I was eight years old when the Lewinsky scandal emerged. At the time, all I understood about the situation was that someone named Monica Lewinsky had an affair with the President, another young girl’s dad. I wondered what a parallel situation would have done to my family. I wondered why Monica would do such a thing. Instantly, Monica became someone who, in my mind, I could never relate to.
Over the next decade and a half, her name has continued to creep into popular culture through a handbag line, Jenny Craig commercials, and song lyrics. And over time I found this phenomenon a bit annoying. Why is Monica Lewinsky being celebrated? Why won’t she just go away?
So when attending last month’s first-ever Forbes Under 30 Summit, I noticed Monica was slated as one of the first keynotes and found myself slightly peeved. At an event bringing together young change-makers and leading innovators of tomorrow, Forbes had put Monica Lewinsky on the podium.
Why? What is she doing here? Did someone else cancel last-minute? These were only some of the questions I heard swirling through attendee conversations leading up to Monica’s speech. What could we possibly learn from Monica? We had heard it all – back in 1998. People, it’s 2014.
Yet by the end of Monica’s speech, we were all leaping in ovation. Why? At least for me, five things Monica said changed my mind:
1. “I was Patient Zero. The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet.”
Has another public figure like Monica ever existed? Will one ever? Monica’s “virality” in a pre-Google and social media era is not only a fascinating feat, but has also lent her name much more than fifteen minutes of fame. Let’s try fifteen years to date out of a life-sentence to legendary notoriety. Purportedly, Monica still faces obstacles to holding a full-time job or stable romantic relationship. Today’s “Monica” would be gossip fodder for a week. Perhaps she would be celebrated as the next Kim Kardashian, maybe with a baby named East West. When considering that our modern world’s political sexting scandals, celebrity affairs, and iCloud photo leaks quickly become yesterday’s news, the sentence-to-offense ratio in Monica’s case suddenly appears massively lopsided in comparison.
2. “I fell in love with my boss in a 22-year-old sort of a way. It happens.”
Wait, Monica was only 22? My baby sister is 22. When you’re eight years old, 22 seems wise and wizened. Now, quite literally sitting across the aisle from Monica at 24 years old, I know there’s no better age to make a silly blunder. Out in the real world for the first time without the safety blanket of college, equipped with unbridled naiveté and next to no 20/20 hindsight, mistakes are a given. I’d bet that anyone, especially those of us under 30, could use a Get out of Jail Free Card. If possible, my sister and I would probably get each other one of these cards for Christmas. We’d probably grow to be wiser “over 30’s.”
3. “My friends and my family were subpoenaed to testify against me.”
Whoa. This slice of Monica’s speech in particular was a paradigm-shifter. Destroying your own reputation is one thing. Having humiliation thrust upon the people you love most is another, in front of a grand jury and a whole world turned against you. Compound that experience with an epic avalanche of threats, backstabs, and bullying driven by friends, authorities, and society at large. Who knew? For those who believe that the foulest punishment is public humiliation, the way Monica discusses this experience takes this punishment to a new level, one that greatly exceeds a “crime” that wasn’t actually illegal. And for those who believe our [American] society is beyond this type of punishment, it’s clearly not.
4. “And the mantra continued: I just want to die.”
On top of one “punch to the gut” after another, as she described it, Monica reached a turning point – she felt the active desire to die. This was one of the few instances during the talk where Monica voiced how she felt, as opposed to what she saw and heard. That feeling, however, is something people don’t experience naturally. Monica said that when Tyler Clementi jumped off the Washington Bridge to his death after his roommate publicly video streamed him kissing another man, she was particularly moved to fight back. She quoted that online alone, 54% of young people today experience bullying. Of cyberbullying related suicides in the last decade, 43% occurred between Clementi’s death and 2013. In other words, 16 years after the Lewinsky Scandal online bullying and related suicides are only on the rise.
5. “I am still Monica Lewinsky.”
In spite of ultimately entering a suicidal state, Monica is still Monica. Legally, while many advised Monica to change her name she consciously chose to keep this aspect of her identity instead of allowing a separate “creature [born] from the media lagoon” to take over. More fundamentally, Monica has survived. She has not only overcome a suicidal state, but is taking back her public identity and taking on the challenge of defending others from online victimization and abuse. That deserves massive respect.
If there’s one thing that Monica Lewinsky has not changed my mind about, it’s that having an affair with a married man with a family – especially a high profile one – is a very, very bad idea. But Monica would know more than anyone, and may forever continue to pay the price. But that her price to pay in duration and intensity is highly disproportionate and that our society continues to pay a price each time a side of the story like hers is silenced makes me hope that Monica will not go away. I hope to hear more from her. I would urge you to hear what Monica has to say. She may change your mind too.
Weigh in – tweet to @apolack.