Monica Lewinsky and the killing price of shame: No real job or home or niche?


Vanity Fair cover

How would the story of the White House intern, Bill Clinton and the stained blue dress have played today? The New York Times suggests that “the digital reality of it would have been worse (or at least more pungent).”

The paper makes this pronouncement off the back of Monica Lewinsky’s brave but cautious re-emergence into public life. This time, as a champion of the crushed little person – the one caught between action and reaction; the one who did it but doesn’t deserve to be hung out to dry as a consequence. The impact, in other words, of acute trauma on identity.

We’ll come to Ms Lewinsky’s return a bit later. First, how would that story about the Oval Office, the cigar and the priapic president have played today?

Yes, the digital reality would have been worse but also more short-lived. The length of time that fame – or infamy – preoccupies us has shrunk.

Anyway, back to Ms Lewinsky and her small steps back on to the world stage. She gave a much-praised TED lecture in Vancouver last week. This comes after an essay in Vanity Fair, some high-wattage social outings, taking part in an anti-bullying workshop, joining a feminist networking group and, most significantly, a speech at a Forbes conference about digital harassment or cyberbullying.

The 18-minute TED talk was about humiliation. Its title, “The Price of Shame” is an indicator of how deeply those long-ago events have changed Ms Lewinsky’s life. America moved on; Bill and Hillary Clinton did too; the world forgot the young woman with the big hair except for the odd snigger when the name “Monica Lewinsky” came up. She got older; got a degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics; seems not to have found a job. As the NYT piece puts it, “At 41, she doesn’t have many of the things that a person her age may want: a permanent residence, an obvious source of income (she won’t comment on her finances), a clear career path.”

But then again, she’s quite happy to be 41. She doesn’t want to be in her 20s with her life before her. One of the most revealing stories about Ms Lewinsky is the disagreement among her friends and advisors about how to start the TED talk. She wanted (and eventually stuck to) a joke about a man 14 years her junior, who hit on her after she spoke at Forbes.

“What was his unsuccessful pickup line?” Ms Lewinsky wanted to ask the audience. “He could make me feel 22 again. Later that night, I realized: I’m probably the only person over 40 who would not like to be 22 again.”

That really is the price of shame. To practically disown the person you once were.