In 1998 Monica Lewinsky became the very first victim of a viral outing. The news of her affair with US President Bill Clinton was broken to the world via The Drudge Report (after Newsweek had declined to run the story). Thus beginning a chain of events that put a presidency at risk and, if not more importantly, ruined a young woman’s life: “I lost my reputation. I was publicly identified as someone I didn’t recognize. And I lost my sense of self.”
The facts of their affair – or as Lewinsky puts it: “I fell in love with my boss”: were mundane, lurid and cringeworthy: and I have no intention of re-airing them here. The Clintons skulked, circled the wagons and distanced themselves from her immediately – with Bill Clinton charmingly referring to her as “that woman”. In a matter of days the 22-year-old learned the truth in Kirsty Eager’s assertion: “Once they know they’ve got a hold of your shame, they can shake it out and hold it up for the all world to see. And you become less than it. You become something disgusting.” Lewinsky was out in the cold: “It was easy to forget,” she says now “that ‘That Woman’ was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.”
Monica was “Patient Zero” (her phrase) of the Internet shaming we now see regularly. Her outing wasn’t the first case ever, but it was the first of its magnitude. Virtually overnight, Lewinsky went from being a private citizen to, as she put it, “a publicly humiliated one.”
In her recent TED Talk, Monica recounts how the White House Counsel forced her to listen to recordings of phone conversations she had whilst an intern. Making her identify her voice over and over again through 20 hours of tapes – replaying comments she’d made about friends and co-workers. Hearing herself be at turns: mean, childish, malicious, naive
“Scared and mortified, I listen,
Listen as I prattle on …
Listen to my sometimes catty, sometimes churlish, sometimes silly self, being cruel, unforgiving, uncouth …
Listen, deeply, deeply ashamed to the worst version of myself.”
A self I don’t even recognize.”
For over 17 years Lewinsky has had to deal with the repercussions of those comments, of the publishing of her private letters to Bill, of her decision to sleep with a married man. She’s lived with the damage it did to her emotionally and physically, the impact it had on her life in general. She’s been unable to find work. She has watched the effect her actions had on the people around her – her family, friends, parents. Her mother especially was devastated: sitting up all night beside her daughter’s bed, watching her cry. Her anguish at seeing her daughter so depressed she feared leaving the house – afraid of she would find when she came home: “both my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death.” .
When Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi killed himself after being recorded by his college roommate being intimate with a man, Monica Lewinsky’s mother was beside herself, “gutted with pain, in a way I couldn’t quite understand.” Eventually Lewinsky came to realise that to her mother, Tyler represented Monica: “She was reliving 1998. “Reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night. Reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open.” For the media she says: “It was easy to forget, that ‘That Woman’ was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.”
Slowly, agonizingly but with her family’s help, Monica pulled herself out of the dark hole and back into every day life. Staying silent about the affair as she moved forward: now 41, she holds a master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics. But it hasn’t been easy: Lewinsky still has no permanent home of her own, and doesn’t discuss her finances – so you get the sense that her recovery is very much a work in progress.
In May last year she decided to end her silence, writing an essay for wrote an essay Vanity Fair (the editor Graydon Carter has been a long time supporter and friend) about the aftermath of her affair with The President. In the essay, which was a finalist for a 2015 National Magazine Award, she declared that the time had come to “burn the beret and bury the blue dress” and “give a purpose to my past.” (Lewinsky also writes her own speeches) adding wryly: “What this will cost me,” she wrote, “I will soon find out.”
This time, the response has been deservedly positive and supportive. TED approached Lewinsky about speaking at a conference – the theme Truth and Dare, and she agreed. The talk would circle her back to the internet – but this time with the control in her hands, this time with a purpose: “That’s part of what I thought I could contribute,” she said. “That in someone else’s darkest moment, lodged in their subconscious might be the knowledge that there was someone else who was, at one point in time, the most humiliated person in the world. And that she survived it.”
Her talk is a must watch. For parents whose children will encounter challenge, for anyone who has experienced shame, for anyone who has been part of shaming someone else, for the bully and the bullied … for us all. Ernest Hemingway once said: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” Monica Lewinsky is strong. I can’t wait to see what she does next.