I feel sorry for Monica Lewinsky. I am not sure why it is apparently so difficult for people to simply say that, even now.
There might be, for example, a lot of chatter about her essay in Vanity Fair, but the focus is all on whether the piece was a calculated interference with Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. That question is not wholly irrelevant, but it's like an eclipse, blacking out the sun of the whole other host of issues reconsidering "Monica Lewinsky" raises. Including why she deserves our sympathy here.
I have the impression that sometimes people are afraid to say they feel sorry for someone because they think it means they can't appreciate the nuances of the case, or that it would be condescending. Neither of these things are true; sympathy, like other high emotions, is a complicated thing.
For example, feeling sorry for Monica Lewinsky does not entail the wholesale purchase of every argument she makes in that Vanity Fair piece. There is something off about the way she compares herself to Tyler Clementi, who was the subject of a really casual and thoughtless sort of cruelty that is a hallmark of young existence. What happened to Lewinsky had nothing to do with anyone's youth. Many of the people Lewinsky identifies as her tormentors, after all—Matt Drudge, Maureen Dowd, a group of distinguished women writers (and Katie Roiphe) that the New York Observer (!) cringingly described as "New York Supergals"—were grown adults. Professionals of a sort, people who had an idea of the power of their pens.
Felling sorry for Lewinsky also doesn't necessarily mean seeing her as an inert victim of circumstance. Even those in their very early twenties have the capacity to choose things in life. And one of Lewinsky's choices, yes, was to get involved with President Clinton. It was not a pure example of a coercive relationship in the workplace. Lewinsky says that herself in the essay, writing:
Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any "abuse" came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.
The lack of pure coercion, though, cuts both ways. It isn't clear from those two sentences whether Lewinsky herself feels that her choice to get involved with Clinton meant that she knew that she was signing up for everything that came after.
Because come after, it did. I don't just mean the fallout from a relationship in which the parties occupied disparate power positions, either. Because that is yet another issue that has a habit of eclipsing the unequivocally, unqualifiedly bad thing that happened to her.
Don't forget that the precise moment at which Monica Lewinsky became the "Monica Lewinsky" she says she now wishes she could escape actually happened when Bill Clinton was not present. It happened when Lewinsky found herself, at 24, put into a hotel room by a bunch of federal agents and prosecutors, and told they knew she had signed a false affidavit about her involvement with the President, and that she had perjured herself.
They intimidated her even though, as Renata Adler would point out in her celebrated dissection of the Starr Report, that affidavit had not actually yet been filed with the special prosecutor, and even though Lewinsky had asked to speak to an attorney. All of that happened about a week before the story ever broke in the press. Whatever you may think of President Clinton, it is pure unquestionable fact Ken Starr and company brought the "affair" to the public, using Linda Tripp's wires to enlarge their jurisdiction and put Lewinsky at the center of an impeachment trial in such a way that she was pretty much guaranteed to never be able to live it down. As Adler put it:
The facts the prosecutors were hoping to find—a bribe or other financial inducement to a witness to commit perjury, or at least to remain silent about some underlying crime—did not exist. In the case of Ms. Lewinsky, there was no obstruction of justice. In fact, there was no underlying crime. So they tried to create one. They thought they needed perjury from the president, so they set out to make sure he would commit it.
I do not think you have to have a particularly reductive view of a 24-year-old's capacity for judgment to understand that being at the center of Ken Starr's obsession would be terrifying, and life-altering, for just about anyone. That goes, to be clear, for people older or more serious or more palatable as a media subject in any way that you might personally find Lewinsky to be deficient. And it was only through that terrifying, and largely unchosen, circumstance that Lewinsky became "Monica Lewinsky." She did not appoint a special prosecutor. She did not tell Linda Tripp to make those wires and then to share them with the prosecutor.
But those abuses of plain, hard, official power seem to have as much trouble capturing our attention now as they did in 1998.
Even Lewinsky gets distracted from them in that Vanity Fair essay. She is less interested in talking about what happened to her than in talking about the way other people talked about what happened to her. She is not wrong. She was talked about in an insanely cruel and sexist way that spiraled as things went on and pundits needed to keep topping the jokes people had made yesterday.
Looking at the commentary now it is hardly difficult to understand why she did that documentary, that book, that interview, this essay. The way she was talked about led quite directly to her being, as she details in the essay, unemployable. That context destroys any honest chance anyone might have to agree with Hillary Clinton's claim, to a friend, that Lewinsky was a "narcissistic loony toon." And so whatever else might be true of her, Lewinsky at least came by the chance to make some cash off her notoriety pretty honestly.
[Image via AP]