REVIEW: Scenes from a marriage: 'Staying True' an energetic memoir

The New York TimesFebruary 4, 2010 

Here's a sign of the times: when Jenny Sanford sat down to tell her sons that their father, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, was having an affair, one of them reacted in an unusually worldly way.

"Oh my gosh," exclaimed 13-year-old Bolton Sanford. "This is going to be worse than Eliot Spitzer."

His mother could not disagree.

But she could bide her time and then write a book about being on the receiving end of Sanford's headline-making extramarital adventure. And her memoir, "Staying True," is a surprisingly energetic exemplar of the "little did I know" genre.

South Carolina's soon-to-be ex-first lady Jenny Sanford, much to her credit, got through her scandal-sheet ordeal with her dignity intact and kept her side of the story reasonably private. Her quiet reliance on faith and family values indicates more about her moral fiber than about her ability to produce a compelling book.

But "Staying True" is at times unexpectedly lighthearted. While the world watched Sanford's teary news conference in June about his sincere love for his Argentine girlfriend, Jenny Sanford was surrounded by girlfriends of her own.

"Will you call someone and tell them to please pull him away from that camera?" Jenny Sanford recalls having heard her sister Kathy say as they gathered to watch the governor unburden himself in public.

That Jenny Sanford and her support squad could laugh together - and make "hiking the Appalachian Trail" jokes, referring to the most famous whopper associated with the governor's furtive trip to Argentina - says a lot about her ability to weather a crisis.

Gov. Sanford's first move after the news conference says a lot about his. As "Staying True" reports, he was on the phone to his wife as soon as the cameras were off, and he had quite a question for her: "How'd I do?"

In the weird bubble inhabited by infantilized politicians - a place becoming more and more familiar as their partners' and co-conspirators' memoirs come down the pike - this was not even an unreasonable question.

Mark Sanford had relied on his wife of 20 years for professional and moral support, even if his reasons for recruiting her services were not always the most noble. "But you're free," he once pointed out, explaining why she should run his first congressional campaign. He wasn't referring to her uncluttered schedule.

So Jenny Sanford took on the heavy lifting. And she should not have been surprised by this new responsibility. Even in his young and footloose days, when Mark Sanford worked in commercial real estate and Jenny Sullivan was the rare female analyst working at financial firm Lazard Freres in New York, he showed signs of being unusually demanding.

He had a list of goals and benchmarks for success. He drew up a facetious prenuptial agreement that laughingly stated the husband's right to control the family finances and be the final arbiter in all matters.

And he cherished Galatians 5:22 - "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" - which in hindsight now looks like an unfortunate choice.

After their wedding there were warning bells, even if the new wife failed to hear them.

On a Thanksgiving visit to the Sanford family farm, Mark saw no reason why he shouldn't keep bunking with his brothers. When Jenny Sanford's beloved grandfather died, Mark saw no reason to attend the funeral. When she was pregnant with their first son, he got bored after a single Lamaze class and insisted he needed no instruction.

As the book colorfully recalls, he said, "I've spent many long nights helping cows give birth and I know what to do when the baby gets stuck."

"Staying True" isn't a book full of recriminations; it's the portrait of a smart, steadfast woman who found herself in a terrible situation.

But Jenny Sanford finds time to describe some of the odder aspects of Sanford family life. When Mark Sanford went to Washington as a representative in 1995, his wife reasoned she could always watch C-SPAN if she wanted to see him and appreciated the funny stories about his extreme parsimony. (He slept on a futon in his congressional office and took his laundry home to South Carolina.) And in response to what she saw as her husband's looming midlife crisis, she staged a jokey 40th birthday surprise party for him at which all the guests wore funereal black.

Little did she know what effect this would have.

Amazed by the ego stroking that came with a political career - and Jenny Sanford thought she knew all about ego-stroking from her Wall Street days - she writes that she watched her husband morph into a restless, distant character.

He stopped bothering to be strict with their four children. He worried about his bald spot. And he spent more and more time away from home, telling what turned out to be flagrant lies about his reasons for travel.

A trip to New York to talk with publishers about his book on conservative values turned out to be a surreptitious tryst with the Argentine woman. Once Jenny Sanford figured out what was going on and fought vehemently with her husband, he sided adamantly with his lover. ("She is not a w----!")

All this material amplifies the public record on the Sanfords' troubles. The most remarkable part of the book describes the effort to put those troubles to rest.

Jenny Sanford, who filed for divorce in December, watched the man she had loved and respected become undone by the crisis. He even sought her permission to continue his affair, and expected her to empathize with his loneliness, she says. "What he does not see is how morally offensive it is to me even to listen to this," she wrote in her journal last May.

"Staying True" ends the only way it can: with Jenny Sanford praising the beauties of nature, quoting Anne Morrow Lindbergh for comfort, saying she feels like a storm-tossed sea, speaking of being steadied by her faith and enjoying her unanticipated new freedom. She writes with gravity about how she came to realize that she needed to forgive her husband to move on, regardless of whether he understood that decision.

Mark Sanford is made to sound as if he learned absolutely nothing from the experiences described here. He is not thanked in "Staying True," except perhaps indirectly - for the memories.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service