(May 21, 2014 / JNS)
By Regina Brett/JNS.org
Monica Lewinsky. The name makes you cringe, roll your eyes, and shake your head.
She’s frozen in time as “That Woman.” She’s the young intern who had “sexual relations” with a married president in the White House. She’s the woman who saved the blue dress that helped get President Bill Clinton impeached.
Lewinsky is back in the news by choice after a 10-year silence. She recently wrote an article for the June issue of Vanity Fair. When I heard about it, I cringed, rolled my eyes, and shook my head. I read the criticism of the article before I actually read the article.
As expected, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd weighed in and was unkind. She criticized Lewinsky for “keening about her own social collapse. It was like a Golden Oldie tour of a band you didn’t want to hear in the first place.”
Then I read the Vanity Fair piece and saw Monica Lewinsky in a new light. The queen of humiliation has much to teach us about humility, the good kind. She also has something to teach us about how to survive and how to treat others.
Why speak up now? She wants to stop tiptoeing around her past, stop tripping over it everywhere she goes. She wants to have a future that isn’t based on what she did in her 20s.
The timing is right. Public humiliation has become a contact sport. We have contact with it everywhere. People post private text arguments on Facebook, secretly record conversations and put them online, tweet rumors and nasty comments. Anything can, and does, end up on the Internet.
“No one, it seems, can escape the unforgiving gaze of the Internet,” Lewinsky wrote.
The death of Tyler Clementi tugged at her heart. The 18-year-old Rutgers freshman was humiliated to death. It all started when his roommate sent this message on Twitter: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s (sic) room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
Three days later, Clementi, an accomplished violinist, jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.
Lewinsky’s mother wept for Clementi and for her daughter, whose bedside she wouldn’t leave after the Clinton scandal became public. Her daughter was suicidal from the shame, the scorn, the fear.
Why speak up now? Lewinsky wants to be more than “the most humiliated person in the world.” She isn’t just an intern that once gave a president oral sex.
She moved to England. Graduated from the London School of Economics with a master’s degree in social psychology. But her “history” keeps her from getting traditional employment. “I’ve managed to get by (barely, at times) with my own projects, usually startups that I have participated in, or with loans from friends and family,” she wrote.
Her friends have moved on. They married, had children, built lives and left their 20s behind. Yet Monica is frozen in time as “That Woman.” It’s time for a thaw.
It’s time to let those two words “Monica Lewinsky” mean something else. It’s time to let her be someone else. We let Bill Clinton off the hook. He earns millions giving speeches. CNN reported that in 2011 alone, he earned $13.4 million.
Lewinsky? She’s reduced to the woman who had “sexual relations” with the president.
The jokes were relentless. She became the joke. Too often we lock people in. Reduce them to their worst mistake.
She acknowledges her humiliation was a “consequence of my own poor choices.” She assures us it was a consensual relationship. She regrets it and adds italics for emphasis: “I, myself, deeply regret what happened between me and President Clinton. Let me say it again: I. Myself. Deeply. Regret. What. Happened … I look back now, shake my head in disbelief, and wonder: what was I—what were we—thinking? I would give anything to go back and rewind the tape.”
She can’t. But we can help her fast forward it.
David Letterman, host of “The Late Show,” told viewers he read the Vanity Fair article and “started to feel bad, because myself and other people with shows like this made relentless jokes about the poor woman, and she was a kid.”
“I feel bad about my role in helping push the humiliation to the point of suffocation,” Letterman said.
Monica Lewinsky is 40. It’s time we let her breathe.
Regina Brett, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and New York Times bestselling author, is a columnist for the Cleveland Jewish News, where this column originally appeared. She is the first-place winner of the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary for newspapers with a circulation of 14,999 and under in the 2014 Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism. Connect with her on Facebook at ReginaBrettFans and on Twitter @ReginaBrett.