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.

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.

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.

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