Joe Biden's Sister Valerie Opens Up: 'We Bleed Like Every Family in America'

In an interview with PEOPLE, Valerie Biden Owens reflects on the lessons of her new memoir, Growing Up Biden, and her enduring bond with the president — her big brother

It's a few days before Easter and Valerie Biden Owens, President Joe Biden's only sister and one of his closest lifetime advisers, is talking about an upcoming trip to Washington, D.C.

It's just to see her family, she says, but then she catches herself.

"I'm going down there to visit, to stay with him [the president] for a couple days at the White House — which is so, so funny to say that," Owens says. "At his house. It's not like I'm going to the White House. I'm going to see my brother and my sister-in-law, you know?"

Such is the story of Val and Joe, partners in politics and confidantes in campaigns, the former always following and helping the latter.

That's the spine of Growing Up Biden, Owens' memoir, which was published on Tuesday.

"I can remember from the time of opening my eyes and my big brother was there and he put out his hand and he said, 'Grab mine,' and he said, 'Come on Val,' " says Owens, now 76. "He said, 'We have places to go and things to do and people to see.' And we started our journey."

It's taken them all over: to the halls of Congress (where the elder Biden was then a barely-30-year-old senator from Delaware) and, decades later and after his third presidential campaign on which Owens advised, to the White House itself. And everywhere in between.

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Valerie Biden. Growing Up Biden

There have been low, low moments, including the car-crash death of Biden's first wife and baby daughter. Some of these tragedies are retold in Growing Up Biden through Owens' eyes.

"I think at that as much as pain and havoc and bitterness can come from loss, so too can compassion and joy and wisdom," she says. "That's what I believe has happened to my family."

The Bidens' fame and success has also never kept them too far from scrutiny. Owens' son, Cuffe, an attorney, is having his whirlwind marriage to Bravo alum Meghan King annulled and Owens' nephew Hunter, the president's younger son, is under federal investigation related to his taxes though he says he is confident he did nothing wrong.

Like any large clan, the Bidens have shared joys and heartbreaks. Births and marriages and the pinnacle of professional achievement — and also long illnesses ending in too-soon deaths, sudden accidents and public divorces.

Owens has been witness to most of it: not just as an aide to her brother, now the president, but as a mother figure to her young nephews after their mom's death.

"There's family and there's family and there's family. The end," Owens says. "What else do you have?"

In a recent interview with PEOPLE, she reflected on the lessons of her memoir and her life. Keep reading for edited highlights.

Growing Up Biden is out now.

PEOPLE: The thing that I was struck with in the first part of the book is how much it details how the Bidens have always been a big, multi-generational family. You write about all of you sharing the same house, kind of all being under foot in like a really joyful and sometimes stressful way.

Well, it all comes from my mom and dad. They tried to instill three basic values in my three brothers and me: family and faith and responsibility to take care of one another, and then a greater responsibility to the community at large. And they told us, honest to God, from the beginning, that we were a gift to one another. There was nothing closer than brothers and sisters. The concept of family wasn't of something that was a sticker on the refrigerator door. It was what was lived. I mean, my grandfather, my uncle, my aunt were in and out of the house and we didn't know any better. We thought that this is the way everybody lived and we learned a whole lot. Each member of the family brought something different and it was fun. Now, as a woman who's married for 46 years [to Jack Owens], I don't know how my parents did it. We had a three-bedroom, split-level house just like most of modern America in suburbia. I don't know where they had any time for privacy or to talk or to cry or to argue or for any intimate relationship, because we were all over the place all the time. But, my husband Jack and I tried to do the same thing and have an open house with our children. We lived it. We didn't talk it.

Valerie Biden
The Biden family, with Valerie Biden Owens (second from left, seated). Arthur Elgort/Shutterstock

I think you call it "the station," in your book — the point at which you and Jack and then Joe, right when Jill is coming into the family, y'all are all in the same house together. And I was just trying to imagine that.

It was the house that right before Jack and I married. Jack and I married in October and in June, Joe bought a new house where we had been and we called it "the station." It was a squared-off view. And Jack and I had the top floor, which is connecting bedrooms. And then there was the, connecting wings. And then the downstairs was the communal floor. And as I say in the book, there were two lions in the house: my brother and my husband. And that was the time was right after Neilia [Biden's first wife] had died. And we were raising our kids together. Our eldest child, Missy was born there. But it was a time of such mending and such healing that there was not a discordant note, not because there weren't all strong characters at the house. We were all raised in the concept that there's something greater than you at the moment.

After Neilia's death in a Christmas season car crash in 1972, you write about your brother's incandescent anger. And I think that was one of the first times I've heard people describe him as dealing with rage after the death of his wife and his daughter, Naomi. Why was it important for you to put that in the book? And what was that experience like watching your brother deal with such anger?

I think because it's real. He was 29 years old. He was too young to be sworn in [as a newly elected senator from Delaware]. He was the great rising star of the Democratic Party. He had a beautiful wife, three magnificent babies. And in six weeks he became a young widower with his heart ripped out Who wouldn't be like, "Why? Why? Why? Why?" We were all like, "This can't be. This can't be. It's so wrong." But, what my brother did is he had to square his shoulders and stand up straight and walk in and stick with his boys and say, "It's okay. Look, we're going to make this. It's okay, honey, daddy's here. We're going to figure this out. We're going to stay together." And then fortunately there was uncle Jimmy, uncle Frankie, aunt Val. We all came together and we all healed.

So I think anger was such a human emotion, which just shows you he's real.

Valerie Biden
From left: Joe Biden and Valerie Biden Owens. Ira Wyman/getty

I want to jump over to another part of the book, later, when [future First Lady] Jill [Biden] enters the family and you write about you and Jill speaking different languages and learning to bond and communicate.

Well, Jill's the eldest of five sisters. And girls talk in a different language like, "Would you really like to?" Or, "What do you think?" And I tell the story in the book about the potato salad: We were having a Sunday get together. And she called and said, "Would you like to bring the potato salad?" And I thought, "Wait a minute, this is nuts. Would I like to bring the potato salad? No, I wouldn't. But would I be happy to bring the potato salad? Just ask me to bring the potato salad." And I told her that: "You want me to bring the potato salad? I will. Just ask me." And she started to laugh. And she said, "Oh, that's what I would say to my sister. So, okay, here it goes Val: Val bring the damn potato salad." And I said, "Okay, it's a deal."

So, she and I were bound together immediately because the thing that was most important to us, each of us, was my brother and the boys. And I had so hoped when I came in to live with my brother, I never tried to be mommy, who was Neilia, because no one could ever replace mommy. And I never wanted to take the place of what I hoped would be a future mom. That my brother at 29 years old would fall in love again and would have a life and would have that hole in his heart close a little bit more. So, I was always aunt Val, the maestro at that moment. And when Joe fell in love with Jill, I was thrilled — you could see it all over, the joy and the life. And she and I, we became very, very dear friends because it mattered. There's a bigger commitment. There's commitment to family. There's commitment to the campaign. There's commitment to the state. And then there was just a commitment that we both like to sit near the beach edge at night and have a glass of wine, or go to the beauty bar at Macy's to get made up. We've had a good run.

Valerie Biden
Valerie Biden Owens. Evan Krape

I was curious, too, because you talk about your long partnership with your brother, and I wondered how you changed over the years? Inevitably, he changed over the years. And how you avoided getting stuck in ruts. I think about that with my own siblings. Sometimes I find myself repeating childhood behaviors with them, or we get into the same fight that we've gotten in since we were 14. And I'm like, "Why are we still like this?"

You define them as ruts. I think that it's the opposite. I think that your role, your place in the family or the right of primogeniture, I don't think it ever changes. Joe's the eldest, I'm the only, Jimmy's the joker, Frankie's the baby. We could be 100 years old, and when we get together, we inevitably fall into the same slots. We tell the same jokes and laugh as hard as if it were the first time we ever heard it. There are new things that are added to our repertoire, but we tease each other. "Oh, do you remember that one time?" Or, "Can you believe what so-and-so did?" And it's so wonderful to be so secure, and to be loved and to laugh.

Valerie Biden
From left: Joe Biden and his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, in 2012. Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

Have you been able to spend as much time together? I have to imagine no, in the last year, not even with COVID-19, but your brother is obviously so busy.

Well, there's a difference in geography right away, because he's in Washington, and Jimmy's in Maryland, Frank's in Florida. And I'm here in Kennett Square, [Pennsylvania]. But we absolutely do stay in touch even though we're not physically in each other's homes. We communicate all the time. Look, Joe has among the most responsible jobs in the universe as being president of the greatest democracy in the world. So, he clearly is busy — but he's never, never, never too busy. We talk several times a week.

I still call him. I got a problem. He's worried about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and I call and say, "Geez, Joe, I was really, I don't know what do you. What do you think?"

You joke in the book that even after all these years, there are definitely still times when you want to wring one of your brothers' necks. I was wondering the last time that happened?

Oh, gee. That's a tough one.

Or the last time they surprised you—

Gosh, you're stomping me now. It's a Rolodex going through my mind. When was the last time I want to wring their neck? I want Joe oftentimes to stop when he's giving an answer, because he's answered it already. Like I'm watching, I'm yelling at the TV, "Okay, stop. You've already answered it." And then he's asked 17 more times the same question. So I say, "Stop."

But personally to me, when I wanted to ring his neck, no. Personally, what a really nice thing [recently was] it was my birthday in November, so it's a while ago, but I was with him and Jill and he said, "Come here, come here, come here." He said, "I got something for you." He takes me back and he said, "I got it all by myself." It was a necklace with the medallion and 46 on it, which is what I have on. He's still my brother. And I think that was a pretty cool thing he did.

Valerie Biden
Valerie Biden Owens in 2020. Steven Senne/AP/Shutterstock

When you're watching him on TV or you have that impulse to help him or protect him, do you ever want to speak out and defend him? That impulse of like, "Oh, I just want to explain what's happening."

Of course I don't like to see him being criticized, but he's a big boy. He knows. And, it's a wise woman who knows what she doesn't know. I have a PhD in Joe, but I don't have a PhD in what happens in the Oval Office or in the Situation Room or behind the door of the State Department. I always managed his campaigns. And so in his campaigns, I knew what our agenda was. I knew the electorate. I knew my brother. I knew what was happening in the meeting, in the office of setting down our strategy. So I was much more vocal. I've never crossed over the line into governance. Joe was elected. I wasn't. And Joe is smart enough to know, and to seek information and make his own judgements. So, I'm very reluctant to second guess.

At the end of your book, there's a whole period where you talk about getting to kind of move away from your brother's campaigns and focus on some of your own personal passions. By your own description you were an adviser and a background player in his career, a huge supporter of his for so long, but then you get to work more recently with Women's Campaign International and at Harvard. What do you think about the state of the world? What's a legacy that you would like to build for your myself?

I never thought of in terms of a legacy for myself. I was the ordinary person, middle-class, Irish, Catholic school kid, with three brothers who had the gift of confidence instilled in them. As I talked before in my book about my mom and about my brothers telling us we could be anything we want it to be.

I would like to be known as a woman who put her hand out to help other women, encourage other women. When I was growing up into this pyramid of women leadership, there was one slot on the ladder. And when the woman got on that slot, she didn't put her hand down to help another woman up because there was only one place and she was going to hold it. So, that has changed. And I think it's mentoring and sponsorship and listening. I hope I'll be a good listener. We are all capable of so many more extraordinary things than we think

My mom said that every life was incredible, that bravery lived in every heart and she was sure that it would be called upon. And that failure in everyone's life was inevitable, but that giving up was unforgivable.

Valerie Biden
From left: Jill and Joe Biden and Valerie Biden Owens in 2020. David McNew/Getty

I wanted to talk about some of the harder times your family has dealt with: alcoholism, health issues and more. How do you think that the generations of the Biden family have learned to deal with darkness like that, or with challenging times like that? Substance abuse, loss, financial stresses.

Well, I think that our family is very similar to many, many, many families in the country. We are just more public. I don't think that there's a family in the country who hasn't experienced either on a very first immediate intimacy or else close friends, the pain and the scourge of addiction. What it means to walk through hell, and then on the flip [side] the joy of being able to walk out of hell. I don't think there's a family in America who's especially with COVID, who haven't lost [someone]. Cancer has ravaged families in this country.

Again, I don't want to put my family up in like holier than thou and look at how much we've learned from this. We bleed like every family in America bleeds, but we have to keep moving forward.

Do you remember when Pope Francis came to Washington in 2015? And [Joe Biden's older son] Beau died May 30, 2015 [from brain cancer]. And Pope Francis came to Washington to have a big Mass, Sept. 23, 2015. And Joe and I and my daughter Casey went to the Mass. We were sitting outside and was I remember so hot. There's a big jumbo screen that the Pope's homily was being translated, being shown to have everyone outside The message was: Keep moving forward. And I promise you, I sat there and I believed that the Pope was talking to me. I believed that he was talking to my brother.

After Beau died, Joe wrote the book Promise Me, Dad, and it's been misinterpreted. It was not Beau saying, "Dad, promise me you're going to run for president." It was, "Dad, promise me that you won't withdraw." When tragedy strikes, people, they put their head down and they crouch down and that's the immediate, physical reaction. "Oh no."

And Beau said, "Dad, promise me you won't withdraw." And he didn't. And thank God.

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