The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

By Louise DeSalvo
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. $20

Reviewed by Sheila Bender

Book Review January/February 2000

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What do Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton, Henry Miller, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, James Waller (author of The Bridges of Madison County), Dante, and Kinsey have in common? According to Louise DeSalvo, they all experienced or understood the power of an adultery story to inspire other adulteries. In reading about adultery, DeSalvo explains, you “measure your own humdrum life against the passionate and dangerous life depicted” and find your partner wanting and your life unfulfilled. You think you’ve always done what others wanted you to do, never what you wanted to do yourself:
Everything that, a few days before, seemed wonderful (your partner, your home) and meaningful (your life together, your job) and adorable (your kids, the dog, the cats. . . .), everything that, at the very least, you thought was bearable and tolerable (the condition of marriage), now seems trivial and meaningless: a compromise, a trap even.

Next, someone who seemed ordinary suddenly has an aura, and the flirtation begins. Ultimately, it is not the sex that glues the adulterous relationship together but the talking about sex and the power these stories have to transform our idea of ourselves. 

“An adultery story,” DeSalvo argues, 

always tries to determine whether we are in control of our desire or whether these feelings are beyond our ability to manage them. And these—yearning, loss, desire, sorrow, autonomy—are, at least in my experience, the fundamental bedrock of the chastened human soul.

The chastened human soul is what DeSalvo explores and even celebrates in her concise personal narrative Adultery, weaving memories—of her grandfather and his probable adulteries, of her first lover from high school days, of her husband’s affair and its aftershocks—together with information from the Kinsey Report and her own interpretations of literary fiction and recent public events.

DeSalvo views herself as always having been hypersexual, probably as a result of three different things: the inappropriate attentions of a child- care worker when she was young; her mother’s and sister’s depression; and her discovery that she liked the feelings in her body, did not have to destroy herself with guilt, and could learn through sex the “sanctity” of her “integrity as a human being.” Studying The Scarlet Letter in high school, Desalvo writes, she wanted “to discuss whether what Hester did could properly be called a ‘sin’ at all, even according to Puritan standards.” She also wanted to know “why women were thought to be fundamentally base in Puritan culture.” And she wanted “a frank discussion of . . .  when adultery or infidelity was permissible, and if so under what conditions.” Unsurprisingly, she never got to have these discussions, which the Kinsey Report—another book she first read during those years—called “difficult if not impossible.”

Her own book’s jacket warns that “unless you consciously (or unconsciously) want to jet propel yourself into committing adultery, reading about it isn’t a good idea,” but I experienced the book as a path to understanding adultery, not committing it. DeSalvo makes the “impossible” discourse completely possible. Of Bill Clinton, she writes that he may have been using adultery to establish his autonomy while holding a job that leaves him little privacy. Her husband’s adultery, she writes, was also about autonomy, “a way of claiming that life is still worth living when it seems that, though we’ve gotten what we’ve wanted, we’ve lost more in the process than we’ve gained.” She forgave her husband, she reports, because she not only understands adultery as “very, very adolescent” but also knows firsthand “the addictive pleasure of adolescent sex.” And she adds that, despite the struggle of getting her marriage back on course, his adultery helped transform her into someone she enjoys, a realist believing with Virginia Woolf that marriage is a “solitude without loneliness.” Something like this may be what DeSalvo has in mind when she writes that adultery “is a critical emotional experience in many of our lives. But not many of us talk about it, not many of us acknowledge it, not many of us have taken the time to understand the lessons it can teach.”

I read DeSalvo’s book on a recent airplane journey. Fellow passengers, having seen the title, glanced over at me again and again. My seatmate repeatedly interrupted my reading to joke uncomfortably, but I was so absorbed in DeSalvo’s words, I hardly heard his. DeSalvo deserves our thanks for bringing thoughtfulness and revelation, growth and learning to a subject we too often respond to narrowly and with more emotion than honesty. Her book shows us both the ways in which people are controlled by biology and the ways they grow as a result of having to deal with it.

Sheila Bender is the author of a new collection of poems, Sustenance, from Daniel and Daniel Publishing, as well as several books on writing, including Writing Personal Poetry, Creating Poems from Life Experience, and Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page. She teaches writing for the University of Arizona Extended University and the Colorado Mountain Writer’s Workshop.

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