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December 12, 2010

Stephanie Salter: Another wronged woman becomes the nation’s paper doll

TERRE HAUTE — A few hours after the death of Elizabeth Edwards last week, the creepy, contemporary American ritual of vicarious grieving began in cyberspace.

“You are with your son now. Rest in peace.”

“We all know that GOD only takes the ones who are ready … And by God Elizabeth was ready.”

“Heaven just became a better place to be just knowing she is there.”

As is often the case with Internet opinion and expression, people with only superficial knowledge of the subject weighed in with all the gravitas and passion of lifelong experts. They addressed Edwards and her three surviving children by first name, referred to personal passages in the family’s lives and exalted such virtues as her “selflessness.”

Thus a courageous, complex, conflicted politician’s wife became a cutout figure, especially for those who met her only in the pages of People or on Larry King. Because she had lost a child, fought breast cancer, discovered late in life that her husband was a cheat and liar — and because she died —  Edwards is now the “angel” of strangers, their “idol,” their “blessed inspiration.”

Her sharp edges, her accomplished law career, her hands-on ambition for her husband’s political career, and her public collusion in his deception, disappeared with Edwards’ death. So did her humanness and any dimension of her personality beyond one.

Worse, as we so often do with “wronged women” in our culture (except, maybe, Hillary Clinton), Edwards was robbed of her agency as an intelligent adult who made choices, good and bad. Rather than being acknowledged as a partner in a high-octane marriage of more than three decades, a woman who combated her 16-year-old son’s death by undergoing fertility treatments and bearing two more children at age 48 and 50, Edwards has practically been infantilized, a hapless helpmate whose no-good husband did her dirt as she was going about her missions of motherhood and mercy.

That sort of shallow victimization does Edwards, and any woman who’s faced down adversity, a disservice.

This is no defense of John Edwards. The son of a mill worker betrayed not only his wife and children, but also the thousands of people who backed him and believed in him and — in the case of some of his inner political circle — lied for him. Andrew Young, the Edwards aide who wrote “The Politician,” is just one of many former staffers who’ve emitted public howls of betrayal. Some also have admitted their own complicity in Edwards’ low, mendacious ways. Their accounts speak volumes about everybody’s broken moral compass.

Several of the inner circle, including former speechwriter Wendy Button, knew in July 2009 what the nation would learn in January 2010: Despite numerous denials, Edwards really is the father of Rielle Hunter’s child, not Young, as Young pretended. In a long February essay on HuffingtonPost.com, Button described the disillusionment and denial of people like her who know well “that gray area between right and wrong where politicians often ask their staffers to reside.”

“While many of us manage to smile and mutter a ‘How about those Two Americas’ and express our disgust that at least a million-plus dollars were used to keep this a secret and tens of millions raised from ordinary people to prop up a lie, trust me when I say that the shame and sorrow runs deep,” Button wrote.

“So how did this happen? This is politics — American politics — where dysfunction breeds like mold after a rainstorm. Like any story, it was a slow boil: one lie built upon another, another action causing a reaction, fear taking over the impulse to do what is right,” she explained, and concluded:

“We put politicians where they don’t belong — on a stage and above us. We are star-struck when we should be sober about whether or not they are doing a good job. We demand perfection in their personal lives when all that should matter is if they are obeying the law and maintaining the public trust. We should use this scandal to bring all of our expectations for our leaders back to earth. Stop giving them a stage, confetti and a theme song, and never forget that the faster they rise, the harder they fall.”

Spouses, too, sometimes put politicians where they don’t belong. So much is sacrificed for the perceived greater good — time with the kids, meals together, a shared bed, health, privacy — the investment grows oversized. The desired outcome eventually dictates all, and the pressure mounts to ignore, pretend, deny, rationalize and even lie; fear takes over “the impulse to do what is right.”

Ordinary couples who deal with infidelity often follow a similar line of behavior. Even after the cheater is outed, the betrayed spouse is not eager to embrace the whole truth because doing so means she was wrong about more than her husband: Her entire investment in “us” looks suspect. If reconciliation trumps giving up, it’s easier to attempt with a contrite betrayor who, both partners agree, was stupidly lured into his infidelity by a predator.

Elizabeth Edwards, the human being, followed that formula until January, heaping most of the blame on Hunter and portraying John Edwards as a dumb, selfish, but vulnerable victim. Then Andrew Young’s book forced John Edwards to admit he had fathered Hunter’s child, which Elizabeth Edwards had known for at least six months. His political career finished forever, Edwards apologized for denying his daughter and revealed that he had been able to spend time with her over the past year.

Only then did his wife choose to formally separate.

When it came to her own actions, Elizabeth Edwards was a woman who took full responsibility. She did not ask, “Why me?” during some of her worst trials, including her son’s heartbreaking death. In 2007, she publicly declared that her cancer had come back with a vengeance because she hadn’t stayed on top of it and gotten regular mammograms, so busy was she trying to help her husband become president. When it came to her husband, she seemed to apply less-stringent standards.

In 2004, John Edwards said of his wife, “I have spent many years trying to live up to what she believed I could be, and I am the better for it.” That is a fascinating glimpse into a complicated dynamic between two multidimensional people who married just out of law school, had four children and stayed together for more than 30 years. It makes for a much more compelling story — and woman — than does a cutout character with angel wings.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.  

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