Given the notoriety of her husband's affair and the fact that his mistress just went on Oprah in an attempt to justify the adultery, many would assume Elizabeth Edwards would want to skirt public view just now.
She has been lied to, humiliated, and left with young children to care for and a cancer battle to fight alone. Even more seamy details of the betrayal will be strewn across the news later this summer if court documents in a trial involving mistress Rielle Hunter are unsealed. So Edwards would be reasonable to stick to her seemingly quiet existence of late as the proprietor of a quaint furniture boutique in Chapel Hill. But maybe that's just not her style.
At The ArtsCenter of Carrboro on Friday, a sold-out crowd welcomed Edwards with thunderous applause as she shuffled on stage in a billowy blouse and trousers so wide and long they swallowed her feet. In her slight stature, the 60-year-old Edwards looked small and almost childlike as she took a microphone into her hands. No one knew what she would say.
The man who had invited her, high school science teacher Jeff Polish, wasn't sure she would come. He was so nervous upon calling to ask, he said, that he wrote a script for what he would say if—God forbid—she actually answered the phone.
But he psyched himself up. He was Jeff Polish, he told himself, the guy who created The Monti, where people share real-life stories in a hybrid of stand-up comedy and dramatic monologue. Polish started The Monti two years ago, basing it on the New York original, The Moth. Tickets usually sell out in about 10 minutes. There are rules: Speakers can't use notes, they have to stick to a time limit and theme, and their stories have to be true.
Performers don't use many props, but many employ casual pantomime. The end result feels a lot like that intimate Saturday night at a friend's house (or camping trip or Thanksgiving dinner), when someone starts telling a hilarious or poignant story. And at all the right moments, everyone laughs until they cry (or even cries until they laugh).
Edwards had good reasons to say no. But she also had reasons to accept: She's a practiced public speaker. She would be right next door to her beloved Chapel Hill, where she has widespread support. And perhaps most important, she and the audience could ignore the elephant in the room. The evening's theme was "Mothers and Fathers."
"It's easy to talk about your mom and your dad," Edwards later told the Indy. "That's certainly a safe place to go for me."
Four orators preceded Edwards on the bill: Duke University researcher Vanessa Woods, Chapel Hill photographer Jesse Kalisher, best-selling novelist Michael Malone and Durham artist Tara Lake. Kalisher divulged the ways he and his wife have tried to protect their two young children from the widespread evils of candy and high-fructose corn syrup. In a story that was both comic and tragic, an often-tearful Lake told a story about how her God-fearing parents reacted when she told them she was a lesbian.
When Edwards finally took the microphone, the 340-person crowd wasn't sure who they'd see: the presidential campaigner, the memoirist, the cancer patient—maybe even the jilted wife who would finally release the betrayal and fury she felt when she learned her husband threw away their marriage, their public image and political promise to go to bed with a flaky new-ager. Who showed up but Edwards the comedian.
"I did bring some notes," Edwards began, glancing at her palm. "I know I'm not supposed to, but in honor of Sarah Palin ..." she said, referring to Palin's Tea Party Convention appearance in February with crib notes on her hand. The audience roared.
Edwards spoke about her parents, Vince and Elizabeth Anania, a couple with disparate personalities who were married for 60 years. Her father, a Navy captain, pilot and recipient of honors including the Bronze Star, was also a clown—the kind of guy who would hold women upside down so their garter belts showed.
In his 20s, her father thought about changing his name, which he found too ethnic. He considered using simply the letter A. "This was the 1940s," Edwards told the audience. "Prince, move over. My father was there first."
Her mother, who is now in her late 80s, was proper, patient and competitive. She was the type to correct her children's grammar and teach them manners. She balanced her impish husband. The crowd murmured when Edwards reported that her father had suffered a disabling stroke in 1990, and that her mother had cared for him the following 18 years of his life. Inevitably, the audience grasped the oblique irony in this act of fidelity.
After her performance, Edwards praised Polish for creating The Monti. It's through narratives that her youngest children, Emma Claire, 12, and son Jack, 9, got to know Wade, the brother who died in a car crash long before they were born. That's also how the children have come to reconcile heartbreaking visits with their grandmother, who is now unrecognizable in her dementia. "Even though they're seeing this shell of a person who doesn't reflect who this woman was her whole life, they've heard the stories about her," Edwards said.
Some time in the future, Edwards, too, will be remembered by such narratives. Some will recall the brainy lawyer, grieving mother, political strategist and survivor. Others will focus on less-flattering portraits that have emerged in the wake of the Edwardses' political collapse. Books have painted her as a hot-tempered and abusive political player; purveyors of this view sardonically dubbed her "Saint Elizabeth."
She could be all of those things. But those who have met Edwards can attest to why she continues to fascinate observers. They will hold onto their own impressions, such as the time when, amid the public destruction of her life and 30-year marriage, she stepped onto a stage in Carrboro and let the spotlight shine on her yet again.