EXCLUSIVE: In a New Memoir, Katie Hill Recounts Battling Through the Scandal that Almost Destroyed Her

In ’She Will Rise,’ the former congresswoman recalls her journey from promising 29-year-old political novice to victim of a revenge campaign that drove her from office after just ten months
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 Original photographs of Katie Hill for Los Angeles by Scott Suchman 


CONTENT WARNING

This story contains graphic descriptions of self-harm that could distress some readers. Lifeline Network—800-773-8255—offers free emotional counseling 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


On November 6, 2018, I was elected to Congress as one of the youngest women ever. One year later, I was sitting on a train to New York to meet with my newly hired victims’ rights attorneys about suing the Daily Mail for cyber exploitation—and I was no longer a member of Congress. Sitting on that train just a couple of days after my resignation had taken effect, I realized that it was one year, almost to the minute, from when I’d received the call from my predecessor to concede, the day I found out that we had done what many said was impossible—we had flipped a historically red congressional district. I was going to be a congresswoman.

Within a matter of weeks of being elected, I was one of a handful of people working closely with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the most powerful Democrats in the House. But, oddly, I knew I belonged there; I didn’t feel awkward or unsure. I was confident. Don’t get me wrong, the job was hard. I had made plenty of mistakes. But I was figuring it out fast. I was good at this. So much hard work by so many people went into flipping my district and getting me elected to Congress, and it felt good to be able to deliver for them.

But my home life was another story. That day on the train was also five months to the day from when I moved out of my house and told my husband, whom I’d been with since I was 16 years old, that I wanted a divorce. On that day in June, my dad, a cop, came with me to our house because I was afraid to go alone. My husband was unpredictable, had dealt with substance abuse issues at various times in his life, owned guns, and was incredibly controlling. Of course, I was afraid. I got my things, moved in with my mom, and didn’t look back.

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Katie Hill at home in Washington DC

But when I’d tried to leave before, my husband had said that he would ruin me. That threat itself was abusive, and kept me in the relationship for far too long. Knowing that he could make good on it was the reason I always went back. Midway through my first year in Congress, though, I reached the point when I knew I couldn’t keep going. I had to get out.

But those words “I’ll ruin you” hung over my head every day after I moved out. I knew the risk when I left, but I felt I didn’t have a choice. Despite the looming threat, being out of that house, away from him, made me feel better than I had in years.

The day my staff ran into my office and showed me the nude photos and private text messages that had been published on a right-wing website called RedState, the hammer that had been hovering—the threat to “ruin” me—finally dropped. I didn’t quite accept it until a few days later, but the future I had imagined as a leader in Congress, the job I was good at and loved and knew I was making a difference by doing, was over.

I was thinking about all of this as I went to see my lawyers. Then the train suddenly stopped. We sat there for a long time, and it was finally announced that someone had jumped in front of us. It was a fatality. My thoughts shifted to the person on the tracks while we waited for the police to investigate, for the coroner to come. I know the despair that leads someone to that place all too well. I had been there just a week before.

Hill with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at her swearing in, January 2019. Holding the Bible is Hill’s then-husband, Kenny Heslep, whom she alleges made public intimate photos that sparked a career-ending scandal.

Associated Press

I announced my resignation knowing it was the right thing to do, the right decision for me, my family, my staff, my colleagues, my community. But that didn’t make it any easier, and in the days that followed, I was completely overwhelmed by everything: how many people had seen my naked body, the comments, the articles, the millions of opinions, the texts, the calls, the threats. I would start shaking, crying, throwing up. It was hard to talk to my family because I knew they were going through so much, too. I didn’t want to talk to my friends because I was humiliated, I didn’t want to hear more pity, and I just didn’t know what to say. Many of my staff had been with me for years at this point, and we were, for better or for worse, very close. Now I felt like they all hated me.

I didn’t leave my sparse DC apartment. I felt so alone and didn’t know what to do. It was two days after I announced my resignation. I don’t even know how I spent the day. Probably reading articles (and comments on those articles) about myself that I shouldn’t have read or noticing the silence of my colleagues. I was grateful that “the squad” (representatives Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) immediately came out in support of me, but the only other vocal defender I had was Republican representative Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s strongest allies in Congress. To the surprise and criticism of many in his own party, Matt stuck his neck out for me, and I will always appreciate him for that. I understood why my other colleagues stayed quiet publicly, but it hurt nonetheless.

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Scenes from inside Katie Hill’s DC apartment

Scott Suchman

I ignored more text messages and calls and fell in and out of a restless sleep. But when it got dark, I drew a bath, lit candles, and brought over a whole bottle of wine. It might have been my second bottle of the day … I’m not sure.

I lay in the bath and thought about what I’d lost. The betrayal. The people on my team and in my life who had been hurt, although they’d done nothing wrong. Everyone I’d let down, everyone who worked for me, who campaigned for me, who believed in me. The future I’d thought was in store for me was suddenly and irrevocably gone. I was grappling with, and felt endlessly guilty about, my own responsibility in my downfall and knew that there were other factors at play below the surface that people could just never understand. And those pictures—no one should have ever seen those. I didn’t even know many of them existed, seeing them for the first time with the rest of the world.

How could I ever face anyone again, knowing what they’d seen? What they knew?

The bathwater had gone cold. The wine bottle was empty. Suddenly and with total clarity I just wanted it all to be over. I got up and looked for the box cutter, dripping water all over the floor. I couldn’t find it. A part of my brain was saying, “Stop it. This is stupid. You’re not going to do it; go drain the bathtub and get your shit together.” But I felt like I was out of my body, like it was moving without me. I got a paring knife —not quite as sharp as a box cutter, but I figured it would do—and got back into the cold bath.

I stared at the veins in my wrists. They were so thin. They were green in the candlelight. I started tracing them with the edge of the knife, lightly at first, then pushing harder and harder. The knife was duller than I thought. It surprised me how hard I had to push to even scratch the surface. Fine red lines started to appear and I knew that if I pushed just a tiny bit harder, I would start to bleed. A couple of droplets started to form on the surface of my skin, like when a leak is beginning to come through the ceiling: one drip at a time, but you know the crack is coming soon. This wasn’t the first time I’d hovered at that edge, thinking it should all just end, knowing how I’d do it, and knowing I could, whenever I wanted to. A little more than a year before, I’d come so close.

Katie Hill
Following her resignation from the House after a conservative website posted nude photos of her with a campaign aide, Hill holed up in her DC apartment.

Scott Suchman

That time, it was late at night on my way home, in the final stretch of the campaign. I hated going home. I had known for a long time that my relationship with my husband was bad. I knew that M, the woman who had worked on my campaign, and with whom I’d developed a relationship despite my better judgment, was sucked into it now, and it was my fault for exposing her to it in the first place. But I thought there was no way I could escape: we had a house and animals and a backstory that had become part of the campaign. There was the public perception and the money and the logistics and the things my husband took care of that I just didn’t how I’d do with only a month left until Election Day, let alone after.

Every night was a horrible fight. He said the most vicious and demeaning things to me, and he was getting less stable and much scarier. He wouldn’t get help, and he said everything was my fault. People had no idea from the outside. I pretended everything at home was fine, and I looked like a successful candidate about to win an election and make history, but my life was held together by a thread and I was hanging on by a fingernail.

I’d driven past the big oak tree just off the side of the remote highway on the way to my rural house twice a day nearly every day for years. The tree had been struck by lightning years ago, and there was a burn scar that looked just like the Virgin Mary. People often came to pray at that spot, and would leave flowers and candles and framed pictures and beads. But recently I had started to feel it beckoning to me in a menacing but somehow hypnotic way. I would take a different route as often as I could to avoid passing it, because that feeling scared me. But then I started taking the highway again, as though the burn scar was sending me magnetic signals I couldn’t resist. I would stare at it every time I passed and think about being held in the comforting arms of the Blessed Mother, and closing my eyes forever.

That night driving home, the dark music and the dark sky and the dark road and the feeling of depletion and of being trapped added up, and before I realized what I was doing, I’d taken off my seat belt and was pressing all the way down on the gas pedal and driving straight toward the tree. But after a few seconds, when the speedometer hit 80 and I was a couple hundred yards from the tree, I thought of my family, whose lives I would ruin if I did it. I thought of how it would destroy the various religious offerings and how people might stop praying there and might even lose their faith. I thought of my dogs and how I’d never said goodbye. I thought of my staff and all the volunteers and how we wouldn’t be able to flip the district because there wouldn’t even be a Democrat on the ballot, and what if ours was the district that determined whether we got the majority in the House?

I braked hard and swerved back onto the curve of the road before it was too late. I fumbled with my seat belt as I buckled back up, then pulled over and caught my breath. I drove home in silence with the windows down, trying to keep the car under control with my hands shaking on the steering wheel.

I sat in the driveway for a while, working up the courage to go in. I really didn’t want to, but I knew that this was a close enough call that I should tell my husband what had happened. And maybe if he understood how miserable I was, he would finally start acting differently or agree to get help.

I walked into the house and told him what had happened and how deeply unhappy I was because of our relationship. I asked him to see a therapist, to think about the way he was acting and how toxic his behavior had become. He wouldn’t hear it, and it set him off in a way I wasn’t ready for, despite at least somewhat expecting it.

It’s hard to explain how his rages would escalate, but it’s like he wasn’t there anymore. He didn’t make sense, and he would yell and take the fight in the strangest directions, telling me how it was my fault that he got this mad. By the end, I’d believe it and just keep saying, “I’m sorry—can you please forgive me?” because that’s the only way it might ever end.

That night was no different, but this time as it all escalated I cried and said I just couldn’t do this anymore. Instead of calming down and trying to talk and make things better, he took a gun that he kept by the side of our bed and shoved it at me, saying, “Here, here, take it! If you want to kill yourself, then why don’t you go fucking do it.” I kept pushing his arms away and saying no, and he was in my face and I was backed into a corner in the room, and in that moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would not be OK if I stayed there. But I felt paralyzed.

Eventually he stormed out of the house with the gun. I took a sleeping pill and prayed that he wouldn’t drink too much and come in and start raging again with a loaded gun in his hand. I almost locked the door to our bedroom that night, but I knew that if he tried to come in and found it locked, it would be so much worse. And he could get in anyway. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I guess I did.

When I got up, I found him sleeping in the guest bedroom at the back of the house. I recognized that this could be my moment to leave, since I knew I’d never be able to do it with him there and he was never gone when I was home. So before I could talk myself out of it, I packed up everything from our room that I thought I’d need, but that wouldn’t be too obvious—I didn’t want him to have any heads-up that I wasn’t coming back. When I got on the road, I called my mom and asked if I could come stay with her for a while. She was very worried, of course, but I said I was fine and I would tell her more when I saw her that night. The next person I called was my campaign manager, who had to not only help manage the logistical challenges and fallout this might create for the campaign, but who also had become a tremendous friend and support to me as well.

All day, my husband texted me, apologizing for the night before, and sent memes and I love yous and lots of smiley emojis. I replied more or less as I normally would, not wanting him to suspect anything. But when I finished my campaign events that evening, I crafted a long text about how I wasn’t coming home. I tried to articulate why and asked him to give me the space I needed. Of course, he started calling me over and over until I finally turned off my phone. He then called everyone in my family and said he was going to come to my mom’s house. My mom asked my dad (the cop) to come over and wait with us at her place until he calmed down. Meanwhile, my stepfather and my campaign manager met up with him in a parking lot to try to calm him down, and they almost came to blows when he repeated to them what he’d already told me: that he’d ruin me if I left him. Eventually my dad convinced him that coming to my mom’s house was a really bad idea and that he should go home.

I stayed away from my house for a couple of weeks. My husband told me he’d started going to therapy and gone back on his meds. He promised he’d change, and he brought me cards and flowers all the time and told me how he couldn’t live without me. I missed my dogs so much, and I just couldn’t imagine how to actually make the separation permanent. And with Election Day nearing, I didn’t know how I would deal with everything, including the threats, and I thought maybe this time the good phase could last until after November 6, at least.

The absolute last thing in the world I wanted to do was walk back into that house, into that life, into our marriage. But there were always those words “I’ll ruin you.” So I went back.

katie hill at home
Katie Hill battled suicidal thoughts as she thought about the people she felt she’d let down.

Scott Suchman

That night in the tub brought me full circle to the night with the tree, the day I’d left, and his threat. I finally did leave my husband for good. And, sure enough, he fulfilled his promise by releasing those images and texts that ended my career. So here I was again, not contemplating death with a car and a tree, but this time with a bath and a knife. But those things that had made me veer off to the side before, made me pause this time, too.

Lying in the cold water tracing my veins, I thought about the people I had already let down so much with my scandal and by resigning. What would this do to my parents? To my brother and sister? To my staff and volunteers and supporters, just like before? Except now, even though I was resigning. I felt an even greater sense of responsibility. Because we’d won, and we’d showed people it was possible for someone like me—someone like them—to make it into power, to achieve something people said we couldn’t do. I thought about the high school students who said how inspired they were by me, the Girl Scouts whose troops I’d visited, who told me they wanted to grow up to be like me, and how their parents would explain it if I killed myself, and what it would do to them.

I couldn’t do it. This whole thing was bigger than me before the election, and it had only grown since then. I didn’t get to quit. I had to keep pushing forward and be part of the fight to create the change that those young girls are counting on, even if it’s not in the way I thought.

The next day was my true day of reckoning, of coming to terms with what had happened, what it meant for me, and what I needed to do. I spent the day writing my floor speech. Everyone who has taken a basic psychology class has learned about the stages of grief. That day I cycled through all of them over and over. But writing the speech alone in my apartment gave me an outlet to work through them and what had led me to this point in my life and to the decision to resign. I looked back at the ten days or so leading up to that horrible moment in the bathtub.

We first heard rumors that pictures might be coming out a few days before they did, but I was in total denial at that point. First, I didn’t even know about all the photos that would have been damaging. I didn’t know my husband had taken them, so I didn’t quite grasp what that meant. Second, I honestly didn’t think he would stoop to that level. When you’ve known and loved someone for your entire adult life, no matter how bad things get, you just don’t think the person you’ve trusted with everything would be capable of such cruelty.

But on October 18, 2019, RedState, the right-wing online publication that often posts conspiracy theories and all kinds of hit pieces on Democrats, published the first in a barrage of articles that included pictures and text messages related to the most intimate details of my life. When it first started, I thought that I could stay in office and we could fight it, ride it out. Then more and more photos were released. The harassment was incessant. And it became clear that the longer I resisted, the further those who were launching these attacks would go. A local Republican operative said they had a shared drive with more than 700 photos and text messages (this operative said they were supplied by my ex, though my ex has claimed he was hacked), and would keep releasing them bit by bit until I resigned or was forced out. Literally every single day from when the first article was posted, RedState published a new slew of images or texts taken out of context, fodder provided by my ex for that takedown he’d promised.

Then I saw how my colleagues—especially other freshmen from tough districts—were put in the position of having to either denounce or defend me. My roommate, Representative Lauren Underwood, said that trackers (people paid to chase politicians with cameras and catch them with a bad answer or in a gaffe) were following her around and asking her how, as my roommate, she didn’t know this stuff about me, and why she didn’t do anything about it.

I knew I was going to have to step back from my position as freshman representative to leadership. I couldn’t risk harming my colleagues by being the face of the class. I also knew I should step back from being vice chair of Oversight, since a huge part of that role was acting as a spokesperson. The day before the RedState article was posted, we’d learned of the tragic passing of Chairman Elijah Cummings, a hero and a mentor to me. Serving as his vice chair was the honor of my lifetime, and, honestly, I’m glad that he didn’t have to see everything that happened. But because of his passing, the role of vice chair, if I stayed in it, would have been even more magnified. And with my controversy, I was no longer even remotely the right person to discuss the committee’s work in front of the press.

Finally, and perhaps most important, was the fact that the House was about to vote to officially open an impeachment inquiry into the president, and undergo an intensive investigation process during which the right-wing media and Republicans would be seeking any opportunity they could find to distract from the issue at hand: a corrupt and dangerous president. I would not allow myself to be that distraction.

I was supposed to go to Chairman Cummings’s funeral on Friday, October 25. I stayed home, not wanting my presence to take away any of the attention that should be paid to celebrating the life of such a great man. But I was heartbroken. It was the day I fully realized that I didn’t know how things could go back to normal, how I could be an effective legislator, an effective leader. I tried to imagine what Chairman Cummings would have said to me about my situation if he were alive and could give me advice. I honestly didn’t know what he would say—if he would tell me to keep going and stick it out or to step aside. He had often reminded me of my grandfather, Papa, who had passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2011. Papa was the other person whose advice I desperately wanted at that point because he was the person who always told me to never quit, never give up.

Sad, scared, and looking for answers, I did what I’ve always done when I feel that way. I called my mom. I had been talking to her every day, of course, but until this point, my posture had been to stand strong. Fight it out. Don’t let them—don’t let him—win. Finally I cracked. I told my mom how miserable I was. How I couldn’t sleep because of the anxiety over what was coming next. How I felt about the impossibility of going back to the roles that mattered so much to me. How horrible I felt for the team, for my family back at home, for my colleagues, knowing that the only way it would all end was if I stepped down. But how I felt like stepping down was giving in, showing I’d been broken, letting down all the people who believed in me.

My mom finally said to me, “Katie, you don’t have to keep doing this. You’ve already done so much by running, by showing it was possible, by flipping the seat, by making sure people know they can have a real representative who works for them. None of that will ever go away. It’s up to you.”

I mumbled weakly, “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”

She went on, “I know you’re thinking about how Papa would say to never quit. But you wouldn’t be quitting—you’d be moving on to another fight.” And she said exactly what I needed to hear.

After we got off the phone, I called my sister, my dad, my chief of staff, and a couple of my closest advisers who had been with me from the very beginning. They supported my decision and knew exactly how hard it was for me. Over the next couple of days, I worked with my chief, my top advisors, and a legal team to put a plan in motion to announce my resignation. The plan needed to be executed quickly so the right people knew in the right order before something was leaked to the press. Of course, the first person on that list was the Speaker of the House.

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Hill departs the U.S. Capitol following her resignation speech in October 2019

Win McNamee/Getty Images

I had been so fortunate to work closely with Nancy Pelosi during my time in Congress. As the freshman leadership rep, I got to participate in leadership meetings with her, along with fewer than ten other members, at least twice a week. I was able to see her in action, to learn from her behind the scenes, to see her masterful strategy, to see how she managed the complex and often conflicting wings of the Democratic Caucus and somehow kept the whole thing together, especially during the chaos that was the Trump presidency. I had the privilege of traveling with her on two Speaker’s Congressional Delegations—once to the Munich Security Conference and later to Central America’s Northern Triangle and the U.S. border as we dealt with the immigration crisis and the inhumane and disastrous policies of the Trump administration.

I respected Speaker Pelosi more than anyone, and I, along with so many members of the Democratic Caucus, had come to see her as a matron of sorts—one who is incredibly powerful and tough but also compassionate and kind. I dreaded that call so much, and I couldn’t contain my tears by the time she got on the phone. Before anything, she said, with the utmost concern in her voice, “Are you OK? I’ve been so worried about you. What they’re doing is so nasty. Tell me what you need, how I can help.”

My voice shaking, I told her that I was so incredibly sorry for the position I’d put her and my colleagues in. She tried to stop me and said, “Please, don’t worry about that right now.” But I continued. I explained that there was more coming, that my ex had provided endless ammunition to the Republicans, and that I didn’t know what to expect but that I knew I was going to be at best a distraction and at worst a liability, especially during the impeachment. And more than anything, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do the kind of job that I wanted to do and that my constituents deserved. She knew what I was about to say, and said, “Oh, no, Katie, you don’t have to do this. We need you. You’re so talented.” I could tell she meant it. Her voice was pained. She had invested in me. She had believed in me. She had, publicly and privately, given me opportunities and praised me as one of the promising new leaders within Congress and within the party. As far as I could tell, she actually valued my opinion and the contributions I made at leadership meetings, in committee, and to the caucus as a whole. She asked me not to resign, reinforcing her belief in me and my future. But ultimately she understood my decision and thanked me for my service. I just prayed she could one day forgive me, because I knew I had let her down.

What happened here is so complex, with so many layers. I was exploited online by my abusive ex-husband and the right-wing media in a coordinated attack. I was a victim. But I also made serious mistakes that I will always regret. Worst of all, I had a relationship with a campaign staffer. I understand power dynamics; I know that having a relationship with someone on my staff is inappropriate. I also know that sometimes it’s not that simple—that a gray area does exist. I loved this woman, and it was a consensual relationship with an adult. And I was nearly fifteen years into a very abusive relationship, and looking for a way out. But right now there’s no space for gray.

I know my story plays a part in all of this, and it doesn’t create an easy or simplistic narrative. But I’m trying to figure out how to make the most of it—how to keep pushing forward, despite my mistakes, my flaws, and all the times I’ve wanted to quit. I have to know I am still a warrior—an imperfect one, with many scars—but I have more to offer in the battles to come, and I refuse to let my experience deter others.

Excerpted from the book SHE WILL RISE: BECOMING A WARRIOR IN THE BATTLE FOR TRUE EQUALITY by Katie Hill. Copyright © 2020 by HER Time, IncReprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. 


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