she really wants to talk about. What she sees happening in the United States worries her. Economic collapse, structural racism, unrelieved suffering: Even without Trump, she says, none of the country’s enormous problems will go away without enormous efforts to address them. Hill the expert points to heartening examples of benevolent capitalism at work. But Hill the memoirist knows in her bones that the neoliberal approach, left to its own devices, simply won’t do.

The 1980s were a pivotal decade — for Hill, and for the world she knew. Her own career was on the rise, but the people around her were losing hope. “Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan helped to drive the nail into the coffin of 20th-century industry,” she writes, combining her memories and expertise, “while ensuring that those trapped inside the casket would find it practically impossible to pry the lid off.”

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