Elizabeth Edwards died of breast cancer this week — a disease that disproportionately affects Ashkenazi Jewish women. Edwards left legions of admirers and readers devastated. While she was (unfortunately) most recently in the headlines for her husband’s sordid affair, the quality that most inspired the public devotion and fascination for Edwards was her honesty about the tragedies that befell her — the death of teenage son and her own cancer diagnosis, long before she faced John’s infidelity.
And in the wake of those calamities, she chose not wall herself off, which would have been more than understandable; instead, she put her energies into helping others who didn’t have what she had. Some considered the Edwardses class traitors for enjoying personal luxury while crusading for the poor, but I always felt it worthwhile of them to acknowledge their privilege, while keeping the spotlight on society’s suffering members.
Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and writer of fiction about women, strip poles and sexual guilt, Mary Gaitskill read a story at Franklin Park bar in Brooklyn on April 12 in which cuckolded political wives Silda Spitzer and Elizabeth Edwards become the Eves to Ashley Dupré’s and Rielle Hunter’s Liliths, and in doing so they take a muted sort of revenge by way of compulsory pedicures in Queens.
Gaitskill prefaced the reading of her story, “The Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon,” which was originally published in New York magazine, by asking the packed room who had heard of the myth of Lilith. A few tentative hands rose. For the rest, she quickly sketched a figurative picture of Adam’s first wife, created from dirt like him, an equal and therefore rightfully unwilling to obey. Gaitskill’s austere gaze warmed when she engaged and audience and read her prose aloud.
Great writers make careful use of lore that came before them, and that’s just what Gaitskill’s story does with Lilith, though it likely won’t satisfy Jewish women who have worked to free Lilith of her seductress chains.
Elizabeth Edwards’ appearance, specifically her zaftig figure, may have played into her saintly reputation, which is only now taking a beating in the wake of the publication of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Game Change.” In this delicious excerpt, published in New York magazine, Heilemann and Halperin write:
Even before the cancer, she was among her husband’s greatest political assets. In one focus group conducted by Hickman in Edwards’s Senate race, voters trashed him as a pretty-boy shyster until they saw pictures of Elizabeth, four years his senior. “I like that he’s got a fat wife,” one woman said. “I thought he’d be married to a Barbie or a cheerleader.”
Which makes me wonder: If Elizabeth Edwards looked more like a trophy wife, would it have taken so long for what the “Game Change” authors call the “lie of Saint Elizabeth” to be exposed? And would reports that she is arrogant, selfish and prone to angry outbursts be so surprising? Does a Barbie look-alike or a former cheerleader or a size-0 beer heiress — even one who, like Elizabeth, has experienced great loss and is facing a terminal illness — make a more believable villain than a chubby woman who looks most of her 60 years?