Of all the details in Hillary Clinton’s biography that might resonate with the electorate—her modest upbringing, tenacious parents, struggle to integrate work and life—the most resonant might be the one she doesn’t talk about: She is married to a serial adulterer.
This is not a secret or a scandal anymore. There’s no need for Clinton to cover up her marital history as her rival does his tax records. Far from evidence of wrongdoing or venality, her experience is proof of extraordinary resilience. Gerald Ford faced his wife Betty’s bruising alcoholism; Hillary Clinton faced Bill’s bruising treachery.
The fact is Clinton has shown heroism in a cycle of infidelity and denial visited on her by a troubled, if brilliant, husband. This is a cycle from which recovery—by the adulterer’s spouse—demands extreme resourcefulness, discipline, courage, humor and perhaps even hospitality to earnest apology by the cheater. (Angelic practices of “patience” and “forgiveness,” often sexist conceits, are not necessary.)
Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have shown all these qualities, and more, as do millions upon millions of people deceived and gaslighted by unfaithful partners. The private pain of deception is exponentially compounded by the imperative, often issued by the adulterer himself, not to talk about it.
The same progress that has lifted taboos on everything from divorce to premarital sex to gay marriage can make principled objection to adultery seem prudish.
Seventeen years ago Clinton said her husband’s sexual compulsions stemmed from a childhood pressure to please both his grandmother and his mother. Maybe so. It’s typical in the first blush of discovery for family members to seek to extenuate the psychic violence of betrayal by finding “reasons” that loved ones chronically humiliate themselves.
But too often explanations for sick behavior in any idiom (Freudian, behavioral, neurological) can slide into self-blame, as they did for Clinton, who, also in 1999, told a friend that she was (according to the friend’s notes), “not smart enough, not sensitive enough, not free enough of her own concerns and struggles” to realize how hard Bill had it.
Fortunately, it seems Clinton has put aside this misguided self-savagery. It must have become undeniable to her that (as they say in Al Anon, the program for the loved ones of alcoholics) “I didn’t cause it, can’t cure it, can’t control it.” Whether she has also recovered from the pressure to keep silent is less clear.
The secrets and lies that are the stock in trade of adulterers—and that permanently impeach their moral authority—can be crazy-making, or even lethal, to his or her spouse and children. In 2012, Mary Richardson Kennedy, wife of the adulterer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose open-secret infidelities were never widely reported in deference to his famous family, hanged herself. Whatever else drove her to despair, she had also recently suffered a humiliating experience: Soon after Robert filed for divorce, he began to appear in public with his girlfriend.
Infidelity is not against the law in the United States, as it is in some places. Some studies show that 25% of American partnerships contend with it over the course of the relationship. (That, of course, means three-quarters of partnerships do not. Cheaters—like Anthony Wiener, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards—really are a disturbed minority.)
But the same social progress that has lifted taboos on everything from divorce to premarital sex to gay marriage can make principled objection to adultery seem prudish. The pain it inflicts on families seems like something that must be sucked up rather than firmly decried and healed where possible, contingent on the sincerity of a cheater’s lifetime amends.
If, in the next debate, Donald Trump ventures to ask Hillary Clinton about her husband’s infidelities, I hope she’ll see this not as an attack to be tightly parried but as a lob to be smashed. I hope she’ll see how breaking her silence can help the many women and men who may grieve yet steadfastly refuse to blame themselves, seek their own happiness, and flourish in spite of marital betrayal.
Trump: So Hillary, what do have to say about your cheating husband?
Clinton: I’m glad you asked, Donald. My husband, like tens of millions of people — like you — has sometimes acted less than honorably in marriage. Partly this campaign is for all the men who want to be their best selves but who struggle with social conditioning or personal demons that make life harder for them, but who also deserve love and understanding.
It’s also for the women and kids who have shown grit and self-reliance in spite of hard times at home. I regard these people with deep admiration. They have risen from setbacks—and sometimes deep shame, as I once felt—to accomplish great things, to persevere.
Virginia Heffernan’s new book is “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.”