First Look at Kathleen Buhle's Memoir: Hunter Biden's Ex on His Affair with Sister-in-Law — and Forgiveness

An exclusive excerpt from Buhle's upcoming book, If We Break, offers a window into how the onetime Biden found healing through her pain

There is a trace of wistfulness when Kathleen Buhle talks about her former husband — but no anger.

Five years after the end of their 24-year marriage, she says she has forgiven President Joe Biden's younger son, Hunter — who now has a new wife and a 2-year-old son — for the tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of dollars he squandered on his addictions, for his lies, for his infidelities and for whatever comes of a Justice Department investigation into his finances and business affairs. "Whether or not I'm questioned, I couldn't be of any help," she says. "I kept my head so deeply buried in the sand on our finances."

"I have forgiven him, yes," Kathleen, 53, says in an interview for the new issue of PEOPLE previewing her upcoming memoir If We Break, which goes on sale June 14. "Anger is such a heavy weight to carry and I was in a lot of pain. There was a lot that happened that was very hard for me. And when I made the decision to divorce, I wanted to let go of all of that."

It's when she talks of forgiving herself that she breaks into a small sob: "My greatest shame was feeling like my identity was not my own. It was in writing this book that I realized probably the heaviest weight was that I first had to forgive myself for not believing in myself."

For more on Kathleen Buhle's memoir, listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.

The book, at once dignified and revealing, is a radical departure for this formerly ultra-private mom to daughters Naomi, 28, Finnegan, 23, and Maisy, 21. Kathleen says she started writing after Hunter's brother Beau died of brain cancer in May 2015 "and things didn't make sense."

"I found it cathartic," says Kathleen. She later took a creative writing class at Washington, D.C.'s independent Politics and Prose Bookstore and was convinced her journaling was the makings of a memoir.

mag rollout First Look at Kathleen Buhle’s Memoir: Hunter Biden’s Ex on His Affair with Sister-in-Law — and Forgiveness
Cheriss May

Her post-divorce journey has been undertaken outside the spotlight occupied by her former in-laws, who will be hosting daughter Naomi's November White House wedding. Asked about her relationship now with Hunter's parents, the president and Dr. Jill Biden, Kathleen says: "Divorce impacts the whole family — not just the couple, not just the kids. We were all really close and it was painful. It was hard for a long time. But what we share now, and we will share for the rest of our lives, is this love for my three daughters."

The road she's walked as a single mom has been fraught with new pain: a diagnosis of stage 3 colon cancer months after her 2017 divorce. Now four years cancer-free, she can look back and laugh: "I had started working full time, sold my house and my fancy car, moved into a little row house and bought my little car. I was like, 'Look at me, I'm killing it!' And then ... I just got pummeled."

Today, she's finishing work on a nonprofit women's club — The House at 1229 — in D.C., an homage to the community that pulled her through her darkest days. She loves being financially independent. (Buhle says she does not receive alimony from Hunter and that there was no windfall divorce settlement.) "I have total control over my life now," she says. "I hope people see in my story the ability to start again."

Here, her story:

mag rollout First Look at Kathleen Buhle’s Memoir: Hunter Biden’s Ex on His Affair with Sister-in-Law — and Forgiveness
courtesy Kathleen Buhle

Kathleen and Hunter were in their 20s, serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Portland, Ore., when they met.

Despite the longish hair and ripped-up jeans, he carried himself with the elegance of a movie star. We walked the city for hours holding hands. For the first time in my life, I believed that I might actually be beautiful and smart and unique, all because he said so. We both had Irish roots? Amazing! We'd both been raised Catholic? Incredible! What separated us, though, was significant. Hunter had grown up the son of a U.S. senator. At the old estate where he lived, he had a tuxedo hanging in his closet—a tuxedo he used fairly regularly. Me? I came from Chicago's working class. Dinner at my house was served with paper towels and often included mac and cheese out of a Tupperware bowl. Hunter tried to tell me that he came from a middle-class family. Months later, when I went to his house for the first time, I explained to him: "Hunt, a kid from a middle class family does not have a ballroom."

They wed in 1993 and by 2001 were living in Delaware with three young daughters while Hunter commuted to Washington as a partner in a lobbying firm.

He started many ventures . . . a real estate investment fund and then a technology company. I didn't understand any of it, or what pieces of his businesses actually generated income for us. I worried that we lived above our means, but I did nothing to change it. The way that Hunter and I handled money was that whenever I needed any, I called Hunter. More than once my debit card was declined at a store. I'd have to call Hunter to transfer money into my account. Hunter and I drove nice cars and had a beautiful home, but we were running fast on that hamster wheel and barely staying on.

mag rollout First Look at Kathleen Buhle’s Memoir: Hunter Biden’s Ex on His Affair with Sister-in-Law — and Forgiveness
courtesy Kathleen Buhle

This was around the same time she saw his drinking "spiral from social to problematic."

One Saturday morning when we had friends visiting, Hunter walked into the kitchen looking as if he hadn't gone to sleep. I was making pancakes as I watched him pull a bottle of Jack Daniel's out of the cabinet. "Hunter! What are you doing?" I said. "It's 10 a.m.!" I don't think he knew what time it was, and he still seemed drunk. He laughed and put the bottle back. We all stared.

Hunter spent years in and out of rehab, while she made excuses to their girls for his long absences. After Barack Obama and Joe Biden won the White House in 2008, Kathleen confronted Secret Service protocol that, to her, felt like "one frequent reminder I wasn't a true Biden."

Shortly before Inauguration Day in January 2009 a Secret Service agent came to the house. He sat down in our kitchen and opened a big black binder. "Hunter and the girls will all have a detail assigned to them," he said. "Two agents with them 24 hours a day." Suddenly I felt embarrassed. Did this mean I was less important than my husband and my kids?

Joe Biden, Jill Biden, Hallie Biden, Hunter Biden, Natalie Biden
Hunter Biden stands next to Hallie at Beau’s 2015 funeral. Patrick Semansky/AP

By November 2012 Hunter was back in rehab after exhibiting "manic" behavior the night his father and President Obama won reelection, then showing up drunk to a fundraising event. In May 2015 his brother Beau died of brain cancer, leaving behind his wife, Hallie, and two young children.

After the funeral, I saw a purpose in Hunter's work to set up the Beau Biden Foundation with Hallie and his parents. But he started spending most of his time at Hallie's house. Our therapist told me Hunter needed to be up there, helping Hallie. "But what about his sobriety?" I asked her. "He needs routine. He needs to be home with us." [The therapist] held firm that being with Hallie and her kids was an important part of Hunter's grieving.

That summer Kathleen found a crack pipe in their ashtray and threw Hunter out. He had earlier admitted to cheating with prostitutes when he traveled for work abroad, and now their marriage became an endless loop of anger (his) and mistrust (hers). He rented an apartment.

In the fall of 2015, I called and texted Hunter compulsively. From my computer, I watched his every move. There were charges at Lake Tahoe at a nail salon and a charge for two lift tickets. I found a credit card charge for $10,000 at a hot tub store in Los Angeles. I found hundreds at liquor stores and strip clubs. The whole time, he told me he was healthy and sober—and I was crazy. I continually told him that I was the one person actually trying to get him sober. It became my own kind of addiction. I didn't want to admit, to myself or anyone else, how unhealthy our relationship had become, so my struggle was just one more secret.

mag rollout First Look at Kathleen Buhle’s Memoir: Hunter Biden’s Ex on His Affair with Sister-in-Law — and Forgiveness
Kathleen Buhle with her three daughters. courtesy Kathleen Buhle

A Sunday morning in November 2016 brought painful clarity when her daughter visited the family therapist, Debbie.

I received the kind of call that tightens every parent's chest. "Mom, I need to talk to you," Finnegan mumbled through tears. "I'm at Debbie's." As I ran to my car, my mind went to intense fear. "Are you okay?" I asked. "Please, just come," she said.

I'd taken all three girls to see Debbie a few times to discuss Beau's illness and Hunter's drinking. "What happened?" I asked again, so scared. "I don't want to tell you over the phone," she said. Three miles later I was at Debbie's house. I went straight through to the sunroom and found Finnegan curled in a chair, holding a pillow while she wept. I wrapped my arms around her. "Everything will be okay. All right?" I told her. "I love you."

"Debbie," Finny said once we had Naomi on speakerphone, "can you tell her? We can't do it." Debbie looked me in the eye and calmly said, "Kathleen, Hunter's having an affair with Hallie."

"Oh my God." This was all I said. Was this what shock felt like? "How do you know?" I finally asked.

"We found his phone," Finnegan said. "There were text messages between them," Naomi added.

I could see Finnegan's face relaxing now that the secret was out and I hadn't fallen apart. If anything, I felt a strange vindication. Not only had I not been crazy, but it was so much worse than I could have imagined. I was shocked, but not heartbroken. Heartbreak had already flattened my self-esteem that past year. "We called Hunter," Debbie said to me then with a look of compassion. "We told him we found the phone and that we knew." She looked directly at me. "From now on, Kathleen, no more secrets. I told the girls that from this day forward, you will tell them the whole truth."

No more secrets. The idea was a relief.

mag rollout First Look at Kathleen Buhle’s Memoir: Hunter Biden’s Ex on His Affair with Sister-in-Law — and Forgiveness
Kathleen's last chemotherapy infusion, summer 2018. courtesy Kathleen Buhle

In 2019, two years after her divorce, Kathleen went to court to reclaim her identity as Kathleen Buhle.

Biden was my name. I'd taken it so we could be a family. It was my daughters' name, after all. In many ways, my last name became a crown and shield to me; it wasn't easy to consider giving it up. Changing my name had been as frightening as anything I'd ever done before. I was no longer a Biden. I'd handed in my crown and shield because I no longer needed them. Maybe I never had.

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