The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These breakups really slayed. History’s three biggest splits.

“It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History,” by Jennifer Wright.
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Everyone has a story of the breakup that slayed them — maybe it was a first love or a first marriage. Jennifer Wright, author of the new book “It Ended Badly,” has dug up 13 breakups from the annals of history that should make almost any reader feel better about his or her latest relationship gone awry.

“I think one of the best things that books can do is make people feel less alone,” Wright says in a phone interview. “And one of the times I feel most lonely is after a breakup.”

Wright wants modern readers to remember that people have been going through the same emotions they’re experiencing since the beginning of time. “That doesn’t make you terrible if you’re not responding to a breakup calmly and graciously,” she says.

When asked to pick the worst of the worst breakups she studied, these three stood out. They either include actual slaying or attempts thereof. How’s that for perspective?

1. Nero and Poppaea Sabina, 65 C.E.

Nero and Poppaea make today’s philandering politicians look tame, Wright writes. “We are very privileged to live in such sedate times that we become genuinely indignant at the prospect of two consenting — though otherwise committed — people having pleasurable sex. We’re very lucky.”

Wright describes Poppaea as looking like Christina Hendricks (in other words, “super-hot”) — in addition to being wealthy and clever. Naturally, the Roman emperor Nero decided that she was his soul mate. Small wrinkle, though: Nero was married to someone else, so he married Poppaea off to his friend Otho, hoping that Otho would be too busy with other women to pay much attention to her.

“Mistake!” Wright writes. “Otho fell in love with Poppaea. Nero was not allowed in their house and was reduced to begging outside to see Poppaea.”

Otho was banished to Lusitania in 58 C.E., leaving Poppaea able to marry again. However, Nero still had that pesky wife lying around. He eventually divorced her, and when the public objected, he had her killed — making room for Poppaea and Nero to get together. They had a daughter, who died shortly after being born.

Soon after, he went on to rape a bunch of women at the local brothels. “Finally, one night, after Nero had been at the races, Poppaea, who was pregnant at the time, began yelling at him,” Wright writes. “And so he jumped up and down on her belly until she was dead.”

Nero rebounded by castrating a slave boy, Sporus, who looked like Poppaea “and using him as a stand-in for her,” Wright writes. The agony didn’t end there for Sporus — he ended up married to Otho, Poppaea’s ex, and then another emperor, before committing suicide.

2. Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, 16th-century England

The stories of King Henry VIII’s wives are reminders that we should look at how potential paramours ended their previous relationships before getting involved, Wright says: “If they really, really hate their ex-girlfriend, maybe don’t rush into that one.”

And Henry VIII had plenty of relationship history to study. The fates of his six wives are often summed up as: “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” In her book, Wright focuses on the two beheadings, those of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both of whom were sentenced to death for allegedly being unfaithful. (Henry VIII, on the other hand, was famously unfaithful and never faced the chopping block.)

Henry VIII was an accomplished theologian and accomplished musician, and is considered the father of the English Navy, among other things. But if you ask someone today what they know about him, “the only thing someone will remember is that he chopped off his wife’s head,” Wright says. “He still could have been a superstar if he’d just not started killing his wives. The breakups killed his reputation,” she writes in “In Ended Badly.”

3. Norman Mailer and Adele Morales Mailer, 1960

“No matter how good you are at writing books, it doesn’t really give you a free pass to go around stabbing your spouse in the heart,” Wright says when talking about this infamous breakup. Fair enough.

In 1960, Norman Mailer and Adele Morales threw a party where Mailer announced his intention to run for mayor of New York City. That night, Mailer was drinking heavily and wearing a ruffled bullfighter shirt. He began challenging people to step outside and start fighting.

When he returned to the party with a black eye, “talking about how he was one of the greatest writers the world had ever known,” Wright notes, Adele replied that he was “no Dostoyevsky” and dared him to come at her, insulting him in very colorful and graphic language. Mailer responded by grabbing a penknife and stabbing her near the heart, then the back, telling the rest of the crowd to leave her to die.

Adele eventually received medical care — and a divorce, after which she descended into poverty. Mailer got off without criminal charges or much damage to his reputation, a gendered double-standard that makes Wright furious. “Male writers, especially male writers during the 1960s,” Wright notes in the book, “somehow tricked people into thinking that they were demigods because they had an understanding of language.”

“This isn’t a bad breakup for Norman Mailer,” Wright concludes. “This is a bad breakup because society decided it was, more or less, essentially cool with something that was not at all acceptable.”

When discussing breakups of the past versus today, Wright says that the feelings humans experience are pretty eternal. The big difference between Roman times, 16th-century England and even the 20th-century literary scene is that there were huge power imbalances in relationships.

Breakups are still terrible, she says, but these days “nobody’s going to get beheaded by their spouse — at least not legally.”


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