I don't really agree with this Caitlin Flanagan piece on Helen Gurley Brown (it feels weirdly gender-nationalist to me) but I enjoyed it a lot. I'm a fan of ambition, and my favorite nonfiction uses everything at the writer's disposal--secondary sources, personal experience, reporting. It also tends to draw from a wide-range of sources, in this case, Brown, Cosmopolitan, the John Edwards affair, and Flanagan's own experience:
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.
Ultimately, John Edwards had a cavalier attitude about his own wife, too. That said, read the piece. I can't stand the "thumbs up/thumbs down" style of reviewing. Flanagan is never that.
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