I have followed the John Edwards scandal since it broke in 2007, seeking to understand the women involved. I was most interested in Elizabeth Edwards. She struck me as a smart woman, a woman with dignity. I felt compassion for her, and I wondered what her life was like. I was impressed with the way she handled the scandal and her health problems. Her children, her life, her death. I was sad when she passed, and I hoped that whatever had plagued her from all of this had released her, left her in peace.
Now that John Edwards’ trial is underway, I have questions about other women. The elderly woman, “Bunny” Mellon, who gave Edwards payments that were allegedly used to hide his mistress. That woman is undoubtedly, as they say, a character. She begs for dialogue. But I wouldn’t write it.
Not until I learned that Andrew Young and his wife, Cheri, had agreed to say that John’s child was Andrew’s, that Andrew had had the affair with Rielle, did I have another woman who truly piqued my curiosity: Cheri Young. What was that conversation like, I wondered. Was it easy for Cheri to pretend her husband had had a child with another woman? Did she take the money and run, or did she have any qualms about it? What did she tell her family? Her friends? Oh, the questions I had—they could spin quite a scene or two, if I let them!
But I didn’t have to spin the scene. The media did it for me.
Yesterday this headline appeared on the AP: “Wife of Edwards Aide Breaks Down on Witness Stand.”
In her testimony, Mrs. Young described a conference call with her husband, John Edwards, and Rielle Hunter, in which the plan—the lie—that Andrew Young was the father of Rielle’s child was hatched. According to Mrs. Young, patriotic pressure abounded: “Everybody was on board but me…I didn’t want the campaign to explode and for it to be my fault. I ultimately decided to live with a lie.”
She didn’t want the campaign to explode, and for it to be her fault. Not John Edwards’ fault, for having an affair that resulted in a child. Her fault, for telling the truth. She felt she needed to lie “…for the good of the country.”
I find this story fascinating for a couple of reasons. First of all, the campaign did explode. Elizabeth Edwards, for whom these machinations were supposedly created as a form of protective deception, had to deal with the truth about her husband while dealing with breast cancer. The campaign went nowhere, and John Edwards is most likely going to jail. The truth, my friends, will out.
But that’s not all that’s fascinating. There’s also this woman, Cheri. Weeping on the stand, and telling the truth five years later. What would have happened if she’d told the truth then? I certainly understand why she buckled under pressure: few of us ever have to make a moral choice that stark. Cheri made the choice of least resistance, and while I wish she had been stronger at the time, I don’t condemn her for it. I think most of us—especially women—are encouraged to walk the path of least resistance by those in power.
Here is a scandal, like so many, that has a man seeking power at the center, surrounded by women who keep him there. A wife, a mistress, the wife of an aide. Each played a role, each wanted John Edwards to be the next President of the United States. Each had her private motives, her private regrets. Each, in her own way, was victim and victor at once.
In one way or another, John Edwards hurt each of these women, and they all kept quiet about it, for a time. To that point, I have largely ignored Rielle Hunter—I saw the pictures from her GQ interview, and dismissed her as profit-seeking. That was unfair of me. Listen to what she says in that interview: “I’m not a predator, I’m not a gold digger, I’m not the stalker. I didn’t have any power in that way in our relationship. He held all the power.” Surely, she was simplifying the matter. And she could have been lying. But I suspect she wasn’t. There are, of course, predatory, profit-seeking women. But there are fewer of them than the media would have us believe. And power is far more complicated than a reductive formula of seducer and seduced.
Again and again, I read stories of women and power—women abdicating power, women allowing a man with power to bully, confuse, or seduce them. Women who don’t realize just how much power they have, shrinking before the certainty of a man who wants more power than he deserves. Women who do realize they have some power, but choose to exercise it behind the scenes, rather than stepping forward, speaking truth, and letting power flow from its source.
Again and again, the stories that fascinate me bring me to this conclusion: women need to nurture our own sense of inner power, our capabilities, our voices, our faith, and our willingness to act. So that each of us, when faced with a personal dilemma of power, is able to speak for ourselves, and for truth. Therein lies the key to deep personal and cultural change, a sea-change of perspective.
Therein lies a kind of freedom that women, as a whole, have never known.