Monica Lewinsky Explains Why She Chose to Participate in The Clinton Affair Docuseries
"Who gets to live in Victimville?"
Monica Lewinsky doesn’t often talk publicly about her decades-old affair with Bill Clinton. She recently walked out of an interview when the interviewer went off-script and asked about the events of 20 years ago, despite having previously agreed not to, because when Lewinsky does talk about those events, she does so on her own terms.
In a new essay for Vanity Fair, she explains why she’s agreed to participate in a docuseries exploring “The Clinton Affair.” (“Bye-bye, Lewinsky scandal . . . I think 20 years is enough time to carry that mantle,” she writes.)
Lewinsky knows that by participating in the The Clinton Affair, she’s opening herself up to a rehashing of a public conversation she never consented to the first time around, for a populace that feels entitled to determine her classification in one of two categories: victim or vixen.
“The debate over who gets to live in Victimville fascinates me, as a public person who has watched strangers discuss my own ‘victim’ status at length on social media. The person at the epicenter of the experience doesn’t necessarily get to decide,” she writes. “No—society, like a Greek chorus, also has a say in this classification.”
Lewinsky was dubbed “that woman” by the president at the time and vilified or victimized by basically an entire country. After years as an anti-bullying advocate, Lewinsky has been exploring her own past through the lens of the #MeToo movement. She doesn’t want to relive that, but if she’s ever going to be a part of reexamining her own story, now seems to be the time.
We, as a society, finally seem capable of breaking out of the victim/vixen binary. For the first time since 1998, Bill Clinton is being asked to hold himself accountable in interviews, something he’s not reacting to very well. He became indignant when asked earlier this year if he thought he owed Lewinsky an apology.
Of that point, she writes now that “what feels more important to me than whether I am owed or deserving of a personal apology is my belief that Bill Clinton should want to apologize. I’m less disappointed by him, and more disappointed for him. He would be a better man for it . . . and we, in turn, a better society.”
She says that she has written her own apologies, as well, and that participating in this series “forced me to acknowledge to myself past behavior that I still regret and feel ashamed of.” The very “meta” process of revisiting inextricable personal and political narratives wreaked havoc on her mental health.
“During one therapy session,” she writes, “I told my therapist I was feeling especially depressed. She suggested that sometimes what we experience as depression is actually grief.”
“Grief. Yes, it was Grief. The process of this docuseries led me to new rooms of shame that I still needed to explore, and delivered me to Grief’s doorstep. Grief for the pain I caused others. Grief for the broken young woman I had been before and during my time in D.C., and the shame I still felt around that. Grief for having been betrayed first by someone I thought was my friend, and then by a man I thought had cared for me. Grief for the years and years lost, being seen only as “That Woman”—saddled, as a young woman, with the false narrative that my mouth was merely a receptacle for a powerful man’s desire. (You can imagine how those constructs impacted my personal and professional life.) Grief for a relationship that had no normal closure, and instead was slowly dismantled by two decades of Bill Clinton’s behavior that eventually (eventually!) helped me understand how, at 22, I took the small, narrow sliver of the man I knew and mistook it for the whole.”
Importantly for this reexamination, the series is being crafted primarily by women. Emmy-winning director Blair Foster pointed out to Lewinsky that “almost all the books written about the Clinton impeachment were written by men. History literally being written by men.”
“In contrast, the docuseries not only includes more women’s voices, but embodies a woman’s gaze: two of the three main editors and four of the five executive producers are women. (The one man is Academy Award winner Alex Gibney.) I may not like everything that has been put in the series or left out, but I like that the perspective is being shaped by women. Yes, the process of filming has been exceedingly painful. But I hope that by participating, by telling the truth about a time in my life—a time in our history—I can help ensure that what happened to me never happens to another young person in our country again.”
“So, Victim or Vixen?” Lewinsky writes. “Maybe, in 2018, it’s a question we should no longer be asking.”
(image: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
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