High Treason

In a certain context, I would have been put to death.

Mother Night is a book by Kurt Vonnegut, and is, far-and-away, my favorite work of fiction. In fact, I liked it so much, I figured out a way to incorporate it into my teaching curriculum, and as a result, many students told me at the end of the year that it was their favorite piece we’d read.

campbellThe protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., is a Nazi during World War II. But actually, he’s not a Nazi, he’s an American spy. He’s an American spy masquerading as a Nazi propagandist, broadcasting his message of anti-Semitism over the radio waves of Germany, doing his best to sway public opinion in the way Fox News and MSNBC do in contemporary America. However, his job over the radio waves was to incorporate coded messages within his content that would reach all of Germany; a series of coughs, sniffles, misspeaks, throat-clearings, or pauses would send messages across the country in a time before mass-communication. Howard never knew what he was communicating over the airwaves, he was simply given his codes by another American spy.

So Howard was an American living in Germany, and was (by all perception) a Nazi. He lived in Germany, spoke German, and married a German woman, a famous stage actress named Helga Noth. And the two of them fell in love.

It was no secret that Howard was an American. He was born in New York and spoke with a standard American dialect; it was merely understood (or believed) that he was an American Nazi living in Germany. No one ever knew he was a spy, not even Helga. But regardless of their differing nationalities, Howard and Helga were genuinely in love. During World War II, during a time when Americans were forcing Japanese citizens into Concentration Camps and hurling insults at anyone of German descent, Howard and Helga, living in Berlin together, held no such feelings toward one-another. They weren’t an American and a German, they were husband and wife. And as Howard describes it, they were a “Nation of Two.”

The logistical premise of Mother Night is something to which I can relate: The novel is written as the memoirs of Howard W. Campbell, written from prison as he awaits trial for his war crimes against Israel – no one from the United States government will admit he was a spy, not a Nazi. So all he can do is sit in prison and reflect on the life he lived, longing for his “Nation of Two.”

My wife and I had a “Nation of Two,” and it was amazing. I was proud to have the beautiful and loving wife I’d married, and as a citizen of our “Nation of Two,” I gleamed with patriotism. But unfortunately, that patriotism and pride was not enough to prevent me from committing High Treason. I betrayed our “Nation of Two” when I decided to be unfaithful; I became a traitor to my nation, and a criminal.

Marriage is sacred, and it’s a one-time shot. Sure, there are second marriages and third marriages for many people, but each marriage is a one-time shot because of one simple fact: You can never un-cheat. Once that betrayal – that act of marital treason – is committed, there is absolutely no way to undo it. And once you even entertain the notion or consider the possibility, you’re on a very slippery downward slope that can easily lead to the demise of your relationship. I entertained the notion because I thought it made me feel attractive and powerful and young, but the fact of the matter is, the only thing I entertained was the notion of adultery. And when that notion came to fruition, there was nothing I could do to change that. Once it happened, it happened – I was an adulterer. And now, in the eyes of most, that is what (and who) I will always be. Regardless of who we became later in life, or what our motives may have been, Howard W. Campbell Jr. knew he would always be a Nazi, a traitor, and a war criminal; and I will always be an adulterer, a sex addict, and a cheater.

I tried to end my life’s memoir the same way Howard did, but for me, it didn’t work out – that particular sentence was commuted. So I’m left to this life of shame, searching for hope wherever I can find it. My “Nation of Two” still exists, but only because my wife has remained by my side. I can never un-cheat on her, and the fact that she has bestowed upon me complete forgiveness is the exception, not the rule. She should have left. But she didn’t.

You can never un-cheat on your spouse, and that betrayal is the worst kind of treason a person can commit. I was – undeservingly – forgiven. In a certain context, figuratively speaking, I should have been put to death.