It’s not a spoiler to say that “A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal” is about its author Jen Waite’s marriage to a man she independently diagnosed as a psychopath. She’s been featured on Vice talking about the book, and the back cover’s blurb includes the tantalizing question, “What do you do when you discover that the person you’ve built your life around never existed?”

It’s a terrifying notion, and Waite manages to convey that eventually in the memoir, describing all the stress and fear that go along with realizing the person you love has betrayed you.

In readable, utilitarian prose, the bulk of the memoir is used to intrigue the reader into following what is ultimately a pretty simple, and unfortunately not uncommon, story. Woman meets man, woman falls for man, man and woman live happily ever after – until they don’t, at which point woman moves back home to Maine, where her parents help her out. In sections titled “Before,” we see Waite as an actress/waitress falling in love and beginning to build a life with a man she calls Marco. In sections called “After,” we see the process in which she begins to discover his nefarious behaviors – namely, that he’s having an affair with a 22-year-old “Croatian,” as Waite refers to the blonde he’s sleeping with.

Being cheated on sucks, as everyone who’s experienced it would likely acknowledge. Discovering, as Waite did, that her husband was having an affair after she herself had just given birth to their child must have been devastating. Yet the memoir doesn’t quite pull off showing how awful she felt; there is a lot of telling and little showing. For large portions of “A Beautiful, Terrible Thing,” I didn’t believe that her husband actually was cheating, since Waite’s behavior (checking Uber receipts, phone records and emails) seemed paranoid, even uncalled for. Perhaps this is where the strength of the memoir lies – in Waite’s ability to make her husband charm the reader so thoroughly that we don’t believe her instincts. It’s unfortunate that we aren’t charmed by Waite in quite the same way; she seems to hold the reader at a remove, unwilling to share much of her inner life, so that she remains somewhat bland, though a generous reader might describe her as an enigma.

Jen Waite

Still, despite the note from the author at the start of the book claiming that Waite is not a mental health professional, and “this is not a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy,” the book treats Marco as if he were, indeed, clinically diagnosed. After leaving Marco, Waite begins to surf various online forums where she discovers character traits that Marco possessed, as well as that “many, if not all, psychopaths are sex addicts and sexual deviants.” Calling a large group of people “sexual deviants” is enough to rub this reader the very wrong way, but even more disturbing to me was when Waite finally goes to see a therapist, who tells her during their very first session that, yes, indeed, her husband seems to have sociopathic tendencies.

Mental health is a tricky thing, and even books like “Confessions of a Sociopath” by M. E. Thomas haven’t much clarified the field of antisocial personality disorders. Waite, I think, means to be inspirational, but unlike many people, she has a caring family and a great support system to help her when things go wrong. She’s not a strong writer, and she has few insights on the page. It’s hard for a book whose biggest hook is a cheating husband and an amateur diagnosis to sustain a reader’s interest or sympathy.

Yes, it must have been absolutely awful to have discovered that Marco was cheating. Yes, it must have been really, truly terrifying to be gaslighted by his continued insistence that he wasn’t sleeping with anyone else and that, in fact, he was certain there was something wrong with him physically that was making him cold all of a sudden. But it’s also scary, as a reader, to see the way a mental disorder as complex and still misunderstood as antisocial personality disorder used to both explain bad behavior and to sell a book.

It’s not that I don’t believe Waite’s experience – I do, and I think readers will as well, and some will likely jump at the chance to label their exes as psychopaths like Marco. Yet I don’t think it’s useful to use a word like “psychopath” to describe what Waite’s mother tells her at one point: “You have to start thinking of him as a deeply, deeply flawed person who tried his best and failed.” Maybe that’s not true. Maybe he didn’t try his best. Maybe he really is a psychopath. But by labeling him as a kind of “other,” don’t we run the risk of losing our empathy, the very thing psychopaths lack?

Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer starting her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, StoryQuarterly, Broadly, the Washington Post, the LA Times and more.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.