Let’s talk about affairs. Dig into Stacey Swann’s messy family novel and get a professional perspective from sex therapist Dr. Jennifer Vencill. Our guests push back on some of the common ideas about what infidelity is, what it means to stay after infidelity, and what type of person becomes “the other woman.”
Read the transcript:
Dr. Denise Millstine: Welcome to the “Read.Talk.Grow.” podcast, where we explore women’s health topics through books. In the same way that books can transport us to a different time, place, or culture. “Read.Talk.Grow.” demonstrates how books can also give a new appreciation for health experiences and provide a platform from which women’s health can be discussed.
At “Read.Talk.Grow.” we use books to learn about health conditions in the hopes that we can all lead happier, healthier lives. I’m your host, Dr. Denise Millstine. I’m an assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic, where I practice women’s health, internal medicine, and direct the section of integrative medicine in Arizona. I am always reading and I love discussing books with my patients, my professional colleagues, and now with you.
I am so excited about my two guests today. Stacey Swann is the author of the book
“Olympus Texas.” She holds an MFA from Texas State University and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her fiction has appeared in multiple journals, and she’s a contributing editor of “American Short Fiction.” Her first novel, “Olympus, Texas,” has received critical acclaim. In addition, Stacy currently leads an Austin-based group focused on the power of narrative to create social change. A native Texan, she splits her time between Austin and her family’s ranch, where, other than raising cattle, they don’t resemble much with the Briscoes, the family in “Olympus, Texas.” Stacy, welcome to the show.
Stacey Swann: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you.
Dr. Denise Millstine: My second guest today is Dr. Jennifer Vencill. Jennifer is an assistant professor, board certified clinical health psychologist, and AASECT certified sex therapist. She completed her postdoctoral training at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Health. Currently, Dr. Vencill is dually appointed in Mayo Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, as well as the Division of General Internal Medicine.
She spends the bulk of her time providing integrated sexual health care in the Menopause and Women’s Sexual Health Clinic. She also works closely with Mayo’s Transgender & Intersex Specialty Care Clinic. Dr. Vencill is currently working on her first popular press book, a guide for managing sexual desire discrepancies in relationships, which will be published in summer 2023. Jennifer, welcome to the show.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
Dr. Denise Millstine: So, Stacey, the book “Olympus, Texas“ is just really phenomenal. You spent a long time writing this book with lots of inspiration. I had been meaning to read your book for a long time — well, maybe six months, which seems like a long time — and I was reading “The State of Affairs” by Esther Perel. This is a phenomenal nonfiction book about rethinking infidelity, which is such an important topic in my women’s health practice. Immediately on the heels of that, I started reading “Olympus, Texas,” which is affair, after affair, after affair. Tell us a bit about how you were inspired to write this book and were brave enough to include so many layers of infidelity.
Stacey Swann: Well, thank you. That’s so kind. The inspiration for the novel was actually me thinking about Greek mythology and how I could fuse that onto the myths of Texas. Texas is a state where everybody really buys into the mythology of the state and everyone feels really larger than life. I started with that concept and started working on it, and it took a while of working on it before I realized “Oh no, what I’m actually writing is just a big, messy family novel — a dysfunctional family novel —which should have been no surprise to me because those are often the books, movies, and TV shows that I love the most. It’s just something that I’m really drawn to. With Greek mythology, infidelity is just baked into so many of the myths. The reason for that is it’s one of these internal human problems that comes up again and again, that most people in their lives will have some sort of interaction with and have to deal with the fallout of that in relationships. It was just something that came with the idea, but I thought that it was super interesting to explore as well.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Jennifer, you have lots of patients who talk about or deal with infidelity. One question I wanted to start with, with you, is what is infidelity? What is cheating?
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: That’s an amazing question because it actually depends on who you ask. Something we talk a lot about in sex and relationship therapy is relationship agreements. We have a lot of default relationship agreements in our culture — monogamy being one of the strongest, I would say. We have this default understanding that when we partner with somebody, they will be our one and only. That’s a very deeply embedded cultural narrative for us in terms of relationships. That’s starting to change as we’re seeing more people explore consensual non-monogamy — ethical non-monogamy, of course. One of the problems that I certainly see is assumptions of relationship agreements. If we just assume we’re all on the same page and we’ve never talked about it, how do we know what’s cheating? Is it looking at somebody else? Is it touching somebody else? Is it kissing? Is it full on sexual intercourse? At what level? There are probably some culturally common responses to that, but it really depends on the individual person that you’re talking to. It’s such a vague and very subjective word to define.
Dr. Denise Millstine: You used a really interesting term: consensual non-monogamy. I promise we’re going to talk about the book. but I just want to highlight this because in “The State of Affairs,” she talks about relationships where they have that agreement, but you can still have infidelity if you break the agreed upon rules.
Dr. Jeniffer Vencill: Absolutely.
Dr. Denise Millstine: I think she gives the example of them saying they just wouldn’t be involved with someone they work with, and then one of the partners does that. So that’s considered an affair, even though it’s an open relationship. Is it okay to use the term open relationship?
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: Yeah, definitely.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Alright. Stacy, let’s talk about all of the characters who are affected by affairs. I know who I want to start with, but is there a character you want to start with?
Stacey Swann: I love all of the characters and because it’s a family novel, it’s hard to think of just a central character. But to me, the heart of the novel is the mother of the family, June. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book is because Greek mythology has this very male lens, so when we grew up as kids reading mythology, Hera, the wife of Zeus, comes across in a very dark light, she’s not going to be someone’s hero. Meanwhile, everyone just accepts the fact that Zeus is having affairs, with all sorts of mortals and non-mortals. One of the things I wanted to do was to investigate that relationship with more of the woman’s lens and try to give a sense of how the anger you would feel in that situation is really justified and that forgiveness and maybe a lack of working towards forgiveness, doesn’t mean a relationship ends, but it can really warp a relationship at the same time. She’s what I think of as the heart of the novel.
Dr. Denise Millstine: I’m so glad that you chose June because she is also the person I wanted to start with. She gets hit by infidelity and participates in it in multiple ways. She’s just about to be married, and for our listeners who haven’t read the book, we’re not going to spoil anything that happens in the middle or the later parts of the book — but we learn early on that she’s just about to get married to this larger-than-life man who’s well-beloved in their small town, and he has an affair immediately before. She has to make a decision whether she’s going to go through with the marriage and forgive him or if she’s out. Jennifer, you have patients who discover infidelity and have to make this choice.How do you help them with that?
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: Yeah, my heart was breaking throughout this novel. As a therapist reading this, I was like, “Please, can we get this family into therapy ASAP?” The wife figure here is such a common experience for folks, and her rage and her deep resentment that builds and builds over years. That’s the part for me as a psychologist, as a therapist, where I’m like, “Can we deal with this? Can we get it out?”
I was so struck by one of the opening scenes where she’s pouring coffee through the upper level porch to the bottom level porch — just these jabs of resentment, rather than learning the skills to talk about how she’s feeling, to talk about how she has been deeply wounded by Peter’s behavior. That’s not something we’re born knowing how to do. I will often say that to clients and patients that I work with — these are skills we have to practice. Most of us don’t get good role models growing up about how to talk about very difficult, labeled ‘negative’ feelings: rage, jealousy and being hurt. Those are things that take practice, and I wish somebody had been there to help her through that earlier on.
Stacey Swann: It’s so interesting, too, as I talk more with book clubs and others about this idea of openly talking about these really important things has a cultural element — there’s certain cultures where those things are just not discussed as easily. I feel like coming out of the south, in the rural south, the kind of rampant sense I had of that kind of thing — there’s a real stoicism. And part of that stoicism is that, when bad things happen, you just buckle down and you get through it. This idea that somehow in talking about it, you’re not moving on. That’s just not what we do. It really makes everything so much more difficult — which in fiction is good.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: Very dramatic.
Stacey Swann: Exactly. About a year ago, I started therapy myself and was like, “Oh, this is so much easier when you are having another person to talk to.” But even in my own life, I see couples that are really hesitant to go to couples therapy, and the act of speaking things aloud sometimes I think makes it real in a way that people are afraid of.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: Absolutely. I see that a lot as well. Some of this, I think, is mental health stigma writ-large in our culture. Some of this is not necessarily knowing how therapy can be helpful, and the cultural element of when bad things happen, we just deal with it ourselves or deal with it within the family or within the community.
Something I’m often talking with clients and patients about is how when we don’t have a space to process and heal from negative emotions, trauma, resentment — this was a relational trauma for multiple couples we see in this book, actually relational traumas — these feelings, when they get bottled down and kind of pushed to the side, they don’t go away usually. They just come out sideways. They come out in these little violent acts with the coffee. They come out in the snide remarks. They come out in the emotional distancing over time and the losing of the other types of intimacy in the relationship. It’s not like the feelings have actually been processed or handled in any healthy way. They have to come out somewhere.
Stacey Swann: That was actually my biggest surprise in therapy — figuring out (I’m sure this is not wholly universal) that when I was repressing emotions, they actually felt 20 times larger. There was still work to be done, but it was such a relief. But now, in retrospect, I look back at the novel, and I’m like, “Oh, right.” June, especially in her relationship with her middle son March, has been repressing so much of the anger at her spouse, that her feelings for her spouse are tangled up in her feelings about her son, who’s engaged in an affair with his brother’s wife. It really mutates that parent-child relationship because she’s just stopping it all down.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: It’s this heartbreaking projection that she does on March.
Dr. Denise Millstine: I thought that she thinks she’s fine. She’s a good mother. She’s a good caretaker of the homestead. But this also ripples out to her relationship with Thea, her oldest child, her daughter, which is heartbreaking. Thea has forgiven her father or maintains a relationship with her father and yet is constantly at odds with June; where June in a way, at least at the beginning, feels like she’s done nothing wrong and it’s completely unfair. But it is a result of not managing that resentment.
Stacey Swann: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things I found so interesting in writing about Thea and her mother, that I feel like I’ve witnessed a lot in women’s experiences, is that we are often harder on our mothers than we are on our fathers. I think it’s because we see our potential futures there, or we project ourselves into that situation and think about what we would do. There’s more at stake when looking at your mother’s behavior, but it also feels deeply unfair. I think so many mothers, and even now my friends who have teenagers, you’re constantly dealing with these different levels of people getting angry in ways that you think are not fair to you.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: I read this, too, as a really good example of how victims can become victimizers. She was victimized early on by this infidelity, by this broach of the relationship agreement with Peter — but rather than doing the healing, she went on to project a lot of that onto other people — mostly her kids. We see her become a victimizer as she continues on in that relationship.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. The other comment I want to make about June is that you speak to how others judge her — so people in her community judged that she stayed. There is often, particularly in people who haven’t been thoughtful about infidelity, this idea that, well, if I was the victim of infidelity, I would just leave — and it is far from that simple. She not only has to live with the knowledge of what happened, but with people whispering, and in her case, children that are not her biological children, but are her husband’s children in the community. I think that’s really important — we don’t know how people are coming to the decisions that they’re coming to with their relationships. Jennifer, you can speak much more eloquently about this than I can.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: I think that was beautifully put. We don’t know what’s going on in an individual relationship unless we ask and are told, so to have the gossipy community adding to the trauma of all of this for June, is obviously very difficult. We see how that progresses over the course of this book. Again, the decision to stay, to go to repair, is so individualistic, depending on the partners and what they need and the nature of the infidelity and the breach in the relationship. Some things are much more easily repaired than others, I think.
Stacey Swann: I think a lot about how, not just with infidelity, but anything in the world, when we look around us and we see that something really bad has happened to another person, it strikes fear in us. We’re afraid that that could happen to us too, and our brain tries to rationalize that and say, well, that wouldn’t happen to me because of X, Y or Z. The judgment, though it feels really negative to the other person, is actually a form of self-protection really, that we don’t want to believe that our partner would be able to do that to us — and if they did, we want to believe that this is how we would handle it.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Let’s talk about another woman involved in an affair for a very different reason. Let’s talk about Vera. Vera is June’s daughter-in-law. She’s married to Hap, who’s, at least on the surface, the perfect child. She has an affair with his brother, who’s the black sheep of the family. Talk a little bit about that.
Stacey Swann: It’s one of those interesting things. When I write I like to have a puzzle that I have to unlock. I was taking this basic myth structure, which is that Aphrodite is married to Hephaestus, a Vulcan in Roman mythology who’s like the blacksmith, and she has an affair with Aries who’s the god of war.
When you break down those structures in mythology — they are brothers, those two — there’s this actual myth of her getting caught in the affair with Aries because Hephaestus has made this metal chain and throws it over the couple so everyone can see them. My job was to try and figure out how to render that in modern day Texas in a way that felt believable to the people and to the time and place.
For a while, my hardest problem in writing the novel was how do I get the reader to believe that Vera would not only have an affair when she has this really kind husband, but also have an affair with his brother — the worst person that you could select in terms of the amount of hurt that you inflict on another person. It took a while of writing around to get to what her motives were, why she would select that person, and also have the reader be able to have some sympathy for her at the same time, hopefully. Even as the writer, my relationship evolved from thinking of her just as this very beautiful, very mean woman, to really coming to like her quite a bit by the end. It gave me a new view on her. You could say that her husband has a bit of a martyr complex; he’s quite often giving up the things he wants to help the people around him. Maybe I started writing the novel thinking of that as a much more benign kind of personality — It’s something that maybe I sometimes do myself as well — but then I came to see how even that has a layer of toxicness to it in certain circumstances, that can be really harmful to the other people in that that person’s life.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: It’s awesome to hear you talk about the background with Vera because I experienced her as perhaps one of the most insightful characters, in terms of her own motivations and her own psychology. We get the back story from multiple characters, of course, as we go, but a lot of it is coming from her in the first person and she seems to have the most awareness of why she is doing the things that she’s doing — not exactly out of lust, which is a different type of infidelity.
Stacey Swann: Yeah.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Can you talk a little bit about that? Maybe if you don’t think about it, you would think affairs or infidelity is usually driven by a sexual desire, but there is a manipulation of the relationship dynamic that can also very much come into play.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: Yeah. Trying to think what I can consider without giving too much away for the audience here. I mean, certainly affairs, infidelity, and cheating happens from sexual desire and love, absolutely. Nobody’s questioning that for sure. With Vera, she has a very thoughtful reason for the person that she has chosen. And it’s not just the family relationship, right? It is the personality difference. It is in some ways a vengeance piece for her experience with her husband and his martyrdom complex. She seems quite thoughtful about that, particularly the second time it happens, if I can say that.
Stacey Swann: Yeah, it’s very early in the novel, so it’s not a spoiler.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: So we see her have this very calculated second experience with March, which for the reader — at least for me — was very helpful in seeing how I could have assumed a lot of things about the first round of infidelity. Was that lust? Was that something spur of the moment? At least the second time around, it didn’t feel like that. It was very clear that she had some relational motivations going on.
Dr. Denise Millstine: And that is probably or maybe not something that people participating in infidelity do intentionally. I’m talking generally now, but it’s a type of relationship sabotage — I want this relationship to end; I don’t want to leave you, and if I do something and then you leave me, we achieve the same result. I might be the bad person for having had the affair, but you’re the one who walked away from the relationship; that can be a setup.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: And some people are very comfortable in that role of I’m the one that messed it up, so you might as well go, if they have a history of deprecating themselves in that way. I think that this really speaks, Denise, to the ultimate of avoidance strategies — this is such a big example of interpersonal avoidance. I would like to end this relationship or I’m thinking that I’m really close to ending this relationship, but I either don’t have the skills to say that, don’t know how to say that, I’m afraid to say that, or we don’t have the type of relationship where I can communicate openly about that — so I’m just going to do all of these other behaviors that are very avoidant and very passive aggressive, slash aggressive at times, to see if I can still get the same outcome.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Okay. Another woman — this was so well done. I want to talk about Lee, who is not a huge character in the trajectory of the whole novel. I should say this is not a novel about affairs. It’s about many other story points, and it’s a tragedy. It’s obviously based on Greek mythology. But let’s talk about Lee. So Lee is the woman with whom Peter has his later affair, and she is the mother of his twin daughters who June finds out about just before the twins are born.
What I want to talk about is the other woman. We could also, again, in thinking of infidelity on the surface, think the other woman is a monster. She is a marriage wrecker. She is this terrible person. And Lee is anything but all of those things.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: It’s a safe, emotional reaction for us to do that. It’s an othering. This other person has wronged me. My significant other, my spouse, my partner, who I care deeply for and have been deeply wounded by — it’s much harder to come down on them. It’s much easier to come down on the third party. And so we see this a lot with affairs.
Stacey Swann: Yeah, I think it’s something I was really consciously trying to push back against, growing up in the culture. So often what you see is anger — and I’m thinking in this case, in male relationships where the husband is straight and there is an automatic label put on the other woman, quite often she’s the focus of the most anger. As a feminist, that has always bothered me because I think part of it is just playing into these gender tropes of what women are supposed to be — they’re supposed to be faithful and they’re supposed to seek marriage. I wanted to make sure when I wrote that relationship that the reader would see where the blame really should go, and that I didn’t kind of perpetuate that stereotype in any way.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: There’s this lovely scene at one point with Lee and Peter and June, where I think it’s June’s character who’s observing them all standing in the room together and thinking, “We could actually have been a family here.” As a reader, I was like, “Yes! Why aren’t we moving in that direction?” I understand all of the complicated reasons why, but it was such a touching scene in terms of the three of them and their dynamics.
Stacey Swann: So much in novels, there are things you don’t really plan. You go in one direction and things play out. One of the things I really liked by the end of the novel was that while there’s so many flaws in this larger family that’s been created by multiple infidelities, there are real connections between the children who are half siblings, and that there are connections between — say, like June and Artie, who is not her blood relative, but is her husband’s. I think it’s important to see that reflected because it is so much in our culture that these larger family units, even when they have dysfunction, as the Briscoes definitely have, there’s really powerful, meaningful family connections to be had even in these configurations that we don’t plan on.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: And it brings up for me that how we define family is how we define family. Much like cheating and infidelity, it depends on who you ask. Not everybody feels that family has to be blood-related. A lot of people don’t feel that way. Chosen family is much more of a thing these days and much more appreciated these days and really healthy ways.
Stacey Swann: Absolutely.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Found family. It’s really important. Jennifer, any other comments from reading the book? I know we didn’t even talk hardly about the male characters.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: No, I did my doctoral work in Texas and — this has nothing to do with the relational side of things — but I could see it. The scenery was done so well; I could see the river and the big plantation-style homes. I lived in rural West Texas for about five years doing my doctoral degree. I felt particularly drawn to this book because of that, so it was a joy to read it.
Stacey Swann: Thank you so much. It’s interesting. I feel like even since I finished the book — it takes a while to be published — but Texas has an evolving meaning. We’re at the forefront of a lot of the cultural things going on today. The book might have been slightly different had I written it today, but I still have so much affection for my home state, even as it deeply frustrates me in so many ways. I do like that when people read the book, that they really respond to that feeling of Texas that’s not just some of the darker stuff that we’re seeing more often lately.
Dr. Denise Millstine: I think this has been a fascinating conversation about infidelity and looking at characters in all these lights. I want to thank you both for participating with me and for being open to talking about a topic that can be really difficult. I hope that everyone will go out and read “Olympus, Texas,” and next year, summer 2023, they’ll read Dr. Jennifer Vencill’s book, which is also going to be really important for the world. So thank you both again.
Dr. Jennifer Vencill: Thank you so much.
Stacey Swann: Thank you.
Dr. Denise Millstine: This episode concludes our first season of the “Read.Talk.Grow.” podcast where we discuss health topics through books. We started with reproductive rights, navigated wellness & the microbiome, scratched the surface on racism in medicine and the effects of chronic stress on marginalized groups, thought more about opioid use disorder and ended with a conversation about affairs.
Thank you for listening, reading and thinking about how to use books to better understand and empathize around health issues in an accessible way.
RTG will be back with more episodes soon. Click on the link in show notes to receive more information about future releases.
“Read.Talk.Grow.” is a production of Mayo Clinic Press. Our producer is Lisa Speckhard-Pasque and our recording engineer is Rick Andresen.
The podcast is for informational purposes only and is not designed to replace a physician’s medical assessment and judgment. Information presented is not intended as medical advice. Please contact a healthcare professional for medical assistance with specific questions pertaining to your own health if needed. Keep reading everyone.
This concludes Season One of Read.Talk.Grow. To sign up for emails with more information about future releases and other women’s health content, click here.