An Interview with Robin F. Schepper
- By Laura Fisher Kaiser
- November 28, 2023
The writer talks #MeToo, John McLaughlin, and her late grandmother’s New York City brothel.
In her forthright memoir, Finding My Way, former White House staffer Robin F. Schepper reckons with family secrets, #MeToo, and the search for authenticity. This isn’t your typical inside-the-Beltway tell-all, though. Rather, it is a deeply personal account of Schepper’s unconventional upbringing on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, her quest to find her biological father, and her experiences in the male-dominated political sphere as she zigzagged into the highest levels of American government — ultimately becoming the first executive director of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative, Let’s Move!
I recently caught up with Schepper while she was in Washington, DC, for her politico-studded book party on Capitol Hill.
In Finding My Way, you describe how Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh cracked something open in you.
I was embarrassed for a long time that I never outed my high school basketball coach for molesting me. Or that I didn’t join the class-action suit against [political pundit] John McLaughlin, even though he sexually harassed me when I briefly worked on his show, “The McLaughlin Group.” To pick one example, there was this time when I was sitting across from him, and he said, “I’m just picturing you naked with those red pumps you have on.” It was the ’80s. You didn’t say anything or you’d get booted out of political Washington.
People loved his bully schtick. Little did they know…
If we didn’t come up with a good question for Morton Kondracke or Eleanor Clift, he would scream at us. Why do we reward these awful leaders? And it’s not like #MeToo made sexual harassment and assault go away. I can’t tell you the number of young women who’ve thanked me, saying, “Something like that happened to me.”
Were there other parts of your life you avoided writing about at first?
For a long time, there was no sticky note on my wall for the chapter about my first husband and the betrayal. My editor said, “Didn’t you say you were married before? How come you didn’t include that?” I was like, “Uh…” I then pushed myself to go deeper because I thought it would be more meaningful to readers. I didn’t want to sanitize stuff. I wanted to be authentic and honest and show courage.
How have you promoted Finding My Way?
I didn’t have the resources to hire a publicist and I don’t have an agent, but I come from campaigns, where you learn to always have an “ask.” I put out an all-call to my friends and said, “Hey, if you could host a book party for me and invite all your friends, I’ll be there.” So far, I’ve gone all over the country in addition to several events in Colorado, where I live now.
Doesn’t your former boss’ husband put out a “recommended reading list”?
Ha! Hey, Barack, if you’re reading this, let’s talk!
Do you have another book in the works?
I’ve gotten so much reaction from people about my German grandmother, so maybe something about her. When I first started writing the book, she was dying of cancer, and I took care of her business. I still have the ledger. Every day, I would come to the “massage studio” on the Upper East Side —
— to be clear, a brothel, right?
Yes. The girls — as my grandmother called them, but of course they were women — would hand me the cash, and I would give each one her cut. When my grandmother died, I sold the business to one of them. I think people are interested in how my grandmother got into the business, what she did to survive because she was a young widow, an immigrant, without many opportunities. But, hey, she managed to send my mother to a Swiss boarding school.
You made “good trouble” in high school by demanding better sex education. Were you aware of what your grandmother did for a living?
Maybe subconsciously. But it was really about a young girl I knew who got pregnant at 15. Her mother threw her down the stairs, hoping for a spontaneous abortion. In New York State in the 70s, you couldn’t go to high school if you were pregnant. I knew that education was the path to having a different life from my mother and grandmother. My grandmother had an illegal abortion in the early 1930s that damaged her organs. When she had my mother, she hemorrhaged a lot, and the doctor said, “You cannot get pregnant again or you’ll probably die.”
And then your mother was also a single mom, one of the early “Fly Girls” for Pan Am, who kept her own secrets, including the identity of your father.
My mother for so many years was ashamed because she never married my biological father. She thought she was the only person dealing with this situation and would never talk about it. My mother wanted to be a 1950s housewife. Even though my grandmother and mother would never say they were feminists, for me, they were because my grandmother had her own successful business and my mother held jobs to pay the rent. I thought, that’s women’s liberation — women working, no matter what the work is.
And you were often left to raise yourself. How did that shape you?
Well, it creates resilience. I became a chameleon; I could adapt to any situation. I thought, “I’m such a tough-ass New Yorker, nothing’s going to happen to me,” but then it still does. Especially when people have positions of power, and you don’t have options. I had a friend, a guy, who said, “Oh, a guy made a pass at you? Why didn’t you kick him in the balls?” I don’t know, but part of it was feeling vulnerable. I grew up with no money. I couldn’t afford not to have a salary. Writing about it all just made me feel better. Write the mess. Life is not a straight line.
Laura Fisher Kaiser is a journalist, editor, and author based in Washington, DC. She is working on a group biography about a family haunted by generational suicide.