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How can you measure a person’s life? Carol Schwartz’s answer: in pages. Her new autobiography, “Quite a Life!: From Defeat to Defeat … and Back” is chock-full of memories and photos that invite the reader into a tell-all, behind-the-scenes tale of her life.
And what a life it has been. Not everyone can say that they’ve failed in their bid for mayor five times over the course of nearly 30 years, but then again not everyone is Carol Schwartz, a veteran four-term former D.C. Council representative and folksy local personality. She started in D.C. politics as a member of the Board of Education representing Ward 3. Most recently, she served on the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability as Muriel Bowser’s appointee.
“A lot of people over the years have told me, ‘Carol, you have quite a story and you should write it down,’” Schwartz says. “Writing about my life, which I’m passionate about, and using it as an inspiration for others—I wanted to be honest.”
On Nov. 6, Schwartz announced in a press release that she was stepping down from the Ethics Board because her membership was proving to be a conflict of interest with her ability to answer questions about her book honestly, and for fear that her opinions might be taken as an “attempt to influence any decision of the District government.”
“In these few days since I released my book, at signing events, I have found it often hard to answer questions about present-day topics because of my membership on the Board, and have stated so,” the press release announcing her decision to step down reads.
The book is 745 pages long. To keep Carol’s unique voice and humor untainted by outside sources, Schwartz and her daughter Hilary Schwartz kept the writing and editing entirely in-house for the past four years. Hilary even quit her part-time tech job to help produce it.
The “keep it within the family” mindset was the same reason Schwartz chose to self-publish the book through BookBaby, since a “publisher would have edited the heck out of it.”
“This way, you’re in charge of every word that’s said. I wanted it to be how I wanted it to read, not how they wanted it to read,” Schwartz says.
Schwartz doesn’t mean for the title to be a negative statement on her defeats. Rather, it’s a reference to a poem she found at temple 40 years ago, when she first started to embrace her Jewish heritage after a childhood of persecution for it in her hometown of Midland, Texas.
Every time Schwartz was disheartened or needed a morale boost, she’d read Alvin I. Fine’s “Life is a Journey” again. The full poem is included in the first couple of pages in her autobiography, but Schwartz took inspiration from the third stanza specifically: “From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead, we see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey, stage by stage.”
“When I was having tough times in my life, as a child and even as an adult, I would read that and it gave me solace,” Schwartz says. “So when I started thinking about what the title of my book should be, I thought about that story of hope.”
Hope is a helpful ingredient for a formerly Republican, now Independent politician in the heavily blue District. Although Schwartz was always the political underdog, she tried to enjoy the fun little misadventures that happened along the way.
She’s all smiles as she recounts the time she and Tom Sherwood of NBC4 put on an impromptu Shakespeare production for The Theatre Lab, and she ad-libbed all of her lines because there wasn’t enough light to see the script.
“It was fun. I ad-libbed a lot because Carol complained she couldn’t read her script in semi-darkness,’ Sherwood says. “I stood on a ladder in a T-shirt, she on a ‘balcony.’”
For every quirky anecdote in the book, there’s an equally heavy story about young Carol stuck working in her father’s shop in Midland, Texas, seven days a week without a single break, or turning to volunteer work to distract herself from her daily life. Or a description of her youth spent taking care of her special needs brother, who inspired her to go into special education.
It’s not meant to be an easy book to read. Schwartz trembles with emotion as she recounts the process of wading through all 105 of her scrapbooks and reliving each difficult memory. Each photograph brought back episodes of her life that she had conquered long ago, such as her husband’s suicide and a childhood spent anxiety-ridden over her father’s erratic behavior.
“You know, I’m 73 and a half years old. Why am I, at this point in my life, keeping things secret?” Schwartz says.
In response to a question about any revelations she had during the writing process, Schwartz says: “Reliving all of it made me very proud of myself, for having been through all of that and remain still loving to the people that caused that kind of stress and unhappiness.”
Interested readers can find one of the 2,000 available copies online at Schwartz’s website (caroldc.com) and at D.C. stores Busboys and Poets, Politics and Prose, and Bridge Street Books.