Long before any of us knew about Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby-daddy, the stage was being set. And the narrative that preceded her apotheosis was one of life and death. The Palin family “chose not to murder that beautiful soul,” said an evangelical friend, as she closed her eyes and lifted her palms heavenward.
“Choosing not” to “murder” is an interesting and controversial cooptation within the abortion debate, but this particular locution had an additional resonance for me. Only weeks before, this very friend had been going on and on about the marital infidelities of John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton. “I’d kill my husband if he ever did something like that. In a New York minute.” I’d heard this sentiment before, of course–I believe Rep. Larry Craig’s wife had said something similar in public, some years before her husband was arrested in Minneapolis, in the very same airport bathroom through which so many Republican delegates are no doubt traipsing all this week. That Mrs. Craig did not in fact murder her husband was a source of some barely suppressed disappointment to my friend. She herself is loaded for bear.
In a nation where one-third of teenage girls will get pregnant (though few bear them to term) and one half of all marriages will end in divorce, we nevertheless do love the litany of how shocked! and outraged! we are at the loose morals of others. Hidden within these repetitive passion plays about cheating and betrayal, however, is a narrative that is quite confining when it comes to complex notions of women as autonomous or liberated. Here’s a paraphrased but no doubt familiar progression of the discussion about cheating politicians: Men are dogs. How can they be so stupid? They have no brains. Their nether organs do their thinking for them. Why does he do this to his good, honorable, long-suffering wife? Why does she stand beside him, so stoically, so stiff with humiliation? Why doesn’t she leave him, let him stand on that podium and apologize to the world by himself? Why doesn’t she kill him?
Universally it boils down to that hyperbolic but emphatic refrain: “I swear, I’d kill him.”
There’s a certain kind of Lorena Bobbitt-ish bottom line in this well-practiced narrative; Lorena, you will recall, just picked up the proverbial kitchen carving knife and chopped off her husband’s offending organ. In other Western countries, there is surely scandal, scandal everywhere, just like in the United States. What’s different here, I think, is that our political imbroglios are drenched in subliminal desire that the wife murder the husband. Symbolically speaking, of course. In Europe, it seems to me, it’s more casual, less deadly; maybe she’ll let loose and poison his pasta, but more likely she’ll get out there and have a few affairs of her own, like Cecilia Sarkozy or Ségolène Royal.
Here in the United States, there’s not merely the element of rage and loss that accompanies any heartbreak, there’s also the medievally misogynistic media/cultural assumption that if a husband doesn’t love his middle-aged wife, no one else ever will. A woman over 40 is dead, love-wise. Her lying, cheating husband didn’t just humiliate her, he took away her honor and her life, his fidelity being her only tribute to desirability. If she doesn’t have the comforting catharsis of killing him, metaphorically at least, she’ll die alone, shriveled and prune-like, and covered in bristles.