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In her essay “Shame and Survival” in the June 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, Monica Lewinsky calls out Bill and Hill, the Clinton machine, the media, and a “catty confab” of feminists for humiliating her so publicly that the resulting shame has prevented her from “moving on” for the past 16 years. As an example, she cites a 2002 HBO documentary in which she was asked a particularly “crass” question.

“One of the unintended consequences of my agreeing to put myself out there and to try to tell the truth [was] that shame would once again be hung around my neck like a scarlet-A albatross,” she writes. “Believe me, once it’s on, it is a bitch to take off.”

It doesn’t have to be. Shame, embraced, is both a friend and a teacher.

Shame, the devastating feeling of being deeply flawed, is often called the “secret” emotion—the one we’re most likely to keep hidden from other people and from ourselves. It is the temporary I-wish-I-could-drop-off-the-face-of-the-earth feeling we experience when we are exposed—to ourselves or others—as having fallen short of some ideal. The key word is temporary.

If Monica feels like a victim of shame 16 years after her affair with then-President Clinton hit the headlines in 1998, it seems to me that she is  trying to heal her shame in all the wrong ways.

Her latest example is the decision to break her  “decade of self-imposed silence”—“The last major interview I granted was 10 years ago”—by publishing this essay in the first place. Her rationale for speaking out now is that at age 40, “it is time . . . I am determined to have a different ending to my story. . . .

“The Clinton administration, the special prosecutor’s minions, the political operatives on both sides of the aisle, and the media were able to brand me. And that brand stuck . . .

“Unlike the other parties involved, I was so young that I had no established identity to which I could return. I didn’t ‘let this define’ me—I simply hadn’t had the life experience to establish my own identity in 1998. If you haven’t figured out who you are, it’s hard not to accept the horrible image of you created by others.”

Well said. The question now is, Why perpetuate that image yourself? Why keep reinvigorating the opprobrium by calling attention to it?

There is an essential contradiction between feeling shame and drawing attention to the acts that caused it. That is, if shame is characterized by a desire to hide, to disappear, why would Monica invite readers—not once, but twice!—to check out that humiliating HBO documentary?

  • “Thanks to the all-encompassing nature of the Web, you can, 12 years later, watch it all day long on YouTube if you want to (but I really hope you have better things to do with your time).”
  •  . . . each easy click of that YouTube link reinforces the archetype, despite my efforts to parry it away: Me, America’s B.J. Queen.”

Monica, Monica, you’ve worked in communications! It’s PR 101 that you never, never repeat something you don’t want “out there.” Repeating it just reinforces it.

And surely you, with a master’s in social psychology, have heard of those experiments where students are instructed not to think of a pink elephant. (Guess what they can’t stop thinking about?)

So despite your protestations to the contrary, do you think there might, just might, be a small part of you that likes being Queen of something? Why else would you be bringing all this up again? Why else would you write, “I would give anything to go back and rewind the tape”? (So that you could replay it? Or did you mean erase?) Why else, according to The New York Times, would you have been talking “on and off” during 7 of your self-proclaimed 10 years of silence to your friends at Vanity Fair about “cooperating with a profile for the magazine or writing a first-person piece”? Why else, if you long to be seen as an upstanding young woman with career aspirations, would you agree to pose reclining on a sofa? Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But it is suggestive—suggestive that the motivation for your essay might be fame, not shame.

Same goes for your apparent habit of Googling yourself daily to see how many times you’re referenced in the media: “Every day someone mentions me in a tweet or a blog post, and not altogether kindly. Every day, it seems, my name shows up in an op-ed column or a press clip or two….”

            Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I go like this.”

            Doctor: “Don’t go like that.”

Or there could be other motivations:

  • Do you want to cash in? [“I turned down offers that would have earned me more than $10 million, because they didn’t feel like the right thing to do…I’ve managed to get by (barely, at times) with my own projects, usually with start-ups that I have participated in, or with loans from friends and family.”] It would be interesting to know how much Vanity Fair paid you for your essay.
  • . . . exact revenge, now that Hillary is poised to run for president? (“When I hear of Hillary’s prospective candidacy, I cannot help but fear the next wave of paparazzi, the next wave of ‘Where is she now?’ stories…”) Despite your claim that you wish them no ill, you clearly believe they threw you under the bus: “I fully understand that what has happened to me and the issue of my future do not matter to either of them.”
  • . . .extract an apology from Bill or at least invite him to take more blame for The Affair than he has in the past?

The problem with all of these motivations is that they entail going public and perpetuating the shame you claim you want to put behind you.

.Whether the shame from which you’ve been suffering is rooted in social opprobrium or self-disappointment, or both, there are a limited number of ways to deal with it:

  • You can stew in it, which often leads to depression, addiction (to food, drugs, shopping, fame), and a slew of unproductive defenses, including rage and blaming behaviors. It can also cause you unconsciously to seek out or remain in destructive relationships.
  • You can try to set the record straight, as you’ve done in your essay, and hope that you will be judged more kindly in light of today’s social mores, where the sexual advances of powerful bosses are condemned. (However, with that comes the certainty of dredging up the affair and the risk of too much information.)
  • Or you can accept humbly that you’re a person with flaws and let the world know that you can no longer be shamed for your youthful lapse in judgment because you’ve forgiven yourself.

Which bring us back to shame as friend and teacher.

In a book I read years ago by two psychotherapists (Letting Go of Shame), the authors put it this way: Healthy shame “is like having a true friend, one who is not afraid to tell you that you are messing up your life.” But like a good friend, healthy shame says, “No, you’re not perfect, but I love you anyway.” It puts us in touch with our humanity. It allows us to acknowledge our flaws, learn from our mistakes, and move on. In short, to replace humiliation with humility.

Monica, you can do it.

 

Join the conversation

  • Elizabeth Marcus May 29, 2014 at 8:46 am

    What an insightful and helpful article on Lewinski’s dilemma! Most interesting to me is the careful line Caryl draws between what Lewinski says she wants and what her motivations really may be. Plus, in Caryl’s sage advice to Lewinski is wisdom for us all.

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  • Mollace May 27, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    I read the Vanity Fair article and felt, for the first time, some real empathy for Monica Lewinsky. I sensed much humility in her years-long humiliation and thought it was kind of brave to put herself out there again, especially as Hillary is very likely to run for president in 2016. Humility is the dirtiest word in the dictionary today, a fact underscored daily as I look around everywhere at the corporate legends-in-their-own-minds, the teen and twenty-something special snowflakes who are accountable to no one for their mistakes and behavior, the sociopathic Wall Street grifters, and your average, everyday malignant narcissists that make up a disgusting portion of today’s socially stunted, addicted to their phones, fame and self-celebrity obsessed society. As someone who has struggled for many years to get back on the grid after losing my job in October 2008, I can very much empathize with Ms. Lewinsky, regardless of the sordid circumstances of her “high crimes” with President Clinton, and relate to the challenges she has faced in earning a living, even though our circumstances and reasons for needing work are totally different. We live in a very judgmental and rife-with-hypocrisy society today that feeds its greedy obsessions incessantly, happily fed by a media and press, if you want to call it that, that cares only about shareholder return and about inciting lurid outrage and judgment by presenting the most provocative, incendiary, suggestive non-stories as news, 24-7. What do you expect her to do, Caryl, if no one will hire her? Should she be punished the rest of her life for her bad choice? God knows, President Clinton hasn’t been. I voted for him. Twice – he was a great president and I don’t give a damn who he slept with. Whatever they did or didn’t do was none of my business. Maybe she needed the money and that’s why she did the Vanity Fair piece. I’m betting she did. If you aren’t getting hired because of your notoriety, I would imagine there is little else to do except try and make a living off of the scandal you inspired. You play the hand you’re dealt, even if you were one of the, albeit, young and naive, dealers. She’s not a criminal and she doesn’t deserve to be treated like one. I feel from your piece that you mock and judge her harshly. So I guess I’m judging you. What exactly should she be doing, in your professional opinion, to make a living? Should she be branded her entire life for what they did? I’d love to hear how you would’ve handled yourself in her situation – I know, I know, you’d NEVER have made that kind of mistake, but where is your empathy? Everybody deserves a second chance. God knows, we let all the filth and corruption in our corporate boardrooms, halls of government, and banks off, REPEATEDLY, with nary a second thought.

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  • Patricia Panella May 27, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    This picture is really telling all. How could she pose like that?
    Caryl Avery has written a great article. Lets hope it all doesn’t come back again in the Press.

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  • Mark Waldrop May 27, 2014 at 8:24 am

    When I read the Vanity Fair article I thought, “There’s more going on in Ms. Lewinski’s mind here than meets the eye.” Caryl Avery has just turned a spotlight onto Monica’s subtext. Very perceptive — and entertainingly written!

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  • lenore May 25, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Caryl Avery has exhibited deep insight and understanding on this very challenging situation. Her observations are remarkably thought-provoking. looking forward to reading more of her articles

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  • Paula Herman May 23, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    Found Caryl’s article insigthful and meaningful. Analysis of Monica’s motivations are right on. She misses the spotlight and when it’s on her, she tries to run for cover. She can’t have it both ways.

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  • Phyllis Urman-Klein May 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Well developed and important argument to support accepting ones flaws and yet be able to “let go” and open a new chapter. Not so easy for many people whether it is a transgression or an illness….especially if the new identity
    lacks fame.

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  • Daphene Jones May 23, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Excellent writing and well thought out! Caryl has a wonderful way of getting to the point without using too many unnecessary words! Love the story!

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  • Henry S. Bareiss May 22, 2014 at 11:08 am

    I can’t add much to what has already been said. I am in agreement with the vast majority of letter writers. One thing one must be aware of is that no one can change other people but they can certainly change themselves. Monica Lewinsky can continue to complain about others (avoiding the need to change because it was someone else’s fault) or she can take responsibility for her own life and make of it what she wants. I doubt most would be in any way interested in what went on between 2 consenting adults so long ago or does Monica Lewinsky feel she was a child and shouldn’t have been there in the first place? She doesn’t have to wear any letter A if she doesn’t want to. Many others have gone through unsuccessful relationships that resulted in scandal and made a life for themselves. Caryl states this all more elegantly than I. She has done a good job of summing it all up. To that I cannot anything, except to paraphrase Joyce Meyers. If you maintain anger or a grudge towards someone, it is like taking poison yourself and expecting them to die.

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  • madge rosenberg May 22, 2014 at 9:35 am

    You are right Caryl. Monica should just let it go. Too bad that lyric was not her mantra as every five year old girl sings it today.

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  • Amanda Lovell May 21, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Such a smart, kind, insightful article! A mini-therapy session. I think we all hope ML will read it. (Just as an aside, anyone who thinks the Republicans could have behind the Vanity Fair piece hasn’t read VF in a while–or ever.)

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  • Bonnie Scheer May 21, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Great article, thanks, Caryl

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  • Miriam Tsao May 21, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    very well written deep insight article.

    Reply
  • Nancy Comer May 21, 2014 at 9:46 am

    I had read the Vanity Fair article and wondered what on earth made Monica put herself out there again. And now here is Caryl’s terrific analysis that more than explained the reasoning, as well as some insight into what she should do next: could somebody please send it to Monica?

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  • Emily Kelting May 20, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    Excellent article, Caryl! I would hope that Monica might read it and learn from it, but if she is Googling herself every day, chances are slim!

    Looking forward to reading more of your insightful analyses…

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  • miriam May 20, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Replacing humiliation with humility…… a wise move for all but
    especially for ML.

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  • Gillian Eddins May 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed your piece. Guess what, Susan was talking about her this weekend. We were watching some of Barbara Walter’s favorite interviews.

    Reply
  • ronnie May 20, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    As someone who sees Republican evil at every turn, I can’t help but question the timing of all this. Thank goodness for Caryl’s insightful take on a damaged symbol of Gen X a willing part of her own manipulation.

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  • hillsmom May 20, 2014 at 10:52 am

    Could it be…? NO! But could it be that perhaps the RNC was “backing” this article? One never knows, does one…?

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  • Rachel Schwarz May 20, 2014 at 10:35 am

    This is an interesting article about holding on and moving on!

    Reply
  • Michael May 20, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Excellent article! I hope it is only one of many in which the author uses her knowledge of psychology to explore the motivations of people we know through the news. I believe this type of thoughtful exploration will help us all know ourselves a little better.

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  • Nancy May 20, 2014 at 9:05 am

    There were villains in the whole brouhaha surrounding Bill and Monica — Linda Tripp, Ken Starr — but they weren’t the ones who took the hit. Monica’s inability to move on is due to many factors, including the economy and the celebrity culture in which we find ourselves. Caryl Avery’s brilliant (and amusing) analysis illuminates the deep personal issues that might keep a person stuck in a place she doesn’t think she wants to be.

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  • Lenore May 20, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Thank you Ms. Avery for this thought provoking article…I could not agree with you more…And what is that Vanity Fair cover article all about! N

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  • doris May 20, 2014 at 7:50 am

    I think Caryl writes perceptively about human nature with all its warts and foibles. Monica’s situation even this long after “the affair” is truly sad in so many ways. She is responsible for this but so are a lot of others. I admire Caryl for speaking out in a convincing way!

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  • Frank Gado May 19, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    Addendum: There is an implication in the article and in some of the comments that Ms Lewinski is being hypocritical in publishing her tail, that she should just shut her mouth and all the bad stuff will go away. But that is just not the case. Hester Prynne wore the scarlet A every day, did good works, and in time the signification of the A faded and took on nobler connotations. But ML has BJ emblazoned on her breast and no one will look past it to the woman herself. She hasn’t been able to hold a job! If I were her adviser, I would tell her to do exactly what she has done: confront the smirking openly. At least people, in noticing the essay, will be talking about it, and some honest souls will see the “infamy” for what it was. It can’t do her any more harm than what she has daily endured. And if she makes a few bucks from it, so what? Were those lifting eyebrows now at her public moment on the scaffold critical of Barbara Walters’ parading her love affair with Sen Edward Brooke in her memoirs. They certainly didn’t just hold hands. But Babwa is being feted on every channel the same week that Monica is being tut-tutted.

    I’m an old man, so please indulge me in my ignorance: what the hell is a gravatar? A graven avatar? Wouldn’t that be against the First Commandment of the Decalogue we all hold fast?

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  • Rosemary Kalikow May 19, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    This is an extremely insightful article. When The Vanity Fair piece came out, I honestly thought the same thing that you expressed – why is she dredging up the whole incident that has caused her embarrassment and humiliation when she was a young girl. During these past years she should have just moved on with her life. It is interesting to me, however, that no one ever seems to make negative comments about Bill’s lapse of judgement. The guy always seems to make out just fine – it’s the girl who becomes the “whore”. Anyway, kudos on a well written piece.

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  • Sedra Schiffman May 19, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    Excellent article! Ms. Avery asks all the right questions of Ms. Lewinsky and proffers illuminating answers…. If only Monica can step out of the spotlight she seems to have shined once again on herself long enough to read and absorb these important insights.

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  • carla May 19, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    Caryl Avery has written an original, truly insightful commentary, not just on Monica Lewinsky, but on the Mad Men mentality of an entire generation that has produced the sad lack of self-esteem in young vulnerable women. This is a fine piece of writing She sees with absolute clarity that through living a life of victim-hood the development of personal maturity is made impossible.

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  • Frank Gado May 19, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Lordy, Lordy! Dear Caryl, I don’t agree at all. “Sordid misadventure”? Please. If her behavior was so sordid, why does Cosmo promise tips (npi) on how to perform it with greater effect for both partners, almost every month at every supermarket checkout line. What Monica did is normal, and an every day encounter between the sexes. Did she seduce Bill? Please. This is a guy who was using the Arkansas state troopers as his procurers, who was accused by at least one credible woman of using force (unsuccessfully)to satisfy his libido, but the very “liberals” who mount their moralistic steeds and catechize Monica just adore the Arkansas adulterer, the Potomac perjurer. What he did with his cigar was kinky; what Monica did is what women have performed with men since before the human species developed speech.

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  • Gail May 19, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    I appreciate Caryl’s wise analysis. I particularly liked her comment on Monica’s pose in her photo. I too hope that Monica could read and listen to Caryl’s words.

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  • Bill from Yonkers May 19, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    This article does an excellent job of dissecting the issues here — and offers Monica some thoughtful advice.

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  • Harlene May 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    This is a thoughtful article that gets to the question of true motivations….thank you for this thoughtful analysis.

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  • Carolyn May 19, 2014 at 11:11 am

    How wonderful to hear your voice in this essay. It is the first truly insightful thing I’ve read about Lewinsky’s second ten minutes of fame.

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  • Arlene Shrut May 19, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Caryl Avery has crafted an excellent analysis of how and why one perpetuates stereotypes, whether self-created or not. I agree: it’s Ms. Lewinsky’s choice to move on or not.

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  • Joan May 19, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Great article!! I really hope Monica reads it!!

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  • Michele Sinai May 19, 2014 at 7:10 am

    I was so glad to read Caryl Avery’s words. I found her insights timely and necessary. I pray Monica has it in her to get off the couch and get on with her life.

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  • William from Westchester May 19, 2014 at 12:06 am

    This author’s skillful analysis of the Monica Lewinsky “Vanity Fair” article makes clear, at least to me, why Monica isn’t moving on with her life: Because she will not, perhaps cannot, give up the attraction of spectacle. She is like an aspiring trapeze artist in the big top, so entranced by the crowd’s roar and the spotlight’s brilliance that she won’t let go of the ring that is “fame” in order to reach out and grasp the ring that is “shame.” The thin screen of Ms. Lewinsky’s article is penetrated with ease here by Caryl S. Avery, whose good advice Monica should take to heart.

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  • Leslie in Oregon May 17, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Thank you for this insightful analysis, which helps me understand why Monica Lewinsky would try to put her sordid misadventure before the public once again. Even though I have spent much of my professional life trying to strengthen and enforce the laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, I have never been able to see Ms. Lewinsky as a victim of it.

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