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The Fall of John Edwards: Did Unresolved Grief Play a Role?

probing the psychology of John Edwards' transgressions

Recently, belatedly, John Edwards issued a statement admitting that the child of a former campaign worker was his and that his earlier denials were lies. John Edwards' story of a fall from grace through personal temptation and subsequent loss of a promising political career, and marital breakup is the story of hubris of classical Greek proportions. It also was another striking example from politics of an embarrassing cover up that was worse in many ways than the original offense itself. In this case, a federal investigation of the spending of campaign funds is underway.

Although my blogs are under the heading of crimes of violence and my interest is in the complex motives behind such crimes, this blog is concerned with the motives involved in another form of bad behavior-a well-publicized extramarital affair. This article is an attempt not to excuse but to explain, an attempt to find some rational explanation of why a man who had achieved such national prominence would risk throwing it all away on a seemingly insignificant relationship. To unravel the mystery, let us review from the popular literature and from Elizabeth Edwards' memoir, Resilience, some of the basic facts about Edwards' life:

1977-marriage of John and Elizabeth
1996-death of 16 year-old son in a car crash, an event John Edwards later said was the most significant in his life
1998-2000-Elizabeth receives fertility treatment and at ages 48 and 50 gives birth to two children as a way to help John heal from the loss; she also takes on for the first time his last name.
2003, September, Edwards announces his decision to run for president of the U.S.
2004-Elizabeth is diagnosed with breast cancer.
2007, March-The Edwards publicly announce that her cancer has returned and that it is incurable.
2008-birth of Edward's child by videographer Reille Hunter

According to the recently published tell-all Game Change in America, Reille Hunter, who was seductive and unremarkable in every way, swept Edwards off his feet to the extent he was spending a great deal of time and money on the relationship, even putting Hunter on the campaign payroll and arranging for her relocation and housing expenses. John Edwards has not been able to explain his high risk-taking sexual behavior; nor has his wife. On the surface, this behavior is strikingly out of sync with Edwards' highly successful political career and his well organized presidential campaign.

To paraphrase a line from Tennessee Williams, the opposite of death is desire. I want to contemplate the possibility that John Edwards was escaping from a dread of illness and death by indulging into an unlikely sexual relationship as a way of escape from painful realities. A review of the classic book on death and dying, The Denial of Death by Becker might provide some clues. Drawing on Freudian concepts and the work of Otto Rank, Becker suggests that the psychological defense mechanism of denial protects us from the horrors of death. Such denial keeps us going and makes life bearable. Sex becomes a "screen for terror" blocking out the fear of death. Sexual behavior to Otto Rank can best be understood in terms of the individual's desire to control his or her own mortality.

Although there is little in the contemporary research literature concerning the relationship between unresolved or anticipatory grief and high-risk sexual behavior, research on teens who have suffered significant loss of a loved one does reveal such a connection. The popular literature, for example, the film How to Make an American Quilt contains a scene in which a widow who recently lost the love of her life seeks comfort in sex with her friend's husband.

As the attacks on John Edwards' character continue unabated, we can at least consider the denial of death as a possible explanation for some otherwise inexplicable behavior.