Other People's Marriages


>It's not just the usual prurient interest in other people's lives that generates so much uninformed speculation about Al and Tipper Gore's separation.  It's the opportunity stories like this that provide for everyone to feel like an expert; marital strife is familiar and comprehensible, unlike most of the crises that plague us.  No one seems to know how to cap or mitigate the gulf oil gusher; no one understands complex derivatives; no one knows how to successfully extricate us from Afghanistan, fix health care, education, the economy, re-build infrastructure, limit corruption, or successfully govern this fractured country, as far as I can tell.  But everyone knows or thinks she knows all about personal relationships.
Still, there are hierarchies of kibitzers: perched on top of the pyramid is the occasional longtime friend (in this case Sally Quinn) who thinks the Gores "grew apart" partly as a result of the nomadic existence apparently forced on them by losing the presidency.  (What are friends for if not to comment publicly on your private life?) Then there are the journalists and authors who interviewed the Gores at one time or another; they have nothing in particular to say, but they say it with the imagined authority of people who have interacted on occasion with the practiced public personas of a professional politician and his wife.  Only a notch or two below are the certified relationship experts -- self-help authors or therapists, like Terri Orbuch, on whom Washington Post columnist Ellen McCarthy relies for her mournful generalizations about how "we" idealized the Gores and were affected by their split.  (Columnists sit just below licensed therapists.) "They were seen as this perfect couple, that's why we're traumatized," Orbuch explains.                                                              

Who's "we" and who's traumatized?  Rebecca Traister at Salon, for one, is "unexpectedly gutted," at least at first; then she makes sense of her grief: "This is precisely the kind of mysterious and inexplicable narrative of marriage thing that scares the bejesus out of people who are newly or not yet married.  Forty years?"  Take heart Rebecca: their separation may not be so mysterious and inexplicable to the Gores, and it should be mysterious and inexplicable to the rest of us, for whom it has no practical or social relevance.  Other people's marriages are just that -- other people's marriages.

I'm not suggesting we should, or could, put an end to gossip, and I'm not oblivious to the impulse to turn the lives or deaths of celebrities into inspirational or cautionary tales, or cultural markers.  I remember how John Lennon's murder resonated; it was an individual tragedy that seemed to signal a steep cultural descent.  But, then again, Lennon's death coincided with the rise of the "Moral Majority" and occurred shortly after the 1980 election, which resulted in the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan, a Republican take-over of the Senate, and the defeat of liberal stalwarts like Birch Bayh, George McGovern, and Frank Church.  Some of us were already in mourning. 
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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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