Monica Lewinsky, once fodder for late-night comedians, is finally getting the last laugh.
After retreating from public life in the wake of a private affair with President Bill Clinton that thrust the then 24-year-old into the epicenter of a political, legal, and media maelstrom in 1998, Lewinsky reemerged in 2014 to “take back her narrative” and help other victims of online harassment and shaming. On February 10, she joined School of Communication professor Molly O’Rourke for a conversation about resilience and reinvention during an event sponsored by AU’s Kennedy Political Union and the Women’s Initiative.
“One thing that we probably can all agree on is that we are all going to make a mistake in our lives at least once that is going to have some kind of capital-C consequence,” the 48-year-old Lewinsky told the virtual audience. “From the outside it can look like I had this sort of linear shift in my life and that changed everything—and that is so not what happened. I can’t tell you how many nights I would go to bed crying, praying that I would just not wake up. And except for my parents, there was probably not a person alive who would have thought I would have been able to move forward in this way and actually make a positive contribution to society.
“It’s really important for people [who are] going through a hard time to remember that this is just one period in their lives,” she continued. “It really is just about holding on. It’s not going to instantly get better, but it will start to change and you will grow from it.”
Lewinsky certainly has. Her 2015 TED talk, “The Price of Shame”—in which she calls herself “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously” and advocates for the end of “public shaming as a blood sport”—has garnered more than 20 million views. A Vanity Fair contributing editor, she also served as executive producer of the 2021 HBO documentary 15 Minutes of Shame and has created an Emmy-nominated PSA for Bullying Prevention Month in October. And Entertainment Weekly reported that Lewinsky got a say in “every word” as an executive producer on Impeachment, the latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology series, which debuted on FX last fall.
But her comeback is not without setbacks. Any interaction with the press, whether a print or TV interview, podcast, or photo shoot, triggers her PTSD. “The only way I can manage is by over-preparing, otherwise I can get paralyzed by fear. I panic about misspeaking or being made fun of. You know, my looks were totally torn apart,” said Lewinsky, whose weight and fashions provided endless fodder for late-night talk show hosts.
When she allows herself to imagine how news of her affair with Clinton—which was broken by the Drudge Report, marking the first time an online news site scooped a traditional media outlet—would’ve played out differently in the era of social media, she shudders to think of the cruel memes and how long “beret” would’ve been a trending topic.
On the other hand, if the Starr Report had been released a decade later, Lewinsky, who struggled with physical and emotional isolation for years, said the public “would have had a better sense of me.”
“Sometimes I [wonder]: What would my Facebook page or my Twitter page have looked like? I just would have been slightly more human [to people] than I was in ’98 with anonymous sources talking about me,” said Lewinsky, who today boasts a million followers on Twitter and maintains a private Instagram page. “And I think that I would have maybe been able to hear the quiet support that I couldn’t hear unless somebody sent me a letter.”
While she’s quick to distinguish cancel culture—a modern form of ostracism—from accountability culture, which harnesses the power of collective action to boycott a product or confront individuals or institutions that abuse their power, giving birth to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Lewinsky admitted the line between the two can be blurry.
“We struggled with that enormously [on 15 Minutes of Shame], because it’s very easy to sort of just denounce shame. But then, there are all these ways that we use shame for change,” she said. “As a society, we’re in the throes of trying to find our way through this.”
Like Monica Lewinsky herself, we’re also a work in progress.