I’m a nerd and a journalist. Even if I were not the latter, I would still be the former, and that means, even if I were not writing this story for publication, I still would have cut my Wednesday night short to sit not so patiently until midnight with my iPhone, waiting for Vanity Fair to digitally release the full (and exclusive) Monica Lewinsky essay, “Shame and Survival,” the one it had been promoting since the beginning of the week. I bought a yearlong Vanity Fair subscription and downloaded the app to my phone just for the occasion. See, I told you. Nerd.
Sixteen years after an infamous and captivating White House scandal, Lewinsky’s name is still spoken of with derision and/or followed by laughter. She’s still a fascinating … well, “character,” in the way that people who are in the public eye morph from being human. (In the essay, Lewinsky points out, “I’m actually a person,” because we do need a reminder.)
Her return to the spotlight, and the inherent drama that comes with it, are a bit like your favorite show having a reunion episode several years after it’s off the air. It’s not going to be the same, and it will probably be cheesy, but you were so invested the first go-round, you pay attention, for nostalgia’s sake, to laugh at the inevitable bloopers and get some behind-the-scenes insight into something that once really mattered to you.
Vanity Fair’s Lewinsky essay doesn’t disappoint, even if she’s more candid than salacious. For a woman who has spent the better part of her adult life being derided and insulted, she’s surprisingly quite likable. She doesn’t ask for any sympathy and takes accountability for her actions, from which she’s suffered greatly–and unfairly.
Lewinsky screwed up royally when she was 23, and she’s paid for it daily for the last 16 years. It seems that she’s tried very hard to move on—much like the Clintons have—but has still been, as she puts it, “stuck.” By the end of the essay, I had a lot of sympathy for her, surely the intended point.
Anyway, in case you’re not a nerd like me or just not willing to plunk down $20 for a Vanity Fair subscription, I offer you the five most fascinating revelations from Lewinsky’s personal essay (that weren’t included in the previously released excerpts):
1. She didn’t see a scandal coming. It seems an impossible perception that a woman could think she could have an affair with the president of the United States and it would never come to light, but we’re also skewed by the 20-20 perception of hindsight. Lewinsky didn’t have that luxury.
“In my early 20s, I was too young to understand the real-life consequences and too young to see that I would be sacrificed for political expediency,” she writes. “I look back now, shake my head in disbelief and wonder: what was I—what were we—thinking?”
2. It wasn’t just sex with Bill Clinton. The Lewinsky-Clinton scandal took place 16 years ago. Other than a passing mention in Beyoncé’s “Partition” or the time R. Kelly and Lady Gaga decided to act out Lewinsky and Clinton’s Oval Office shenanigans at the American Music Awards, I haven’t had much reason to think about her much. The details I recall are the scandalous ones, of course—the stained dress, the cigar. But Lewinsky says there was more to the relationship with Clinton.
“I. Myself. Deeply. Regret. What. Happened,” she writes. “At the time—at least from my point of view—it was an authentic connection, with emotional intimacy, frequent visits, plans made, phone calls and gifts exchanged.”
3. She Googles herself. This counts as bravery, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve done one season of reality TV, and even I don’t Google myself because of the horrible things people write on the Internet. You have no idea (or maybe you do, because sometimes they’re in the comments section at The Root). And I have no sex scandal to speak of. Still, she looks, usually when she gets a call from her doorman that the paparazzi have shown up at her building. She Googles to find out what she’s in the news for this time.
Lewinsky provides a “snapshot of a scenario I’ve grown all too accustomed to,” most recently when a conservative website unearthed exchanges between Hillary Clinton and a close friend that mentioned Lewinsky.
“My heart sinks,” she writes. “I know what this means. Whatever day I’ve planned has been jettisoned. To leave the house—and risk a photo—only ensures that the story will stay alive.”
4. She’s disappointed in feminists (and isn’t one). Lewinsky expected feminists to come to her rescue, “given the issues at play—gender politics, sex in the workplace,” but expressions of support were few and far between.
“I still have a deep respect for feminism and am thankful for the great strides the movement has made in advancing women’s rights,” Lewinsky writes. “But, given my experiences of being passed around like gender-politics cocktail food, I don’t identify myself as a Feminist, capital F.”
5. The essay’s timing has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton’s likely White House bid. The first thing I thought about when I heard that Lewinsky had penned a personal essay for Vanity Fair was the timing of it in relation to all the buzz about Clinton running for president in 2016. I was—am?—sure that the heightened interest in Clinton meant that there was automatically a heightened interest in Lewinsky, the woman who notoriously had an affair with her husband. Lewinsky says that I—along with other people who think like me—am wrong.
“In 2008, when Hillary was running for president, I remained virtually reclusive, despite being inundated with press requests,” she writes. “Recently, I’ve found myself gun-shy yet again, fearful of ‘becoming an issue’ should she decide to ramp up her campaign. But should I put my life on hold for another 8-10 years?”
Later in the essay, she states definitively, “Despite what some headlines will falsely report about this piece, this is not about Me versus the Clintons … I wish them no ill will.”
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.