Courtesy of Hoopla, I’ve viewed a few episodes of Jennifer Cognard-Black’s Great Course called Becoming a Great Essayist. Too bad I can only “borrow” ten lectures a month, for this course isn’t just a workshop in writing, it is a retreat in voicing the true self.

Cognard-Black says that the writer’s ethos is essential to good essay writing, an authentic self that speaks of the writer’s experiences and beliefs. The concept is ethos is not alien to me, but I hadn’t considered it was an unavoidable part of nonfiction writing.

Where do you draw the line between what needs to be no one else’s business and the secrets that if found could completely undermine your credibility? What if that secret does not belong to you alone?

I bear the weight of such a secret. It’s something that is known by those who care about me in real life but also a subject seldom raised except by me. Dozens if not a hundred people in my town know this fact but not a single one has confronted me with it: I was my husband’s mistress for the first seven years of our relationship.

Am I proud of what I’ve done? Absolutely not. I doubt there is a single indictment of this choice anyone could write that I haven’t imagined myself.

I love a man I cannot trust, and I cannot waste my time imagining how or when or with whom he could betray me. My sanity depends on it. When I was with my daughter’s father, I was obsessed with the unfounded idea that he was unfaithful to me. I’d comb through his belongings and read his emails. I once confronted him with what I thought was evidence of an assignation with a woman unknown, but all the clues really corresponded to the shopping and purchase of a deep freezer for my 30th birthday.

Part of the delusion that sustained my years as the other woman was the conviction that I needed to atone for my suspicious mind and the ideal penance was loving a man I knew for a fact could not be trusted.

Halfway through my time as the other woman, I was stricken with the idea that my now husband could be fooling around with several women. He was present in the pictures on my living room wall. He had a drawer of things in my dresser, clothes in my closet. He could take a day off work and bring another woman there and pretend that I was his wife. I could be part of an infinite series of women who knew they were not the only one but not how many were in the series or their true place in it.

I had a dream that I was waiting for my daughter’s school bus and overheard another woman’s confession that she knew her boyfriend was taking another woman named Sugar out for ice cream. She seemed resigned to her failure against the force of nature that was Sugar. I didn’t have the heart to enter the fray and reveal that I too had been seeing the same man and would lose him to Sugar.

For my own sanity, I had to snuff out this sort of thinking, just get on with the other business of living. I was busy enough with work and raising my daughter. Time evaporated until his former wife decided she was done with the situation, and then I became his wife.

Of course, this was a victory won at too high a price. Recently I mentioned that I had bulimia in my teenage years. My therapist at Duke (I was an English major there for two years, btw) suggested that I binged and purged because I was addicted to shame. It is true that the behaviors of that eating disorder ended when I tried LSD at age 19. The drug did not cure the illness; it was a new and bigger thing to be ashamed of. My ten-year journey from other women to wife is also wrapped in shame.

So now you know. I have no right to adopt a voice that is not compassionate of the foolish choices of others.

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