Back to Square One

My own private Groundhog Day

The photograph in People magazine shows a fully clothed couple on a double bed, not touching, an empty expanse of sheet between them. He holds a Bible on his lap. She flashes a stay-yonder look. Dawn Bangart and Michael Caldwell, of Abilene, Texas, who are engaged to be married, decided to put aside all sexual activity for the remainder of their courtship—a span of six months. They are but one among many couples who, according to news accounts, are experimenting with a stint of premarital celibacy. The practice is known as "revirginization." Its aim is "secondary virginity."

The New York Times took notice of the phenomenon a few months ago in its trend-spotting Styles section, published on Sundays, and gave it a regional cast: "These days, a period of 'secondary virginity,' as it is sometimes called, is increasingly the norm for many brides-to-be across the South, an accommodation to the modern reality of premarital sex and the traditional disapproval of it in the Bible Belt." But the trend is demonstrably more widespread—the People story was reported from Denver and Chicago as well as from Abilene. The newly celibate couples reveled in their ex post facto purity. "The key is avoiding temptation," People advised. It so often is.

One reaction to the advent of secondary virginity is that of several parents quoted in the news reports: bewilderment and consternation. Oh, the young—once again, playing with fire! Another reaction comes in the form of a literal-minded parsing: the pursuit of lost virginity, of course, is the pursuit of the unattainable. The horse has left the barn. The toothpaste is out of the tube. You can't put Humpty together again.

A different way to see the phenomenon is as a powerful reassertion of American optimism: the conviction that what's done is not always done, that the broken can be fixed, the ravaged restored—that you can have another swing, can wipe the slate clean, can go back to square one. Among the more inane statements ever to achieve immortality is F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation in The Last Tycoon, "There are no second acts in American lives." This country is premised on second acts. The bankruptcy laws in America, for individuals and for corporations, are astonishingly liberal. Changing one's name—stealing someone else's identity altogether—is a cinch. If you don't do well on your College Boards, you can take them again (and again), and colleges will look only at your best scores. When the sports announcer Marv Albert became mired in an embarrassing personal scandal a few years ago, the only thing everyone knew was "This is not the end of Marv Albert." Immigrants reading The Last Tycoon in ESL programs must scratch their heads when they come to that apothegm about second acts; more on the right wavelength, if only they could make their way through Henry James's sentences, would be Christopher Newman, the protagonist of The American, whose very surname shouts "fresh start." If the Emma Lazarus poem about "your tired, your poor" hadn't made it onto the plinth of the Statue of Liberty, we might just as well have chiseled the words "Act II."

You can't turn back the clock, the realists say, and others warn that in any event we wouldn't want to turn back the clock (" ... to the days of back-alley abortions"; " ... to the days of segregated lunch counters"). But often we do want to turn back the clock. The word "retro" exists for a reason, and it's hardly a term of abuse. When world events get out of hand, one frequently hears the wistful desire to "return to the status quo ante"—to the way things used to be. On television two new sitcoms, Do Over and That Was Then, involve people who get a chance to return to high school as teenagers, with all the accumulated savvy of adulthood: a chance to get it right this time. (Two decades ago the preternaturally boyish David Owen made this transition for real, producing the very funny book High School.) Among the spam messages I've been getting lately by e-mail is one that announces itself on the subject line with the words "If over 40, turn back the clock." It offers a supply of human growth hormone, which is said to increase memory, muscle strength, and sexual potency, and to reduce wrinkles and body fat. Medical procedures to replace hips and knees promise to make the joints as good as new. According to NASA, the repairs on the Hubble space telescope actually made it "better than new."

The notion of secondary virginity has been a mainstay of the environmental movement, extending to its very language. Untouched forests and other tracts of wilderness are said to be "virgin." When people come into them, the tracts are said to have been defiled. But hold on: the virginal state can be recaptured. "RESTORING A POLLUTED BAY TO ITS FORMER PRISTINE GLORY" was the headline on a story about the improbable cleanup of New York's Flushing Bay. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in 1989, Exxon agreed to pay a billion dollars to "restore pristine beaches and waterways." When an alien creature, the toothy and fearsome northern snakehead, from Asia, recently infested a pond in Maryland, some environmentalists proposed to restore the ecosystem to a virginal state by means of mass poisoning (followed by mass electrocutions), killing everything in it.

We may scoff at secondary virginity in any literal sense, and yet we have long taken the idea of secondary integrity for granted. Many of the world's great religions offer some sort of procedure for removing the stain of transgression (though the garments sometimes come back from the cleaner with a tag saying that not everything came out). Even a secular faith such as communism offers a second chance. After Stalin's death, in 1953, many of those accused during the Great Terror were publicly "rehabilitated"; in millions of these cases, unfortunately, the rehabilitation was posthumous. Other secular faiths, such as public relations and political consulting, put more of a premium on timeliness. Reputation Management, a magazine I have often picked up from the giveaway racks at airports, seems to be largely devoted to a form of secondary integrity. Bill Clinton, continually reflowered, has passed through the tertiary and quaternary stages and is well on his way to millenary integrity.

A suspension of belief in the idea that life is a one-way street has obvious moral dimensions. In the movie Groundhog Day the character Phil, played by Bill Murray, is caught in a time warp, condemned to live February 2 over and over again. ("Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?" he asks the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where he's staying. She replies, "I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen.") In one exchange Phil explains to his co-worker Rita the feeling of abandon that has come over him, in a life cut loose from the ordinary bonds of contingency.

RITA: I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It's inspiring in a way.

PHIL: My years are not advancing as fast as you might think...

RITA: Don't you worry about cholesterol, lung cancer, love handles?

PHIL: I don't worry about anything anymore.

RITA: What makes you so special? Everybody worries about something.

PHIL: That's exactly what makes me so special. I don't even have to floss.

No one is immune from the allure of the status quo ante. What varies widely is how far people go to achieve it. The solar system itself apparently goes farther than anyone: in a cosmic version of Groundhog Day a large asteroid strikes our planet every so often, wiping out much of creation (600,000 more years of winter!) and rolling back evolution in the process.

My own private Groundhog Day comes in more modest form. I have not yet placed an order for human growth hormone, or availed myself of the "confess-and-erase" option on the Web site of the Universal Life Church. I doubt that I'll ever arrange to have myself cloned, or return to high school. But I do have a relevant experience to mention: in recent years the plots of the many mystery novels I've loved have begun to vanish from memory. This realization, at first disturbing and then oddly thrilling, came after I bought a Tony Hillerman novel, read it with pleasure—and then discovered a well-thumbed paperback of the same book on a shelf at home. The amnesia is quite pervasive: all of Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard, Dorothy Sayers and Raymond Chandler—all of it gone. The thrill derives partly from considerations of thrift; the hundreds of mysteries I already own will now last for the rest of my life. But mostly it comes from something far more elemental. Others may see cracked spines and yellowing pages, but I see an invitation to unknown pleasures. Indeed, Farewell, My Lovely is flashing a come-hither look, and I approach it as if for the very first time.