‘Resilience’ by Elizabeth Edwards
Let’s face it. Most people who pick up this short but surprisingly deep memoir by Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, are looking for one thing and one thing only -- the dirt on his infidelity with videographer Rielle Hunter. And it’s here, though sparingly. In fact, the strength of this book lies in how little of it actually has to do with John Edwards’ caddish behavior.
That affair was, Elizabeth Edwards writes, a gut-wrenching addition to a life marked by tragedies sudden and inevitable, from the 1996 car-crash death of Wade, her oldest child, to the slow physical disintegration of her beloved parents; her discovery at a young age that her mother believed her father had had an affair, and -- finally -- the cancer that she has been battling since 2004 and that she expects will kill her.
Despite initial media accounts of “Resilience” (“After I cried and screamed, I went to the bathroom and threw up”), and the much-talked about Oprah interview Thursday, Edwards’ battle with cancer and Wade’s death dominate the new book, even more so than her 2006 memoir, “Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength From Friends and Strangers.” “Resilience,” in fact, can be viewed as a coda to “Saving Graces” -- a meditation on her life after learning about her husband’s affair and the resurgence of her cancer.
The big question -- one that Hillary Clinton also has faced -- is why stay with him? For Edwards, the answer is clear. More than a romance, the marriage is a shared sense of purpose, of how to engage the world -- a partnership that transcended fidelity. "[A]lthough I no longer knew what I could trust between the two of us,” she writes, “I knew I could trust in our work together.”
In the early part of “Resilience” the rage, hurt and sense of betrayal simmers just below the surface, discernible in subtle ways. She dedicates the book to her parents, and in the one-page acknowledgment mentions her children, her parents again, her brother and sister and a family friend and her editor. But not John Edwards.
More telling, in the opening section describing her father’s near-fatal stroke (and his remarkable 18 more years of life), Edwards writes of having to leave his hospital bedside to update “my children, ten-year-old Wade and eight-year-old Cate, where they waited in the hall with their father.” Not “my husband” but her children’s father. A wound still clearly gapes.
But not as widely as the wound left when Wade lost control of his wind-buffeted car 13 years ago, which “flipped, and flipped, until all of the life of the boy was pressed from him. And from me.” In the months afterward the couple turned to each other for support and solace, stumbled through the darkness together and emerged into something of a permanent half-light, always in the shadow of the dead child.
Edwards borrows a metaphor from the father of another dead child she met through a support network, describing the family as a table with four legs. Wade’s death knocked one of the legs out and as the family struggled to balance the essentials of their lives on it, the table kept tipping over until they managed to reconfigure it into a three-legger. It was the same table, and the same family, but also different, adapted to a new reality and, with the birth of her two youngest children, a different configuration.
Edwards’ emotions are still raw after all these years, and the pain screams out, stretching the meditation on her son’s death a bit thin. “Get on with things,” you think as you read. But that’s Edwards’ point -- she really can’t get on with things. “I don’t have to bury the memory to accept that I have buried the boy,” she writes. She borrows another metaphor. To continue to live, she must adjust her sails, so she does, her life carried off in a different direction.
Edwards ties that soul-shattering experience to her husband’s infidelity, seeing them both as shifts in the wind, crises in her life to be survived -- the “resilience” of her title. But she cautions this is not a how-to book for coping. It is her story and her wistful desire to turn back the hands of time.
Her opening scene is of a doctor pronouncing her stricken father brain-dead and his fight to live on -- which he did for those many years, though she wished for the family’s life before the stroke. She writes eloquently about the agony of life after Wade’s death, the stubborn refusal to sever such physical connections as his room, and the backpack that sat unmoved in a hallway for several years -- and the persistent wish for their life before his death.
And she writes unsparingly about her “gift” to John Edwards -- forgiveness -- but also about the slow rebuilding of three decades of trust that vanished with the affair. After he confessed his infidelity -- an incomplete confession, it turns out, that lived on until the public revelations a year later -- she found herself again wishing for the past.
“All I wanted was my life back,” she writes. “I didn’t like this new life story; I wanted my old one. It felt so much like after Wade died -- I wanted to turn back time so we could avoid the wind, avoid the woman, avoid the pain. Open a drawer and find my life again. But I would open a drawer and find my new reality instead. . . . I would look at a happy family picture and break down. I tried to write and could not. Even now it is hard to put it into words.”
But she managed and, in places, beautifully. Edwards emerged from her husband’s shadow in the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns on the power of her personality, and the sense that even though she knew how to stick to the talking points she was still her own person, such as in her support of gay marriage, willing to take her own stances.
And she does here. It’s a small book but a powerful one. And when you finish it you have not just a deeper understanding of Elizabeth Edwards but also a better appreciation for the strength of will it can take to survive.
Martelle is an Irvine-based journalist and author of “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.”