First a spread in Vanity Fair and now a TED Talk: like Lazarus, Monica Lewinsky has risen again. This time, she’s on a mission to clean up the internet and protect the world from cyberbullying.
It’s not the message Lewinsky brings that’s troubling—it’s the messenger.
Cyberbullying is wrong, and it’s a growing problem. On this, Monica and I agree. In fact, we probably share the same views on many political and moral issues. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a Democrat and lean liberal. And I too have experienced online bullying.
Mine began in 2010, the same year Lewinsky says she was inspired to become a spokesperson against unwarranted media attention. I had just begun speaking out about divorce reform, sharing the story of my earlier efforts to save my marriage and spare my children from the hardship of divorce, even while my then-husband continued his extramarital affair.
At the time, the state of New York had not adopted no-fault divorce, and I was entitled to contest the wrongful divorce allegations leveled against me. But when I told my story, I was repeatedly and viciously attacked by anonymous online haters and lashed out at by bloggers. Even the family court judges who heard my case joined the throng pressuring me to give up on my marriage.
And yet family breakdown and all of its damaging byproducts is the most serious problem facing America today. Divorce rates remain high, while marriage rates have plummeted to a new low. The family models of cohabitation and single parenting are replacing marriage, but they are no match when it comes to the well-being of adults and children. Like homes and well-paid, secure employment, marriage is fading from the American dream. Instead of crying victim about the consequences of her own actions, Monica should use her fame to help save the American family.
Unemployed and in the Spotlight
“Shame is an industry,” Lewinsky says during her TED Talk. “Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my mistake.” But the only mistake she specifies, chuckling, is “wearing that beret.” The allusions to her real transgressions are couched in the language of fairy tales, like Cinderella or Camelot.
“At 22, I fell in love with my boss,” she says. “Swept up into an improbable romance.” Unlike Guinevere, however, Lewinsky hasn’t joined a nunnery—or whatever its modern equivalent could be. If she had devoted her life to teaching in a ghetto or building houses for poor people, no one there would know her name. There are plenty of choices she could have made to stay far away from the media attention she claims to abhor.
Instead, she courts the red carpet. She’s unemployed, Lewinsky laments. Yet she globetrots between London, LA, New York, and Portland searching for jobs in creative communications and branding—jobs where Lewinsky could remain in the public eye and attend events involving press cameras.
Nor does Monica mention the millions she raked in as a result of what went on behind the Oval Office doors. From her million-dollar interview with Barbara Walters on 20/20 to the cool half a million she received for her biography, it seems that Monica has managed to do quite well for herself—her designer handbag line, television commercials and endorsements for Jenny Craig, and lipstick line for Club Monaco. She’s also appeared on Saturday Night Live, MTV, and as the host of her own reality show on Fox.
Who else but the privileged can maintain multiple residences or command such opportunities?
If Monica needs a cause, why not speak up for the nine million unemployed people in the United States she seems to identify so strongly with? Or use her skills from her degree at the London School of Economics to help the millions earning minimum wage who find themselves unable to feed their families—the ones who can’t fall back on their connections or their bourgeois upbringing?
Better yet, why not speak out on behalf of the millions of divorced men and women, many of whom are the victims of spousal infidelity, and their millions of children? Millions of divorcees are thrown into poverty by divorce. Their children are at a greater risk of premature death, drug and alcohol abuse, diminished educational attainment, and suicide.
The Price of Family Disintegration
The heartache and devastating financial, emotional, and physical consequences of family disintegration in America have been too long ignored. Adultery has become commonplace and tolerated. And although laws against it are still on the books in some states, they’re rarely enforced. Alienation of affections laws are nearly extinct, too. Mention adultery in the family court, and you’ll be nearly laughed out of it. Trust me, I’ve been there.
In her TED Talk, Lewinsky tells us that every click for online shaming turns into more ad dollars for those who promote humiliation. She’s right. Our clicks have consequences—and we need to stop clicking for Lewinsky. “The more we click, the more numb we get,” she says. “The more numb we get, the more we click.” And the more we whitewash infidelity and family court injustice, the more inured we become to the real victims of family betrayal.
No matter what Lewinsky has gone through, there are better spokesmen and women for those who have experienced public humiliation and shame. Take Silda Spitzer or Maria Shriver, for example, or one of the millions of faceless individuals scourged by the reckless indifference of “that man” or “that woman.” They have done nothing to deserve the criticism they’ve received.
And let’s not forget the children of those unions. Among the many I’ve spoken with, I particularly remember one young woman I met after a talk I gave about divorce reform. This woman was about the same age Lewinsky was when she became a White House intern—when she claimed she didn’t know any better about what she was doing with another young girl’s father. This young woman came up to me shaking and sobbing about her father’s affair. It had destroyed her home and family. The memory of her upturned face still brings me to tears. She begged me to continue speaking out for her sake and the sake of others like her.
For those of us whose lives have been shattered by infidelity, it’s difficult to see Lewinsky’s face reappear on the grand stage to lecture us in worldly decorum. Over and over, we’re told to move on, shut up, and get over our family break-ups. And many of us have gone on to lead productive, fulfilling, happy lives.
It’s hard, though, and sometimes we still struggle. No matter how our lives have healed and how many strides we’ve made to recover, there are times we relive our worst nightmares. Times when a word, a memory, or a face retriggers our most painful moments. Times when those reminders are shoved in our face. “That was a lot of pain,” Lewinsky says in her TED Talk, referring to the millions of internet jabs she has endured.
We know how she feels.
Monica as Role Model?
As parents, we have the right to choose who instructs our children. Already, there are news reports of young girls star-struck by Lewinsky’s foray into her latest venture, young women “treating her like a hero.” But why must parents bow to media pressure to turn the reins over to Monica? Is she the best example for our children? Should parents be placed in the position of explaining to their children who Lewinsky is when they ask—as they surely will—what she means when she talks about her love for the president?
To me, Lewinsky’s own words belie the confidence she entreats us to place in her. Lewinsky does not open her TED Talk with an apology. Indeed, nowhere does she utter those two simple words: I’m sorry. Instead, she begins her talk by letting us know she’s been mentioned by name in forty rap songs. The take-home message for teens? Follow my example, and Beyoncé, Miley, and Eminem will sing about you.
Next, she says she was recently hit on by a twenty-seven-year-old during her Forbes presentation. And although she claims she doesn’t ever want to be twenty-two again, she immediately launches into the heartwarming tale of her love story with her boss, the devastating consequences of which she confesses she didn’t learn until age twenty-four. Why did it take her two years to understand she’d done something terribly wrong? Could it be because that’s when the Tripp tapes were disclosed, when evidence came to light that Lewinsky had lied in her affidavit? Message to teens: No need to worry unless you get caught.
Compassion and Empathy—But Not Hero-Worship
Believe it or not, I don’t begrudge Lewinsky a happy life. I hope she finds joy and fulfillment through a job, a husband, and children. I feel colossally sad for her, and I would never want to be in her shoes. At mid-life, I, too, am unemployed and unmarried. I yearn for second chances at finding meaningful work and a caring partner. Still, at least I have the very real and profound blessing of my children. How painful to be denied that for any woman who yearns to be a mother.
We all make mistakes. None of us is perfect, and sooner or later we all need forgiveness. We must be willing to extend that forgiveness too. Compassion and empathy are the two buzzwords Lewinsky repeats during her closing. Everyone deserves these, Lewinsky included. Every single person on the planet who is willing to work hard deserves a job and a living wage to go along with it.
When America became a no-fault divorce nation, we eliminated the concept of responsibility from marriage. As a consequence, the lives of nearly 45 million children have been turned upside down by divorce. That’s not progress—especially because we know that marriage builds economic, physical, and emotional health for both adults and children more effectively than any other institution.
The good news is that research demonstrates the majority of divorces involve low-conflict marriages that can be repaired, even when infected by infidelity. But we need divorce laws that encourage reconciliation, protect children, and restore respect for marriage. It still takes two to say “yes” to marriage, but under no-fault divorce, it only take one to dissolve it. Two-thirds of divorce filings are unilateral, which means that an unfaithful spouse simply leaves, with no responsibility to provide for the innocent spouse and their children. Placing power back into the hands of faithful spouses will require a cultural shift. We must still forgive infidelity, but we can no longer afford to continue to forget.
To be clear, Bill Clinton undoubtedly abused the office of the president. Integrity in a leader is important, and Clinton failed the test. He lied under oath. Worse, he betrayed his wife and daughter in the worst possible way a husband and father could. Perhaps between the two Lewinsky has paid a greater price for her transgressions than the ex-president. Even so, the price she paid is not comparable to the suffering borne by innocent and unsuspecting spouses and children who are the real victims of careless infidelity.
Who with unfettered access to the media will speak up on their behalf?
Lewinsky says it’s time for her to “take back [her] narrative.” It’s time we took back the codes of decency in our society, too. The time has long passed for demanding that our heroes—both male and female—grow taller than we are. If she’s truly strong, Monica might even be one of them.