Does Monica Lewinsky’s ordeal really compare with the suicide of a bullied gay teen?

Monica Lewinsky is penning an essay about her affair with former President Bill Clinton in a Vanity Fair exclusive. (Reuters)

Ever since 1998, Monica Lewinsky has been trying to escape her reputation as America’s most notorious White House intern.

She tried co-authoring a book in 1999 with Andrew Morton. She designed a line of hideous purses. She had a reality show. Now, in a piece for Vanity Fair, out Thursday, she writes, “I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.”

Apparently, taking back her narrative means presenting herself as a victim, as Lewinsky has chosen to conflate her social ostracism and subsequent depression with the fate of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to record what Clementi believed was a private tryst in his dorm room. Clementi was gay. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, set up his laptop in their shared dorm room, then watched from another laptop belonging to his hallmate. Ravi also told his Twitter followers to watch a second broadcast, which never took place.

From Vanity Fair’s description of her article:

When Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers freshman who was secretly streamed via Webcam kissing another man, committed suicide in September 2010, Lewinsky writes, she was brought to tears, but her mother was especially distraught: “She was reliving 1998, when she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. She was replaying those weeks when she stayed by my bed, night after night, because I, too, was suicidal. The shame, the scorn, and the fear that had been thrown at her daughter left her afraid that I would take my own life—a fear that I would be literally humiliated to death.” Lewinsky clarifies that she has never actually attempted suicide, but had strong suicidal temptations several times during the investigations and during one or two periods after.

Lewinsky writes that following Clementi’s tragedy “my own suffering took on a different meaning. Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation. The question became: How do I find and give a purpose to my past?” She also says that, when news of her affair with Clinton broke in 1998, not only was she arguably the most humiliated person in the world, but, “thanks to the Drudge Report, I was also possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.” Her current goal, she says, “is to get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums.”

Clementi’s death sparked a nationwide outcry against bullying and anti-gay harassment. Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project,” created after the suicide of Billy Lucas, was thrust into the national spotlight by Clementi’s death. “It Gets Better” aimed to deter other gay teens and young adults from committing suicide when they felt hopeless about their situations. Clementi committed suicide Sept. 22, 2010, just one day after Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, uploaded their video to YouTube.

It seems an especially curious choice for Lewinsky to wrap herself in Clementi’s tragedy. Clementi’s humiliation stemmed, in part, from an immutable characteristic: He was gay, and he was targeted because of it. Lewinsky, on the other hand, accepts responsibility for her part in a presidential affair; she wrote that it was consensual. Whatever her intention, the appearance is that she took the tragic death of a victim of anti-gay harassment and made it all about her.

This is a concerted effort. She holds a master’s degree in social psychology, an area of psychology that largely concerns itself with discovering what drives what people think about others. Lewinsky, in the photo accompanying the Vanity Fair piece, is depicted as a chaste, modern-day Snow White. She lounges on a crimson sofa, in a room that appears to be a library, barefoot and clad in a demure white dress that would fit in well at a Washington society fête. A bow at the waist adds a note of child-like innocence. Her face, framed by raven locks, bears minimal makeup, and her jewelry is understated. Even the choice of media outlet is deliberate: Vanity Fair presents itself as a serious publication that publishes smart pieces about celebrities accompanied by artful photographs and enviable styling. It’s above-the-fray in a way that People or Us Weekly are not: You can read it in public while escaping judgment.

It’s unclear if Lewinsky wants to be famous, or if she just doesn’t want to be the first choice in a word association game about presidential emissions.

As narrative-shaping goes, there are better examples.

Lewinsky, 40, might do well to take a page from the woman known as the country’s Most Famous Man-Stealing Sorceress: Angelina Jolie. Ever since the romance that began with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have executed some masterful narrative steering, due in no small part to the fact that they make it look completely natural. In fact, they’re doing a new movie together. Says Anne Helen Petersen on Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style:

Please recall: Angelina Jolie, whose image had theretofore been characterized by brother-kissing, amulet-wearing, and associations with the likes of Billy Bob Thorton, “steals” Brad Pitt from all-American Jennifer Aniston.  They don’t get married.  They adopt many, many non-white children; they have three children out of wedlock.  And they got away with it!  Not only that, they are beloved.  Indeed, they are, without a doubt, the biggest stars in America.  Their auras are the largest; they may not be able to open a film like, say, oh, John Travolta in Wild Hogs, but trust me, their brands are much, much more valuable.

Should Lewinsky adopt her own United Colors of Benetton ad? Probably not. Jolie and Pitt have that tactic sewn up. But they never publicly acknowledge there’s a narrative to change. There are no declarations, only action.

As Don Draper would advise, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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