A Close Reading Of Robert Olen Butler's Latest Email

"Can you please give voice to this at your site?" reads the subject line of Pulitzer-winning author Robert Olen Butler's latest email to us. We certainly can. If you recall, Robert's wife of twelve years, author Elizabeth Dewberry recently left him to become one of Ted Turner's girlfriends, which prompted him to send an email to five of his grad students explaining the circumstances in vivid—novelistic!—detail. Today, he writes, "I am sure there are a number of your followers who actually might want to understand this intense letter which was written in an extreme emotional circumstance. They encountered the email with no knowledge of two of the three principal players in the drama. They have only a sound-bite-and-media-spun understanding of the third. I can well see how a first reaction to the email by someone for whom it was not intended might be that it is only a bizarre and inappropriate document worthy of scorn." Let's allow him the space he needs in order to attempt to convince us that it is otherwise.

Before we continue, though: "your followers?" This is a just a website. Not a cult!

"But to begin to see the email in a fair way, you must understand this premise: I loved Elizabeth deeply for 13 years. I did not stop loving her when she told me what was happening between her and Ted. I love her still in an altered but sincere way. She loved me. She loves me still, but no longer as her husband. I'm sure many, if not all, of your readers have gone through their own dramas of love and loss. Love is not easily relinquished and it can shift its shape."

"Altered but sincere way." Excellent word choice. "She loved me. She loves me still, but no longer as her husband." This is when I started feeling like I was going to cry. "I'm sure many, if not all, of your readers, have gone through their own dramas of love and loss." Um, as have some, if not all, of our editors! This one, for instance, has listened to the entirety of Joni Mitchell's"Court and Spark," every Bikini Kill single, and also "Just a Little Bit of Heart and Soul" by T'Pau three times—this morning!

"My drama of love and loss was particularly intense and had some strikingly unique characteristics."

Newsflash: we all feel that way! Everyone thinks their heartbreak is special and unique! But no one's feeeeeeeelings are more important or special than anyone else's, no matter how good they are at writing about them!

"And it presented only a small range of choices, none of them good. In terms of the inevitable news of all this, my primary concern, of course, was with the community she and I lived in. If I had said nothing, the naked facts of the events would have meant that Elizabeth would be savaged by the rumor mill."

Oh, way to dodge that bullet. We would like to take this opportunity to recommend that Robert immediately purchase a copy of the instructive book Send, which is a guide to email etiquette that also details the history of the medium of email, and explains why, if there is ever any sensitive information that you'd like to communicate to a select few people, you must communicate that information in person.

"Even with the facts of her terrible childhood before them, some of the commenters on this and other forums are saying terrible and cruelly untrue things about her character. With no mitigating interpretation at all offered about what happened in our lives and in our marriage, you can well imagine how much worse the reaction would have been. It's just human nature. Nor would very simple, broad-outline public pronouncements have made any difference. If I had simply said something to the effect of "they're marrying for love and she and I will remain friends and I wish them well," it would not have been believed and the very same false assessment of her would have occurred. The explanation vacuum—even a partial one—especially given Ted Turner's involvement—would have been filled in a way that would have been unfairly critical of Elizabeth. Remember, I'm talking about the circle of our friends and acquaintances and colleagues here. Those were the people I had to focus on, not the wide general public. I never dreamed you all would get this intimately involved."

Here's some unsolicited advice, Robert: stop caring so damn much what other people think. We all hate this advice. But isn't it the key to sanity?

"Either of those two choices—silence or vagueness—would have been the easy way out for me. I had nothing to gain from the letter I wrote unless it was a covert act of rage, an act of passive aggression. It was not. Your readers may not believe that. But my wife and I have warmly and lovingly spoken on the phone virtually every day since the breakup. We are going through this crisis of publicity together in a loving way. She is the one person in the world—the only one other than myself—who can judge if I am raging and aggressive over her. When I said in the email that she knew about, endorsed, and even encouraged the email, that was literally true. I showed the entire email to her before I sent it. She could have said not to do it. She could have significantly altered it. She did not. She made a few suggestions, which I implemented."

The fact that Elizabeth okayed your email doesn't mean that your email wasn't insane, in our opinion. It means that you and Elizabeth are both kinda insane!

"And the email was never a mass email. I chose five trusted grad students who know us both the best. I chose half a dozen faculty members who know us both the best. And they were asked, when the rumors reached them, to tell the appropriately nuanced story. Or to tell the fuller story on their own initiative—because everyone would soon know anyway. Yes, I sanctioned the use of the email I sent them in order to explain the circumstances to the people in our community who were hearing about this. Why should I avoid vagueness myself and then force them to be vague? Without that sanction to use the email, the explanation vacuum would have continued to form and be filled with lies. And this process worked exactly as I had hoped. That email went out six weeks ago. And faculty members and students alike have told me that all of the talk around campus and around town has been sympathetic and generous about both of us."

Any email has the potential to become a "mass email." That is the nature of the medium of email. It's icky, but true.

"Now as to the intimate nature of the email, this is crucial to understand: there is not a single fact of Elizabeth's or Ted's or my personal lives that the intended audience could not easily have already known. Elizabeth has spoken and written openly, publicly, about everything in her childhood. Ted's persona and the details of the pattern of his love life are widely known (just read Jane Fonda's memoir). I do connect some dots to try to explain why Elizabeth has been drawn to him. But it was not meant to be a judgment against either of them. Ted's own difficult childhood is also public knowledge. We all of us often—some psychologists would say pretty much always—form adult relationships as an acting out of the basic love patterns of childhood relationships. There is nothing unseemly or wrong about this. It is the human condition."

Oh my god, THERE IS SUCH A THING AS TOO MUCH THERAPY.

"And I tell you absolutely that Elizabeth did not do this for money and Ted did not do it lightly as conquest. They love each other deeply. And given what they've both been through in their lives, I expect them to be very good for each other. I love Elizabeth and her remarkable writing talent. I admire the wide-ranging good works Ted does to preserve the earth and prevent nuclear war. These are admirable people doing important work in the culture and in the world. I sincerely hope they have the rich happiness they deserve."

This part kind of reminds us of the opening few bars of "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette.

"In spite of my previous chiding of you and your readers, I wish that happiness for all of you, as well. It's dangerous to live too deeply in a world of glib judgmentalism. And man, there is some truly legitimate short-burst writing talent among you all."

Whee! Clip and paste permanently! "There is some truly legitimate short-burst writing talent among you all" — Robert Olen Butler. We are all so excited to use this as a blurb someday for our novels.

"But I hope at least some of you come to realize that vituperation, no matter how funny or elegantly expressed, is not an art form."

Wrong! Also please point out exactly where we were "vituperative?" We'll give you this—some of our commenters are really mean. But they do love your writing!

"Because some of you may well be capable of turning your talent with language—and your ferocious sense of right and wrong—to a more enduring purpose: to exploring, with courage and frankness and humor and compassion and moral insight, the truths of the human heart."

Oh look, Bob: I just did.