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May 8, 2014

Razer's Class Warfare: Lewinsky's taste of fame means lessons are not ours

Monica Lewinsky is not "breaking her silence" to "take back her narrative". She is not "just like us". She is not healing, she's just cashing in. And that's fine.

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Monica Lewinsky, this month writing in Vanity Fair, is breaking her silence. Well, not really. But she’s breaking her silence according to The Huffington Post, the UK’s Telegraph and any news service whose organisational amnesia voids memory of her tell-all HBO special, her tell-all Barbara Walters interview and her tell-all book collaboration with Andrew Morton, excerpted in and featured on the cover of a tell-all Time.

No silence has been broken. The minute Lewinsky’s transactional immunity deal lifted — to call it a “gag order” would be in poor taste — she began Breaking Her Silence in every medium. Even a weight-loss TV commercial.

At least the BBC had the restraint to observe “Monica Lewinsky breaks decade-long media silence“. Perhaps someone had an old copy of the tell-all profile in the Daily Mail where Lewinsky compared president Bill Clinton’s account of their relationship to pastry.

“I was the buffet and he just couldn’t resist the dessert,” she told the Mail in 2004, alluding, perhaps, to the Arkansas politician’s fondness for deep-fried sweets. It’s so unkind to fat-shame Bubba.

But kindness, says the former US White House intern, is her chief motivation for speaking again today, or for “breaking her silence”, if you will. Lewinsky, now with a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, has returned to public life to talk about online bullying.

In a piece currently paywalled online (but unavailable even to paying Australians not shifty enough to lie about their billing address), Lewinsky, whose consensual affair with Clinton was broken by The Drudge Report in 1998, names herself a victim pioneer.

“I was … possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet,” writes Lewinsky. In Breaking her Silence, or, if you prefer, in “Taking Back Her Narrative” — those Americans can make even the best-paid acts sound courageous — Lewinsky hopes not only to “burn the beret and the blue dress” (personally, I’d auction them off; DNA and all). In writing this piece, it is Lewinsky’s stated intention to “get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums”.

There is no doubt at all Lewinsky would have had a terrible time of it. She was young and in the thrall of a man gifted by fortune of extraordinary power and, according to my friend M who has briefly met him, gifted by nature of extraordinary charm. Not only was she forced to confront the pain of loss intolerable as it is common, but she was reviled by Democrats for her role in the party’s downfall and by Republicans for loving a Democrat. She was so young, and it is difficult to argue with her claim that she was “taken advantage of” by her Commander in Chief. No wonder she was, according to her own account, suicidal.

No small wonder that she spoke to Linda Tripp, Kenneth Starr, and then anyone who would listen.

“Perhaps Lewinsky should try to compare her suffering with Clementi’s no more than we should try to compare ours with hers.”

She was 25 then. But she is 40 now, and as much as the years may not dull such spectacular hurt, one might suppose they would serve to give Lewinsky the sense that her experience was very, very unusual. Although online commentators of the sort who seek morals from infotainment might claim that Her Narrative is Every Woman’s Narrative, it’s not. She had “sexual relations” with That Man and a cigar — I have always wondered if it was Cuban — and that puts her in a club to which not even Gennifer Flowers can claim membership.

My motivation for reading Lewinsky’s story is the same as most: prurience. Nonetheless, she is refiguring her unfamiliar story of sex with the world’s most powerful man and attack by the world’s most powerful media as “relatable”. That she is unable to see just how unrelatable her astonishing story of sex, impeachment and cohibas is I find unbelievable. But perhaps Lewinsky is the sort of person who believes all “Narratives” can be “Taken Back”, shared and used for the good of all.

Perhaps she must as she compares her own media-driven state of depression to that of 18-year-old male college student Tyler Clementi. Days after vision of the teen kissing another man in September 2010 was streamed without his knowledge online, Clementi ended his life. Lewinsky compares her own struggle to Clementi’s. When she learned of his death:

“… 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?”

Perhaps Lewinsky should try to compare her suffering with Clementi’s no more than we should try to compare ours with hers. Lewinsky was, by her own admission, consensually involved with Clinton. She was not targeted for her deviation from a sexual norm, and not really even from a marital one. She was targeted, as she must surely know, for her potential power in undoing Al Gore’s presidential hopes. Clementi, by stark contrast, was targeted for his powerlessness.

Clementi’s story is, mercifully, a rare one.  But it remains a moment that Lewinsky might call “teachable”. No one can “relate” to Lewinsky, and it is, perhaps, mildly offensive that she claims to be the victim of a systematised brutality that likely led to young Clementi’s death.

After years of shame and professional confusion that led a mildly promising young media studies graduate to make handbags and lose weight for money, this is not redemption. Rather, it’s more of the same. Here is Lewinsky, marked for all time by history, playing at being Just Like Us or just like a brutalised young man for profit.

It is time to break the breaking of the silence. It is time to give back the narrative.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian.

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