Lust and Desire: to Honor or Ignore?

In the signature homewrecking story of the 20th century, an intern in a humble blue dress seduced a dashing, smooth-spoken president. When Dan Rather asked Bill Clinton why he did it, the ex-president responded, "Just because I could."

The theories to why people betray their love are as numerous as the ways in which people do it. Perhaps some, like Clinton, cheat because they can and are greedy. Perhaps others feel overpowered by a merciless lust. In seriousness, a friend said her theory is that cheating is a "chemical imbalance," an illness that causes deviant behavior.

Almost everyone I know has either been the homewrecked or the homewrecker. And most of them did feel sick. Sick that they deceived the one who loved them truly. Or sick to have been bamboozled by the one they truly loved. Years ago, I peeked at an ex's Friendster webpage to find that one of his new "friends" listed homewrecking as one of her hobbies. Sick.

But unlike a flu patient, the homewrecker gets no sympathy. Nobody likes a homewrecker. And why should we? A lesson learned for Brangelina when, according to a recent AP story, a Jennifer Anniston fan on a justice crusade broke up their romantic dinner screaming, "Where is that homewrecking Angelina?"

Daphne Gottlieb, a former homewrecker and San Franciscan performance poet, is out to set the cheater's story straight with "Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader," a collection of essays, fiction and poetry that explore why and how people cheat, get caught, suffer and recover.

Her introductory essay, "Let's Just Get This Out in the Open," implies that Gottlieb has retired her homewrecking ways and learned a few things like, "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."

No other choice? Could ignoring your yearnings be a greater crime than wronging your partner? Love will prevail in the end, right?

Brace yourself for bad news. According to Gottlieb, "Love -- at least pair-bonded, prescribed love -- does not conquer all. It does not conquer desire."

Uh-oh.

And so Gottlieb's mission intrigues. Since cheating doesn't seem to discriminate -- the former president did it, celebrities do it, your ex might have done it, heck, you might be guilty of it -- it is one of those subjects, like cancer, that on some level speaks to everyone. Everyone can say they've nursed a cheated heart, whether it was their own, a sister's or even a lover's.

Gottlieb wants to make sure that we know there's a potential cheater in all of us, so she includes a rainbow of perspectives. She's out to show how the complexities of betrayal change from straight married high school sweethearts to committed gay and lesbian couples navigating communities where no one is a stranger. She wants to show that homewrecking has no demographic limitations, and that lust and pain are emotions shared by all.

One of the strongest pieces in "Homewrecking," is also one of the most unconventional. In "Beating Around the Burning Bush" Matthue Roth tells the story of an orthodox Jew who is cheating on his girlfriend with God, and consequently, two-timing God with his girlfriend. The girlfriend doesn't know about the intensity of his devotion, and he feels like he is emotionally betraying her. While God most likely knows about his relationship with his girlfriend, the narrator is sure He isn't pleased.

With emotional poignancy and through smart details -- the narrator uses Tic-Tacs to cover up the smell of challah bread on his breath as he walks home on Shabbat. Roth captures the narrator's anxiety as he contemplates losing one or both of his loves. Roth nails down the obsession of cheating, how consumed the cheater is with his own bad behavior. His fears and guilt inspire fantasies in which he is caught and forced to making a decision. "I want her to grab me by the lapel, throw me on the wall and shake me, screaming that I have to make a choice, her or G-d," Roth writes. The cheater mentally paces, punishing himself for desiring two things that won't tolerate each other.

Felicia Sullivan's "The Business of Leaving" also captures a man in a no-win situation. The story takes place at the end of a 17-year-long marriage. On an outing in Chinatown, James psyches himself up to tell his kids that he's leaving their mother for another woman. He's prepared notes on colored index cards, which he anxiously consults as his son Bunny steals a live fish and his teenage, sexualized daughter Gillian flirts with creepy older men. His kids, we quickly learn, are as messed up as James. "Gillian unzips her cardigan and her nipples, small raspberry pearls, poke through her tight, see-through tank," Sullivan writes. "James stifles a nervous laugh and wonders if he has ever loved his daughter."

James' family has been coming undone for a while. We learn that even the kids have seen Polaroids of James with other women. His story becomes a classic chicken-or-egg question. Did James screw up his family by cheating? Or was a screwed up family what drove James to cheat? James is hard-up for explanations. His goal is just to break the news to his kids and split. Sullivan is effective in creating thick, rising tension, and she leaves the story pointedly unresolved. She shows that even honesty can't make things better -- or worse -- when damage has been done.

There are other pieces in the collection that measure up to Roth's and Sullivan's, but unfortunately the quality is not consistent. Like an affair committed just to kill time, there are stories in "Homewrecker" that fail and cheapen the importance of the more meaningful ones. Stories like "Cuck(h)olding a Stranger," in which a young black woman struggles with her affection for a white man, and "Chicken," in which an older man is obsessed with a troubled younger man, have tangled plots and underdeveloped characters. Overall they are emotionally skimpy.

Gottlieb has unwisely chosen to include a variety of genres -- from experimental poetry to traditional autobiographical narrative. The result is that some pieces seem out of place, like a strange set of keys on your wife's nightstand. Also, Gottlieb has failed to identify which pieces are fiction and which are not; this matters.

In her introduction, Gottlieb claims that it is time to "examine how we really love -- maybe then we'll be able to talk about adultery without snickering, whispering, or screaming." Isn't it always time to examine how we really love? Shouldn't it be a priority for healthy living? But to be able to talk about adultery without pain, anger and judgment -- that's a tall order.

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