Is Elizabeth Edwards a green-eyed monster savaging her straying husband and his lover in her new book to satisfy her lust for vengeance?
That's the opinion of some prominent critics -- especially women -- who see Elizabeth, with little sympathy, as a woman scorned and out for payback.
Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times, "Now Saint Elizabeth has dragged him [her husband John] back into the public square for a flogging on Oprah and in Time and at bookstores near you." And Dowd speaks of Elizabeth's desire "to prosecute her husband and his former girlfriend now in public, while still taking the marriage "month by month."
In The Daily Beast, Tina Brown says that Edwards' new book, Resilience, "just drags us back into the messy aftermath of the election season at a time when we are now busy trying to get on with a collapsing economy and save our own lives." Guess who captures Brown's sympathy?
"It almost made me feel sorry for the Democratic twinkie John, who was always under the illusion that he was the next JFK," she writes.
But let me offer up another explanation for Elizabeth Edwards' book, in which -- though you'd never know it from the media -- her husband's affair is a small part of the story of her life. Edwards, I believe, is seeking something more profound than mere vengeance. It's about who owns her story, and through that narrative, herself.
One of the major themes to emerge from the second wave of the women's movement of the 70s was the desire of women to be, at long last, at the center of their own stories. They no longer wanted to be somebody's mother, somebody's wife, somebody's victim, somebody's muse, or the object of somebody's desire.
In those days, the idea of women as actors in their own right, uncoupled from the Male Gaze, was a radical one. Joseph Campbell, the famous scholar of mythology, was once asked if women could have a quest, a journey of their own. He said no, because women were the objects of quests by men. "Women don't need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she's the place that people are trying to get to."
Elizabeth Edwards wants to present her life on her own terms. She wants to tell us of a life that mattered. She doesn't want history's picture of her to be the one we've seen so often with political wives. They stand beside their straying spouses, mute in support, and then shuffle off into the shadows of politics and history.
Edwards' breast cancer has metastasized into her bones. She knows she is coming prematurely to the end of her life. She doesn't have many years ahead of her, as Hillary Clinton did, to forge her own story and triumph in her own right.
Edwards burst onto the national scene as the best spokesperson for her husband's bid for the presidency. A smart, shrewd lawyer who devoted much of her life to John Edwards' career, she quickly became the darling of the media for her wit, her warmth, and for her life story. The tragic loss of a young son led to her having two more children, and she often advocated for children as she traveled with her handsome husband and shared his crusade against poverty in America,
Of course, if it seemed too good to be true, it was. As John Edwards was using his family story as a selling point for his candidacy, he was playing footsie with a videographer he hired to work for his campaign, and with whom he may have fathered a child. When the affair was discovered, Edwards' political career plunged flaming into the sea like a Kamikaze aircraft.
And his wife suddenly went from courageous, smart political player to that most banal of stereotypes, the Wronged Wife, silent, pitiful and often cruelly mocked. She couldn't hang onto her man, what kind of a woman is she?
This implicit notion rings through the critics' words. Many seem more sympathetic to the mistress, Rielle Hunter, than to Edwards. Maureen Dowd wrote that Edwards book "exposes the ex-girlfriend, who's now trying to raise the baby girl, a dead ringer for John Edwards, in South Orange, N.J."
So Edwards' desire to tell her own story should be curtailed to protect the woman who seduced -- or was seduced by -- her husband? Everyone loved Elizabeth when she was the loyal wife or brave cancer victim. But when she stepped out of that role, disapproval followed. Tina Brown wrote, "There was deep public sympathy over the tragedy of the death of their son Wade and later for her brave, unflinching confrontation with a deadly disease."
But when she abandons the role of all-suffering wife, beware.
Brown again: "Most people I know thought that Elizabeth looked like an overbearing chief of staff and were mystified that her interruptions were tolerated by someone as clearly in love with himself as John."
As the late critic Carolyn Heilbrun pointed out, "Above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one's life ...Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over -- take control of -- their own lives."
Elizabeth Edwards has taken hold of the one power she has left -- being able to tell her own story. She's not thinking of her husband or her children or the other woman or the other woman's child. She's claiming something for herself. Judge her if you will -- for being too trusting, too ambitious, too willing to serve her husband's ambition, too smart, too angry, whatever.
But let her have her say.
Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."