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In a piece for Vanity Fair this week, Monica Lewinsky opened up about why she decided to participate in a docuseries called The Clinton Affair:
Filming the documentary forced me to acknowledge to myself past behavior that I still regret and feel ashamed of. There were many, many moments when I questioned not just the decision to participate, but my sanity itself. Despite all of the ways I tried to protect my mental health, it was still challenging. During one therapy session, I told my therapist I was feeling especially depressed. She suggested that sometimes what we experience as depression is actually grief.
Grief. Yes, it was Grief. The process of this docuseries led me to new rooms of shame that I still needed to explore, and delivered me to Grief’s doorstep. Grief for the pain I caused others. Grief for the broken young woman I had been before and during my time in D.C., and the shame I still felt around that. Grief for having been betrayed first by someone I thought was my friend, and then by a man I thought had cared for me. Grief for the years and years lost, being seen only as “That Woman”—saddled, as a young woman, with the false narrative that my mouth was merely a receptacle for a powerful man’s desire. (You can imagine how those constructs impacted my personal and professional life.) Grief for a relationship that had no normal closure, and instead was slowly dismantled by two decades of Bill Clinton’s behavior that eventually (eventually!) helped me understand how, at 22, I took the small, narrow sliver of the man I knew and mistook it for the whole.
Lewinsky has made a few public statements about her experiences in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and I’ve found them all to be insightful and moving (see: her TED talk on the price of shame). Lewinsky continues:
Throughout history, women have been traduced and silenced. Now, it’s our time to tell our own stories in our own words. Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Blair Foster, the Emmy-winning director of the series, is testing that idea in myriad ways […] I may not like everything that has been put in the series or left out, but I like that the perspective is being shaped by women. Yes, the process of filming has been exceedingly painful. But I hope that by participating, by telling the truth about a time in my life—a time in our history—I can help ensure that what happened to me never happens to another young person in our country again.
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal happened while I was a teenager, but I think I’m still coming to terms with how our society and the media completely annihilated everyone involved. Weeks of newspaper headlines and endless jokes on late night TV served to normalize mockery of this young woman who was caught in a vortex of circumstances that any normal person would barely be able to comprehend (This representative clip from David Letterman is absolutely cringe-inducing to watch today).
I had a similar thought when I watched Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amy. Winehouse was ridiculed endlessly for her background and drug problems, and the documentary implies that the public scrutiny drove her to the substance abuse that ultimately took her life.
The notion that society and the media prey upon celebrities (often women) until they have extracted all they can from them is not a new idea. South Park made an episode about it. The Onion satirized it. People like simple narratives, but what these instances reveal is that by reducing individuals down to an idea, a catchphrase, a single act, we perform a kind of psychic violence upon them. We strip them of their individuality and their complex fullness. We make them into punchlines.
The difference now is that there finally seems to be a stronger willingness to reflect on the decisions we’ve made in how we think about and discuss these things. In doing so, hopefully we can finally reckon with who we were and who we should become.
Also: For a thorough and engrossing rundown of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, check out the second season of Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast.