For some 16 years, Monica Lewinsky has been paying a dear price for youthful mistakes that she happened to make with the President of the United States. Her affair with President Bill Clinton while serving as a White House intern became public in 1998, and it almost toppled Clinton’s Presidency. While Clinton managed to save his Administration and has since become one of the most popular and respected ex-Presidents in memory, Lewinsky has forever been associated with the events of her relative youth.
In “Shame and Survival,” a piece that she authored for the June issue of Vanity Fair, Lewinsky, now 41, writes for the first time about what the ensuing years have been like. She describes the cruelties, ridicule, and humiliation, frankly but without excessive self-pity. She recognizes that she was “possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.” Few others have such a lived understanding of how digital society can preserve our wrong turns and savage a reputation. Lewinsky writes about her experiences with heart, insight, and thoughtful restraint.
In an effort to escape and take stock, Lewinsky decamped from the U.S. to attend the London School of Economics, where her classmates and professors “were welcoming and respectful.” But her subsequent efforts to gain employment were undermined by her continuing notoriety:
I moved between London, Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, Oregon, interviewing for a variety of jobs that fell under the umbrella of “creative communication” and “branding,” with an emphasis on charity campaigns. Yet, because of what potential employers so tactfully referred to as my “history,” I was never “quite right” for the position. In some cases, I was right for all the wrong reasons, as in “Of course, your job would require you to attend our events.” And, of course, these would be events at which press would be in attendance.
Character and resilience
When one’s actions early in life become such a publicly fixed snapshot in history, it’s awfully hard to change that image. I must admit that I, too, had regarded Ms. Lewinsky as frozen in time and reputation.
That is, until I read her article a few days ago. I had skipped it earlier because of the way it was being spun by the media. But make no mistake: This is a wise, brave, and intelligent writing. Monica Lewinsky circa 1998 may have been an immature young woman who made some bad choices — not much different than many of us in our 20s. Today, however, her voice is one of character and resilience. With this piece, I believe that she has shed her shame and humiliation. She can now engage the world on her own terms, and it’s our problem if we can’t deal with that.
But I hope that her article has had the same effect on others as it had on me. Do-overs may be impossible in this Internet Age, but remakes should be available nonetheless. May the world offer her that opportunity.
Update (Oct. 22): I’ve embedded above a speech that Monica Lewinsky gave on October 20, linking her experiences to cyberbullying. She has become an anti-bullying advocate, stressing her concerns about suicidal ideation in the face of bullying behaviors. It’s a very, very good, heartfelt, smart speech, worth 26 minutes of your time.