Sneak a Peek into Janet Mills’s Pandemic Diary

A new book, In Other Words, Leadership, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the pandemic's impact on the public and private life of Maine's governor.

In Other Words, Leadership: How a Young Mother’s Weekly Letters to Her Governor Helped Both Women Brave the First Pandemic Year
By Will Grunewald
From our September 2023 issue
author Shannon Mullen
One notable tidbit: Mullen, pictured here, writes that when a woman in an assisted-living facility told the governor, in a letter, that she needed reading material, Mills put some of her own issues of Down East in the mail. Photo by Thomas Petzwinkler

It’s no spoiler to say that 2020 was tough on everyone, including Maine governor Janet Mills, the central figure in a new history, In Other Words, Leadership: How a Young Mother’s Weekly Letters to Her Governor Helped Both Women Brave the First Pandemic Year (Steerforth Press). The subtitle doesn’t quite capture what author Shannon Mullen produced, which is an exhaustive account of the impact of the pandemic on public and private life in Maine. And it’s an exhausting ride, revisiting that roller-coaster year — from the malcontent Bethel brewpub owner giving out the governor’s private phone number live on Fox News to the rule-flouting Millinocket wedding that made national headlines for spurring a deadly outbreak, among so many other peculiar, painful episodes. 

author Shannon Mullen
One notable tidbit: Mullen, pictured here, writes that when a woman in an assisted-living facility told the governor, in a letter, that she needed reading material, Mills put some of her own issues of Down East in the mail. Photo by Thomas Petzwinkler

For the book, Mills gave Mullen access to her diary and to her correspondence with a prolific letter writer, Ashirah Knapp, from Temple. Knapp’s notes to the governor, about how her family was muddling through, appear intermittently, a sort of proxy for the tribulations of so many private citizens. From Mills’s diary, meanwhile, it’s her still moments amid the political tumult that really stick: swimming off a dock one night as a meteor shower streaked through the sky, or intently studying a Jamie Wyeth painting as, just outside, protesters rallied. Feeling pressure to reopen more businesses, she wrote in her diary, “Sheesh, who knew all these folks were so essential. In Italy, meanwhile, 10,000 people have died. Surreal.” Looking back on that year, is there any better word? 

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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