Elizabeth Edwards: How I Survived John’s Affair

Elizabeth Edwards: How I Survived Johns Affair

On May 3, former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards acknowledged that a federal investigation had been opened into whether his campaign improperly gave money to a woman with whom Edwards had an extramarital affair. Edwards has denied any wrongdoing by his campaign. In an exclusive excerpt from her new book, Resilience, Edwards’ wife Elizabeth describes her reaction to learning of the affair in late 2006.

John was gone a lot in 2003 and 2004 running for office, and although I saw him all the time in 2005 when I was getting treatment for breast cancer, I knew I would see him less in 2006. I even participated in his being gone. I thought he should do a spring-break trip for college students in New Orleans to help with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup. His antipoverty work would take him across the country, and I knew that. When he told me that the political action committee was going to have behind-the-scenes videos made of some of these efforts, it didn’t seem like that bad an idea, and it certainly didn’t occur to me to ask about who was making them. It didn’t occur to me that at a fancy hotel in New York, where he sat with a potential donor to his antipoverty work, he would be targeted by a woman who would confirm that the man at the table was John Edwards and then would wait for him outside the hotel hours later when he returned from a dinner, wait with the come-on line “You are so hot” and an idea that she should travel with him and make videos. And if you had asked me to wager that house we were building on whether my husband of then 28 years would have responded to a come-on line like that, I would have said no.
John told me of his indiscretion on Dec. 30, 2006, after returning from a tour to announce that he was running for President. Before the announcement tour he had asked my brother to come with him to film it, since Jay taught film at the graduate film school at NYU, but when Jay found out another videographer was coming whether he came or not, Jay said no. Now the announcement tour was over and we were sitting in our family room, John telling us about the response in the various cities. John pulled Jay aside and asked him again to film the campaign. The female videographer who had been on the announcement tour was not going to travel with him again. John did not tell him why. The next morning he told me why, or told me a version of why. He had made a terrible decision and had been with the woman. After I cried and screamed, I went to the bathroom and threw up.

And the next day John and I spoke. He wasn’t coy, but it turned out he wasn’t forthright either. A single night and since then remorse, was what he said. There were other opportunities, he admitted, but on only one night had he violated his vows to me. So much has happened that it is sometimes hard for me to gather my feelings from that moment. I felt that the ground underneath me had been pulled away. I wanted him to drop out of the race, protect our family from this woman, from his act. It would only raise questions, he said, he had just gotten in the race; the most pointed questions would come if he dropped out days after he had gotten in the race. And I knew that was right, but I was afraid of her. And now he knows I was right to be afraid, that once he had made this dreadful mistake, he should not have run. But just then he was doing, I believe, what I was trying to do: hold on to our lives despite this awful error in judgment.

Like most wives — or husbands — in my position, I wanted to believe his involvement with this woman had been as little as possible. A single night, another opportunity, but that was it and he had wanted away from her…. It turned out that a single time was not all it was. More than a year later, I learned that he had allowed [the woman] into our lives and had not, even when he knew better, made her leave us alone. I tried to get him to explain, but he did not know himself why he had allowed it to happen. In months of talking with him, I have come to understand his liaison with this woman, if I have, not as a substitute for me. Those with any fame or notoriety or power attract people for good reasons and bad. Some want to contribute and some want to take something away for themselves. They flatter and entreat, and it is engaging, even addictive. They look at our lives, which from the outside in particular are pictures of joy and plenty, and they want it for themselves.
Just as I don’t want cancer to take over my life, I don’t want this indiscretion, however long in duration, to take over my life either. But I need to deal with both; I need to find peace with both. It is hard for John, I can see, because it is something about which he is ashamed. But his willingness to open up is a statement that he trusts me, too. For quite a long time, I used whatever he admitted in the next argument and he was hesitant to say anything. That is, gratefully, behind us. There is still a great deal of sorting through to do — the lies went on for some time. And we both understand that there are no guarantees, but the road ahead looks clear enough, although from here it looks long.

Reprinted by permission from Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities by Elizabeth Edwards. Copyright 2009 by Elizabeth Edwards. To be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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