Katie Hill Is Reclaiming Her Story After The Worst Year Of Her Life

In 2018, Katie Hill achieved a goal that she had been thinking about ever since she was chosen “Most Likely to Become the First Woman President” in preschool (right after being labeled “too bossy” by her teacher). At 31, she was elected as the first woman and youngest person to represent California’s 25th District in Congress, flipping the long-red area blue. The daughter of a cop and an ER nurse, Hill was part of the 2018 Blue Wave of “regular” women whose entry into politics hadn’t felt preordained and who ran in response to Donald Trump’s election. Although she had once considered becoming a nurse like her mom and grandmother, Hill felt like the electoral victory was a dream come true.  
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Once she started her term, Hill quickly ascended to leadership positions in Congress and worked closely with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, even as her professional life was flourishing, Hill’s personal life was spinning out of control. Back home in California, her relationship with her husband, Kenny Heslep, had started unraveling as he became increasingly abusive, erupting in frequent angry outbursts, monitoring her whereabouts and phone calls, and even walking around with a loaded gun during their fights. Hill and Heslep are now separated, but, as Hill reveals in her new book She Will Rise, every time she tried to leave him, he told her, “I will ruin you.” A few months after Hill moved out and said she wanted a divorce, Heslep allegedly made good on his threat. In October 2019, hundreds of Hill’s intimate photos and private text messages were leaked to a right-wing tabloid and quickly spread across the internet. Hill says Heslep sent the photos as revenge against her for leaving him. Heslep claims he was “hacked.”
The publication of these photos and texts resulted in weeks of gratuitous, lurid coverage of Hill’s private life that also revealed she had been in a polyamorous relationship with Heslep and a woman who worked on her campaign. Hill says she regrets that relationship and has also apologized for it, acknowledging its imbalanced power dynamic. Still, she was furious and humiliated. Hill says she discovered that Heslep had, without her consent, created profiles for them on sites like Cruise Ship Mingle, and, during her congressional campaign, posted pictures of her on the subreddit “r/wouldyoufuckmywife.” 
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Amid this personal nightmare, Hill had to make painful deliberations about her dream job. She eventually decided that the only way to make things right would be to resign from Congress, despite many, including her mentor Pelosi, urging her to stay. Hill gave a powerful resignation speech that slammed society’s sexist double standards, which allow men who have been accused of sexual assault (hi, Donald Trump) to stay in power. "I’m leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality, and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching," Hill said. "Yes, I’m stepping down, but I refuse to let this experience scare off other women who dare to take risks, who dare to step into this light."
Hill’s detractors — an online horde of misogynist trolls, Republicans interested in her House seat, and, of course, her ex — undoubtedly wanted her to run away in shame after her resignation, never to be heard from again. But Hill has not given them that satisfaction. With She Will Rise, she has reclaimed her narrative, telling her story the way that she wants the world to know it — not the way The Daily Mail told it. The book is both autobiographical and instructive, serving as an exhaustive primer on the recent history of feminism, including reproductive rights, the #MeToo movement, and women running for office — it’s no coincidence it comes out near the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. In it, Hill devotes plenty of space to give her audience tools and resources so they, too, can help change the way women are treated in society. Her goal, it seems, is to prove that while many women’s stories become erased or written over, women have the power to write them all over again. 
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“I hope that by me being so transparent and vulnerable, it helps some people understand what happened and others can learn from my experience,” Hill told Refinery29 in a recent interview. And she does get vulnerable: Not only is she unflinching in her descriptions of the painful, guilt-ridden days after her public resignation, but she is also open in discussing moments of suicidal ideation, years of abuse, and other viscerally painful experiences.

I think what some people want is for me to disappear. That's a decision I've chosen not to make.

Katie Hill
Even though she says that writing this book felt triumphant and cathartic, Hill is candid about the fact that she still struggles with the aftermath of years of trauma. “It’s something that takes continual work and I think anyone who’s been through trauma, whatever kind it might be, knows that all too well,” Hill, who is in therapy, told me. Terrible nightmares about her ex, which often cause her to wake up in terror, haunt her nightly. “I got into this relationship when I was 16 years old,” she said. “I’m constantly trying to figure out who I am as a person on my own, without this relationship defining me — it played a part in defining me for so long, for half of my life.” 
Hill’s resignation did not signal the end of her personal troubles. In January of this year, Hill’s mother was hospitalized and underwent brain surgery; she has since recovered, and gone back to work as a trauma nurse in L.A. “She’s being so brave and strong for so many people in spite of everything that she’s been through,” Hill said. Three days after the surgery, while her mother was still in the hospital, Hill found her younger brother, Danny, dead from a drug overdose. Danny, a U.S. sailor who was training to become a Navy SEAL, was 20 years old. They were extremely close, just like she is with her mother.
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Another person who has helped give Hill the strength and confidence to share her story is her late grandfather, who is a central figure in the book. He taught her about politics and to be a “warrior,” which gave her the courage to run for office — and to speak out after scandal threatened to ruin her. 
It turned out, though, that her grandfather was a much more complicated figure than the hero she’d always seen him as. After he passed away in 2011 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, she slowly began to learn how he had abused her grandmother Sarah, who he had divorced when Hill was 2. Learning about this forced Hill to reckon with their relationship and what it meant that her grandfather had a history of abuse, just like her own ex.
“As I was writing, to me it just became so clear that there was this complex human dynamic where it doesn’t erase the fact that someone was so important to you, it doesn’t erase whatever has been meaningful in your relationship or what they’ve done in their lives, but they can be flawed and they can have done terrible things to people,” she told me. “And so, I think it is something that we have to reconcile for public figures but also for people in our lives, kind of on a daily basis. Forgiveness and being able to hold those two truths in your mind is part of the healing process for me.”
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Hill says she has spent a lot of time thinking about redemption — who gets to have it and who doesn’t, who gets to own their narrative and who doesn’t. Many of the men originally outed in the #MeToo movement either returned to their jobs or found different, equivalent ones. Would she be afforded the same redemption arc? 
Ultimately, Hill doesn’t have a neat answer to that question. Nor does she have an answer to questions that she poses in her book, like: “Did I unintentionally perpetuate any of the abusive behaviors I myself had endured for so long?” And: “How many people did I hurt because of it all?” Hill’s grief and guilt linger — about the relationship with her staffer, about her brother, about the fact that her House seat has gone to a Republican again — even though she is working on herself every day. But she has been able to turn these depths of despair into action, which has helped her heal.
One of the ways she’s working through her trauma is helping other women find their voices and speak out against injustice. Since resigning, Hill has launched a PAC called HER Time, through which she is helping women candidates run for office, particularly young women and women of color. She is also at work on the Naked Politics podcast, which launches later this month. But will she ever run for office again? “I’m not writing anything off,” she said, but also made it clear that now is not the time. She is, however, living in D.C. and has been seen around Capitol Hill, an indication that she could be sticking around politics for the long haul.
Through telling her story in her book, launching her PAC, and starting a podcast, Hill is slowly learning about who she is as a person without her ex. She knows there are people who want to stop not only her, but also all women who are vocal about their experiences. But she also knows that her fight is bigger than her opponents. “I think what some people want is for me to disappear,” Hill told me. “That’s a decision I’ve chosen not to make.”

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