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Book review: 'Staying True' by Jenny Sanford

By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; C01

STAYING TRUE

By Jenny Sanford

Ballantine. 214 pp. $25

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Remember that self-help book from the 1980s, "Smart Women, Foolish Choices"? Jenny Sanford, the wife of the governor of South Carolina, called her new memoir "Staying True," but a better title might have been, "Smart Woman, Foolish Choice." From the very start, you want to scream to Jenny, Georgetown grad, Lazard Frères vice president: "No, don't do it! Don't marry the jerk!"

Let's say your husband has run off with his Argentine mistress and then humiliated you -- no, make that humiliated himself -- by proclaiming that he has found his "soul mate," and she's not you. You could be forgiven, then, for dredging up every minor incident, exposing every annoying habit, in your memoir-cum-payback. And so Jenny Sanford did -- but, boy, did she have material.

Item 1: Mark and Jenny have barely started dating, and he invites her to spend New Year's weekend with him at Coosaw, his family's farm in South Carolina. Mark leaves her a car at the airport -- a stick-shift, which she doesn't know how to drive -- and lets Jenny make her way through the lowland fog. "Our brother can be such a piiig," Mark's sister Sarah tells her. Jenny doesn't pay enough attention: "I felt I had just passed some test with Mark, and not complaining about what I'd endured was part of it."

Item 2: Mark and Jenny are engaged, and Mark -- this is after sending her a phony pre-nuptial agreement; ha ha ha -- is reworking the ceremony. Turns out he doesn't want to include a promise to be faithful. RED ALERT! RED ALERT! AWOOGAH! AWOOGAH! "In retrospect," Jenny allows, "I suppose I might have seen this as a sign that Mark wasn't fully committed to me, and with the benefit of the knowledge I have about Mark now, I could point to this moment as a clear sign of things to come." Yah think? "At the time, though, I thought his honesty was brave and sweet. . . ."

Item 3: Mark and Jenny are newlyweds, and it is Jenny's birthday. He gives her a hand-drawn card -- with a picture of half a bicycle. For Christmas, another card -- with a picture of the other half. "Months later, he delivered the gift to me, a used purple bike he had purchased for $25!" Jenny's initial response, the right one, is "disbelief. . . . In time, however, I came to know this was just part of who he was."

And that's not all. There is their first Thanksgiving together, four weeks into their marriage, when Mark and Jenny arrive at Coosaw, and he explains that she'll be sharing a bedroom with his sister: "I've always slept with my brothers and I don't see why that has to change now that we're married." There is the time, again during the first year of their marriage, that he refuses -- despite her tearful pleading -- to accompany Jenny to her grandfather's funeral. "I explained how it was something I needed. . . . But Mark held firm that he didn't need to go with me to the funeral."

Or -- my personal favorite -- the time he balked at accompanying pregnant Jenny to childbirth classes: "Mark joined me at one Lamaze class before deeming it a waste of his time since, as he explained, 'I've spent many long nights helping cows give birth and I know what to do when the baby gets stuck.' " As usual, Jenny manages to explain away her husband's boorishness: "Of course, many fathers still didn't attend births in those days." Those days? This was the 1990s, not the 1950s. When Mark leaves his 2-week-old baby to climb Mount Rainier with friends, "I didn't really see any reason for Mark not to go off and enjoy his adventure."

By the time Mark is in Congress, Jenny is reduced to instructing the scheduler to remind him of her birthday. And there is the touching moment when Mark has a friend pick out a diamond necklace for Jenny, has a staffer hide the present in her closet and faxes notes to Jenny and the boys cluing them in on where to search. A few weeks later, when Mark sees the necklace, he exclaims, "That is what I spent all that money on?! I hope you kept the box!' " Mark "returned the necklace the next day, thinking it was not worth the money he had spent," she writes. "I wouldn't have felt comfortable wearing it in his presence, so what was the point?"

This guy manages to make John Edwards look like a prince -- and certainly Jenny Sanford has not refrained from showing her soon-to-be-ex-husband in his least attractive light. The prologue, in which she recounts the day her husband's affair burst into public view, shows him a self-absorbed cad to the end. "How'd I do?" Mark asks when he calls home after the rambling press conference in which he described spending "the last five days of my life crying in Argentina."

But what to make of the way Jenny portrays herself? When the Sanford story erupted last year, I cheered the emergence of a new model for the wronged political spouse -- "neither enabler nor victim," I wrote. In the end, perhaps. Yet the most disappointing part of "Staying True" is that, consciously or not, Jenny Sanford reveals her own complicity -- not in facilitating her husband's affair, but in allowing herself to be treated so badly for so long.

"I see now that June 24, 2009, was a day that changed forever the trajectory of my life, but it did not change me," Sanford writes in the book's opening lines. I hope, for her own sake, that is not entirely true.

Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Washington Post.

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Sunday in Outlook

-- The last train from Hiroshima.

-- The mysteries of happiness.

-- The greatest Washington lobbyist.

-- The history of anti-Semitism.

-- And Hank Paulson on why he got the dry heaves.

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