Who could not admire Elizabeth Edwards? Mother of a dead teenager, cancer patient and political spouse. Each role a burden. So when the new book Game Change characterized the (soon to be former) wife of John Edwards as “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending everywoman” I had to get my hands on the book to read the whole incriminating excerpt. I also re-read Elizabeth Edwards’s two books, Saving Graces and Resilience. Both Saving Graces and Resilience are worth a read. When I teach communication at Penn State, I tell my students that the “rhetorical situation” is any set of circumstances that invites an utterance or writing that aims to influence others. I’m influenced, indeed, by Elizabeth Edwards.
Political spouses are especially interesting to me, since they are, in most cases, thrust into the spotlight as surrogates to their spouse-candidate. If John Edwards never ran for political office, it is most unlikely that we would have ever heard of Elizabeth Edwards.
Edwards’s latest book, Resilience, is unique. Unlike other books in the ‘wronged’ political wife genre (the collection is getting thick), this book is most reflective, sad and inspiring. Clearly the stake in Elizabeth Edwards’s heart was the untimely death of her first born son, Wade and not so much the intrusion of Rielle Hunter into her marriage. I have no doubt that Elizabeth Edwards was at times difficult on the campaign trail. Put anyone of us out of our comfort zone of hearth, home and regular routine and you will be surprised how quickly any of us would unravel. Like most of the women I know, the Elizabeth Edwards that emerges is smart, sad, trying to be strong, loving, and in desperate need to share her side of the story. Of particular value to parents of children who have died is the book Resilience. In this book she shares the most private, personal pain a person could possibly endure.
Besides the sobering lessons in Edwards’s book is the sad reality that most of the time the American press does not allow our political spouses to go beyond one dimension. The media wants not even sound bites from our political spouses, but “picture bites” usually of Barbie-doll like perfection, demure, uncomplicated and ultimately quiet. If they don’t match that picture, they are characterized as the opposite: shrill and unacceptable. Elizabeth Edwards is a one-time political spouse, but more than that, I believe by telling her stories in two books she has inched forward the stagnant image of the political spouse in a way that not even Hillary Clinton has done. Elizabeth Edwards isn’t running for anything. In a quiet, dignified way she has told her story. From her story of pain and pleasure, a complete person emerges, defying the usual stereotype of one-dimensional political spouses. I am indifferent about the political candidate John Edwards and I am sure his story will quickly recede from public interest. Elizabeth Edwards, however has made a lasting contribution with her books and I am grateful to have learned more about her.
Nichola D. Gutgold is author of several books on women’s communication styles. www.nicholagutgold.com