The Gavin Newsom sex scandal: Why did his lover tell?

Why did Ruby Rippey-Tourk confess her affair with the San Francisco mayor to her husband? What good would that do?

Published February 9, 2007 12:07PM (EST)

Hey Cary,

I am writing about something that is not really personal to me, but just a general question. I should tell you what made this thought come to me. Last week, as I was sifting through a bunch of Bay Area newspapers, I kept seeing headlines with regard to the San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, and his affair with his campaign manager's wife (including photos of both of them, and the campaign manager's name spewed all over the place).

The story came out when the campaign manager resigned after his wife told him about the affair that took place some time earlier. The news was revealed to the campaign manager "as part of a rehabilitation program she had been undergoing for substance abuse." My question is not, "Why does this stuff get headlines?" but "Why do people who cheat tell their loved ones whom they have cheated on?" I never understood that concept.

If my husband ever cheated on me, I would never want to know. I would be incredibly hurt, and would probably feel as though it were my fault somehow. (Maybe I wasn't giving him enough, you know!) I think it is painful to learn something like that, and as long as the offender did not catch a disease that could be spread to the "victim," I don't see any point in telling them him or her.

Some cheaters have told me they just want to "get it off my chest." But why should they be able to do that? I think it is weird that the person who committed the wrong then asks the person he or she wronged to take the punishment.

Does my idea make sense to you? If not, can you explain how telling the person you cheated on helps him/her in any way? Also, why would telling her husband help her with her substance-abuse problem?

Here is a link to one of the stories on the Gavin Newsom sex scandal. And here is another on the Newsom scandal from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Thanks for any input you may have!

Confused in the City

Dear Confused,

The Gavin Newsom scandal is of course of interest to people in recovery, as it is to seemingly everyone else on the planet.

Alcoholics Anonymous itself has no opinion on outside issues, hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy -- this is one of AA's 12 traditions. So I don't speak for AA or as an AA member. Rather, I speak as a professional writer who finds the AA Big Book to be a fascinating read -- and worth consulting when recovery is discussed in the press.

As you note, the woman confessed her affair to her husband "as part of a rehabilitation program she had been undergoing for substance abuse." You ask, quite rightly, what the heck is up with that?

As part of her rehabilitation and treatment, she may have been under the care of a therapist or psychiatrist who thought that for her own good she ought to level with her husband about her affair. Maybe it was the right thing for her to do. While many rehabilitation clinics borrow from the 12 steps, not all do.

But let's look at what the AA Big Book and the 12 steps say about confessions and amends.

The following comes from the "Into Action" chapter of the "Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous," in which the fifth step is discussed. The fifth step -- "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs" -- is the one in which a person who is recovering from alcoholism, having taken a fearless and thorough moral inventory of herself, seeks out a person with whom to share it.

"More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life," it says on Page 73. "He is very much the actor. To the outer world he presents his stage character. This is the one he likes his fellows to see. He wants to enjoy a certain reputation, but knows in his heart he doesn't deserve it.

"The inconsistency is made worse by the things he does on his sprees. Coming to his senses, he is revolted at certain episodes he vaguely remembers. These memories are a nightmare. He trembles to think someone might have observed him. As fast as he can, he pushes these memories far inside himself. He hopes they will never see the light of day. He is under constant fear and tension -- that makes for more drinking."

The authors then discuss how to go about getting some relief from this dilemma.

"We must be entirely honest with somebody," they say, "if we expect to live long or happily in this world. Rightly and naturally, we think well before we choose the person or persons with whom to take this intimate and confidential step. Those of us belonging to a religious denomination which requires confession must, and of course, will want to go to the properly appointed authority whose duty it is to receive it. Though we have no religious connection, we may still do well to talk with someone ordained by an established religion. We often find such a person quick to see and understand our problem. Of course, we sometimes encounter people who do not understand alcoholics."

The next paragraph is relevant to the Gavin Newsom scandal:

"If we cannot or would rather not do this [find a religious figure to confess our moral inventory to], we search our acquaintance for a close-mouthed, understanding friend. Perhaps our doctor or psychologist will be the person. It may be one of our own family, but we cannot disclose anything to our wives or our parents which will hurt them and make them unhappy. We have no right to save our own skin at another person's expense. [Italics mine.] Such parts of our story we tell to someone who will understand, yet be unaffected. The rule is we must be hard on ourself, but always considerate of others."

Hard on ourself, but always considerate of others. That is wonderful and wise, indeed, it seems to me, for it counters the temptation to create further drama with elaborate and wrenching confessions of glamorous and titillating wrongs. It suggests that we unburden ourselves of the sordid, awful truth that so torments us so, but tell it in a form unvarnished by celebrity, money and power. So we slept with the mayor or we slept with our pimp or we slept with a horny neighbor, it does not matter. We feel awful about it because it was not what we would have done had we been in our right minds. We were out of control and now we are ashamed.

It is that shame and remorse and self-hatred that we want to "get off our chest." But it is suggested that rather than burden our wives or husbands with it, we find "someone who will understand, yet be unaffected."

That is what the Big Book says about the business of getting things off our chest. As I read them, there seem to be important differences between what you might call the "confession steps" and the "amends steps."

The fourth and fifth steps involve the confidential telling of things. No human except the two people working together on the step need know what transpires there. The eighth, ninth and 10th steps involve making amends (not confessing) to a wider circle of people. The eighth step suggests we make a list of all persons we had harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. The ninth step suggests we make direct amends to such people wherever possible except -- and again this is key -- "when to do so would injure them or others." Those to whom amends are made need not know why we are making the amends -- or even that the amends have been made! Making amends, as I think of it, does not mean apologizing. It means making things right. We do not seek forgiveness and admiration from those we have harmed. We just do the amends. We try to set things right. So where "making amends" stands to harm others, we rightly think hard before taking that step!

There are more steps, of course, and more to be said, and I hope I have gotten most of this right, as some of it I am quoting from memory. I just wanted to try to answer your question about what rationale this particular person may have seen to confess her affair to her husband. Her rehabilitation may have been unrelated to the 12 steps. She may have been advised by a rehabilitation counselor or psychotherapist to tell her husband, or may have confessed for her own personal reasons. But it does not seem to be what the AA Big Book, which has served as the inspiration for many recovery programs, would advise.

But then, with all humility, I'm just one reader of this fascinating and valuable text.

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