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.

As to the other great supposed cure for isolation, the consolation of religion, Elizabeth is at the same time vulnerable and skeptical. In describing the dreams and superstitions and fantasies that assailed her when she lost her boy, she confirms something that I have long thought to be true about the apparent conundrum of female religiosity: Why is it women who keep up the congregations in male-dominated places of worship? That’s easy: women do all the childbearing, and they will try anything—anything—to ward off the illness or death of an infant. They will also grieve over and commemorate such a catastrophe long after the menfolk have “moved on.” Elizabeth manages to get a slight laugh out of a sad parishioner at her North Carolina church who says that his unending misery is like the movie Groundhog Day (“I think he must have left before the end of the film”), and she ends up with a sort of deistic compromise whereby she doesn’t demand the right to have an explanation from God but doesn’t believe he intervenes, either. Like a surprising number of people, she fails to see any contradiction in the idea that God “gave” her “free will.” When she goes to texts for illumination, she is more likely to quote Ovid than the Gospels. From the Old Testament she prefers the Book of Job, and no wonder.

Reflections on eternity versus extinction must naturally curtail the amount of time one is prepared to squander in revisiting the Kerry-Edwards ticket or the later stand-alone Edwards campaign. But even so, the attention paid to national politics here is astonishingly slight. Of the lame and miserable campaign of 2004, Elizabeth can bring herself to say no more than that the losing duo was better on “the issues.” Of the 2008 contest, she reveals perhaps more than she quite realizes by telling us that John Edwards confessed his infidelity to her in late 2006, after he had announced his candidacy but before the campaign had got under way. If I were Hillary Clinton reading this rather throwaway admission, I might find myself whistling and growling a bit. After all, the then-presumptive nominee had more or less succeeded in living down her own erring husband by the time of the Iowa caucuses. And she might have ridden the punch of an Obama victory in Iowa, and come back swinging. But she placed third in Iowa, behind John Edwards, and many good judges think she never quite recovered from that. So Edwards’s last hurrah has a place of its own in American history.

And all through that hurrah, both Edwardses were living with the knowledge that a third party could at any moment gravely embarrass them. It must have required some unusual nerve for Elizabeth, by then quite a darling of the Democratic rank and file, to go on giving her fighting speeches and fund-raising appeals in between sessions of chemotherapy and acute marital misgiving. She says that she believed the affair to have been a one-off or a one-night stand, but nowhere else in the book or in her public record does she evince the kind of naïveté or credulity that would be required for this to be really what she thought. She is quite entitled not to “deal with” the possibility that the affair also led to the birth of a child, but in the dialectic of her book, had she allowed the idea, the eventuality might have “fit” almost too well. In the unequal battle between life and death (as she understood in her father’s case), Eros has its part in warding off Thanatos, and if this really was—as I believe—her husband’s first lapse, it might have been partly because of the death-haunted context in which, for all his money and charm, he found himself.

Reflecting a little on the way in which politics exerts a magnetic force on the wrong kinds of people, from groupies to stalkers, Elizabeth gives us an amazing cameo of “Jim,” the obsessed and creepy “volunteer” who would not quit. Jim was mainly an amateur chauffeur who would go anywhere to do the Edwardses a favor. But he couldn’t hold it at that:

He bought cars like the ones we drove. He wanted to vacation where we vacationed. He had birthday parties for himself and invited all our friends. He sent daily e-mails to almost everyone we knew. And he became close with the videographer, who also did not understand boundaries …

“The videographer” is the closest that Elizabeth will come to naming the other woman. In the meantime, she has slightly thrown away a chance to make a telling reference, not this time to Groundhog Day, but to that other great little driver and political canvasser Travis Bickle.

In case you were wondering earlier what it is that she has annexed from Edmund Wilson, it is this: “Why should I have solace when [s]he hasn’t breath?” Uttered upon the death of any loved one, this is excellent and sobering insurance against any too-Oprah-like search for comfort or “closure.” What is the proper quantum of solace for the survivor when the real source of the grief is someone who has lost everything, and forever? The number of different ways in which Elizabeth approaches and studies and cogitates the death of her son Wade would justify a book on its own, and indeed constitutes a sort of book within this book.

Forced to face her own demise, she can, I think, be forgiven for stretching out her last chapter—which is called “In the End”—just a fraction too long. (And who wouldn’t? Who doesn’t?) Rather daringly, and consciously risking the charge of mawkishness, she actually closes on a maxim that was gleaned from a Chinese fortune cookie. Things like this are permitted to those who can, in the face of such adversity, be both humorous and tough-minded.

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