Sunday, April 17, 2016

Monica Lewinsky: ‘The Shame Sticks To You Like Tar’

One night in London in 2005, a woman said a surprisingly eerie thing to Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky had moved from New York a few days earlier to take a master’s in social psychology at the London School of Economics. On her first weekend, she went drinking with a woman she thought might become a friend. “But she suddenly said she knew really high-powered people,” Lewinsky says, “and I shouldn’t have come to London because I wasn’t wanted there.”

Lewinsky is telling me this story at a table in a quiet corner of a West Hollywood hotel. We had to pay extra for the table to be curtained off. It was my idea. If we hadn’t done it, passersby would probably have stared. Lewinsky would have noticed the stares and would have clammed up a little. “I’m hyper-aware of how other people may be perceiving me,” she says.

She’s tired and dressed in black. She just flew in from India and hasn’t had breakfast yet. We’ll talk for two hours, after which there’s only time for a quick teacake before she hurries to the airport to give a talk in Phoenix, Arizona, and spend the weekend with her father.

“Why did that woman in London say that to you?” I ask her.

“Oh, she’d had too much to drink,” Lewinsky replies. “It’s such a shame, because 99.9% of my experiences in England were positive, and she was an anomaly. I loved being in London, then and now. I was welcomed and accepted at LSE, by my professors and classmates. But when something hits a core trauma – I actually got really retriggered. After that I couldn’t go more than three days without thinking about the FBI sting that happened in ’98.”

Seven years earlier, on 16 January 1998, Lewinsky’s friend – an older work colleague called Linda Tripp – invited her for lunch at a mall in Washington DC. Lewinsky was 25. They’d been working together at the Pentagon for nearly two years, during which time Lewinsky had confided in her that she’d had an affair with President Bill Clinton. Unbeknown to Lewinsky, Tripp had been secretly recording their telephone conversations – more than 20 hours of them. The lunch was a trap. When Tripp arrived, she motioned behind her and two federal agents suddenly appeared. “You’re in trouble,” they told Lewinsky. (...)

Lewinsky doesn’t like thinking about her past. It was hard to get her to agree to this interview. She rarely gives them and she nearly cancelled this one. I approached her on several previous occasions, when I was writing a book on public shaming, and she kept saying no.

It’s not because she’s difficult. She isn’t. She’s very likable and smart. But it feels as if I’m sitting with two Lewinskys. There’s the open, friendly one. This is, I suspect, the actual Lewinsky. In a parallel world where nothing cataclysmic happened in the 1990s, I imagine this would be the entire Lewinsky. But then there’s the nervy one who sometimes suddenly stops mid-sentence and says, “I’m hesitating because I have to think through the consequences of saying this. I still have to manage a lot of trauma to do what I’m doing, even to come here. Any time I put myself in the hands of other people…”

“What’s your nightmare scenario?” I ask her.

“The truth is I’m exhausted,” she says. “So I’m worried I may misspeak, and that thing will become the headline and the cycle will start all over again.”

The reason why she finally agreed to meet me, despite her anxieties, is that the Guardian is highlighting the issue of online harassment through its series The web we want – an endeavour she approves of. “Destigmatising the shame around online harassment is the first step,” she says. “Well, the first step is recognising there’s a problem.”

Lewinsky was once among the 20th century’s most humiliated people, ridiculed across the world. Now she’s a respected and perceptive anti-bullying advocate. She gives talks at Facebook, and at business conferences, on how to make the internet more compassionate. She helps out at anti-bullying organisations like Bystander Revolution, a site that offers video advice on what to do if you’re afraid to go to school, or if you’re a victim of cyberbullying.

A year ago she gave a TED talk about being the object of the first great internet shaming: “Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide. Granted, it was before social media, but people could still comment online, email stories, and, of course, email cruel jokes. I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman’. It was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.” Lewinsky’s talk was dazzling and now gets taught in schools alongside Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter. I can think of nobody I’d rather talk to about the minutiae of online bullying – who does it and why, the turmoil it can spark, and how to make things better. (...)

Back then, the world basically saw Lewinsky as the predator. Late-night talkshow hosts routinely made misogynistic jokes, with Jay Leno among the cruellest: “Monica Lewinsky has gained back all the weight she lost last year. [She’s] considering having her jaw wired shut but then, nah, she didn’t want to give up her sex life.” And so on.

In February 1998, the feminist writer Nancy Friday was asked by the New York Observer to speculate on Lewinsky’s future. “She can rent out her mouth,” she replied.

I hope those mainstream voices wouldn’t treat Lewinsky quite this badly if the scandal broke today. Nowadays most people understand those jokes to be slut-shaming, punching down, don’t they?

“I hope so,” Lewinsky says. “I don’t know.”

A lot of vicious things that happen online to women do happen at the hands of men, but women are not immune to misogyny

Either way, misogyny is still thriving. When the Guardian began researching the online harassment of its own writers, they discovered something bleak: of the 10 contributors who receive the most abuse in the comment threads, eight are women – five white, three non-white – and the other two are black men. Overall, women Guardian writers get more abuse than men, regardless of what they write about, but especially when they write about rape and feminism. I noticed something similar during my two years interviewing publicly shamed people. When a man is shamed, it’s usually, “I’m going to get you fired.” When a woman is shamed it’s, “I’m going to rape you and get you fired.”

With statistics like these, it’s no surprise that many consider this an ideological issue – that the focus should be on combatting the misogynistic, racist abuse committed by men. But Lewinsky doesn’t see it that way. “A lot of vicious things that happen online to women and minorities do happen at the hands of men,” she says, “but they also happen at the hands of women. Women are not immune to misogyny.”

“That happened to you,” I say. “With people like Nancy Friday. You found yourself being attacked by ideologues.”

“Yes,” Lewinsky says. “I think it’s fair to say that whatever mistakes I made, I was hung out to dry by a lot of people – by a lot of the feminists who had loud voices. I wish it had been handled differently. It was very scary and very confusing to be a young woman thrust on to the world stage and not belonging to any group. I didn’t belong to anybody.”

by Jon Ronson, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Steve Schofield