Back to Square One

My own private Groundhog Day

The photograph in People magazine shows a fully clothed couple on a double bed, not touching, an empty expanse of sheet between them. He holds a Bible on his lap. She flashes a stay-yonder look. Dawn Bangart and Michael Caldwell, of Abilene, Texas, who are engaged to be married, decided to put aside all sexual activity for the remainder of their courtship—a span of six months. They are but one among many couples who, according to news accounts, are experimenting with a stint of premarital celibacy. The practice is known as "revirginization." Its aim is "secondary virginity."

The New York Times took notice of the phenomenon a few months ago in its trend-spotting Styles section, published on Sundays, and gave it a regional cast: "These days, a period of 'secondary virginity,' as it is sometimes called, is increasingly the norm for many brides-to-be across the South, an accommodation to the modern reality of premarital sex and the traditional disapproval of it in the Bible Belt." But the trend is demonstrably more widespread—the People story was reported from Denver and Chicago as well as from Abilene. The newly celibate couples reveled in their ex post facto purity. "The key is avoiding temptation," People advised. It so often is.

One reaction to the advent of secondary virginity is that of several parents quoted in the news reports: bewilderment and consternation. Oh, the young—once again, playing with fire! Another reaction comes in the form of a literal-minded parsing: the pursuit of lost virginity, of course, is the pursuit of the unattainable. The horse has left the barn. The toothpaste is out of the tube. You can't put Humpty together again.

A different way to see the phenomenon is as a powerful reassertion of American optimism: the conviction that what's done is not always done, that the broken can be fixed, the ravaged restored—that you can have another swing, can wipe the slate clean, can go back to square one. Among the more inane statements ever to achieve immortality is F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation in The Last Tycoon, "There are no second acts in American lives." This country is premised on second acts. The bankruptcy laws in America, for individuals and for corporations, are astonishingly liberal. Changing one's name—stealing someone else's identity altogether—is a cinch. If you don't do well on your College Boards, you can take them again (and again), and colleges will look only at your best scores. When the sports announcer Marv Albert became mired in an embarrassing personal scandal a few years ago, the only thing everyone knew was "This is not the end of Marv Albert." Immigrants reading The Last Tycoon in ESL programs must scratch their heads when they come to that apothegm about second acts; more on the right wavelength, if only they could make their way through Henry James's sentences, would be Christopher Newman, the protagonist of The American, whose very surname shouts "fresh start." If the Emma Lazarus poem about "your tired, your poor" hadn't made it onto the plinth of the Statue of Liberty, we might just as well have chiseled the words "Act II."

You can't turn back the clock, the realists say, and others warn that in any event we wouldn't want to turn back the clock (" ... to the days of back-alley abortions"; " ... to the days of segregated lunch counters"). But often we do want to turn back the clock. The word "retro" exists for a reason, and it's hardly a term of abuse. When world events get out of hand, one frequently hears the wistful desire to "return to the status quo ante"—to the way things used to be. On television two new sitcoms, Do Over and That Was Then, involve people who get a chance to return to high school as teenagers, with all the accumulated savvy of adulthood: a chance to get it right this time. (Two decades ago the preternaturally boyish David Owen made this transition for real, producing the very funny book High School.) Among the spam messages I've been getting lately by e-mail is one that announces itself on the subject line with the words "If over 40, turn back the clock." It offers a supply of human growth hormone, which is said to increase memory, muscle strength, and sexual potency, and to reduce wrinkles and body fat. Medical procedures to replace hips and knees promise to make the joints as good as new. According to NASA, the repairs on the Hubble space telescope actually made it "better than new."

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Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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