The battle over the reputation of Paula Broadwell, who had an affair with General David Petraeus, might as well be taking place on some fifteen-year-old’s Facebook page. Each side is painting such an exaggerated portrait of the slut nugget/Florence Nightingale at the center of it that you know you are in the presence of some unreliable narrators. The military men fired the shots over the weekend with their descriptions of Broadwell as a simpering seductress who flashed her bare arms and her 6 minute mile legs at the quivering older man. A “shameless self-promoting prom queen,” said one anonymous military source. A wedding crasher who “got her claws into him.” One general described her as " seemingly immune to the notion of modesty,” referring not to the affair but to the tight shirts she supposedly wore in Afghanistan.
Now, from a New York Times interview with her mom friends in the Charlotte, N.C. neighborhood where she lives with her husband and two sons we get the opposite Paula Broadwell: radiologist’s wife, serves dinner by candlelight, walks her boys to the bus stop every morning, wears a costume while handing out candy at Halloween. Raises money for wounded soldiers, mentors young girls, sews the wings back on injured birds with her strong and nimble hands. If she did have an affair, insisted her neighbor Ms. Curme, she will surely “figure her way out of this in a really positive way, without destroying anybody.” She will step up and “take accountability, and nurture her family.”
Which one is she, slutty witch or good witch? Which is the real Paula Broadwell? Such are the unsophisticated questions the nation always asks itself about women at the center of sex scandals, just as if we all had never met anyone who has had an affair or read about such a thing in a novel, and did not understand that these situations are often complicated. Is it possible that Paula Broadwell walked her two sons to the bus stop and then went home and wrote threatening e-mails to another woman who was or wasn’t also having some kind of relationship with Petraeus? Possible and in fact probable. Not all mistresses come in cartoonishly mistress-like packages such as, say, Rielle Hunter.
Broadwell was a prom queen and did a stint with Black Ops. She seemed fiendishly ambitious but then spoke honestly about her “inability to balance work and family” and how it changed her life. She wrote a book that was largely described as a “valentine” to Petraeus and then made fun of herself for doing that, telling Jon Stewart that her subject could “turn water into bottled water.” It’s painful in the Stewart clip to watch her straining to portray what was clearly extraordinary and unusual access to General Petraeus as perfectly ordinary. That said, her jokes about her husband’s advice to her on how to sell more books seem genuine and affectionate.
I have no idea what happened between those two and I suspect I never will, unless Broadwell decides to write a book about it. In the meantime, I wish my mistress archetypes were a little more creative and true to life.