Monica Lewinsky has pinned a tweet at the top of her feed.
It must be a message to herself as much as anyone. I needed it as a palate cleanser after making the horrible mistake of typing her name into the twitter search bar after watching “The Clinton Affair.” I wanted to see if there were reviews and commentary on the documentary. What I saw was the vitriol that is still aimed at Lewinsky. A lot of people hiding behind their social media handles express, in colorful terms, their desire that she shut up and go away.
What strikes me about the online commentary, to the extent I was willing to consider it before looking away with a feeling of having been polluted, was that it doesn’t seem to come from people who love Bill Clinton and who want to protect his reputation. The discourse is too rancorous and primal for that. What is threatening in listening to Lewinsky’s perspective is that it upsets the natural order of things that we’ve become accustomed to where a man who has engaged in a marital infidelity can explain that she “threw herself” at him, that it meant nothing to him, that really she is irrelevant and she should disappear in order to preserve the status quo.
It is a status quo where sexuality is viewed as something a woman gives and a man receives. This creates a responsibility on the man’s part, unless it can be demonstrated that the woman gives so easily that it seems as though she actually enjoys it. Therefore he owes her nothing. We do not have to consider her feelings. She’s an inconvenient problem. It is generally the man who gets to define what category the woman inhabits. There are a lot of women who have become adept at playing by these rules as well. Slut shaming often comes from other women.
Monica Lewinsky is roughly my age. I followed her ordeal with interest. What I remember vividly were the fat jokes at her expense. I was built like her at that age, and the idea behind the jokes seemed to be that if you failed to be sufficiently decorative you didn’t matter. Even the most sympathetic readings at the time turned on the idea that she was chubby, and she had “thrown herself” at the president because of a lack of self-esteem. Why is a man’s extra-marital affair so rarely read as a cry for help and evidence of his woeful sense of self-esteem?
I remember how they tried to write her off as a deluded stalker, and I remember feeling a certain admiration at her strength of character. Clinton was clearly prepared to throw her under whatever busses he needed to, while she was still fighting to protect the secret of their relationship even at the expense of her public reputation. They said there was no relationship– it was all in her head. She was emotionally unstable. And she said nothing.
I remember thinking how sordid anyone’s sexual relationships, no matter how healthy, might sound when presented in the format of the Starr Report. Sexual acts always sound ridiculous when you spell them out. They make sense in context. Listening to the Linda Tripp tapes, which were all over the news, made me imagine my own conversations with confidants while in the throes of my own questionable relationships. We all make fools of ourselves in the arena of love and sex. (Cue that song by The Main Ingredient).
Here’s how Megan Garber, writing in The Atlantic, describes the background of the Trip tapes:
Lewinsky describes the hot-and-cold nature of her relationship with Clinton—she still refers to him as “Bill,” and sometimes as “B.C.”—during the period when he was running for a second term. She suggests that his behavior toward her, in which he variously gave her gifts (Leaves of Grass), showered her with compliments, and ignored her, going silent for long periods of time, is what ultimately led her to share the details of the affair with Tripp. “I had this nagging insecurity,” Lewinsky tells The Clinton Affair’s camera: “Maybe he just did all of these things these last six months because he was trying to keep me quiet during the election. How stupid am I that I believed this, that I bought this? I felt so deflated, and so desperate. And those were the conditions, along with some other things, that led to me confiding in Linda Tripp.”
I, too, had been in relationships– more than one at that point– where I was more invested than the guy was. My most formative relationship was like that. It was not an abuse of power in the sense that he was not by boss, not in a superior social position, in fact he was a year younger than me, a sophomore when I was a junior in college.
He enjoyed the sex and play enough to want to keep me around when he was in the mood for that, but he wanted me to vanish when he did not. He wanted to have pleasure with no responsibility. He wanted his options open, in case something better came along. So we broke up, and he came back, over and over. I was invested enough that I put everything on hold so I would be free in case he decided it would be an on-again moment instead of off-again. Here’s a poem I wrote about it:
I find that I am here again
back where I began
not long ago I scaled great heights
I soared with excitement and joy
But here I am again
back where I began
So this joy was no peak,
but the crest of a circle
reaching the top
I was destined to slide round
and from here, at the bottom
there is nowhere but up
But what keeps me in this circle?
It is this cord that I have tethered to you.
I spin, always around you
Perhaps this time,
when I get my momentum going
I will let go of the string
the centrifugal force will act
and instead of rolling back
I will fly…
You can’t tell anyone to shrug it off when they’re in it. You just have to live through it– the balm of time.
But that ill-fated romance had a big effect on me. He used many techniques that made me feel I was the one with the problem for wanting something more stable. I was “too clingy.” I was “too emotional” and “needy.” To call this “gaslighting” I think gives him too much intent. I don’t think he had a grand vision of how to manipulate me, he just wanted to have what he wanted and to believe he was doing nothing wrong. He put it on me, and as he was an immoveable object, I tried to adapt myself. I was determined to learn from the criticisms he put on me how to become more loveable.
In retrospect, this set me up to accept a similar dynamic the next time around, even to seek it out, to prove to myself that I had learned and that I now could master the situation.
I found myself, when watching The Clinton Affair, wondering if Lewinsky’s earlier affair with a married man who had been her teacher was not– as it has normally been presented–an example of her bad character but a foundational unhealthy relationship that primed her to want another unequal relationship–so unequal that she could test her emotional mettle. But maybe I’m projecting.
This was all long ago, and I had the benefit of being a fool mostly in private. I have to believe I am not alone in this. We don’t live up to our highest ideals, and so we use public shaming to re-affirm what out values are. We put our collective foibles on Lewinsky’s head so she could take the abuse for us all. Her reincarnation as an advocate for people who are bullied and shamed is quite brilliant. She could never outrun her undesired fame, and so she found a way to put it to use. Good on her. She is good in front of the camera, and who knows, maybe she will yet develop a public persona in which her past is only a distant memory.
Reflecting on the documentary, I realized how much that episode colored the stories I felt compelled to tell as a writer. Nowhere is that more evident than in my second novel Identity Theft (written pre #MeToo) wherein the female protagonist has what she thinks is a consentual affair with a prominent man and is disbelieved to the point that she is jailed as an emotionally unstable stalker. But I see it also in the story of Oscar’s Ghost in the way defending Oscar Wilde seemed to require vilifying Lord Alfred Douglas. What happens when someone’s private life becomes a public story? Who gets to decide what it means?