New Book on Jackie Onassis Raises a Question About Trust

A new memoir raises an important question about what defines friendship.

Posted Oct 30, 2019

Singer Carly Simon recently released a new book, Touched by the Sun (2019), in which she reflects on her friendship with the late First Lady, Jackie Kennedy Onassis. For those not familiar, Onassis was a woman who guarded her privacy fiercely, likely the consequence of feeling overwhelmed by the paparazzi frenzy associated with her public role in the White House and surviving the assassinations of two men close to her (her husband, John F. Kennedy, and her brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy).

Sources who knew her have shared that she lived for years with the fear that her children, too, might one day be targets of assassination, a fear or paranoia that is actually a normal response when one has watched others close to them be killed. Onassis was a woman who, despite her wealth and glamorous persona, experienced extreme psychological trauma.

Fast forward to 2019 when Simon wrote a book about the friendship she shared with Onassis. In the book, Simon reveals information her friend shared with her in confidence on topics that are extremely personal. Considering how private Onassis was (almost never doing interviews), it's confusing in some ways how a supposed friend can justify sharing such private details.

Psychologically, an individual's explanation of their own behavior often relies on defense mechanisms. A person can use denial (an outright denial of reality), rationalization (explaining controversial behaviors in a way that sounds, on the surface, entirely logical), or intellectualization (removing all emotional content from an explanation and focusing instead on "facts"), among others. It's unclear how Simon explains behavior in which she divulges details shared in confidence by a friend to the public, but many readers appear to have had a highly negative reaction to the book.

Reader reviews on Amazon.com, for example, reveal themes among the reactions. Many reactions question Simon's proverbial moral code, while others dismiss the book as boring, rambling, and in need of a co-author or more rigorous editor. What's interesting to note is another theme in readers' reactions: the perspective that Simon talks as much about herself as she does about Onassis, with some readers suggesting that Simon used Onassis's name to sell a book that is as much about herself.

If that criticism were true, the ironies would be egregious: the author of "You're So Vain" wrote a book she said was about someone else but was actually largely about herself. Perhaps more troubling, the author characterizes Onassis metaphorically as a sun in the context of her life journey and revels in having been "touched by it" (the book's title), but it may actually be Simon, in exposing a very private friend, who burned her. 

Simon has been promoting her book extensively in the media. When asked, Simon disclosed in an October NBC News interview that she did not seek permission from Onassis's only living child, Caroline Kennedy, to share private details about Onassis in the book. In the same interview, Simon explained that she never informed Kennedy that she was writing the book in the first place. 

References

Simon, C. (2019). Touched by the Sun. New York, NY: Farrar, Starus and Giroux.