In response to the David Petraeus sex scandal, I wrote a piece at Jezebel: ‘I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself:’ Why Men Cheat With Their Biographers.
It’s hard not to suspect that that same lack of self-awareness drove General Petraeus. Men whose lives are defined by public action and attentiveness to image are vulnerable to “imposter syndrome.” They may be keenly aware of the disconnect between how they are perceived and the messy reality of who it is that they “really ” are. Married to women who are under no illusions as to their shortcomings, plenty of middle-aged men make the mistake of turning to the women who “understand.” An affair with a journalist or documentarian offers a double bonus: not only the chance to be validated as privately worthy by a star-struck lover, but the promise of being presented to the public in the most favorable possible light by a woman whom you like to imagine knows you better than you know yourself.
Sex scandals are rooted in male narcissism, as Irin Carmon wrote for Jezebel when the Edwards scandal broke. Rielle Hunter famously first got John Edwards’ attention with a blunt “You’re hot!” But we make a mistake when we assume that male narcissism is only about being validated for being sexually attractive. It’s also about the longing to be seen as worthy by a woman who is presumably in a position to know the truth about his goodness. Men who froze their own capacity for introspection when they were young are particularly likely to seek out the affair with the woman who promises to peek underneath the uniform and pronounce that what she sees is hot, fascinating, and noble. This is a narcissism driven as much by a specifically male lack of self-awareness as it is by preening, anxious vanity.
Last night, I appeared on Current TV’s The War Room with Gov. Jennifer Granholm to talk about this issue. The five-minute clip is here.