Gina Frangello on the Anger That Smolders Behind Adultery
“I have lost belief in my own high ground.”
A is for Adulteress
But you knew that. There is virtually no history of literature without the Adulteress. Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, Hester Prynne, Daisy Buchanan, Molly Bloom. The adulteress throws herself in front of a train, runs over her husband’s lover with a car, walks into the ocean intent on dying without a care for her children. A is for Adulteress, Agent of Ruin. Woman.
A is for Accused
Researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University revealed that when there has been infidelity in a marriage, most wives tend to blame the other woman, whereas most husbands see their cheating wife as the guilty party.
Basically, whoever dropped dead in the broom closet: the Adulteress did it.
A is for Author
Allow me to reveal the A on my breast. For the sake of this narrative, my name might as well be A. Once a woman becomes an Adulteress, her other identities—mother, daughter, friend, editor, writer, teacher—become largely invisible to others, as irrelevant as the clothing she (whorishly, treasonously) shed.
A is for Asshole?
There is no slur for men to match the equivalent of “mistress,” or even “other woman.” “Philanderer” doesn’t have the same punch and is sex-nonspecific. “Cuckold” denotes a man who is being cheated on. A “player,” or even a “dog,” can be single or married. An “asshole” can be the guy who took your parking space at Trader Joe’s as well as the man who fucked your wife.
There are no names specifically for men who break their promises to women.
A is for Age
For the first time in documented human history, among adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine who have ever been married, a General Social Survey reports that women are marginally more likely than men to be unfaithful. The survey also found that infidelity rates increase in middle age for both men and women, and that, contrary to both social and literary stereotypes, women reach their highest levels of infidelity in their sixties.
A is for Analysis
While wives initiate almost 70 percent of divorces, the researcher Michael Rosenfeld recently made the surprising discovery that no similar gap between the sexes—or any gap at all—exists between the percentage of breakups initiated by women and men living together without marriage. Rosenfeld also found that, although married women have long reported lower levels of satisfaction with relationship quality than married men, those in nonmarital relationships reported equal levels of quality. These results, Rosenfeld says, “support the feminist assertion that some women experience heterosexual marriage as oppressive or uncomfortable.”
A is for Adultery
In the United States, adultery remains illegal across seventeen states, while sodomy remains illegal across fourteen. In Illinois, where A first kissed her lover, the wronged spouse can even sue the cheater’s lover for “alienation of affection.” In Massachusetts, where A and her lover reinstigated their Affair 2.0 after having been “broken up” for nearly nine months; adultery is a felony, theoretically punishable by up to life in prison.
A is for Old
A is for Hag
A is for Crone
A is for Ancient
Various recent studies using extensive data from online dating sites have revealed that women’s perceived attractiveness by men hits its highest point at the age of eighteen and declines steadily thereafter (Elizabeth Burch), and that the peak age of women’s attractiveness is somewhere around twenty-two or twenty-three (Christian Rudder). According to Rudder, co-founder of OkCupid, “Younger is better and youngest is best of all.” For men, by contrast, attractiveness seems to increase steadily with age, peaking somewhere between forty-six and fifty.
Given these “facts,” one might wonder what irrational force could possibly have prompted A to believe that she still matters enough for all this fuss to begin with—for all this inconveniencing of other, upstanding people who had expectations of and plans involving her? Just look at the way she’s carrying on, as though she honestly doesn’t realize she is statistically Unfuckable anyway.
A is for the Audacity of her
A is for Animal Testing
In Esther Perel’s The State of Affairs, the author indicates that while rates of infidelity are on the incline, public compassion for adulterers is not. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, Americans have become more relaxed about most things sexual, from premarital to teen to gay sex, but adultery remains condemned at higher rates than “abortion, animal testing, or euthanasia.”
A is for Audience
Recently A attended a party celebrating a novel about a married professor who gets a terrifying medical diagnosis and goes out and begins fucking her student. The novel’s author began her reading that night by stating that if her middle-aged protagonist had been a man, there likely would be no book, because nothing out of the ordinary would have happened. After the reading, all the audience really wanted to talk about was how “immoral,” “inexcusable,” and “wrong” the novel’s protagonist was, pressing the author to concur with their judgments and thereby transforming her narrative of disruption into a narrative of reassurance. The author, trained as all women are to be agreeable in crowds, demurred that she did not recommend anyone trying her protagonist’s behavior at home, but suggested that might not be the point. One audience member asserted that the very outrageousness of the protagonist’s behavior qualified the novel as Satire, even though everyone present, including the men, seemed to agree with the author that, had the protagonist been a man, there would be no book at all.
A is for Alice
A’s mother, Alice, was once told by A’s father that she should “take a lover” because A’s father was no longer interested in sex (at least with his wife) and could not satisfy her. Although she had two opportunities that A knows of, Altruistic Alice nonetheless remained faithful to her Asexual husband even past his death.
A is for Antiheroine
Um. This is not that kind of book.
A is for Antecedent
In 1997, the year A first encountered her future lover by accepting one of his stories over-the-transom for the magazine she was newly editing, Adultery laws were used to charge a Harvey, Illinois, woman for the same crime A would—fifteen years later—commit.
A is for Anthology
For the anthology Homewrecker, in which A had a story years before becoming an Adulteress herself, the editor, Daphne Gottlieb, wrote: “I am a few years older now and I know this: There are tastes of mouths I could not have lived without; there are times I’ve pretended it was just about the sex because I couldn’t stand the way my heart was about to burst with happiness and awe and I couldn’t be that vulnerable . . . That waiting to have someone’s stolen seconds can burn you alive. That the shittiest thing you can do in the world is lie to someone you love; also that there are certain times you have no other choice—not honoring this fascination, this car crash of desire, is also a lie. That there is power in having someone risk everything for you. That there is nothing more frightening than being willing to take this freefall. That it is not as simple as we were always promised. Love—at least the pair-bonded, prescribed love—does not conquer all.”
A is for Aphorism
Esther Perel: “Infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy.”
A is for Animosity
In the state of Connecticut, where A’s lover was born and raised, six people were charged under adultery laws between 1985 and 1990, the year A met her husband. Although a New Haven attorney referred to the law as “a dinosaur,” Connecticut authorities claimed they had “no choice but to enforce it.” A misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine, the law also carried the possibility of imprisonment for up to a year. Single people cannot be charged, which may be the only aspect of such outdated morality laws that actually break from misogynistic tradition by making it possible to prosecute a cheating husband but not his so-called mistress unless she, too, is married.
One can presume that, although there are only six arrests on record during this time period, more than six human beings did commit adultery in the state of Connecticut between 1985 and 1990. So in other words, the real requirement for being arrested for adultery is the presence of a spouse who is angry enough at your deception that they would like to see you in prison for it.
A is for Artifice
It seems the real reason the Harvey, Illinois, Police Department charged that woman and the auto mechanic she was fucking with adultery, in goddamn 1997, may have been that they were afraid that her husband, who had come home to find them in bed, would become violent and kill them, hence they carted all three off to the police department and pressed charges against the wife and mechanic, to hold them there. Cook County prosecutors later decided not to pursue the case.
A is for Abstract
Babis Dermitzakis posits in his article “Some Observations about the Suicide of the Adulteress in the Modern Novel” that in three major male-authored European novels—Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thérèse Raquin—the protagonists are wives who commit adultery ending in suicide. In contrast, texts by women authors of the period show no similar description and perception of adultery by women. Dermitzakis suspects that the male writers did not simply fictionalize a specific social behavior or condition; rather, they likely imported their own prejudices about women’s adultery—and more generally about women’s sexuality—into their writing. Biographical evidence of the three authors appears to support such a hypothesis.
A is for Aphrodisiac
“I tried to keep myself away from him by using con words like ‘fidelity’ and ‘adultery,’ by telling myself that he would interfere with my work, that if I had him I’d be too happy to write. I tried to tell myself I was hurting [him], hurting myself, making a spectacle of myself. I was. But nothing helped. I was possessed. The minute he walked into a room and smiled at me, I was a goner.” –Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
A is for Atonement
A’s lover, when she mentioned wanting to write an Amends letter to his wife: “She doesn’t want to hear from you and that’s never going to change.”
A’s husband on the matter: “Letters are for cowards.”
When A thinks of the word “Atonement,” she usually thinks, almost accidentally, Alonement.
A is for Arithmetic
No matter how ashamed of herself a narrator may be, the mathematics of Accountability nonetheless dictate clearly that A+A+A+A can never equal I.
A is for Anger
You may have noticed that anger is making a comeback for women. Or rather, feminism is making a comeback; if anything, Second Wave feminism fell over its Birkenstocks or Slut Walk platform heels, fractioning and infighting itself into oblivion over the notion that feminists were “angry,” were “unsexy,” were anti-men. For Generations X, Y, and Z, the phrase I’m not a feminist but . . . could often be heard as a disclaimer in college classrooms or drunken parties, before any tentative criticism of men could be voiced, as though toxic masculinity, rape culture, and misogyny were all entirely less embarrassing than to align oneself with Those Feminists: angry, hairy, frigid killjoys. The Unfuckables. Ironically, only since the 2016 election has a furious brand of feminism achieved mainstream vogue for the first time, with angry women taking to the streets (albeit often in bright pink hats) and exploding the Twittersphere with their collectively righteous burning of Any Fucks Left to Give in lieu of bras.
It might be fair to say that this is the moment I’ve been waiting for since the sixth grade. Except now that all this pent-up rage is finally here, loud and proud, I am not entitled to it exactly. For starters, I am too old—part of the problem, part of the internalized misogyny that led an actual majority of women my age, with my skin color, to vote for a pussy grabber over the most qualified presidential candidate in history. There’s that, but I have also been beaten to the punch. As women are finally rising up en masse to denounce their widespread mistreatment by men, I am left naked, with no pristine red robe of Victimhood. Rather, I have cheated, I have lied, I have done damage, I have been selfish and ruled by my desires . . . in other words, I have often conducted myself like a man, despite being a mother, and hence have perhaps forfeited my claim on female rage, which carries with it the implicit assumption that women are morally stronger—that we would do things better if given the chance.
But I have lost the arrogance of youth (though I cheer it from the sidelines)—I have lost belief in my own high ground, and so my anger hovers in the no-man’s-land of displacement. Who the fuck am I to judge anyone? Or so my party line has gone, in the hopes that my kids, family, and friends will forgive my transgressions, will understand how sorry I am to have hurt anyone . . . will understand that I know myself to be a perpetrator here, an equal-opportunity dick.
What happens, though, if I cannot fold my fury neatly in a closet in favor of my scarlet letter? What happens if my affair has become inextricable from awakening to my own anger: a taboo force that scares me more than all the cumulative male rage I have seen and faced? I need to back into that space slowly before I can fully own it, before I can see its facets and understand what to do with it now.
I was about to say that if you have made it to Adulthood without witnessing male rage unleashed, then perhaps you will not understand what I am talking about—perhaps you will not know what it means that I do not need to be good to be furious. Then I realized the folly of that sentence. You have not made it to adulthood without witnessing male rage. The very best you can possibly claim is that you made it without that rage being directed at you.
A is for . . .
“Art cannot save anybody from anything,” wrote Gilbert Sorrentino in perhaps the first sentence from a book that I ever underlined, ever committed to memory, suspecting it would somehow both belie and also exemplify the many truths of me. Who was that girl, barely nineteen, who knew so little of both herself and the transient, tumultuous world that unmakes and reforges us? Who am I, now, on the other side of so much wreckage, still loving, still typing, still here?
If I believe that art can, in fact, save us, over and over again, then does it follow that I risk the audacity of believing that you might be the very one who needs my words to save your life?
A is for Anton (Chekhov)
“And it seemed to them that they were within an inch of arriving at a decision, and that then a new, beautiful life would begin,” Chekhov concluded his seminal 1899 adultery story “The Lady with the Dog,” which Nabokov considered one of the greatest pieces ever written. “And they both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning.”
So it was for me, some one hundred and fifteen years later. And there, I begin.
From Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason by Gina Frangello. ©2021 by Gina Frangello. Courtesy of Counterpoint.