Who Wrote Dreams From My Father?
By Jack Cashill
Prior to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write Dreams From My Father, he had written very close to nothing. Then, five years later, this untested 33 year-old produced what Time Magazine has called — with a straight face — “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.”
The public is asked to believe Obama wrote Dreams From My Father on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant. I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all. Writing is as much a craft as, say, golf. To put this in perspective, imagine if a friend played a few rounds in the high 90s and then a few years later, without further practice, made the PGA Tour. It doesn’t happen.
And yet, given the biases of the literary establishment, no reviewer of note has so much as questioned Obama’s role in the writing, then or now. As the New York Times gushed, Obama was “that rare politician who can write . . . and write movingly and genuinely about himself.” These accolades matter all the more because Obama has built his political persona around his presumably superior intellect, Dreams being exhibit A.
Shy of a confession by those involved, I will not be able to prove conclusively that Obama did not write this book. As shall be seen, however, there are only two real possibilities: one is that Obama experienced a near miraculous turnaround in his literary abilities; the second is that he had major editorial help, up to and including a ghostwriter.
The weight of the evidence overwhelming favors the latter conclusion and strongly suggests who that ghostwriter is. In that this remains something of a work in progress, I am willing to test my hypothesis against any standard of proof and appreciate any and all good leads.
In my career in advertising and publishing, I have reviewed the portfolios of a thousand professional writers, all of them crowded with writing samples, but only a handful of these writers would have been capable of having a written a book as stylish as Dreams. I have also written a book on intellectual fraud, Hoodwinked, and examined any number of bogus biographies that excited the literary left to the point of complicity, Edward Said’s and Rigoberta Menchu’s prominent among them, Menchu winning a Nobel Prize for hers. Obama’s ascent seems to follow a century-old pattern.
Tracing Obama’s literary ascent is complicated by what Politico.com calls a “scant paper trail.” That trail begins at Occidental College whose literary magazine published two of Obama’s poems — “Pop” and “Underground” — in 1981. Obama calls it some “very bad poetry,” and he does not sell himself short. From “Underground”:
Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance . . .
It would be another decade before Obama had anything in print and this an edited, unsigned student case comment in the Harvard Law Review unearthed by Politico. Attorneys who reviewed the piece for Politico described it as “a fairly standard example of the genre.”
Of note, Politico reporters Ben Smith and Jeffrey Resner observe that “the temperate legal language doesn’t display the rhetorical heights that run through his memoir, published a few years later.”
Once elected president of the Harvard Law Review —more of a popularity than a literary contest — Obama contributed not one signed word to the HLR or any other law journal. As Matthew Franck has pointed out in National Review Online, “A search of the HeinOnline database of law journals turns up exactly nothing credited to Obama in any law review anywhere at any time.”
A 1990 New York Times profile on Obama’s election as Harvard’s first black president caught the eye of agent Jane Dystel. She persuaded Poseidon, a small imprint of Simon & Schuster, to authorize a roughly $125,000 advance for Obama’s proposed memoir.
With advance in hand, Obama repaired to Chicago where he dithered. At one point, in order to finish without interruption, he and wife Michelle decamped to Bali. Obama was supposed to have finished the book within a year. Bali or not, advance or no, he could not. He was surely in way over his head.
According to a surprisingly harsh 2006 article by liberal publisher Peter Osnos, which detailed the “ruthlessness” of Obama’s literary ascent, Simon & Schuster canceled the contract. Dystel did not give up. She solicited Times Book, the division of Random House at which Osnos was publisher. He met with Obama, took his word that he could finish the book, and authorized a new advance of $40,000.
Then suddenly, somehow, the muse descended on Obama and transformed him from a struggling, unschooled amateur, with no paper trail beyond an unremarkable legal note and a poem about fig-stomping apes, into a literary superstar.
To be sure, it is not unusual for successful politicians to hire ghostwriters — John McCain gives due credit to Mark Salter for his memoir, Faith of My Fathers — but it is highly unusual for unknown young Chicago lawyers to hire ghostwriters.
I have attempted to contact Dystel by phone and email without success. It is highly unlikely she refashioned the book, and Osnos admittedly did not. If my suspicions are correct, the ghost on this book shared many of Obama’s sentiments, spoke his language and spent considerable time reworking the text.
I bought Bill Ayers’ 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, for reasons unrelated to this project. As I discovered, he writes surprisingly well and very much like “Obama.” In fact, my first thought was that the two may have shared the same ghostwriter. Unlike Dreams, however, where the high style is intermittent, Fugitive Days is infused with the authorial voice in every sentence. What is more, when Ayers speaks, even off the cuff, he uses a cadence and vocabulary consistent with his memoir. One does not hear any of Dreams in Obama’s casual speech.
Obama’s memoir was published in June 1995. Earlier that year, Ayers helped Obama, then a junior lawyer at a minor law firm, get appointed chairman of the multi-million dollar Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant. In the fall of that same year, 1995, Ayers and his wife, Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn, helped blaze Obama’s path to political power with a fundraiser in their Chicago home.
In short, Ayers had the means, the motive, the time, the place and the literary ability to jumpstart Obama’s career. And, as Ayers had to know, a lovely memoir under Obama’s belt made for a much better resume than an unfulfilled contract over his head.
For simplicity sake, I will refer to the author of Dreams as “Obama.” Without question, he contributed much of the book’s raw material, especially the long-winded accounting of events and conversations, polished just well enough to pass muster. The book’s fierce, succinct and tightly coiled social analysis more closely matches the style of Fugitive Days, a much tighter book.
Ayers and Obama have a good deal in common. In the way of background, both grew up in comfortable white households and have struggled to find an identity as righteous black men ever since. Just as Obama resisted “the pure and heady breeze of privilege” to which he was exposed as a child, Ayers too resisted “white skin privilege” or at least tried to.
“I also thought I was black,” says Ayers only half-jokingly. As proof of his righteousness, Ayers named his first son “Malik” after the newly Islamic Malcolm X and the second son “Zayd” after Zayd Shakur, a Black Panther killed in a shootout that claimed the life of a New Jersey State Trooper.
Tellingly, Ayers, like Obama, began his career as a self-described “community organizer,” Ayers in inner-city Cleveland, Obama in inner-city Chicago. In short, Ayers was fully capable of crawling inside Obama’s head and relating in superior prose what the Dreams’ author calls a “rage at the white world [that] needed no object.”
Indeed, in Dreams, it is on the subject of black rage that Obama writes most eloquently. Phrases like “full of inarticulate resentments,” “unruly maleness,” “unadorned insistence on respect” and “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage” lace the book.
In Fugitive Days, “rage” rules and in high style as well. Ayers tells of how his “rage got started” and how it evolved into an “uncontrollable rage — fierce frenzy of fire and lava.” Indeed, the Weathermen’s inaugural act of mass violence was the “Days of Rage” in 1969 Chicago.
As in Chicago, that rage led Ayers to a sentiment with which Obama was altogether familiar, “audacity!” Ayers writes, “I felt the warrior rising up inside of me — audacity and courage, righteousness, of course, and more audacity.” This is one of several references.
The combination of audacity and rage has produced two memoirs that follow oddly similar rules. Ayers describes his as “a memory book,” one that deliberately blurs facts and changes identities and makes no claims at history. Obama says much the same. In Dreams, some characters are composites. Some appear out of precise chronology. Names have been changed.
As a control, allow me to introduce my own book, Sucker Punch, which is no small part a memoir about race, specifically in my relationship, at great remove, with Muhammad Ali and the world of boxing. In the book, I describe my own unreconstructed coming of age in racially charged Newark, New Jersey as it happened. I change no names, create no composite characters, alter no chronologies. Most memoirs observe the same conventions. Dreams and Fugitive Days, however, are both suffused with repeated reference to lies, lying and what Ayers calls, in his pitch perfect post-modern patois, “our constructed reality.”
“But another part of me knew that what I was telling them was a lie,” writes Obama, “something I’d constructed from the scraps of information I’d picked up from my mother.”
“That whole first year seemed like one long lie,” Obama writes of his first year in college in Los Angeles, one of at least a dozen references to lies and lying in “Dreams,” a figure nearly matched in “Fugitive Days.”
The reader knows that Ayers — with some justification — has much to hide. He senses that Obama does too, but he is never quite sure why. This presumed poetic license leads to the frequent manipulation of dates to make a political point.
“I saw a dead body once, as I said, when I was ten, during the Korean War,” writes Ayers. This correlation is important enough that Ayers mentions it twice. The only problem is that Ayers was eight when the Korean War ended.
Obama tells us that when he was ten, he and his family visited the mainland. On the trip, back in their motel room, they watched the Watergate Hearings on TV. The problem, of course, is that those hearing started just before Obama turned twelve.
One could forgive a single missed date, but inconsistent dates and numbers appear frequently in both books and often reinforce some moment of lost innocence. In the same spirit, both books abound in detail too closely remembered and conversations too well recorded. These moments in both books occasionally lead to an awareness of the nation’s seemingly ineradicable racism.
In 1970, for instance, the 9-year-old Obama alleges to be visiting the American embassy Indonesia. While waiting, he chances upon “a collection of Life magazines neatly displayed in clear plastic binders.”
In one magazine, he reads a story about a black man with an “uneven, ghostly hue,” who has been rendered grotesque by a chemical treatment. “There were thousands of people like him,” Obama learned, “black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.”
Obama’s attention to detail is a ruse. Life never ran such an article. When challenged, Obama claimed it was Ebony. Ebony ran no such article either. Besides, black was beautiful in 1970.
In a similar vein, Ayers tells of hitching a ride in Missouri with “Bud,” the driver of a “brand-new Peterbilt truck.” The man proceeds to regale Ayers with a string of dirty jokes — at least two of them retold word for word — before reaching under his seat and pulling out a large pistol, his “N****r neutralizer.”
“White people can never quite remember the scope and scale of the slavocracy,” Ayers reminds the reader again and again, writing as though he were not a member of this benighted race.
These parallels intrigue perhaps, but they prove little. To add a little science to the analysis, I identified two similar “nature” passages in Obama’s and Ayers’ respective memoirs, the first from Fugitive Days:
“I picture the street coming alive, awakening from the fury of winter, stirred from the chilly spring night by cold glimmers of sunlight angling through the city.”
The second from Dreams:
“Night now fell in midafternoon, especially when the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground, the city lights reflected against the clouds.”
These two sentences are alike in more than their poetic sense, their length and their gracefully layered structure. They tabulate nearly identically on the Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES), something of a standard in the field.
The “Fugitive Days” excerpt scores a 54 on reading ease and a 12th grade reading level. The “Dreams'” excerpt scores a 54.8 on reading ease and a 12th grade reading level. Scores can range from 0 to 121, so hitting a nearly exact score matters.
A more reliable data-driven way to prove authorship goes under the rubric “cusum analysis” or QSUM. This analysis begins with the measurement of sentence length, a significant and telling variable. To compare the two books, I selected thirty-sentence sequences from Dreams and Fugitive Days, each of which relates the author’s entry into the world of “community organizing.”
“Fugitive Days” averaged 23.13 words a sentence. “Dreams” averaged 23.36 words a sentence. By contrast, the memoir section of “Sucker Punch” averaged 15 words a sentence.
Interestingly, the 30-sentence sequence that I pulled from Obama’s conventional political tract, Audacity of Hope, averages more than 29 words a sentence and clocks in with a 9th grade reading level, three levels below the earlier cited passages from “Dreams” and “Fugitive Days.” The differential in the Audacity numbers should not surprise. By the time it was published in 2006, Obama was a public figure of some wealth, one who could afford editors and ghost writers.
The publisher of Dreams, the openly liberal Peter Osnos, tells how this came to be. According to Osnos, Dreams took off during Obama’s much-publicized race for the U.S. Senate in 2004, nearly ten years after its modest release. After winning the election, Obama dumped his devoted long time agent, Jane Dystel, and signed a seven-figure deal with Crown, using only a by-the-hour attorney.
Obama pulled off the deal before being sworn in as Senator, this way to avoid the disclosure and reporting requirements applicable to members of Congress. To his credit, Osnos publicly scolds Obama for his “ruthlessness” and “his questionable judgment about using public service as a personal payday.”
Unfortunately, the technology is not currently available to do a fully reliable authorship analysis. As expert in the field Patrick Juola of Duquesne University observed, “The accuracy simply isn’t there.” He cautioned that for high stakes issues like this one, “The repercussions of a technical error could be a disaster (in either direction).”
That much said, preliminary QSUM analysis supports an Ayers-Obama link. Systems designer Ed Gold–with twenty years of high-level experience in image and signal processing, pattern recognition, and classifier design and implementation–volunteered to run a QSUM scan on multiple excerpts from both memoirs. “I have completed the analysis,” he wrote me, “and I think you will be pleased with the findings.” In assessing the signature of sample passages from Dreams, he found “a very strong match to all of the Ayers samples that I processed.”
Like Juola, Gold recognized the limitations of the process and of his own resources. He has volunteered to make the raw data available to more established authorship authentication experts, and I will be happy to pass that data along. Gold saw the complementary value, however, in text analysis, as did Juola, who encouraged me “to do what you’re already doing . . . good old-fashioned literary detective work.”
Given that advice, I dug deeper into both memoirs and established one metaphoric thread that ties the two books together in a way I believe is just shy of conclusive, a thread that leads back to Bill Ayers’s stint, after dropping out of college, as a merchant seaman.
“I’d thought that when I signed on that I might write an American novel about a young man at sea,” says Ayers in his memoir, Fugitive Days, “but I didn’t have it in me.”
The experience had a powerful impact on Ayers. Years later, he would recall a nightmare he had while crossing the Atlantic, “a vision of falling overboard in the middle of the ocean and swimming as fast as I could as the ship steamed off and disappeared over the horizon.”
Although Ayers has tried to put his anxious ocean-going days behind him, the language of the sea will not let him go. “I realized that no one else could ever know this singular experience,” Ayers writes of his maritime adventures. Yet curiously, much of this same nautical language flows through Obama’s earth-bound memoir.
“Memory sails out upon a murky sea,” Ayers writes at one point. Indeed, both he and Obama are obsessed with memory and its instability. The latter writes of its breaks, its blurs, its edges, its lapses. Obama also has a fondness for the word “murky” and its aquatic usages.
“The unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs,” he writes, one of four times “murky” appears in Dreams. Ayers and Obama also speak often of waves and wind, Obama at least a dozen times on wind alone. “The wind wipes away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed,” he writes in a typical passage. Both also make conspicuous use of the word “flutter.”
Not surprisingly, Ayers uses “ship” as a metaphor with some frequency. Early in the book he tells us that his mother is “the captain of her own ship,” not a substantial one either but “a ragged thing with fatal leaks” launched into a “sea of carelessness.”
Obama too finds himself “feeling like the first mate on a sinking ship.” He also makes a metaphorical reference to “a tranquil sea.” More intriguing is Obama’s use of the word “ragged” as an adjective as in the highly poetic “ragged air” or “ragged laughter.”
Both books use “storms” and “horizons” both as metaphor and as reality. Ayers writes poetically of an “unbounded horizon,” and Obama writes of “boundless prairie storms” and poetic horizons-“violet horizon,” “eastern horizon,” “western horizon.”
Ayers often speaks of “currents” and “pockets of calm” as does Obama, who uses both as nouns as in “a menacing calm” or “against the current” or “into the current.” The metaphorical use of the word “tangled” might also derive from one’s nautical adventures. Ayers writes of his “tangled love affairs” and Obama of his “tangled arguments.”
In Dreams, we read of the “whole panorama of life out there” and in Fugitive Days, “the whole weird panorama.” Ayers writes of still another panorama, this one “an immense panorama of waste and cruelty.” Obama employs the word “cruel” and its derivatives no fewer than fourteen times in Dreams.
On at least twelve occasions, Obama speaks of “despair,” as in the “ocean of despair.” Ayers speaks of a “deepening despair,” a constant theme for him as well. Obama’s “knotted, howling assertion of self” sounds like something from the pages of Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf.”
In Obama’s defense, he did grow up in Hawaii. Still, the short Hawaii stretch of his memoir is largely silent on the island’s natural appeal. Sucker Punch again offers a useful control. It makes no reference at all, metaphorical or otherwise, to ships, seas, oceans, calms, storms, wind, waves, horizons, panoramas, or to things howling, fluttering, knotted, ragged, tangled, or murky. None. And yet I have spent a good chunk of every summer of my life at the ocean.
If there is any one paragraph in Dreams that has convinced me of Ayers’ involvement it is this one, in which Obama describes the Black Nationalist message:
“A steady attack on the white race… served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair.”
As a writer, especially in the pre-Google era of Dreams, I would never have used a metaphor as specific as “ballast” unless I knew exactly what I was talking about. Seaman Ayers most surely did.
One more item of interest. In his 1997 book, A Kind and Just Parent, Bill Ayers walks the reader through his Hyde Park neighborhood and identifies the notable residents therein. Among them are Muhammad Ali, “Minister” Louis Farrakhan (of whom he writes fondly), “former mayor” Eugene Sawyer, “poets” Gwendolyn Brooks and Elizabeth Alexander, and “writer” Barack Obama.
In 1997, Obama was an obscure state senator, a lawyer, and a law school instructor with one book under his belt that had debuted two years earlier to little acclaim and lesser sales. In terms of identity, he had more in common with mayor Sawyer than poet Brooks. The “writer” identification seems forced and purposefully so, a signal perhaps to those in the know of a persona in the making that Ayers had himself helped forge.
None of this, of course, proves Ayers’ authorship conclusively, but the evidence makes him a much more likely candidate than Obama to have written the best parts of Dreams.
The Obama camp could put all such speculation to rest by producing some intermediary sign of impending greatness — a school paper, an article, a notebook, his Columbia thesis, his LSAT scores — but Obama guards these more zealously than Saddam did his nuclear secrets. And I suspect, at the end of the day, we will pay an equally high price for Obama’s concealment as Saddam’s.
Jack Cashill is the author, among other books, of Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Hijacked American Culture. He has a Ph.D. in American studies from Purdue University.