In the car last week, I heard a song I hadn’t heard or thought about for years: “With a Song in My Heart.” It’s a beautiful melody, I told my husband. But even as I was saying it, something was bothering me. The heart has a memory that the mind knows nothing of, and it was my heart that was disturbed, even as my musical sensibility was pleased.
Then I remembered the first time I had ever heard the tune. It was from a 1952 Hollywood film by the same name, starring Susan Hayward as singer Jane Froman, who in real life had been crippled in an airplane crash. I must have been about 8 when I saw it, and the only scene I remember is the one in which Jane is on stage pouring her heart into the song before an audience.
And the reason I remember that scene is because of the way I felt watching it. You see, though Jane was married, she was singing that love song to a man in the audience who was not her husband. In the film, nobody in the audience knows this but Jane. Moreover, the film is carefully constructed, directed, edited, and scored in such a way that the viewer is sympathetic to Jane’s straying heart. To wit, (1) she is depicted as a wholesome and a victim of circumstances, (2) her husband drinks, (3) the man she is in love with risked his life for her, (4) neither the woman nor the man meant it to happen; it was bigger than they were, as the saying goes.
At the age at which I saw the film, I had received no teaching on marriage or adultery or divorce, nor had I any personal experience of such adult concerns. Nevertheless, here I was feeling a primordial unease at the sight of the woman singing to the wrong man. The fact that I never spoke to anyone about it at the time (nor till I wrote this column) reflects a lifelong introversion but also a lack of categories for what I was feeling.
I bring it up today because it occurs to me in hindsight that this movie was my first encounter with the evil of adultery, and in particular with the evil of sympathetic adultery, though in its seminal stage. Later, in the 1960s I would see Dr. Zhivago and experience the same disturbed conscience and moral ickiness. I can only imagine what little children feel when they first spy a violation of God’s design for men and women, for husbands and wives. Or has evil become so crass and normalized these days that the conscience is seared and even the children’s hearts are dulled?
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).