The Affair Of an E-mail Gone Wild

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007

Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler has never sold a lot of books, but his startling e-mail about his divorce is getting the kind of buzz writers dream about, though perhaps not for the reason its author intended.

Butler writes literary novels, and most them sell about 3,500 copies. He won the Pulitzer in 1993 for "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain," a set of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants. He was married to fellow novelist Elizabeth Dewberry, whom he met at a writers' gathering and married at Tavern on the Green in New York's Central Park in front of a crowd of more or less famous literati.

Heretofore, not many people outside the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference felt they needed to know more.

But since sending out an e-mail recently to his colleagues at Florida State University about Dewberry's apparent romance with former media mogul Ted Turner, the professorial 62-year-old Butler has been the lead item on the New York Post's gossipy Page Six ("Writer Dumps Hubby for Ted") and an Internet sensation (, which first posted the full story Tuesday, labeled his missive "The Insanest E-mail Ever"). National Public Radio calls it the "e-mail of the week, if not the year."

When your beautiful blond spouse, 18 years your junior, leaves you for a rich guy even older than you are, a rich old guy known for his high-octane lifestyle, maybe some of this is inevitable. But then there's a college professor using a mass e-mail to blurt out excruciatingly personal details of his beloved's emotional, psychological and sexual intimacies to "clarify the issues for any of your fellow grad students who ask" and note that "you can feel free to use any part or all of this email" to accomplish that task.

And yet we still fear that we have not prepared you for the paragraphs to come.

Butler begins the details of his missive: "Put down your cup of coffee or you might spill it. Elizabeth is leaving me for Ted Turner."

This is clear, if a little dramatic, and if it had ended here, as a means of conveying sad but relevant news to close friends, then all would be fine.

But, um, there's more.

He then tells readers that, as Dewberry has spoken about publicly, she had been sexually abused by her grandfather and that the abuse was "tacitly condoned by her radically Evangelical Christian parents." He says he was able to help her for a few years: "She says I saved her life." Still, she had issues, mainly that she was never able to "step out of the shadow" of his Pulitzer, even though "everyone has heard me proclaim my sincere high regard for her as an artist."

Then, he goes on to say, Dewberry "nearly died from an intestinal blockage in Argentina while on a trip with Ted" in March. This uncomfortable experience led her to leave him for said media mogul, he writes, perhaps because "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. From all that I can tell, he is kind to her, loyal, considerate, and devoted to his family, and perhaps, therefore, he can redeem some things for her."

(The thrice-divorced Turner has long been reported to have a vital and varied love life.)

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