Good Morning. It is only my fourth time delivering a speech in public. One was a practice, to a group of 20. One was a private event that was closed to the media. And then there was my brother’s wedding, where much imbibing had already occurred. So if I seem nervous, forgive me, because I am. I’m a little emotional too.
My name is Monica Lewinsky. Though I have often been advised to change it, or asked why on earth I haven’t. But, there we are. I haven’t.
I am still Monica Lewinsky.
You are an audience of young superachievers, on average probably 15 years younger than me. Lucky, lucky you. And your youth is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you today.
It does mean, though, that some of you might be asking: “Who the h ell is she, this Monica? And what is she doing here?” And maybe even, “What is she doing in all those rap lyrics?”
Thank you, Beyonce and Eminem. And Nicki Minaj and Kid Cudi, Lil B and Lil Wayne, and of course G-eazy. But let’s not forget Jeezy, and all the rest.
So allow me to briefly recap my story. Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, a 22-year-old intern in the White House — and more than averagely romantic – I fell in love with my boss in a 22-year-old sort of a way. It happens. But my boss was the President of the United States. That probably happens less often.
Now, I deeply regret it for many reasons. Not the least of which is that people were hurt. And that’s never okay.
But back then, in 1995, we started an affair that lasted, on and off, for two years. And, at that time, it was my everything. That, I guess you could say, was the golden bubble part for me; the nice part. The nasty part was that it became public. Public with a vengeance.
Thanks to the internet and a website that at the time, was scarcely known outside of Washington DC but a website most of us know today called the Drudge report. Within 24 hours I became a public figure, not just in the United States but around the entire globe. As far as major news stories were concerned, this was the very first time that the traditional media was usurped by the Internet.
In 1998, as you can imagine, there was a media frenzy. Even though it was pre-Google, (that’s right, pre-Google). The World Wide Web (as we called it back then) was already a big part of life.
Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one. I was Patient Zero.
The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet. There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then. But there were gossip, news and entertainment websites replete with comment sections and emails could be forwarded.
Of course, it was all done on the excruciatingly slow dial-up. Yet around the world this story went. A viral phenomenon that, you could argue, was the first moment of truly “social media.”
If only I could collect some royalties.
How on earth did this happen?
A sexual harassment case against a sitting President (brought by someone else, not me); a politically motivated independent prosecutor; a so-called friend, who had surreptitiously audio-taped over 20 hours of private and intimate phone chats.
(Turned out, not so private because she then turned them over to the same prosecutor.)
The confluence of these events were against a changing media backdrop with the advent of the 24 hour cable news networks and the internet, a perfect political media storm brewed.
This is what my world looked like: I was threatened in various ways. First, with an FBI sting in a shopping mall. It was just like you see in the movies. Imagine, one minute I was waiting to meet a friend in the food court and the next I realized she had set me up, as two FBI agents flashed their badges at me.
Immediately following, in a nearby hotel room, I was threatened with up to 27 years in jail for denying the affair in an affidavit and other alleged crimes. Twenty-seven years. When you’re only 24 yourself, that’s a long time.
Chillingly, told that my mother too might face prosecution if I didn’t cooperate and wear a wire; (and, in case you didn’t know, I did not wear the wire). My friends and my family were subpoenaed to testify against me.
For the first several months, I was unable to speak to my younger brother who was in college and some other family members to protect them from being dragged into the legal fray. Before a Grand Jury seated in the case of The United States vs. Lewinsky, I was called upon to testify to a room full of strangers on unimaginably intimate details of my life. Unimaginably intimate details which were later made public in a report online.
During this period, I gradually came to realize that there were two Monica Lewinskys. Yes, the world was big enough for two of us. There was me. And there was public Monica Lewinsky, a somewhat curious character constructed by political factions and the media, constructed with a little fact and a lot of fiction.
My friends didn’t know that Monica; my family didn’t know that Monica; and this Monica – the real Monica standing here today — didn’t know her either.
Let me tell you about being publicly separated from your truth. And I mean publicly in the broadest sense, because we all have our publics.
Being publicly separated from your truth is one of the classic triggers of anxiety, depression and self-loathing.
And the greater the distance between the you people want you to be and the you you actually are, the greater will be your anxiety, depression, sense of failure and shame.
When I ask myself how best to describe how the last 16 years has felt, I always come back to that word: Shame. My own personal shame, shame that befell my family, and shame that befell my country – our country.
Frankly, I came close to disintegrating. No, it’s not too strong a word. I wish it were, but it isn’t.
That I didn’t (or not completely) when things were at their worst was mainly thanks to the compassion of my friends and my family.
They gave me their love and support; we shared a lot of gallows humor – a lot. And critically – critically — they continued reflecting back to me, the real me.
But these are all just words. What does it actually feel like? What does it really feel like to watch yourself – or your name and likeness—to be ripped apart online?
Some of you may know this yourself. It feels like a punch in the gut. As if a stranger walked up to you on the street and punched you hard and sharp in the gut.
For me, that was every day in 1998. There was a rotation of worsening name calling and descriptions of me. I would go online, read in a paper or see on TV people referring to me as: tramp, slut, whore, tart, bimbo, floozy, even spy.
The New York Post’s Page Six took to calling me, almost daily, the Portly Pepperpot. I was shattered.
Thankfully, people aren’t punched every day on the street. But it happens all the time on the internet. Even as I’m talking to you now, this is happening to someone online. And depending on what you guys are tweeting, this may be happening to me later.
The experience of shame and humiliation online is different than offline. There is no way to wrap your mind around where the humiliation ends — there are no borders.
It honestly feels like the whole world is laughing at you. I know. I lived it.
A flashback. When the Starr Report was released online, on September 11, 1998, I was holed up in a New York City hotel room with my Sony Vaio laptop and a horrifically slow connection.
To keep me company, I had a gargantuan supply of peanut M&M’s — my form of Xanax for the day.
Staring at the computer screen, I spent the day shouting: “Oh my god!” and “I can’t believe they put that in.” Or “That’s so out of context.”
And those were the only thoughts that interrupted a relentless mantra in my head: I want to die.
This was different than the embarrassment I felt when my younger brother read my diary, or when my 7th grade crush shared the love letter I had written him with everyone he knew.
Now, my brother – and all his fraternity brothers – were privy to my most intimate details. As were my dad and his fellow doctors. And my stepdad, and his World War 2 war buddies. My stepmom and her knitting circle. Even both my grandmothers, then in their 80s, knew about the internet. My whole family. My friends. My friends’ parents. My parents’ friends.
I would read later that when Congress released the Starr Report online it was the first time you missed history being made if you didn’t have access to the internet.
But almost worse, I knew, as I painstakingly read each word that there was not a connected person in the world who wasn’t reading it too.
The image of strangers reading the report was endless – there was no border. That amplified by a thousand fold the shame and humiliation I felt.
I couldn’t imagine ever showing my face in public again. I cringed. I yelled. I sobbed. And the mantra continued: I just want to die.
Let’s come back to now, to 2014.
We are all vulnerable to humiliation, private and public figures alike. (I’m sure Jennifer Lawrence would agree with that. Or any of the 90,000 people whose private Snapchat pictures were released last week during “the Snappening”).
The consequences can be devastating. And anyone can be next. One day in 2010, an 18-year-old Rutgers freshman called Tyler Clementi, was next. After his roommate secretly videotape streamed him via Webcam kissing another man, Tyler was derided and ridiculed online.
A few days later, submerged in the shame and public humiliation, he jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death.
That tragedy is one of the principal reasons I am standing up here today. While it touched us both, my mother was unusually upset by the story and I wondered why. Eventually it dawned on me: she was back in 1998, back to a time when I was periodically suicidal; when she might very easily have lost me; when I, too, might have been humiliated to death.
Tyler’s story is meaningful to me. His parents, whom I have now met, have set up the Tyler Clementi Foundation in his memory.
The outstanding mission of that foundation is to promote – I am quoting now – “safe, inclusive and respectful social environments for vulnerable youth, LGBT youth and their allies.” The Clementi’s tragedy was four years ago.
Quite sadly, the trend of being humiliated to death online has only continued.
Of the cyberbullying related suicides in the last decade, 43% have occurred since Tyler sadly jumped from that bridge. And that’s not even including stats for last year.
Among young Facebook users, close to 54% say they’ve been cyberbullied.
College kids? One in 5 report being victims of cyberbullying; 1 in 4 for young women. And it’s not just those younger than you, it’s my generation and above, too. No one is immune.
It’s been said: It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation but you can lose it in a minute. That’s never been more true than today.
You’re not here in this room by accident. You’re here, all of you, because of your reputations in your chosen fields, your reputations as talented, driven, serious people with something important to contribute to the world.
Reputation is important to everybody whether you’re exceptional people like yourselves or people who count themselves as ordinary.
A reputation isn’t like a fashion accessory or a status symbol: an Apple watch, a Tesla or even an engagement ring from Tiffany’s (though I wouldn’t mind one of those).
It’s part of who you are. It’s part of who you are, socially and professionally. It’s part of how you think about yourselves. It’s part of your personal and your public identity. Lose it, as you so easily can, and you lose an integral part of yourself.
That’s what happened to me in 1998 when public Monica – that Monica, that woman – was born. The creature from the media lagoon.
I lost my reputation. I was publicly identified as someone I didn’t recognize. And I lost my sense of self. Lost it, or had it stolen; because in a way, it was a form of identity theft.
Today, I think of myself as someone who – who the hell knows how – survived. Believe me, denial can be pretty useful still, but these days I need it less and less and in smaller and smaller doses.
But having survived myself, what I want to do now is help other victims of the shame game survive too. I want to put my suffering to good use and give purpose to my past.
Remember the words of Carl Rogers, the psychologist, “the most personal is the most universal.” People who share with me their experiences often qualify what they say. “Oh, it was a nightmare for me but of course nothing compared to what happened to you.”
What I say to them is, if I drowned in 60 feet of water, and you in 30, is there really a difference? We both drowned.
But there are those who say, Monica, why don’t you just shut up? Why don’t you just go away? They said it in June, after a piece I wrote in Vanity Fair, my first public words in over ten years. And they will say it today after this one, my first major public talk, ever, and they will say it tomorrow and the day after that.
“They” never shut up.
The problem is that I believe in the power of story. In the power of stories to inspire, comfort, educate and change things for the better: fictional stories, stories from history, news stories and yes, personal stories. I believe my story can help.
Help to do something to change the culture of humiliation we inhabit and that inhabits us. I had been publicly silent for a decade. But now, I must – as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock said – disturb the universe.
Prufrock didn’t. I understand and empathize with him. But in the end, I’m no Prufrock. Bystander apathy is half the problem. I’d much rather be part of the solution. I don’t know which came first: the coarsening of the culture or the worsening of behavior.
Either way, what we need is a radical change in attitudes — on the internet, mobile platforms and in the society of which they are a part.
Actually, what we really need is a cultural revolution. Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit – an Empathy Crisis — and something tells me that matters a lot more to most of us.
Oscar Wilde wrote: “I have said that behind sorrow there is always sorrow. It were wiser still to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing.”
My feelings, exactly.
Thank you for your time.