In Defense of Elizabeth Edwards

What Women Really Think
Jan. 12 2010 10:38 AM

In Defense of Elizabeth Edwards

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Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Hanna, when I read the excerpt about John and Elizabeth Edwards from Game Change in New York magazine , I winced nearly the entire time. Not because I did not believe that Elizabeth Edwards had been pretty nasty to her subordinates. I believe that. But because the narrative of John's affair was the typical sexist narrative-unsympathetic, overweight wife drives husband into the arms of a more attractive younger woman who soothes his ego. I'm not even saying that I believe this account of the Elizabeth/John/Rielle love triangle to be untrue. It's just so unfortunate, especially when one considers the extenuating circumstances of the Edwards' marriage-a dead son, the terminal cancer.

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And I am not the only one driven to defend Elizabeth. The Daily Beast's Lee Seigel wrote a good column about it in which he presents a counter narrative for the Edwards' relationship:

The death of their oldest son in 1996, when he was about 17, changed the Edwards’ lives. They blamed themselves; they blamed each other. Politics kept them together; politics drove them apart. The more John triumphed, the further he drifted away from Elizabeth. His triumphs made Elizabeth satisfied; they also made her desperate. Her cancer brought death back into their lives. He grew distant; she became enraged. He found a new image of himself, a new woman who bought it, and started a new life with her, free of death: his son’s, his wife’s. Elizabeth kept him with her to console herself with an imaginary future, and to punish him. The lying, the delusion, the denial-they were all honest falsehoods pouring out of real emotions. John’s self-destruction was how he almost consciously paid himself back for his delusions.

Commenters in Hanna's post also took up for Elizabeth, most notably elisabeth51, who is also a cancer survivor , and who has a Barbara Ehrenreich-like anti-pink ribbon take on Elizabeth Edwards's life with cancer:

Everyone is different in her response, but my own experience has been that no matter how much you put on a good front in public, having had a lot of cancer treatment only to find out that you have metastasized, does make you a little more impatient about some things, a little more frustrated than you may have been before, a little more-than-wistful about the ways in which you wanted your life to work out that are now probably not going to happen. And, so yeah, despite what the pink-ribbon narrative predicts, you may indeed lash out sometimes or often!

No matter what sort of person Elizabeth Edwards is or how much money she has (and the New York excerpt goes out of its way to point out Elizabeth's wealth: "The people around them marveled at Elizabeth’s callousness-this from a woman whose family had multiple houses and a net worth in the tens of millions"), her circumstances are deeply unhappy.

Photograph of Elizabeth Edwards by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.