I’ve become slightly obsessed with Monica Lewinsky.
Yesterday, I watched her 2015 TED talk, called “The Price of Shame.” This was after listening to actor Dax Shepard interview her on his Armchair Expert podcast a few weeks ago. As I’ve been watching and listening to her, I am thinking so many things.
- She and I are (roughly) the same age, but have had vastly different lives.
- She is incredibly smart, articulate, and accomplished, and yet I know by pointing this out, I am only reinforcing the idea that people assume she is a bimbo.
- I’ve only known fragments of the kind of shame she dealt with—little pieces here and there—yet each was excruciating. The fact that she survived the biggest public shaming imaginable is astounding.
- I can’t remember what I thought about her in 1998, and don’t know if I recognized what was happening to her was unfair (I really really hope I did).
It’s this last point that I’m stuck on. Because I’m not sure that I had any opinion about her 20 years ago, and in hindsight, I’m disappointed in myself. I do know that I was a loyal Democrat who thought the witch-hunt against Bill Clinton was wrong. I didn’t care about his affairs (I see his sexual misconduct differently now). But what did I think about her? Did I think she was stupid? A bimbo? That she brought it on herself with her poor judgment? That she was a joke?
I feel sick at the idea that I may have thought any of those things. But the reality is, I might have because I was young and kind of stupid, and had a relatively narrow view of what my feminism meant. I hadn’t had very many adult life experiences yet. I was both naïve and judgmental.
Getting older is the best antidote to both of those things, so I can (mostly) forgive myself being 22. But what about the rest of America and people were not 22? What about all that shame we heaped upon her, while her boss got to keep his job and was treated like a rock star in the Democratic party for years after?
Yeah, yeah, life isn’t fair and hindsight is 20/20. Except we don’t seem to have learned very much about the nature of why we shame. I think it’s only getting worse.
I know part of the reason I’m fixated on public shame is that I’m trying to steel myself against it in anticipation of the release of my honesty book. I’ve been called horrible names and criticized for opinions and experiences I’ve put out there in my writing, and I’m betting that some people will read my book and feel the need to email me and tell me that I’m a terrible parent, a whore, a joke, a bad friend, stupid, irresponsible, or any number of other things. And that’s just what the adults do. Our children are finding ever-increasing ways to shame and bully each other, via social media and old-fashioned notes slipped into lockers that say things like “You’re ugly” or “You’re a slut” (this has been a problem at my kid’s middle school as recently as last week).
Shame is a weird thing, and something I tried to tackle in my book. I learned about shame’s role in evolving human societies (by Skyping with a wonderful professor with a wonderful accent who explained it to me multiple times until I understood). I learned about shame triggers (by mining my own). I learned about what shame looks like to the person whose job it is to moderate the shit show that is the public comments section of The New York Times (by interviewing the brilliant editor and writer KJ Dell’Antonia). And I learned how truly damaging shame is (by reading lots and lots of Brené Brown).
But shame still feels like a bowl of Jell-O. It’s gross and it slides all around and I’m not sure that I’m any closer to knowing what to do about it. Listening to Lewinsky talk about compassion, thinking before you click, and being an upstander helps me, and gives me language to talk to my kids. I’m grateful for the work she’s doing, grateful that I’m not 22 and dumb anymore, and grateful that plenty of adults are working really hard to stop the bullying and shaming epidemic.
But still, there is it. Monica Lewinsky withstood it. I know who I am, and though I will probably shut my office door and cry in secret at the awful thing someone said about me, I know I can withstand it.
But what about those who won’t withstand it? Your kids or my kids or the people we don’t even know.
We have to do better.