Sex and the Married Man

How Helen Gurley Brown inspired a generation of home-wreckers, and brought down John Edwards

A long time ago, I attended the funeral of a teenage boy who died the way Wade Edwards did, in a car that flipped badly and killed him quickly. I remember standing at the burial site, under a hot Los Angeles sun, a large crowd of us waiting for the parents to arrive. The cortege turned in through the gates, snaked up the winding road, and pulled up to where we were gathered. For a long time nothing happened, the car doors all stayed closed, and you realized—in a misery of embarrassed voyeurism that occluded even the sadness—that a drama was going on inside the car containing the mother, that getting her to stand out in the sunshine with us was going to involve someone persuading her to allow her son to be dead.

At last the car doors opened, and you felt you should look away, but that wasn’t right either, and so you watched, and it was a bad thing. At first, the procession faltered forward. The family made it down to the graveside, and a rabbi spoke. The pine box was lowered into the ground and the time came for the boy’s brother to spade the first shovel of dirt onto the coffin, and that’s when things fell apart. I’d known the boy well—he had been a student at the school where I taught English—but I hadn’t loved him. In fact, I had never loved anyone yet, because I was years away from having a child of my own, and until you’ve done that you’re just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it’s the right name for a feeling you’ve had.

Things fell apart when they tried to spade in the earth, and there was screaming and titanic grief, and you were in the position of watching someone being forced—physically forced—to bear the unbearable. At last it was done, and the family stumbled back up the hill to the air-conditioned cars with the liveried drivers, and the mother collapsed into one car, and the door was shut solidly behind her, sealing her into her shadowed madness.

“You are so hot,” Rielle Hunter said to John Edwards 10 years after he and his wife buried their first boy, and after they had started a new family, and after they had given their all to a presidential campaign—with the personal losses and long separations that come with it—and after Elizabeth had been diagnosed with cancer and undergone a disfiguring surgery and chemotherapy and lost her hair and been handed a recalculated set of odds about her life expectancy with two very small children who needed their mother. “You are so hot,” Rielle Hunter said, because she turned out to be another woman with a cavalier attitude toward wives.

John Edwards—whose intelligence we are supposed to accept as an article of faith—has managed not only to wedge himself between two exceedingly powerful and angry women, but also to have scorned both of them. Nice one, John! On the one hand is his wife, whose suffering might have seemed impossible to multiply, but he found the perfect way; and on the other hand is his (former) mistress, a known hellcat who has been flummoxing boy-men since the ’80s and whose rage over Elizabeth’s book is held in check only (and here I’m admittedly basing my speculation largely on what I’ve come to learn about women’s dreams and desires) by her hankering to live in Tara. Hers is not an intelligence or an ambition difficult to plumb, and her dream is almost certainly to have Elizabeth shuffle off the mortal coil so that she can instate herself in the North Carolina pleasure dome and become the fun, hip, “Being Is Free,” bleached-blond, super open-minded, videographing, Power of Now stepmom, a prospect so hideous that it makes Elizabeth Edwards’s last-chance book tour look like what it is: a desperate attempt to protect her sweet, sad children from the influence of this erstwhile cokehead and present-day weasel after she has died.

But Rielle is cottoning on to the fact that John sees her, not necessarily as the woman who opened him up sexually, but rather as the bad idea that destroyed his career and tarnished everything he loves. If we can trust the National Enquirer—and I sure think we can—Rielle’s so hopping mad she wants to go all paternity-test on John, maybe because she realizes that the golden circle has closed back around the North Carolina mansion, and that she is on the outside.

Now, who—in all the world—could have protected Rielle from this fate, this ignominy? Who could have kept her from becoming a pariah? Why, Helen Gurley Brown, of course! Because she has said over and over again that the one thing you can never do with a married man is fall in love with him.

“A wife, if she is loving and smart, will get her husband back every time,” she wrote more than 40 years ago. “He doesn’t really want her not to. He’s only playing.” And, just as soundly:

It isn’t his wife who doesn’t understand him, it’s his girlfriend. And what she doesn’t understand is how come he doesn’t get a divorce.

It’s simple. Because of the children, because of the community property, and because in many cases he doesn’t really dislike his wife. He may be tired of her and tired of her understanding him perfectly, but basically they are pretty good friends.

Deep within Rielle—this little minx of pleasure and profit—guess what there is? A heart that aches like a woman’s but breaks just like a little girl’s. As Helen knew, and as every woman comes to know, the female heart is a stubborn organ that insists on asserting itself in all sorts of situations, chief among them the sexual. It is very hard to be a single woman of a certain age, to be in a sexual relationship with a man who enchants her, and not to dream a little dream of his turning away from everything else and making a home with her. I don’t imagine that Rielle’s decision to have her baby (whoever the father) came from a strongly pro-life position, or from a plan to jack some cash out of the ambulance chaser. It came, surely, from the powerful emotions that accompany all pregnancies, but especially those that occur in women who probably thought they would never get to have a baby, and who find out, at the 11th hour, that the dream might come true after all, and they might have a home and a child, and (please, God) a husband and father to go with that child. It was a decision that came, at least in part, from the eternal female bad idea, emanating from the eternal female fantasy about men: “A baby will fix this.” Babies never fix things between a man and a woman; they always and only complicate them.

Rielle may have gotten a payout and she may have gotten a late-life baby, but what she has really gotten out of the arrangement—the thing that will stand as her life’s remembered work—is that she brought another woman to her knees: polluted the home in which Elizabeth is raising her children, made her steady approach toward death a time of exquisite anguish and fear, made a mockery of the marriage and home that she tended as a tribute to her late son, Wade. That’s what Rielle has gotten for herself, at the end of the day. And really—didn’t she have a perfect right to it? It’s a free country, after all.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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