At one point in the newly released A&E documentary series “The Clinton Affair,” Monica Lewinsky says she now realizes part of her attraction to President Bill Clinton was that “someone who other people desired, desired me.”
That’s an insight that one gains with time, with the grace of years. She was 22 years old when she fell hard for the most powerful man in the world; analyzing the situation and assessing the risks, dangers and deceptions were not yet in her repertoire. She may have been of legal age, as both Bill and Hillary Clinton have repeatedly pointed out, but a 22-year-old is still locked in the fantasies and flights of imagination that define the very young. Powerful men who seek out vulnerable people to play with know that. They know in advance that the dance floor is theirs, they will always be leading, and whatever damage is done to their dance partner will never fall on them.
I was 17 when I got involved with my high school English teacher. I went to a coed boarding school in Arizona, a tiny community perched in the middle of the desert. With no town or city around us, we were our own little world. In that small sequestered domain, my teacher — while not president of the United States — was very powerful. He was also handsome, athletic and creative, and he took a strong interest in my writing. I remember clearly the moment it started. After he sent flirtatious signals, I wrote a poem that was, obliquely and rather delicately, about him. He was monitoring study hall one night, and I crossed the room, handed it to him and went back to my seat. The look he gave me after reading it set in motion the next two years of my life.
He was married with two children. I liked his wife and occasionally babysat his children. In my 17-year-old mind, rife with hopes and fantasies, I was able to separate my feelings for his wife from my belief that he would one day leave her for me. He was alone often in their house when she would take the children and fly back east. On those evenings, our intimacy was never actually consummated — he resolutely stopped short of intercourse, just as Clinton apparently did — but there was enough intimacy to fuel my dreams and make me hinge my life on him.
One night he took me for a ride on his motorcycle out into the desert, far from the school’s cluster of lights. He stopped and asked me to climb off for a second because he needed to fix something on the bike. I did, and he took off, leaving me there to walk back in the dark with cold desert air brushing past me and the stars blinking down on my tears. I didn’t know what I’d done to displease him.
It lasted until I was 19 and in college. By then, we were both in the Midwest at different colleges, and he was supposed to fly in and see me. He never showed up. One of the moments in “The Clinton Affair” that struck me so deeply was when Lewinsky described looking out the window and thinking that she might not want to live. That night, when I knew he wasn’t going to come or call, I stood at a window looking out at the night, feeling that I had no reason to go on living.
Those who think Lewinsky should “move on” and let the past go need to understand something about powerful men who dance with young girls: The story doesn’t have an end. It evolves and shifts, but it remains. That man left his mark in the softest creases of your soul — the places where as a young girl you dreamed, and believed, and trusted. The scars he left in those tender places will always be there. But just because that’s part of your story, it doesn’t mean you have to let it victimize you.
Lewinsky is showing us that — in front of the whole world. I don’t know if I’d have that much courage. Her story played out on the world stage 20 years ago, and she’s brave enough to walk back onto that same stage and say, “Now you need to listen to my truth.”
Part of her will always be that young intern, waiting for Bill Clinton’s call and saying yes to him again and again. Part of me will always be walking back through a dark desert, wondering why the man I loved had left me there. But there is one thing that powerful men who prey on young girls fail to understand: Those girls grow into women who are able to say, “You didn’t break me. I’m stronger than these scars. I’m stronger because of them.”