Monica Lewsinky knows what it means to be publicly shamed, and she knows well the trauma and triggers that follow that shame, for years.
In fact, she had many different ways of describing that pain, in a rare and insightful Guardian interview, published Saturday, on the topic of bullying and public shaming.
“I felt like every layer of my skin and my identity were ripped off of me in ’98 and ’99,” Lewsinky told the paper of the international fall-out following her sexual relationship, as an intern, with then-President Bill Clinton.
“It’s a skinning of sorts,” she said. “You feel incredibly raw and frightened. But I also feel like the shame sticks to you like tar.”
At other points in her talk with writer Jon Ronson, Lewinsky likened the bullying she and others have faced as “similar to cutting.”
“People who cut are trying to localize their pain,” she said. “I think with bullying, people are suffering for myriad reasons and are projecting it. Instead of cutting themselves, they’re cutting someone else.”
And of the widespread condemnation Lewinsky faced – not just online or in Washington, but on late-night TV and in interviews with many, many public figures – she said, “I think it’s fair to say that whatever mistakes I made, I was hung out to dry by a lot of people – by a lot of the feminists who had loud voices.”
“I wish it had been handled differently,” Lewinsky said. “It was very scary and very confusing to be a young woman thrust on to the world stage and not belonging to any group. I didn’t belong to anybody.”
She also touched on comments she has made in the past about her suicidal thoughts during that time period, revealing she had planned how she would commit suicide.
For years, Lewinsky said she avoiding any public attention, but couldn’t escape the narrative that had built up around her image – until one day, upon the advice of a former professor, she decided to create a counter-narrative of her own.
Now a noted anti-bullying advocate, Lewinsky has embraced a particular public role, as “patient zero” of mass-scale shaming.
As she said in her 2015 TED Talk, “If I’m stuck with my past, giving it purpose feels meaningful to me.”
She has also launched a line of anti-bullying GIFs and emoji.
As she told The Guardian, there was a moment in 2014, on the night before she published an essay in Vanity Fair discussing these issues – her first public statements in years – when a friend shared a quote with her.
It was from Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”