Humiliation, Recovery and Monica Lewinsky

Fifteen Ways to Deal With Public Shaming

Posted Mar 27, 2015

by Chloe Barron
Source: by Chloe Barron

 “Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death” (Benjamin Rush)

In 1998, a trusted friend surreptitiously taped private phone conversations she had with Monica Lewinsky, a then White House intern. Graphic details regarding an intimate relationship with President Clinton were revealed via twenty hours of dialogue. After these tapes were handed over to government officials, Ms. Lewinsky was threatened with a 27-year prison sentence if she denied the affair. She admitted to the relationship, the president was impeached and she became the “patient zero,” of public humiliation, the first person to be the victim of prolonged inter-net shaming and cyber-bullying.

Ms. Lewinsky was so fragile that her mother made her shower with the door open. She sat by her bed every night.

In a New York Times article by Jessica Bennett, and in Ms. Lewinsky’s TED talk, The Price of Shame, we learn that she has survived the trauma of public shaming and has come out to “own it” after a decade of relative seclusion.  Well-known ridiculers, now feel “guilt” or shame. She hopes her story will help others. It has, by all accounts, been well received.

What set Monica in motion was the suicide of 18 year-old Tyler Clementi, after his roommate filmed him in a private encounter and posted it on social media. Helping those who have been publically humiliated survive with relief of their suffering is now her mission.  ” The public humiliation was excruciating. Life was almost unbearable.” In this Vanity Fair article she says, “I, too, was suicidal.”  

There are so many different kinds of pain in this story.  In addition to  “unbearable” humiliation, other horrors descended. Given what she endured, Ms. Lewinsky shows enormous resilience. It seems to me that eight other psychological assaults or trickle-down traumas played in. Freud said the pain of the ego is the worst possible pain.

1) Betrayal

The betrayal of a friend can be a shocking experience. It may not be so much the loss, but the sense that one’s own judgment is faulty. It is frightening to suddenly feel you cannot rely on your own perceptions. Once you were clear and grounded and now bewilderment, confusion and insecurity reign. You don’t know where you stand anymore. It is hard to trust yourself or others.

Linda Tripp, the false 25 years older ‘friend,” did her best to elicit graphic details. One wonders if some glee, excitement, eroticism and hope for importance accompanied the “patriotism” Ms. Tripp claimed was the reason for her actions.  Though her taping was illegal she was not charged with a crime.

Psychoanalytically speaking, an early positive relationship with one’s caregiver might unconsciously lead to such a predicament. You trust because you have been nurtured and assume your world is safe. This subjective lens is called “transference” and reflects your inner blueprint regarding relationships. Negative transference can cause you to distrust when you needn’t and positive transference can do the reverse. Your antennae are not quite alert and you are all in.  A tiny bit of holdback or even measured suspicion can be protective.

The poet Yeats wrote, “Never give all the heart.” But younger or idealistic people tend to give all. A supervisor once said, “Never lose idealism.” It just has to be checked now and again.

Overall it is good to have a caring, supportive parent. Internalizing such a figure can be a source of resilience.

2) The Threat of Prison

An out-of-the-blue, sudden and shocking threat of imprisonment could severely traumatize a 22 year-old, or anyone who has been living a mostly up and up life. It seems that flashing badges still trigger fear for Ms. Lewinsky.  

During the flare-up she was accosted by a bevy of officers in a mall. The thought of jail when you did not even know you were or could be guilty of a felony would rattle anyone.  Their “consensual” affair, with the giving of gifts and professions of love, turned into a crime because of denials. Of course the wish to hide such a matter is a normal human impulse. Ms. Lewinsky states that she made a mistake.   

3) Sexual Shaming

Conflicted feelings about sexuality are not uncommon in women. Feminism has among other things, tried to free women from the “Madonna versus Whore” identity.  The Vanity Fair article includes a transcript of a conversation among seven notable women at the time, spewing jokes and insults regarding Ms. Lewinsky’s looks and intelligence. Ms. Lewinsky is given the opportunity to retort in print. “I’m not saying I’m brilliant, but how do you know I’m not? My first job out of college was at the White House.” She marvels that champion women would be so quick to mock, make assumptions and misunderstand.

Many people have had affairs with bosses, maybe to get promoted, perhaps with the hopes of a permanent relationship. In The Price of Shame, Ms. Lewinsky requests a show of hands. Who did not make mistakes at 22? No one. But of course, most of these “mistakes” never became sources of shame in the public domain.

4) Unemployment

Though she has an advanced degree in Social Psychology from the London School Of Economics, Ms. Lewinsky has been turned down for jobs because of her “history.” One potential employer feared Hillary Clinton herself. Ms. Lewinsky specialized in the impact of trauma on identity. Since the articles and Ted talk, she is now in demand. She has remained measured and dignified when asked about the Clintons.

5) Unusual Trauma That Does Not Fit Into a Category. Sex Complicates

Affiliation with an identified marginalized group offers support. With others behind you, things are easier to bear.  Those with unusual traumas do not experience the rally round because the cause does not have a recognizable shape or fit a known category. Friends and family supported Ms. Lewinsky through this singular trauma.

Because graphic sexual events can seem hedonistic or immoral, they elicit high emotion and virulent responses. This can overshadow the complexities, facts and context that led to them. The magnitude of this event created an uncontainable spread of vicious comments. There were few places to turn.

Now public shaming is common and we have names for it: cyber-bullying, online harassment, culture of humiliation but this form of identified trauma is relatively new.

6) People Not Interested in Your Side, the Context or the Truth

Being misunderstood and labeled without the chance to correct the perception is upsetting. Words travel, embellishments accrue and impressions take shape. There was little opportunity to explain or clarify given the circumstances. The President did not, would not and perhaps could not back her up or own up to mutual feelings. The presence of mind that allows one to fess up off the bat in a stunning exposure is rare.

One’s voice can be hushed in high stakes, fast rolling, controversial public crises.

7) The Political Machine

It certainly served political opponents to make this seem as lurid and trashy as possible. I never realized that she was actually in love, a swept-up innocent in this sense.

8) Being an Outcast. Wondering if There Really is Something Wrong With You

Being cast out can be devastating. To be respected, treasured, heard and included are primal needs. Some people cherish solitude but that is different from being dismissed from the circle.  Being treated as an outcast can have a damaging impact on identity, especially in a young person.  It is hard to feel whole, good and worthy if the world is handing you a contaminated, corrupt image of yourself.

In Vanity Fair, Ms. Lewinsky says,  “If you haven’t figured out who you are, it’s hard not to accept the horrible image of you created by others. “

How can one really and truly get over such a thing?

The distorted narrative can be a challenge to undo. Fighting back can make one appear defensive, desperate, low or overly emotional. Attempting to clear a smeared name is a wrenching challenge and can engender a sense of helplessness, abandonment or hysteria. The ensuing emotional breakdown further demeans one in the minds of some others.

Someone once shared this comment, “If you show weakness in my family you will be eaten alive.” Contempt for frailty is not uncommon. Even if one is normally robust, pushback capacities may falter after chronic assault by a group. It wears you down.

In general, having emotion in a trying situation is a sign of mental health, not weakness.  Even if that emotion is vulnerability. While it is good to control “affect” (emotion) at times, restricted affect can indicate an impairment that might need to be addressed.

It is better to convey stature and strength with teasers and tormentors because they respect aggression and back down. Masochism breeds sadism.  But fisticuffs after a serious battering can be hard to muster. The “Madding Crowd “is a monumental, defeating force. It knows no compassion, measure or even intelligence. Freud said that groups dumb you down.

Far From the madding crowd's ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;

Along the cool sequester'd vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

(Thomas Gray)

Fifteen Ways to Deal With Public Shaming

  1. Leave the premises for your own cool, noiseless vale
  2. Rewrite the narrative. Underline your pushback, however small, because this action makes it bigger and maybe you were actually more effective than you imagine
  3. Think for yourself: Was your behavior actually degraded or was it just human? Hold on to the truth, which is probably the latter
  4. Take a rigorous self-inventory. What did you did do, what did you did not do, who are you and who are you not? Fend off the false image cast upon you. They don’t know you
  5. Don’t try to explain unless you can get somewhere. Some minds are rigid and unreceptive. Some people get off on your despair. Wasting words on the interpersonally challenged is boring
  6. Don’t seek approval. You probably have contempt or disdain for gossips or mockers, so why try to please them? It isn’t emotionally authentic  
  7. Own your vulnerability along with your resilience.
  8. Expose cuts, mockery and cruel comments without shame. Some are thoughtless, others are calculated. People who are hellbent on humiliating another after a minor greivance might have a severe personality disorder  
  9. Feel benevolence towards yourself, not self-pity.
  10. Be a rational, not an irrational self-critic. If the mob is insane, set yourself apart and bide your time. The truth will out   
  11. “Scorch earth and punish,” according to my friend and fellow blogger Regis Boff http://regisboff.com. He says,"Some people  will deliberately hurt you. Learn to quickly recognize these people and wipe them from your life. Punish them by tearing away their influence on you." 
  12. Know and trust that time heals
  13. Find true friends, measured thinkers, sensitive listeners and Up-standers. I just learned at a dinner party that kids are being taught to abandon By-standing for Up-standing
  14. Associate with people who possess “Mentalization,” which means they can comprehend the inner life of another person
  15. Become a Tour-de-Force

Maybe Monica Lewinsky needs to run for office. Sharp, honest, scholarly, humble, human, charismatic, courageous, articulate, dignified and stately, she is a tour-de-force. She has a desire to serve, a mission for compassion and a drive to undo our shaming culture.  “Things have to change.”

If all that does not conjure the utmost respect, I am not sure what does.

Here is a scholarly article on the aftermath of public shaming; http://www.jaapl.org/content/38/2/195.full

For shorter pieces on current topics, visit my blog: http://carriebarronmd.com/blog