She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness. … The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude!
This abridged passage from “The Scarlet Letter,” the book Nathaniel Hawthorne published in 1850, is stark in its description of the perils one would suffer if one flouted society’s rules against adultery in 17th-century America.
I’ve been thinking about the book and these warning words in particular while considering the strange, fairly amusing, and not altogether unexpected stories regarding President Donald Trump and his alleged past extramarital affairs with adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal.
We don’t affix a physical “A” on people who engage in adultery or are accused of it, and the rules regarding adultery have changed in many other ways since the time of Hester Prynne, the prim, dignified and silent main character in Hawthorne’s powerful book. For some. The president himself has admitted to adulterous affairs conducted during his previous marriages and was nonetheless elected president. Hollywood just wouldn’t provide enough fuel for celebrity magazines and television without the extramarital activities of so many stars, activities that for the most part do not ruin careers. The affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the “Cleopatra” set back in 1962 made the two even more irresistible to jewelers and moviegoers alike. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie did some of their most acclaimed work after they connected while Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston.
For some, scarlet ‘A’ still exists
But for people who work in industries that, while legal and incredibly popular and incredibly lucrative, are not afforded great respect by most segments of society (despite their popularity and lucrative power), the rules can be very different. And, in some ways, not too greatly advanced from those in place in Prynne’s time. In this situation, we’d have to say the rules are different for adult film stars such as Daniels as well as for former Playboy Playmates such as McDougal. For these people, the scarlet “A” still exists, even if constructed of virtual LED-lit sequins.
And these individuals are not only scourged for engaging in adulterous affairs while working in fields that are not accorded much respect. Their very capacity to tell the truth is being called into question as well. Since this adultery storm thundered into the news cycle, a whole lot of people spanning a number of different political persuasions have said it is probably not possible for women who would engage in such work to tell the truth, given their willingness to engage in it and then sleep with a famous married man. That they must be telling these tales just for the money — tales that large segments of society that may denigrate their work and their character will nevertheless pay to hear if the stories are lurid enough. Especially if video is available.
It is very possible that Daniels and McDougal are only talking because they have realized that though much of the world may consider them glitzy trash, those same condemning individuals and organizations are still willing to pay them much more than 130,000 pieces of silver, especially if it is found that their nondisclosure agreements are flawed or even null and void. “Especially” if their stories are found to be true.
Because, in the end the truth is what this should be about anyway. It is true that most of us don’t think much of pornography, even if we indulge in it, secretly or not. It also is true that most of us probably wouldn’t say we want our daughters to aspire to become nude centerfold models, even if magazines containing such centerfolds are found in our homes. And it is true that most of us condemn adultery, even if what is now considered adultery can be subject to interpretation worthy of Solomon. But while someone may engage in behaviors we find reprehensible it does not automatically mean that individual is not capable of telling the truth.
Penalties for lying could be very severe
In the cases of Daniels and McDougal, one might go so far as to say the penalties for not telling the truth could be very severe. If it is found that they are making these stories up, there might not be any books or tell-all (and maybe show-all) films, not to mention condemnation leagues beyond what they may be experiencing at present. Their lawyers appear to understand the gravity of their allegations and any consequences those allegations may entail.
In the end, fairly or not, much of the burden of truth will rest upon Daniels and McDougal. And just because they have done things we may not like, it does not necessarily mean the burden of truth is beyond either woman.
With or without any real or imagined scarlet letters.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”
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