Monica Lewinsky is back in the news on a Saturday with a candid interview with The Guardian in which she confessed to having suicidal thoughts after the Bill Clinton sex scandal and becoming a victim of cyber-bullying.
Lewinsky said she never attempted suicide, but confessed that she “came very close.” After being ridiculed around the world, she has become a respected anti-bullying advocate who gives talks at Facebook, Forbes and the well-respected TED conference. She also works with organizations such as Bystander Revolution, which helps victims of cyber-bullying.
“Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide. Granted, it was before social media, but people could still comment online, email stories, and, of course, email cruel jokes. I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman’. It was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken,” said Lewinsky, who told The Guardian that she is now “hyper-aware of how other people may be perceiving me.”
In her new interview, she declined to discuss this year’s political campaign or answer questions about whether she’s worried her past would come back to haunt her — or Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Last December, GOP frontrunner said he considered Lewinsky “fair game” in the campaign.
Lewinsky was only in her early 20s when she was thrust into the media spotlight for having sexual relationships with President Bill Clinton, which came to light after her friend at the Pentagon, Linda Tripp, recorded conversations with her about the illicit affair. The FBI threatened Lewinsky with a perjury charge and 27 years in prison if she failed to cooperate with their investigation into allegations that Clinton sexually harassed Paula Jones.
Lewinsky told the Guardian that she doesn’t like to dwell on the past, and nearly canceled the interview. She chose to step out of the shadows to discuss public shaming and online harassment, which is the subject of a Guardian series titled “The Web We Want.”
For years, she has been managing trauma and carefully weighing the consequences of her words. “The truth is I’m exhausted,” she said. “So I’m worried I may misspeak, and that thing will become the headline and the cycle will start all over again.”
Lewinsky grew up with weight issues in Beverly Hills, so public shaming isn’t new to her. “Those memories inform a lot of who we become,” she said. “They contributed to me not having a strong sense of self.”
Nowadays, she said that “Destigmatizing the shame around online harassment is the first step,” she says. “Well, the first step is recognizing there’s a problem.”
She said she’d “do anything to have my anonymity back,” since it was stolen from her with the release of special investigator Kenneth Starr’s 3,000-page report detailing her nine sexual encounters with Clinton.
“That people could read the transcripts was horrific enough, but a few weeks later the audio tapes [secretly recorded by Tripp secretly recorded] were aired on TV, and significant portions made available online,” she said. “The public humiliation was excruciating. Life was almost unbearable.”
Lewinsky also said she “felt like every layer of my skin and my identity were ripped off of me in ’98 and ’99. It’s a skinning of sorts. You feel incredibly raw and frightened. But I also feel like the shame sticks to you like tar.”
The Guardian’s own research into the online harassment of its own writers suggests that women get more abuse online than men, regardless of what they write about, but especially when they write about feminist issues. And yet, the harassment doesn’t always come from men.
“A lot of vicious things that happen online to women and minorities do happen at the hands of men, but they also happen at the hands of women. Women are not immune to misogyny,” said Lewinsky, who had her own share of female detractors taking potshots at her during that painful time in her life.
“I think it’s fair to say that whatever mistakes I made, I was hung out to dry by a lot of people — by a lot of the feminists who had loud voices,” Lewinsky said. “I wish it had been handled differently. It was very scary and very confusing to be a young woman thrust on to the world stage and not belonging to any group.”
Lewinsky had planned to lead a more private life, going so far as to move to London. However, she found it difficult to get work overseas. Years before, her qualifications landed her an internship at the White House, but the stigma surrounding the Clinton controversy has continued to be a black mark on her record.
“I was going through such a hard time,” said Lewinsky, who added that she was “really floundering. I could not find my way.” That’s when she set out to de-objectify herself and make the world realize that she’s a person with feelings, just like everyone else — not an object who exists to be ridiculed.
Today, she’s eager to give a purpose to her past and help people deal with feelings of shame. “There’s a tendency to not want to tell someone what’s going on,” said Lewinsky, who advises fellow victims to “integrate the experience, the faster the better.”
Lewinsky’s final piece of advice is for bystanders, suggesting “don’t bully the bully. It doesn’t move the conversation forward.” She’s taking a more positive approach, designing a keyboard of anti-bullying gifs and emojis for Vodafone.