The courage of Monica Lewinsky

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.

2 responses

  1. David, I read this article when it came out, and I had mixed feelings about it. I agree that Lewinsky was vilified unfairly at the time, and that reputation shouldn’t follow her for life. However, I did feel that parts of the article showed remarkably little awareness on Lewinsky’s part – for example, the verbatim quotes from the magazine discussion about her. Those quotes were likely only remembered by those who read the article at the time, but now they are recorded online forever, which doesn’t help Lewinsky’s stated desire to get past what happened to her. I also felt that she displayed some naivete in expecting to work in communications or branding with charities – she is not the only person with a “name” who organizations might be reluctant to hire in such positions, and there are plenty of ways to contribute to society through such work without having a public position. (Although it was pre-Internet days, I think of the example of John Profumo in the UK, whose career was ruined by a sex scandal and who worked in anonymity in charities for the rest of his career).

    I would say also that I don’t think it will repair her reputation by reminding a whole new generation of readers about what happened to her. I do feel sympathetic toward her, but I think the article was a mistake on some levels.

    • Fiona, thanks for offering another view of her essay. I agree that by sharing details of certain events and interactions, she actually brought them to public attention again, but for me the difference is that she framed them on her terms. That’s why the article was so successful in recasting my image of her. It was written by someone who had processed those experiences, learned from them, and had some lessons to share with the rest of us.

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