What Monica Lewinsky Can Learn from Lord Alfred Douglas

ImageMonica Lewinsky is in the news again. I have always had empathy for her.

I think about myself in my 20s, that reckless vulnerable age, when everything is new and confusing and you believe there will always be time to undo your mistakes. There are e-mails and love letters of mine that I am grateful never appeared on the six o’clock news. Are there many people who could not say the same?

Michelle Goldberg wrote of Lewinsky in The Nation: “Imagine, at 40, being defined by a blowjob you gave at 22.”

That sentence, forgive me, brought to mind Lord Alfred Douglas.

He had much in common with Monica Lewinsky. Both were bright young people with promising futures when they met the much older, and more prominent men who would change the trajectories of their lives. Lewinsky was 22 years old when she met the president. Douglas was 21 when he met the 36 year-old Oscar Wilde. Monica Lewinsky’s relationship with the president lasted two years. The time Douglas knew Wilde, including the two years Wilde was in prison, were nine years of a 75-year life.

Neither relationship was entirely clear cut. According to Douglas– and there is no reason not to believe him– his relationship with Wilde was not especially physical consisting of a few occasions of doing, well, the types of things that were reported to have happened between Clinton and Lewinsky. (There was no “is” between Wilde and Douglas either.)

Both Lewinsky and Douglas were barely out of school when their respective sex scandals broke. So while President Clinton and Oscar Wilde had reputations and resumes before their scandals, their younger partners had no public images to speak of. Their reputations were formed by the scandals.

So as Monica Lewinsky has put herself back in our consciousness for the moment, I wonder if there is anything she could learn from the example of Lord Alfred Douglas. For the most part, Douglas serves as a negative example. In his middle years Douglas was bitter, argumentative, and had a persecution complex that was all the more fierce for having some basis in fact. (Even paranoid people have real enemies.)

As with Clinton/Lewinsky defenders of Wilde had sought to revitalize the playwright’s image by making Douglas the driving force in the relationship. He was the seducer, he was the mad one, he was the one who courted danger. The much older man just went along for the ride.

Wilde and Douglas lived in an era when they simply could not speak about their relationship or expect to have it understood. It was, as Douglas so famously wrote, “the love that dared not speak its name.” That did not prevent others from trying to define it for him. First it was his furious father, then the courts, then the newspapers. Later it was Wilde himself. Wilde was trying to set the record straight when he wrote his prison manuscript De Profundis in the form of a painful letter to Douglas. At 50,000 words De Profundis is as long as the original version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and could be said to be the first biography of Lord Alfred Douglas, and the least objective. It would not be the last.  By the time Douglas was able to speak freely, many other biographers had gotten there before him and a narrative about the relationship and his role in it had already been created. It was not flattering.

The sad consequence is that Douglas spent most of his later years striking down what he saw as libels like a kid at a Whack-A-Mole machine. And even though Douglas wrote four autobiographical works, he never gave a straight-forward account of his life. Everything he wrote was framed as an argument against what had come before.

The moral of this for Monica Lewinsky is to give up the notion that you can set the record straight. People who have no idea what happened between you and Bill Clinton will have opinions and theories and there is nothing you can do about it. You will make yourself crazy.

Back in February, before the Vanity Fair article, CNN reported on rumors that Lewinsky was shopping a $12 million book deal. The Vanity Fair piece may be a trial balloon meant to prove to potential publishers that she can still capture an audience.  Otherwise the whole thing is quite inexplicable. Here is Monica, courting the press, for no particular reason. It is not to announce a great new Lewinsky project, a product to sell, a new cause she wants to take on. Given that, its message seems to be “I am in the public spotlight to say that it is time to stop talking about me.” Weird, right?

One of the best moves Lord Alfred Douglas ever made was one dictated by necessity. It could not have come naturally to a narcissistic aristocrat who was desperate to tell his story to the world. (While Wilde was in prison, Douglas was quite idealistically and romantically, but entirely unhelpfully, determined to print a long argument in defense of love between men and to declare his ever lasting devotion to Wilde.)

Douglas’s career had not yet begun, but he was determined to become a great poet. No publisher, however, would touch a Lord Alfred Douglas book with a ten foot pole. So Douglas released his first collection of sonnets anonymously. It received highly favorable reviews. It was only after his work had been praised that he revealed he was the author. This allowed him to build a reputation in his own right, beyond the stench of scandal.

He is always contrasted with Wilde. In Wilde’s shadow he looks small, but so do all but a rare few writers. In his lifetime, Douglas published more than a dozen collections of poetry, satire and nonsense verse and The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. When his writings for publications such as The Academy are counted, he was by any fair reckoning quite prolific and generally well regarded literary figure in his time.

So here is the final lesson for Lewinsky from the poet’s life:  If you are shopping that memoir, hold off a while, not because of politics or the presumed Hillary Clinton campaign, not because of the critics. Don’t put out another book until you have another story to tell. Do something amazing! Make a difference, make a fortune, write a sonnet set– whatever it is, do something that is entirely yours entirely unrelated to Bill Clinton. Do that first. The hard truth is this: there is no reason for us to care about a former White House intern. There is nothing we know about you besides the scandal.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once described a particular orator by saying, “he is a spectacle instead of being an engine; a fine show at which we look, instead of an agent that moves us.”  Don’t be a spectacle instead of an engine. Don’t talk about how we misunderstand you– show us. Don’t say it’s time to burn the beret– make us forget.

Then write a tell-all, if you still feel you must. But make it the story of what you overcame, the trial by fire that made you who you are. Make that trial your triumph.

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