At age 44, Julie Metz was made a widow, but it was only after her husband died that her marriage began to fall apart. She discovered that Henry, the man she had known and loved for more than 12 years, had a whole other secret life, one that involved affairs with no less than five other women, including a "concerned" neighbour who Julie had at one time counted as a friend.
Her initial, gut response to these stunning revelations? "Henry, you are so lucky to be f***ing dead."
Devastated, humiliated and furious, Julie didn't have the option of having it out with her cheating husband like other wronged wives. So she did the next best thing: Julie tracked down and angrily confronted all five women about their relationships with her husband.
It's a story so bizarre that it could only be true, and now the New York-based graphic designer and writer has published her account of that experience in a searing and brutally honest memoir entitled Perfection.
On a freezing cold January morning in 2003, Julie was working in her office downstairs in the home she shared with Henry and their six-year-old daughter Liza in the small town of Cold Springs in New York state. Henry, a freelance writer and food critic, had been feeling unwell, and so was upstairs in bed. Julie recalls hearing the toilet flushing, some footsteps ... and then a loud thud. Henry had collapsed from a pulmonary embolism, and despite Julie's desperate attempts to revive him, he died in her arms, just as the paramedics arrived.
It was shattering, and for the next six months, Julie went by in a daze, as she slowly went through the motions of living for the sake of her young daughter. Gradually, Julie started coming through her grief, and even began a tentative "transitional" romance with Tomas, a younger man and friend of Henry's. It was this man that first alerted Julie to her late husband's multiple infidelities, and having lost Henry once already, Julie had to lose him all over again.
Tomas, along with Julie's brother, had gone through Henry's emails after his death and rumbled his secrets. As if the shock of that wasn't enough, Julie discovered that one of Henry's lovers was a neighbour identified in the book as Cathy, a family friend who Henry had once dismissively described as a "gaunt hag with oversize boobs and sloped shoulders".
The salt in the wound for Julie was that Cathy had been hovering around ever since Henry's death, offering spiritual advice, putting Julie in touch with her minister, cooking meals and engineering play-dates between Julie's daughter and her own, all attempts, it seems, to alleviate her guilt.
Julie doesn't hold back in her unbridled rage after finding this out. "A gun was too swift, too merciful," she writes. "I wanted to slit her end to end ... I wanted to kill that f***ing woman."
Julie drove straight round to Cathy's house, where Liza was playing. She immediately confronted her husband's mistress. Cathy murmured a wan reply about being weak and that Henry had been so persuasive, adding: "My love for you was genuine ... "
This tipped Cathy over the edge. "There is nothing genuine about you," she raged back. "How could you feel love for a woman in a friendship and be f***ing her husband? What kind of woman does that and thinks she is being a friend? A psycho case, that's who. You disgust me. You're like poison."
Over the following weeks, Julie then began reading Henry's journal, and poring over the hundreds of emails exchanged between him and Cathy through the course of their three-year affair. The content -- sexually explicit, passionate, half-delusional -- made Julie realise that she really didn't know anything about this man, and that their love, their marriage, was now fundamentally called into question. Was any of it real?
With the help of her brother and friends, Julie uncovered the full panorama of Henry's deceit. In his capacity as a food writer with a brief to travel around the US visiting foodie spots, Henry had developed relationships with four other women: a single mother in Oregon, a twentysomething woman in a local gym, an advertising exec in Manhattan and a New Age hippie on the West Coast. As painful and masochistic as it seems, Julie found the phone numbers for all four, and spoke to all of them about their affairs with her husband.
The results of these conversations were surprising in several ways. Some were deeply contrite, others defiant and defensive. But, aside from gaining insight into this man that was now a stranger to her, Julie, bizarrely, found she liked some of these women. She even gradually developed a cordial, years-long correspondence with one of them.
Speaking to Weekend magazine, Julie reveals how her feelings towards these women have evolved in the six years that have since passed. "I do think that in the end I was able to understand and forgive most of them," she says. "Henry was an intelligent and charming man. His charm had worked on me so I couldn't be surprised that other women had found him engaging.
"He seemed to have a way of identifying what people wanted from him. He also had a knack for finding women at particularly vulnerable times in their lives."
Julie also found out that Henry had been seeing a psychotherapist, who, unusually, agreed to meet her to discuss Henry. The therapist had provisionally diagnosed Henry with "narcissistic personality disorder".
"That doesn't exonerate his behaviour, but it would help explain it," Julie says.
"Henry and I had been seeing a couple's therapist before his death. We had always had a volatile relationship. At its best our marriage was passionate and exciting, but, in the years prior to his death, it had devolved into a lot of fighting.
"But of course a huge source of the conflict in our marriage was the secrets Henry kept about his affairs. It seems that he might have been preparing to bring this topic up for discussion, but he ran out of time."
In retrospect, Julie concedes that there had always been red flags about Henry's true personality and predilections (for instance, she first met Henry at a party that he had attended with his then girlfriend), but that she locked herself in a "bubble" and ignored them. "I think that I, like many women, had an enormous investment in the idea of my marriage, and in my identity as Henry's wife," she explains.
Two years ago, Julie told her daughter Liza (then 11) about her father's affairs. "I thought very long and hard about writing and publishing the book," Julie admits. "In the end, I felt that Liza ... had a deep understanding about the nature of her parents' relationship, having witnessed many of our arguments.
"I felt she would be better served with an honest understanding of what had really been going on. I think she understands that, while Henry was a flawed man, he loved her deeply. She has told me that she's proud of me and we have a good and close connection."
Today, Julie happily lives in Brooklyn with her partner Will. She writes in Perfection that, "I continue to work on forgiveness. I do not, however, wish to forget any of this." She adds a little later on that "more and more days pass now when I forget Henry".
"For me forgiveness means that you don't wake up every day feeling angry and bitter, that you are able to move on and find joy in your life as it is," she says. "So, while I am by nature a worrier, I feel that I have been able to make a very different life with a very different kind of man.
"I have a very different attitude about love and relationships than I did as a young woman. I no longer believe in the "perfect," once-in-your-lifetime "soul mate". Rather, I see that life is full of unexpected twists and turns and that you might connect with a number of people on your journey."
Has she been able to salvage any good memories from her relationship with Henry? "Absolutely," she replies. "It took a lot of time, but now I can look back to times when my daughter was young or even earlier before we were parents and remember good and meaningful times we shared together," she says.
If she had a chance to talk to Henry today, what would she say -- or do -- to him? Julie thinks for a moment before answering. "That's an interesting question, because the answer has changed often during these last years. But now I can say that I would thank him for the life I have now. This doesn't mean that I am happy that he died -- I could never feel that for my daughter's father. Just that I am glad to have been able to have a second chance. Coming to terms with all these experiences gave me that chance."
Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal is out now, published