Namechecking Monica Lewinsky

My novel, Identity Theft, namechecks Monica Lewinsky.

In that I have a lot of company. As Lewinsky pointed out in her popular TED Talk her name has been a fixture in rap songs. When I read the article referenced in this link, and saw the uses to which her name has been put I am a bit mortified. Try reading the article and slotting in your own name every time it references hers. Try to imagine how that would feel.

The fact that Monica Lewinsky did not change her name (to something that doesn’t rhyme with whiskey) demonstrates, I think, just how important our identities are to us. Even at a young age, with a short resume– one that was tied up with a scandal– she wasn’t willing to surrender her tainted name. There is something laudable in that and I would like nothing better than to see her rise like a phoenix from the ashes and do something so spectacular that the salacious meanings of her name vanish into distant history.

I am pleased to say that my Lewinsky reference does not fit the pattern of the rap list. Lewinsky’s name makes its appearance in a chapter where the protagonist, Candi, weighs the consequences of pursuing a real-world romance with (someone she believes to be) a well-known public figure. On the one hand she believes she has the opportunity to experience something exciting and maybe life-changing. On the other hand, she is afraid of the uneven consequences she could face if anything goes wrong.

One of the best lines from Lewinsky’s TED talk was “It was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.”

In fact, the public was not interested in Lewinsky as a dimensional being but as a symbol of moral self-expression.

I have an interest in books about people who were wrongly convicted of crimes. One of the Catch-22s the wrongly accused often face is that they do not show contrition. (They are not remorseful because they didn’t do it.) Judges and juries often view this lack of remorse as proof that the person is a hardened criminal with no conscience. In order to be welcomed back into society, the public demands the accused behave as a penitent, express regret and give a sincere apology.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Lewinsky scandal was that Bill Clinton’s approval rating rocketed to an all-time high.  A life-long politician with a team of advisers, Clinton knew exactly what the public needed to hear. He knew how to express remorse:

“I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned… But I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required – at least two more things. First, genuine repentance – a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented. Second, what my bible calls a broken spirit; an understanding that I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be; a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek; a renunciation of the pride and the anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.”

It is hard to pile on the blame after a statement like that. Was that his sincere feeling about what had transpired? Who knows. It may be, although the timing of his confession, immediately after being caught, makes you wonder. The only right thing to say after an affair if you want any hope of things returning to the way they were is to express unmitigated remorse.

Lewinsky made the mistake (from a PR point of view) of  not expressing the remorse the public wanted. As CNN wrote in 1999 on the release of her biography:

Other publishers wanted her to be more contrite, to acknowledge more forthrightly that she shouldn’t have had the affair. But Morton, who developed a chummy rapport with Lewinsky within a few minutes of meeting her last year, was happy to oblige her wish to make the central theme not contrition but invasion of privacy. When British publisher Michael O’Mara was shopping for a U.S. firm to buy the North American rights, he pitched Morton’s book this way, according to publisher Judith Regan, who says she turned down the proposal: “Andrew Morton can say that she’s the Princess Diana of America, but Monica can’t say that about herself.”

As you can see if you watch her TED talk, Lewinsky has learned this lesson now. Before she asks for your sympathy for the invasions of her privacy, she makes it clear that “falling in love with her boss” was a huge mistake. Enough time has passed that she can persuasively chalk it up to the folly of youth.

With the long shadow the episode has cast over her life, her regret is probably sincere. If I were her, I would probably regret making that choice. But I think I would regret even more that I had befriended Linda Tripp. Coming to the realization that an affair you had when you were young was a mistake is something best done in private.

But Clinton had another thing in his favor. He is a man. Sexual sin is generally forgiven in men, as long as it is of the adult, heterosexual variety. Men, after all, are supposed to be sexual. Sometimes they just can’t resist temptation. The very fact that women want to sleep with him increases the perception of his virility. Boys will be boys.

For women it becomes a bit more complicated. We have still not shed the notion that women give sex and men are the happy recipients of it. One reason I think this stereotype persists, by the way, is that women maintain it. It turns a mutual sexual experience into one in which the male, theoretically, is in debt to the woman. This is why a lot of slut shaming comes not from men but from women. In spite of our great social strides, there is still a tendency to divide women into two broad categories–Madonna and whore. The respectable woman only wants sex in the context of a committed relationship. A woman who acts outside those boundaries, who has sex for the pleasure of it, threatens that construct and is a slut.

Bill Clinton “sinned” because he gave into temptation. Monica Lewinsky had sinned by being sexual in the first place.

Her behavior, devoid of context, fit all kinds of potential existing narratives: gold digger, slut or– the only one that would preserve her status as a “good girl”– victim. (Andrew Morton, to some extent, ran with that one in his Lewinsky biography. He tried to present her as a girl whose weight problems gave her low self-esteem and made her vulnerable to unhealthy relationships. A made for Oprah construct.)

Until it became clear there was evidence of the affair, it seems the White House was prepared to allow another narrative to stand. The hysterical woman. There had been no affair. Lewinsky was delusional.

Clinton’s apology had what I assume was the unintended consequence of placing Lewinsky in the role of the temptress. If Clinton was a hapless Adam, she was Eve with the apple.

These narratives say much more about us than about the people we’re supposedly discussing.

All of this was the subtext of that one little allusion in the novel.

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