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Who’s afraid of Client 9?

I’m feeling oddly tongue-tied in the wake of the pop psychology gabfest spawned by the ever-evolving sex scandals of the New York governor’s office. Even though I happened to be in New York when the whole Eliot Spitzer thing was unfurling, and every other conversation had something to do with hookers or managed to incorporate cheesy innuendo about “Client 9.” I’m still not entirely clear as to what we’re supposed to take away from this.

But, by God, we need something. The Spitzer narrative, its many lurid subplots, and now the peccadilloes of the new N.Y. “Luv Gov” and his wife have demanded not just around-the-clock reporting but a breathless “cultural dialogue” suggesting that a huge percentage of Americans have quit their day jobs and turned into amateur psychologists. And they’re still yammering away.

This newspaper alone declared, among many other analyses, that Silda Walls Spitzer’s cuckolding killed feminism (courtesy Elizabeth Wurtzel on this page, March 18) or that it revived it (Hugo Schwyzer, gender studies professor from Pasadena, the next day in a “Blowback” opinion piece on latimes.com). The Times brandished dueling interpretations of evolutionary biology (David P. Barash, in a March 12 Op-Ed article about harem-forming males, and Jennie Dushek, in a March 18 “Blowback,” standing up for female infidelity in the animal kingdom as proof of gender equality).

The Spitzer affair also turned serious broadcast channels into subsidiaries of Lifetime, while the non- and semi-serious had a field day. On NBC’s “Today,” Dr. Laura insinuated that men were driven to cheat because “these days women don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how they can give their men what they need.” Moments later, anthropologist Helen Fisher explained that Spitzer’s “high cheek bones and very heavy brow ridge” were “signs of extremely high testosterone.” (Translation: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver are either completely doomed or perfectly matched, depending on how you look at it.)

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So why, despite this avalanche of chatter, do we still seem hungry for even more chatter? Why are so many people continuing to chew on the Spitzers as if the secret to marital happiness is embedded in the talking point of the next pundit? More important, why didn’t Spitzer’s replacement, David A. Paterson, manage to defang the whole subject by announcing on his second day in office that he and his wife had had extramarital affairs in the past?

Paterson’s admission, of course, was a damage-control measure, but it also slapped down certain naive American ideas about marriage in a way that was almost French (after all, the funeral of French President Francois Mitterrand was attended by his wife, his mistress and his illegitimate daughter).

Paterson wasn’t bragging about his exploits. For a moment, I thought he might show us all just how unsophisticated our sanctimony was starting to make us seem. For a moment, I thought he’d shame us into moving on. But somehow, we’re still here.

Part of that, obviously, is because sex gets ratings, and there’s no better news hook than an actual hooker. But the enduring fascination with this scandal transcends titillating headlines and the vaguely surrealist effect of watching Larry King and Diane Sawyer getting personal with ladies of the night.

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At its core, it reveals how much uncertainty exists within even the strongest and most enduring relationships. Deeper still, it hints at how hard we’ll work -- and how exhausted we’ll become in the process -- in the effort to eliminate that uncertainty. In much the same way the Bush administration was convinced that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, humans desperately want to think that long-term sexual monogamy works. We want to believe that, through some combination of willpower, luck and, as Cosmo might say, “smart love moves,” we will neither cheat nor be cheated upon.

But few things in life are less controllable than the urges and actions of other people, even those with whom we believe we have the greatest intimacy. There exists in even the healthiest and sanest relationships an element of chaos, out of which no amount of therapy or “active listening” can create order. That chaos can keep us interested as readily as it can make us want to give up.

Although I’m still not sure which angle of the Spitzer saga offers the most insight into intimate relationships, I do suspect that what keeps us hanging on every word has less to do with fascination than with fear. The idea that sexual betrayal, although certainly not inevitable, might belong more to the realm of probability than possibility is downright terrifying.

No wonder we keep searching for meaning in a story whose real meaning is something we don’t exactly want to know.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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