The Erotic Silence of the American WifeWednesday, February 2nd, 2000
by Dalma Heyn
Review By Dan Geddes
The Erotic Silence of the American Wife consists of snippets of interviews with women who have had extramarital affairs. These excerpts are loosely combined to further the author’s thesis: that marriage, in its traditional form, is a patriarchal double-standard created to doom women to life-long lack of personal and sexual fulfillment.
The work is strongest at the beginning, where Heyn cites cultural evidence for the double standard. Literary works such as The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karennina, depict the inevitable wreckage born of woman’s infidelity. This story has become so familiar that as a culture we are only shocked by its antithesis: that a woman could derive great personal benefit from an affair; that her marriage or children need not suffer; that shame and obloquy need not be her just reward.
And why not? Heyn argues. Society has come to expect marital infidelity from men; it is seen almost as our birthright; something that makes us seem more manly. But to see women unapologetic about their affairs would seem unnatural and shocking to us.
But this is just what Heyn offers for most of the work: Excerpts from interviews with unfaithful women. Many of them were very sexually active before marriage, and derived a great deal of their self-esteem from their perceived sexuality. But it was not merely society, or their husbands, who imposed upon them the idea of the Perfect Wife (“Donna Reed”); they themselves tried to view themselves this way. When they failed to live up to this fantastic standard, they felt a sense of shame and personal failure that in some part led to their having an affair.
So much of The Erotic Silence of the American Wife is an indictment of a value system that places undue burdens on wives, who are considered good only if they sacrifice everything for their husband and children. There were certain Nietzschean echoes to the women’s claims of “having to create a morality that worked for me” out of the wreckage of the failed, presumably Judeo-Christian ethic.
Heyn also offers an incisive analysis of the germination of the ideas of the Perfect Woman and the Perfect Wife in the minds of adolescent girls, where the idea festers as the Perfect Girl. Impossible demands are made of girls; that they be sexy without being sexual, intelligent but not outspoken, attractive but not sexually active. These ideas gradually evolve into the dictatorship of the idea of the Perfect Women, even for so-called Bad Girls, who consciously and deliberately rebel against these ideas. Once they enter the hallowed union of marriage, the myth of the Perfect Wife exerted itself on them as strongly as on those women who never consciously avoided the myth.
Heyn perhaps could have been more selective in her editing and compilation of the interviews. I found it difficult to remember which chapter I was reading, or what its point was, as I followed woman after woman into Chinese Restaurants, hotels, and counselor’s offices. To some degree this is Heyn’s whole point: to give the women a forum for speaking their minds about their affairs without doctoring it to fit some prescribed thesis. But on the other hand, at other times I felt more as if I were watching a daytime talk show than reading a book, one that started out fairly promising as cultural criticism.
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