Monica Lewinsky: ‘In 1998, I lost my reputation, my dignity and almost my life’
The social activist and veteran of political scandal addressed the Talent Summit in Dublin
Monica Lewinsky at Vanity Fair’s Oscar party last weekend. Photograph: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
An hour before Monica Lewinsky was due to speak at the Talent Summit in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon, she tweeted: “been in Dublin for only 24 hours and i’ve already dropped my ‘h’s” when i say “thanks”...#tanx
The writer John Boyne tweeted back at her, “Welcome to Dublin!”
‘Tanx!’ Lewinsky tweeted back at him, followed by a winking emoji.
At 4.25pm, Lewinsky was at the podium of the largest room in the Convention Centre, making a point of saying “Tanx” to all delegates who had remained to hear her speak, at the end of a long day.
“Resilience and human compassion in the digital age” was the title of her talk. Described on the programme as a social activist, Lewinsky delivered her speech with both poise and wariness: she made it clear throughout she does not trust journalists.
“In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity and I almost lost my life,” she stated, talking about the time when her name had first become publicly associated with then US president Bill Clinton.
She talked about being “holed up” in a hotel room, with a dial-up modem, and reading the very personal things that had just been revealed about her life. “I cringed. I yelled. I sobbed. And the mantra in my head was: ‘I just want to die’.”
Such was her sense of shame and humiliation at that time in 1998, that she told the audience her mother sat by her bed every night. “My parents feared I would literally be humiliated to death.”
It was the support of her family, their “empathy and compassion” that cushioned her best from the “judgment” of the world. “I was publicly stoned with gossip and innuendo. I was called a slut, a tart, a bimbo. I was humiliated and ridiculed.”
Lewinsky asked audience members who had made a mistake in their lives to raise their hands. From what I could see, the entire room did. “Keep your hands raised if everyone else in the room knows about that mistake,” she said next. The only hand left remaining in the air was hers. “Not a day goes by when I am not reminded of my mistake,” she said grimly.
The conference was aimed at people who work in human resources. “I fell in love with my boss,” Lewinsky said. “For people working in human resources, that really is your worst nightmare, right? Someone falling in love with the boss.”
A knowing chuckle spread around the room.
It is only in recent years that Lewinsky has emerged from silence and actively become a public figure. “We have words now for what happened me then,” she said. “Today we call it cyber-bullying, slut-shaming and online harassment. I have been asked the question a lot: ‘Why now, why did I stick my head up over the parapet again? Because it was time. It was time to stop and to take back my narrative.
“You can survive shame. You can insist on a different ending to your story.”
She had done her homework on her Irish audience, beyond picking up on local dialect. She talked about the disparity in the “clicks” as she described it (without citing a particular source), between those received for a story about an internationally known celebrity whose nude pictures were leaked, and when Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
One got “five million clicks, which is the population of the Republic and Malala’s story got the equivalent of the population of Longford.”
Lewinsky made it clear that “clickbait” stories are to her the equivalent of the Roman Colosseum, when Christians were thrown to the lions.
“A marketplace has emerged where shame is a commodity.” She pointed out the role of social media in publicly shaming people now, and creating a “culture of humiliation”.
It is everyone’s responsibility, she suggested, to be more responsible with the online content they “click” on.
There were lighter moments in her half-hour speech, where Lewinsky joked about the inevitable baggage that accompanies her when forming potential relationships with men.
A few years ago, when she was 41, she told the audience, she was “hit on by a 27-year-old guy. His unsuccessful pick-up line was that he could make me feel 22 again.”
The audience howled. “I am probably the only person over 40 who doesn’t want to be 22 again.”