In the book she wrote before she died, Elizabeth Edwards tried to erase her husband’s mistress, Rielle Hunter, by omitting all mention of her. Hunter makes exactly the opposite choice in her new memoir, What Really Happened. Elizabeth Edwards shows up on Page 2 and remains omnipresent, always in the role of raging, jealous, shrewish wife. The more relentless the portrayal, the more it backfires on its author. If Elizabeth made Rielle mythical by leaving her out, Rielle makes herself monstrous by bringing Elizabeth in, again and again and again.
When I started reading, I thought that Hunter could only help herself by telling her own story, given that we know her as the home-wrecking, crazy-spending, New Age-spewing National Enquirer sensation who abetted John Edwards in ruining his political career and marriage. And yet reading her shallow, self-involved narrative left me a bit desperate to salvage some shred of empathy for her.
Hunter charges hard from the outset, faulting Elizabeth for the infidelity of her husband John—cringingly, “Johnny” in this account. Hunter claims the adultery started long before she arrived on the scene and crisply allocates the blame: “You don’t go through two-plus decades of extramarital relationships unless both parties are responsible,” she writes. “My thinking is that if you aren’t having sex with your partner, the chances are high that someone else is.”
True enough, perhaps, if cruel. But by the end of the book, Hunter’s claws have sharpened to produce passages like this:
Could I have made Elizabeth’s life really miserable? Yes, I could have. I could have gone public, nailing her to the wall, and believe me, I fantasized about it more than once. But I felt that if I stepped over Johnny and took control, it would emasculate him.
The book offers far too many such moments. Elizabeth is always the manipulative aggressor, Johnny the powerless bystander, and Rielle the wise and wronged object of affection. When Edwards denied that Hunter’s daughter Quinn was his, it was because he’d gone “temporarily insane”—after all, sane people “do not deny their children, especially on national TV, simply because they are afraid of their abusive spouse’s reaction.” The same false note returns a few pages later, when Edwards tells his wife the truth about Quinn’s paternity and then calls Hunter to end their affair. “You have been traumatized,” she says she told him. “I cannot let you go into the world. I cannot leave you in the hands of Elizabeth and her abuse.”
In this account, it is Elizabeth who is responsible for goading her husband to run for president, despite his “ticking time bombs on the girlfriend front,” and Elizabeth who “was not remotely interested in the truth,” and “was always so far from reality.”
It makes sense that Hunter is still obsessed with her nemesis. And it must be terrible to wage a continuing rivalry in your head with a woman who has died after a protracted battle with cancer and whose children you say you’re trying to befriend. But it still amazes me that Hunter apparently has no idea that letting it all hang out, to borrow from her a New Age cliché, is not the best strategy. This is especially true because her dish about Elizabeth isn’t even newsy. Elizabeth Edwards had a longstanding reputation for being difficult and demanding, for browbeating her husband, yelling at campaign aides, and insisting on having her own way. Hunter reproduces with relish a passage from John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book Game Change, which also uses the words “abusive” and “crazy” to describe the “insider” view of Elizabeth. But what Hunter utterly misses is that when she slings the same arrows, she shoots herself.
I guess it’s not surprising that Hunter also seeks revenge against Andrew Young, the Edwards stalwart who initially said he was Quinn’s father. She insinuates that Young took for himself the money donated by two wealthy Edwards friends to pay Hunter’s expenses while he and his wife, Cheri, lived with her to cover up the affair. These gifts, which totaled about $900,000, were at the center of the Edwards trial this past spring. The jury found him not guilty of one count of campaign finance violations and hung on the others. Hunter claims that she spent only between $150,000 and $180,000—she can’t figure out the exact amount because of “Cheri’s love for Target.” Whatever the truth, the score-settling is shrill.
What’s the better pose to strike as a memoir-writing political mistress? Mimi Alford got away with writing about her affair with JFK, decades later, by casting herself as a naïf. It was the 1960s, after all, and she was only 19. Monica Lewinsky* was only a little older, and she had the sense to tell Barbara Walters that she stood up to Bill Clinton when he tried to dump her, rather than attack Hillary. Hunter is 48. She could have tried for an older and wiser version of Lewinsky’s moxie. But she apparently doesn’t have it in her. Maybe her mistake was to cash in before she had time to mellow. Or maybe she will never have the sense to, say, spare her daughter a spread in People.
There are many things to dislike about this book and the publicity Hunter is seeking for it. The worst part, though, may be that by making herself so loathsome, she distracts us from the cad at the heart of the story: John Edwards. He’s the pond scum who cheated on his cancer-ridden wife while running for president, fathered a baby, and then denied paternity. On Tuesday, Hunter announced on Good Morning America that she and Edwards have split up: The reason she gave was that she was “no longer interested in hiding.” Maybe that means Edwards read this book, ran from her, and has forever withdrawn from public life. Let’s hope so.
Correction, June 27, 2012: This article originally misspelled Monica Lewinsky’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)