Katie Hill on Past Relationships, Sharing Her Suicidal Thoughts, and How She's Healing
The former representative has found her voice, and she's not afraid to yell.
Trigger warning: This story contains descriptions of suicidal ideation and abusive relationships.
On October 31, 2019, then-freshman representative Katie Hill, a Democrat from California who was elected in 2018’s blue wave, gave her farewell speech to the U.S. House of Representatives. She had just admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a younger campaign staffer, which surfaced when her estranged husband allegedly leaked nude photos of her to a right wing blog without her consent. (He denies this, claiming he was hacked.) The House Ethics Committee also opened an investigation following allegations that she and her legislative director were involved in a relationship, a violation of House rules, which both parties denied. The details of her relationships, which came to light in the midst of #MeToo in politics, sparked national conversation on bisexuality, cyber exploitation, and domestic abuse.
Wearing a red dress on the floor of the capitol building, she spoke eloquently and memorably about misogyny and double standards for women in politics, and most of all, why she chose not to be silenced — both in the moment or moving forward. “I realized that hiding away and disappearing would be the one unforgivable sin,” she said. “Yes, I'm stepping down, but I refuse to let this experience scare off other women who dare to take risks, who dare to step into this light, who dare to be powerful. It might feel like they won in the short term, but they can't in the long term. We cannot let them.”
Since her resignation, Hill has been a prominent fixture on social media as a feminist and activist who regularly comments on current events in the U.S. In February of this year, she founded HER Time, a political action committee (PAC) aimed to mobilize and support women who are long shot candidates — and not necessarily established politicians — in their campaigns. Now, she is releasing her first book, She Will Rise: Becoming a Warrior in the Battle for True Equality, on Aug. 11, a week before the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
Ahead of the book’s release, InStyle spoke to Katie about her life since leaving politics, all that she has overcome, and how she finds hope, despite it all.
InStyle: How do these days compare to when you were in office?
Katie Hill: First of all, my schedule is controlled by me, which is a total difference from the last three years [when] everything was controlled by what you had to do for [the campaign] and what your staff was deeming important. You just didn't have any time for yourself.
[At that time] I did have my husband, and the responsibilities and the shittiness that came with that. So I now have time for me. I can watch stupid shows that I've never watched because he was always around when I was home, and if he didn't want to watch something, then I just really didn't get to. So I find myself doing a lot of that.
This is also my first time living alone in my whole adult life. So that's a nice thing. I’ve got different friends. I have been able to spend time with them now that things are more open in D.C. We do lots of things outside. I worked on a variety of different projects, and I've been able to kind of decide which ones I want to do. The book obviously is a big one, and the PAC is another one. Deciding how much you want to put into things and who you want to partner with, and just knowing that there's no one that I'm responsible to — whether it's on a personal relationship level or on a constituent level or donor level — is very, very freeing.
You write openly in your book about your relationship with your estranged husband. Can you explain what coercive control is?
Often, one of the most common things that you get when you refer to an abusive partner is like, “Oh, well, was it physical abuse? Did they hit you?” And the reality is that that is one element of abuse, but it is really not reflective of the entire scope of abuse. Coercive control is a pattern of behaviors where a partner, usually the male partner — [but] not always — is manipulating and trying to exert their power and control over the other partner. It includes gaslighting, manipulation, and very controlling behaviors like not allowing them to see their friends, isolating them from family, isolating them from a range of normal behaviors or normal things; also controlling what they wear, making them feel bad about themselves, all with the goal of keeping them within their control.
I would say that physical abuse is just an element of coercive control, but coercive control in and of itself is a far more encompassing definition of abuse. But, there's a fixation publicly on the physical elements of it. That's just the total misconception and one of the things I talked about in the book is how, under the Obama administration, the definition around abuse was updated to include coercive control, but the Trump administration immediately changed it back.
Can you talk about “revenge porn” and what it really is?
Revenge porn is a problematic term, because when you say the word revenge it implies that there's some kind of justice or there's some kind of action that the person who is the subject of it has done that makes them deserve it. An eye for an eye kind of thinking. But in reality, there's nothing that the woman has done that deserves that, like no matter what it is. But also, it's usually just that the dude is angry because she broke up with him. So I think that that's the first part of it.
The second part of it is calling it porn, as though it should be something that is for consumption. And that's certainly not the case. We use the term cyber exploitation to show that it is exploitative. There's nothing pornographic about it. It’s abuse. It's just a different form of abuse.
What are the biggest misconceptions about abusive relationships?
There are a few different things. One is that it’s not abuse if it’s not physical. The other is that women should know better, or ... if [a partner] treats them like that, they should just go. I remember even when I was younger, hearing [about abuse] and thinking like, ‘Why wouldn't she just leave?’ And you hear that all the time. I talked about in the book, too, how difficult it can be for somebody to leave, and even how with coercive control and a successful manipulator, the victim is very likely to not even be aware that the abuse is happening. The abuser is so successful at belittling the victim, at making them feel like it's their fault, making them feel like they're crazy to even be thinking that it's abuse. It often takes some kind of external validator or something kind of catastrophic happening to them for the victim to really realize that this is abuse.
Do you find that it’s hard to trust people after your relationship?
I read an article about somebody whose husband or their ex did something terrible to them. And I turned to my friend (like a month ago) and said, “God, can you imagine what it's like to have somebody that you were so close to and trusted so much betray you like that?” And he looked at me like I'm being sarcastic and is like, “Katie, what are you talking about? That was you!” And I laughed for a second. I was like, “Wow, yeah.” It's just I don't know who I am. I think I want to trust people, right?
But there's always something in the back of your head that's like, “This can go catastrophically wrong.” Part of what's happened to me has been freeing because there's really no other information that can be used against me, as far as I'm concerned. So, I guess it makes it easier to trust people because there aren't a lot of secrets. It’s either been exposed without my consent or I decided to share through my books or in other ways.
I would imagine that healing takes time. People often think that trauma is able to be fixed quickly, and all at once.
I mean, trauma is something that just lasts for forever. And I think it's like grief, you find ways of coping with it. And you heal, but it's never gone. You know, it scars, and I kind of use that metaphor a lot too. You're scarred on the battlefield and you know, the scars do heal, but they're always there.
How have you coped?
Healthy things or unhealthy things [laughs]. I mean, that's the reality. No matter how hard we try, we're never going to be able to get it perfect. My mind has been really successful at just putting trauma into a box and kind of not addressing it. It’s easier to keep it in a box that you just never touch. So sometimes when you do open that box, it's painful. But, I’m trying to look at it, and trying to talk about it with people who I'm close to.
One of the important things for me is creating routines and habits that are healthy and a base of self acceptance and forgiveness and being kind to yourself. Sometimes I refer to this as the year where I have decided I'm just gonna be, I'm not gonna fault myself. There are going to be some days where that means that I'm just not really able to do anything and you know, I cancel plans or I just don't end up finishing or even starting the work that I'd hoped to do for the day. Just because it's just too much and you do feel sometimes, you feel weak because of that, or you feel like you should be able to overcome this, but I just think that we all have to be able to be more forgiving of ourselves.
You also write about the times where you have felt less hopeful, and about your suicide attempts. What do you want people to know in writing about them?
One of the theories that I've had throughout the course of my campaign and kind of life in general is just it's important for those of us who can share our experiences to be forthcoming about them, because they really are not unique. I think so many of these things have been stigmatized … a lot of people don't want to admit weakness or are ashamed of these kinds of thoughts or actions. I shared [my story] because it made [other women] feel like they weren't alone, or it made them feel like they could talk about their experiences and could open up about that a little bit more. [For] somebody who's in the public eye to be willing to talk about this, it makes it easier for everyone else.
One of the things that I think people get really wrong is [the idea] that if you've been suicidal in the past, it makes you weak, it makes you someone who can't live a fulfilled and normal life. [But] it's not something that should be held against you. I think that there are misconceptions around doing these kinds of things for attention. You also don't necessarily associate them with successful, high-profile people. And, for me, you know, being willing to share my own experience was to try and find a counter to that narrative.
You say in the book that you still would have done everything if you knew that the outcome would be the same, because you still made a difference. I think it's pretty hard for people to still see hope in things, especially now, to be honest. How do you keep the hope?
In a way, I think it's a survival mechanism, right? I think if you let yourself fall into this hopelessness and despair, especially somebody who's depressive in general, you can't make it the day, you can't make it through. For me, it’s how do you see what the positives are or what's left in the fight and what you can contribute to it … I wonder sometimes too, if having been suicidal and deciding not to kill yourself makes you know that, like, if you're not giving up. You have to figure out something to do.
Would you say you have no regrets?
Oh, I’ve got plenty. But even that’s something that I know I can't dwell on, right? Because you can't go back in time. You can't rewrite what you did or what you didn't do. So I try not to go down that road too much, because I don't think it's very helpful.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
Jessi Gold, M.D., M.S., is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis.