Our Era of Dirty Laundry

Do tell-all memoirs really help heal?

There are many ways to wreak revenge on cheating spouses aside from simply divorcing them: humiliation, destruction of property, public shaming. One Australian woman tried to auction a pair of “humongous” black lacy underpants—found at the bottom of the bed she shared with her husband—on eBay. The pants, she wrote in her listing, were so big she thought they “may make someone a nice shawl or, even better, something for Halloween.” Included was a “tiny,” empty condom wrapper found under her husband’s pillow. An eBay spokeswoman said going through the public-auction process was “obviously very therapeutic” for this woman.

Or was it? We often assume that public anger, spite, or exposure is a healthy form of self-healing, despite the fact that there is little evidence for this. We are not shocked when someone reveals intimate details of former relationships when walking away from the ruins—we have come to expect it. When we joke that Elin Nordegren attacked her husband Tiger Woods with a golf club, when Elizabeth Edwards writes books about resilience, or when Jenny Sanford publishes a memoir confirming that her husband is indeed a self-involved cad (and tightwad), we cheer and roar. No more little woman on the sidelines! No more sniffles and silent suffering. No more being treated like rubbish by men who think they can escape punishment by virtue of status or wealth.

In our narrative of the feisty, spurned woman, the private, silent stance of wives like Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Silda Spitzer seems archaic. The advice these women would once have been given—”Don’t air your dirty laundry in public”—now seems quaint, a relic of an era when people thought pain was a private emotion. It seems retro to suggest that it might not be dignified to share personal problems with the world, with people who might be embarrassed or who would gossip and dissect, point fingers and judge.

Part of the movement toward self-revelation was a necessary corrective provided by feminists who argued, persuasively, that the personal is political. After all, wasn’t the whole idea of hiding dirty laundry meant to protect powerful, appallingly behaved men from any sense of shame? In most households, it has not been the men who have scurried away with piles of grimy washing to scrub, soak, bleach, and wring until linens could be presented to the world again. Revenge memoirs, we assume, must be a potent form of therapy, because trodden-on spouses can lie on the couch in front of an eager public and pour out their ugly tales of betrayal. It’s like a confessional, but instead of absolving their sins, we condemn their husbands’.

If the primary motivation after leaving a relationship is to embarrass someone who did not deserve your love, that’s easily done. But if your goal is to heal, recover, and move on, is the confessional going to help, or will it deepen and extend your pain? It’s rarely clear who really ends up benefiting from any kind of tell-all, and how long the satisfaction can last when you have exposed your family to even greater public scrutiny, prolonged widespread discussion of your marital problems, and further tied your identity to the man who failed you as a husband.

Often what we think is therapeutic ends up, years later, just being embarrassing, or ineffective. A study undertaken in 2000 found that almost 40 percent of people who were grieving a loved one felt worse after going through therapy: they were more depressed and their grief lasted longer and was more acute than those who had no counseling. Public tell-alls aren’t the same as grief therapy, but we often assume they serve the same purpose. What we rarely stop to contemplate is whether they work. Or whether vengeance might hurt the victim more.

No woman should be expected to scrub her husband’s laundry, least of all someone like Jenny Sanford, who has suffered enough. Her story is her own to tell, and many will find her strength inspiring. But while reading her new book, and all the unpleasant details about her husband’s stinginess and odd habits, I kept thinking of Kennedy Onassis, who advised her press secretary to give out minimal information and to do so privately. The tabloid stories about her husband never ceased—she called them a “river of sludge.” Yet toward the end of her life she said her biggest achievement was that, “after going through a rather difficult time,” she considered herself “comparatively sane.” No psychological recovery is a simple process. But if the choice were simply revenge or sanity, I know which I would choose.