‘Staying True’ by Jenny Sanford

Jenny and Mark Sanford attend a White House dinner hosted by President Obama. Jenny Sanford's memoir, "Staying True," details a difficult marriage.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

I believe it was my mother who first admonished me never to presume that “you know what really goes on in another person’s marriage.”

Well, Mom, meet the Sanfords of South Carolina, whose odd and tumultuous union is now an open book, thanks to “Staying True,” Jenny Sanford’s memoir of a marriage that only can be described as the Contract With America meets Southern gothic.

Sanford’s husband, Mark -- the governor of South Carolina -- was once a rising star in the national Republican firmament. Then, last June, he disappeared from office for nearly a week, ostensibly to go “hiking on the Appalachian Trail.” As it turned out, he was in South America for a tryst with his Argentine mistress.

After that, things went from bad to worse, personally and politically. Gov. Sanford’s long, incoherently confessional television interviews didn’t do much to help matters, and this book, for all its more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, clearly seems intended as the last nail in the coffin.

The former first lady, a one-time investment banker with Lazard Frères, is smart, focused and very angry. For all the pious references to forgiveness stitched throughout the narrative, revenge is a barely concealed subtext.

And revenge she gets, but there’s a good bit of collateral damage in what’s just as obviously unintended self-revelation. In fact, by the time we get to the affair late in the book, it’s a bit of a relief, since this is about the first normative impulse either of the Sanfords seems to have had during their marriage.

Take, for example, the future governor’s haggling over their wedding vows, because he was reluctant to promise to be faithful. Now, why do we think somebody might have that sort of reservation?

Sanford spends a great deal of time describing her heroic efforts to accommodate what she repeatedly calls her husband’s “frugality.” Frugality! If this guy is frugal, the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge was thrifty.

Consider this anecdote: Never good about presents -- early in their marriage he gave her “half” a used bicycle -- and momentarily remorseful for all the time he was spending away from his family while serving in Washington as a congressman, he had an aide buy a diamond necklace and hide it in the family home.

On the morning of his wife’s birthday, he faxed clues so she could have “a treasure hunt.” She was overjoyed when she found the necklace and wore it to dinner when he returned home. “That is what I spent all that money on?” he said. “I hope you kept the box.”

According to Sanford’s account, “He returned the necklace the next day, thinking it was not worth the money he had spent. He could see I was disappointed. . . . In truth, once I knew he thought he had overspent, I also knew it would pain him to see me wear the necklace had I insisted on keeping it. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable wearing it in his presence, so what was the point?”

The unintentional point, of course, has to do with the power of martyrdom. As Sanford informs us elsewhere in the book, “Women were made for sacrifice.”

And boy does she sacrifice . . . over and over and over. What’s never clear from her extended exercise in score-settling is why? The man she describes is driven, self-absorbed, pathologically cheap and 360-degrees weird. She runs his political campaigns, puts up with his habitual absences and bears him four sons.

She even believes him, she tells us here, when late in their marriage he explains an unexpected trip alone to New York by saying he needs respite from the extra stress he is feeling because the hair on the top of his head is thinning.

Gimme a break.

If you believe that, you’ll also believe Sanford really was looking for family property records when she ransacked her husband’s desk while he was away on one of many hunting trips and found the file with his love letters.

On the other hand, this guy’s self-absorption appears so complete that he demanded his wife’s permission to continue seeing his mistress because it was the first thing he’d ever done for himself. (This is the same man who voted for Bill Clinton’s impeachment and called the former president “reprehensible.”) It was then that Sanford realized “reconciliation” was impossible.

After she’s decided that neither she nor God can forgive her husband because he was “seeking his own comfort, no longer guided by a power above,” we’re asked to believe that all Jenny Sanford requires is a quiet life by the sea with her sons, long walks on the beach and her prayers.

“Even as I wrestled with what I might have seen or what I should have understood earlier,” she writes, “I refused to beat myself up. . . . I was proud to conclude that giving and doing more for our marriage than I had received in return had been the right thing to do for our family.”

Eight days after her husband’s affair came to light, Sanford took legal steps to turn her own name into a trademark. According to U.S. Patent and Trademark records first obtained and reported by NBC’s Columbia, S.C., affiliate, she applied to legally designate her name as a “good or service” (that is, a product) and to claim exclusive rights to “product merchandising to be sold at on-line retail stores featuring clothing, mugs and other household items; stickers, decals, notepads.”

Friday on ABC’s “20/20,” you can watch Jenny Sanford tell Barbara Walters that she was troubled but dutifully accommodating when her husband-to-be balked at promising fidelity: “It bothered me to some extent, but . . . we were very young. We were in love. I questioned it, but I got past it . . . along with other doubts that I had.”

A merchandise trademark, a book with inspirational potential tailor-made for the lucrative evangelical speaking circuit, a network interview with Barbara Walters.

Not a bad launch for the woman-scorned brand.