The Resilience Of Elizabeth Edwards

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It doesn't include today's news that John Edwards is the father of Rielle Hunter's baby — but, in a review by Christopher Hitchens, Elizabeth Edwards's memoir Resilience sounds like a moving and enduring document.


Of course, Hitchens can't resist injecting himself into the review in various obnoxious ways, from the name-droppy ("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.") to the intellectually snobby (mocking the book's publishers for inserting an explanation of who Edmund Wilson is, as though we didn't all know). He also indulges in some annoying gender stereotyping when he discusses Edwards's mourning for her son, killed in a car crash at the age of 16. He writes,

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."

Does Hitchens really need to make Elizabeth Edwards stand in for all women in opposition to "menfolk," especially when her particular story is so tragic and captivating? To his credit, though, Hitchens's review paints Edwards as a tough-minded woman with a complex view of both grief and human nature. He writes that she "unflinchingly records her mother's conviction that the gallant captain had been unfaithful to her while she was 'buried in babies'" and that she "remarks tenderly" that her father's flirtation with a nurse in his assisted-living center is an expression of his will to live. Hitchens also says,

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.

My first reaction to this was outrage: so John Edwards cheated on his wife because he was afraid of death? What about her? But I don't actually think Hitchens means to excuse Edwards's behavior here. Rather, I think he's putting it in a larger context that Elizabeth Edwards herself establishes — that men are more than the sum of their sins, and that fear of the abyss can manifest itself as prurience just as easily as "religiosity."

That it did so in John Edwards is inexcusable, but Resilience focuses more on Elizabeth Edwards's grief over the deaths of her father and son than on anything her husband did. Hitchens writes of her approach to grieving, the antithesis of "any too-Oprah-like search for comfort or 'closure.'" And he mentions, perhaps surprisingly, "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." He adds,

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.


Of course, the Internet may add to Elizabeth Edwards's loneliness as well, especially today, when several sites are reporting the results of a paternity test showing John Edwards to be the father of Rielle Hunter's child. Elizabeth Edwards's fame is a mixed blessing — Hitchens calls her "quite a darling of the Democratic rank and file," and perhaps she has benefited from the public outpouring of support during her battle with cancer. But it's hard to imagine — despite widespread sympathy for her — that having to negotiate her husband's infidelity in the public eye has made her life any easier. In her circumstances, a decision to retreat into private life would be more than understandable. But just as the Internet made her less lonely, perhaps her book will do what David Foster Wallace said all good writing should — help people "become less alone inside."

The Pain Of Elizabeth Edwards [The Atlantic]
Report: DNA Test Proves Edwards Fathered Videographer's Daughter [FOX News]
John Edwards Secret DNA Test Proves He's The Daddy [National Enquirer]


Earlier: Sex & The Single Homewrecker: Caitlin Flanagan Slams Rielle Hunter, Helen Gurley Brown



i have been trying to figure out why john edwards is so discomfiting and baffling to me.

i'm sure i'm projecting, but he strikes me as exceedingly passive-aggressive. he is perfect for everyone, doesn't express any anger, says and does the right things, and then goes ahead and does whatever he wants and says afterwards, "i'm so sorry, i didn't mean to hurt you, you're perfect and i'm so terrible".

you can't have a dialogue with that. i wonder if its one of the reasons that elizabeth chose to work this out publicly - i can't imagine john is much help in trying to construct a cohesive narrative of her life and marriage.

i adore elizabeth edwards. she isn't to blame for her husband being a systematic asshole with rielle hunter. but the story here is that john made one mistake one time and it doesn't retroactively recast their marriage, and the dissonance there would be overwhelming to me.