Just when you thought it was safe to start planning that fifth wedding anniversary -- a trip to Acapulco, maybe? or St. Tropez? -- along comes the Summer of the Bad Husband. He's everywhere -- wide-eyed, twisting in the glare of television lights. Or, worse, in handcuffs.
It's enough to haunt the dreams of a dutiful wife with one too many heart-pounding questions:
Who is this man lying beside me at night? Does darkness lurk behind that smile? Does he have another life? A secret bank account? A mistress?
Do thoughts of gunfire cross his mind as he's taking out the garbage? Restraining orders, as he's buying roses? Have Cupid's arrows been dipped in some kind of voodoo juice concocted by Raymond Chandler and Alfred Hitchcock?
Let's recap some of the shenanigans of bad husbands that have yanked the nation's attention -- intermittently -- away from war and politics:
Mark Hacking, according to reports from Utah, confesses to family members that he shot his wife in her sleep and dumped her body in a landfill. (The body has yet to be located.) Lori Hacking had learned her husband's lie: That he hadn't been admitted to medical school in North Carolina. That they weren't going to have a wonderful life. And on and on and on. Utah authorities have him under arrest.
Scott Peterson sits in a California courtroom, a calm smile creasing his face. He is accused of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, while carrying on an affair with a mistress, Amber Frey, whom he allegedly seduced with smooth talk, champagne and strawberries.
While Peterson and Hacking have gotten marqueelike attention, an Arkansas man by the name of Robert Howard has just come into view. Police in Little Rock believe Howard stabbed his wife, Robin Mitchell, to death on Aug. 14. Howard, a triple jumper who competed in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, was in medical school; his wife was a neurosurgical resident. (Why does medical school keep cropping up in these goings-on?) Howard avoided the handcuffs, jumping to his own death from a dormitory window at the University of Arkansas. He did leave notes behind. "I'm sorry I did not respect your independence and hard work," he wrote to his wife. "I'm a man in fear of losing things."
Peterson, Hacking and Howard may have committed the ultimate act of the bad husband. But plenty of other spouses have done awful things.
A little more than a week ago, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey stood before the TV lights and launched into a sermon about the deceptive life he has led, a married man involved in an affair -- with another man whom he had hired for a government job. His wife stood next to him with a glazed look upon her face. Last week McGreevey was seen in Trenton, going about his gubernatorial duties, a wide smile upon his face, his arms bulging with papers.
And all summer, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant has flown back and forth to a Colorado courtroom fighting a rape indictment. His defense? Yes, he cheated on his wife, but he isn't a rapist.
Locally, this summer we've witnessed the trial of Nathan A. Chapman Jr., a high-flying investment banker who made investments on behalf of Maryland's state pension system and was convicted earlier this month of 23 counts of fraud, making false statements to a government agency and filing false tax returns. Prosecutors charged that Chapman lavished thousands of dollars of his ill-gotten money on his mistresses.
We're obsessed, of course. There are newspaper stories galore. And reports on "Dateline" and "20/20." Covers of People and cable TV movies. (It was Dean Cain, who had played Superman on TV, who played Peterson in a TV movie. The ratings were impressive.)
"I think it's just the loss of family values," says David Conn, a former Los Angeles prosecutor, assessing the strangeness of the times we live in. "It's the narcissism of our age, of people thinking only of themselves -- not even their family. When you lose those values of morality, you suddenly have no footing. And I think that's when these people think there's no problem with doing evil."
Conn came face to face with evil when he prosecuted Lyle and Erik Menendez of Beverly Hills. The brothers were sentenced to life in prison for the August 1989 murders of their millionaire parents.
Neil LaBute wrote and directed the 1997 film "In the Company of Men." It was about a couple of dastardly and smooth-talking men who have affairs with a deaf woman, then make fun of her. "Let's hurt somebody" became one of the signature lines of the film, a kind of misogynistic mantra.
"I think, historically, men have had a freedom afforded them . . . that not everyone else has had," LaBute says. "Once someone has bound themselves -- on paper, a marriage, responsibility -- we hold them to a higher standard. We put an exclamation point on those things. We don't say a single guy is an adulterer. I think society looks more often at the married man because he's made this public stake: 'I'm willing to fulfill the obligations of this institution of marriage.' "
The intrigue with the bad husband? "We're fascinated," LaBute says, "with someone who says: 'The rules of society don't apply to me.' "
Of course the fascination with the wayward husband harks back to, if not Zeus, then certainly Henry VIII. The top bad-husband story of recent times is probably that of O.J. Simpson and his sensational 1995 murder trial. Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, outside her California home in 1994. "Since O.J.," says former prosecutor Conn, "there has been an overwhelming interest in the criminal justice system. Many of these cases that wouldn't have gotten as much attention now become front page news. People are looking at them for entertainment value."
There are those who believe that violence is sometimes just waiting to erupt, that behind the trickery, the deceptions, the lies, some men are moonlighting as charmers until things no longer are going their way.
"The truth is, for the longest time men have been able to get away with domestic violence," says Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County district attorney, who has been prosecuting domestic violence cases for decades. "As a society, we didn't think a man was capable of killing a woman carrying his baby."
Pirro says she's heard the theories about men with a new baby and the attendant financial strain withering under the pressure of a money-obsessed society. "It is a life-altering experience," Pirro says of childbirth and burgeoning family responsibilities. "And sometimes when men can't deal with it, they blame their wives for their inability to adjust."
Richard Rhodes, author of "Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist," says the bad husband, more often than not, has been touched himself by some kind of domestic violence. The bizarre behavior is not as spontaneous as it might seem. "Violent people have a strong sense that they're superior to other people," Rhodes says. "Violence gives them a sense of superiority with the rest of the world."
Rhodes adds: "Their judgment at the time they decide to use violence is that this person they are doing it to deserves it. And it is much more important that they carry this act of retaliation out than to worry about what's going to happen tomorrow."
"This is all an age-old problem," says Susan Martin, a criminal defense attorney in Colorado, the state that has been bracketed dawn to dusk with coverage of everything Kobe. "More bad things happen in family units. The people we should fear are the people we love most -- husbands, spouses, neighbors. If you become victimized, chances are it's going to be someone in the family."
"You can call it the summer of the bad husband," says LaBute, "but it well might be the fall and winter of the bad husband, too."