The Pain of Elizabeth Edwards

A new memoir by the politician’s wife shows that the pain of infidelity pales in comparison to the loss of a child.
Ramin Talaie/Corbis

Potential readers should not be deterred by the vaguely Hallmarkish cover—and subtitle—of this book, both of which may be blamed on the publisher. I’m assuming that Broadway Books has a packaging-and-editing style all its own, because on page 88 it makes Elizabeth Edwards tell us something that “Edmund Wilson, the incomparable twentieth-century literary critic, said.” Perhaps someone at the firm felt that this would explain just exactly who Wilson was to a reader who didn’t know, but the effect is to be condescending and to diminish the impact of reading a senator’s wife who is well able to cite Edmund Wilson in her own right. Elsewhere Mrs. Edwards gets her own way, quoting with familiarity and aptness from Sophocles and Millay and making astute comparisons between the novelistic characterizations of John Updike and of Henry James. (Her husband’s “campaign biography” book, Four Trials, was co-written with him by my friend John Auchard, editor of the somehow perfectly titled Portable Henry James and an academic colleague of Elizabeth’s; few such workaday volumes can boast this sort of step-parentage.)

One of the more noticeable features of John Edwards’s little book was the sense it conveyed that the candidate understood perfectly well that he had married the smartest student in his law-school class. And nobody who saw them together could fail to notice that he was always—and understandably—somewhat in awe of her. (Perhaps here is the moment for me to say that I used to see a good deal of them both in Washington, beginning with my writing a profile of him in 2002, and that we have been on friendly social terms in each other’s houses. I think I may refer to her as “Elizabeth” rather than “Mrs. Edwards” from now on.)

Notwithstanding the fact that she has been the wife of a senator, presidential candidate, and vice-presidential nominee, the most important men in this story are her late father and her firstborn son. That the firstborn son is also “late,” having been killed by a freak traffic mishap in 1996, at the age of 16, is surely the eventual dominant motif of the book. Political defeat, cancer, infidelity, other family losses: you can somehow tell that if she could avail herself of the remedy in the Millay poem “Interim,” which she quotes so beautifully, but would have to choose to have just one thing put right again, it would be Wade. I remember once discussing with Elizabeth the brute evolutionary fact that people used to have large numbers of offspring because they had to count on burying at least some of them; however objectively one reasons such a thing, it will still, always, appear to be against nature for a parent to be at the funeral of a child, rather than the other way about.

The contrasting and connected story—of her long attendance at her father’s sickbed and his eventual dying—is one of stoicism rather than grief. Captain Vincent Anania, a veteran Navy flier and evidently a man of considerable physical and moral courage, was much reduced in both body and mind in the last two decades of his life but managed to sustain a resistance to death and despair that is pretty obviously the inspiration for his daughter’s main title. (“There is nothing about resilience that I can say that my father did not first utter silently in eighteen years of living inside a two-dimensional cutout of himself.”) I note, and not just in passing, that Elizabeth unflinchingly records her mother’s conviction that the gallant captain had been unfaithful to her while she was “buried in babies” (an odd and interesting formulation). She also remarks tenderly that when, with two years left to go, her father “unabashedly flirted with the aide at the assisted-living center, he was saying to the world what he said to me in 1990: I understand that it will not be all I crave, but I want to live.” For now, one might just observe that John Edwards, as well as knowing that his wife was the clever one, must also have understood that she had a very high standard for masculine role models.

She has herself, meanwhile, become a best-selling model for many readers, and not, I am sure, only for female ones. She is a person with many friends and many internal and moral and intellectual resources, yet she confesses in the most disarming—and helpful—manner how much the Internet came to her aid, first when her son was killed and second when she discovered that a term had been set on her own life. The importance of this medium in bringing about a great unspoken social reform—the abolition of loneliness—has not to my knowledge been better evoked.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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