Sunday, August 05, 2007

What Were They Thinking, Part II

I'm seriously considering renaming this week's blog "What Were They Thinking?"

First, we had publisher Nan Talese dissing Oprah on camera during a visit to Texas. Now we have a Pulitzer Prize winning author posting the most bizarre email I can remember reading. He chronicles how his wife left him for--of all people--Ted Turner.

The story first broke as an anonymous item on Tuesday's early morning here.

Within five hours, ran the entire text of the email that Robert Olen Butler sent to a half dozen graduate students at Florida State University in Tallahassee, describing the breakup of his marriage to writer Elizabeth Dewberry. He explains her decision to become one of Ted Turner's girlfriends, but makes a point of saying Turner is "permanently and avowedly non-monogamous."

As if that weren't bad enough, he gives his take on why his marriage broke up. Remember, this is going to his graduate students. The inappropriateness of this message simply boggles my mind. Butler offers the following four reasons:
  • He married her when she was in a desperate state from a lifetime of abuse suffered at the hands of her grandfather and her first husband. He pauses to preen ("I was able to help her a great deal. She says I saved her life"). But then he goes on to explain that "defacto therapy" is not a great basis for a marriage.
  • With a truly astounding lack of introspection, Butler--in referring to Turner--says "it is very common for a woman to be drawn to men who remind them of their childhood abusers. Ted is such a man, though fortunately, he is far from being abusive." Apparently, while making the connection to the 24-year difference between the 68-year-old Turner and the 44-year-old Dewberry, it never occurs to Butler to look at the 18-year age difference between himself and his ex-wife, or to consider that she might have been drawn to him for the same reasons.
  • Now Butler gets down to the serious business of masturbation. He explains that "Elizabeth has never been able to step out of the shadow of the Pulitzer . . . she's published two brilliant novels since she's been with me and neither has gotten anywhere near the recognition that they richly deserve. That made it harder and harder for her to live with the ongoing praise and opportunity that flows to a Pulitzer winner . . . she felt as if she was failing as a writer."
  • Finally, the trauma of nearly dying from an intestinal blockage "led her further to profoundly question her own identity." I don't know about Elizabeth's identity, but I gotta say, I'd have been questioning this marriage, too. Sweet mercy, can you imagine how she must have felt when she saw this email? I'm certainly not condoning marital infidelity, but this is just so wrong on so many fronts. The implicit power struggle made the hair on my arms ripple.

You can read the entire email on here.

When I first read the article on Tuesday, beside the reaction of "Ick!" I tried to find a reservoir of pity for Butler. I wasn't happy about his inviting the grad students to "use any part or all of this email" to help others understand the story. But his self-esteem had clearly taken a blow, and apparently he had no one to help him navigate past the pain. It was one of the reasons I chose not to blog on the matter. After all, who hasn't written or phoned or said something unbelievably stupid in a moment of pain? God knows, my impulsive tongue has gotten me into trouble more than once.

But then Wednesday came. Butler was clearly disturbed by the flack he was getting for having talked about his wife's abuse at the hands of her grandfather and first husband. He told Page Six of the New York Post that "he showed Dewberry his email before sending it off and, 'she was weepingly grateful to me for it. It's full of love and compassion'." {Huh?} That statement was so over-the-top it set my spidey sense to tingling.

Ted Turner, not known for being a shrinking violet, showed good sense by refusing comment for the Post story.

Butler had a busy, busy Wednesday. He also went on NPR's Day to Day program for an interview with Alex Chadwick, and had this to say about himself and Elizabeth:

Look, we're both novelists; we're both artists. The impulse to tell the truth about life and the human condition is deeply ingrained in artists. There is nothing in that email that is not public knowledge in one way or another, but puts it together in a way so that who Elizabeth is and why she's doing it...there would not be the chance of there being the reflex reaction that she's somehow prostituting herself or going after the money.

So, now--just in case we hadn't considered a fifth reason for Betsy's leaving him--that Turner is a multi-billionaire, Butler's succeeded in putting that on the table along with that lovely phrase "she's somehow prostituting herself." My empathy level took a sudden plunge.

Chadwick, the NPR interviewer, commented that Elizabeth had declined an opportunity to be interviewed. He also stated that she said she had NOT approved the sending of that infamous email and there were inaccuracies in it, but she'd refused to go into detail.

So, apparently, she was not as "weepingly grateful" as her ex-husband thought. Interestingly, the Washington Post says the divorce was finalized on the Monday before Mediabistro broke the story on Tuesday. Butler himself admitted he'd sent his email to the grad students more than six weeks earlier.

This was very telling. Butler'd had plenty of time to regret the impulsive sending of that email, but here he was, still laying the gunk down with a trowel. My instincts said this was no heart-broken lover; this was something far darker. I remembered the creepy feeling of an unequal power differential I'd had after reading the original email.

Also on Wednesday, Gawker published part of an email they'd received from Butler. Here the passive aggressiveness of the previous interviews/emails gave way to full-fledged narcissistic rage. Butler attacked Gawker, saying, "What a creepy little circle-jerk of self-righteousness you're running."

Ohhh, I'd have to check, but I think the professionals call this "projection." It's a defense mechanism in which a person attributes (projects) onto another his own unacceptable thoughts and feelings. At this point, I started giving serious consideration to doing a post on this incident.

By Thursday morning, it must have finally begun to dawn on Butler just how badly the world was responding to his injudicious sharing of TMI. He sent yet another email to Gawker, this time with a more humble "Can you please give voice to this at your site."

He starts out in a way calculated to evoke sympathy: "I'm sure many, if not all, of your readers, have gone through their own dramas of love and loss."

Well, of course, we have. My heart's been broken so many times, I have a standing order for Super Glue, Kleenix and Blue Bell ice cream.

But, poor soul, he just couldn't hold it together. "My drama of love and loss was particularly intense and had some strikingly unique characteristics."

There, right there, he lost me again. That narcissism just couldn't stay hidden for very long. The subtext--as it was in the original email--is "I'm special. I'm so special, my wife couldn't stand either the brilliance of my personal sun or the shadows my stature cast upon her."

He then tries to defend his posting: "If I had said nothing, the naked facts of the events would have meant that Elizabeth would be savaged by the rumor mill."

So this was all a grand design to take the bullet for her by deflecting the rumor mill to himself???? His inability to see his ex-wife as someone who can take care of herself along with his inflated sense of his own place in the scheme of things, IMHO, is very telling.

In a moment of percipience, he says, "I had nothing to gain from the letter I wrote unless it was a covert act of rage, an act of passive aggression. It was not."

I'll let my readers decide for themselves.

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