Editor’s Note: Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator and legal analyst. She is the founder of Inspire52.com, a positive news website and author of “Stop Saying You’re Fine,” about managing change. Robbins speaks on leadership around the world and in 2014 was named outstanding news talk radio host by the Gracie Awards. Follow her on Twitter @melrobbins. A version of this commentary first appeared in May.
Mel Robbins: Monica Lewinsky makes her first speech about affair with Bill Clinton
Lewinsky's brave to go on as aftermath left her humiliated, almost suicidal, Robbins says
Robbins: Media cashed in on, exploited news of consensual affair
Robbins: Real story here is Lewinsky taking back narrative, helping others bullied on Internet
“My name is Monica Lewinsky. Though I’ve often been advised to change it.” With humor and grace, anti-cyberbullying crusader Monica Lewinsky on Monday stepped back into public life with her first speech – an emotional and powerful one about her role in the world’s most infamous sex scandal. The theme of her remarks at the Forbes Under 30 Summit: public humiliation, privacy and cyberbullying.
Lewinsky briefly acknowledged her affair with former President Bill Clinton but mainly brought detail to its fallout, which, she said, left her “shattered” and wanting “to die.” She also discussed the recent spree of celebrity nude-photo thefts, warning “anyone can be next.” She should know; she was humiliated and shamed on a global scale.
As she put it, she “I was patient zero.” By the looks of it, she’s no longer suffering. She’s cured herself. Vanity Fair ran an article by Lewinsky, “Shame and Survival,” in June, and what I wrote about it then, I stand by now: We could all learn a few things from Monica Lewinsky, particularly about ourselves.
As many will recall, when her affair with Clinton came to light in 1998, it became a global story. It almost took down the President – he was impeached – and sent Lewinsky into such an isolated state of hell, she wrote, that she had suicidal thoughts at times and a “fear that I would be literally humiliated to death.”
It was a powerful account to read, but it’s way more powerful to hear and see someone tell her personal story in front of you. As Forbes writer Jeff Bercovici tweeted while attending, “@monicalewinsky fighting tears telling her story at #under30summit. Turns out the butt of all those late-night monologues is a human person.”
Frankly, when you consider just how intense, relentless and abusive the Lewinsky bullying has been for 16 years – by the media, the politicians, the public and trolls on the Internet, it’s a wonder she had the psychological stamina to resist those early suicidal thoughts. And thank God she did.
You can’t underplay how huge the news of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair was at a time when the Internet wasn’t only used for trolling celebrities; it had such an impact in the public arena that there are people who are still making money off it. The founder of the Drudge Report, Matt Drudge, broke the story of the affair on his then-mostly unknown website in 1998; the story put him on the map. In 2014, the site averages more than 1 billion page views a month.
When Barbara Walters interviewed Lewinsky in 1999 on “20/20,” a record-breaking 70 million viewers tuned in. While the media pointed fingers at “that woman,” they were taking advantage of the hottest story in presidential scandal history and squeezing every dollar they could out of Lewinsky’s demise.
Heck, when Beyoncé “dropped” her album in December, she cashed in as well – reducing Lewinsky to a line in “Partition” as a reference to ejaculation. Lewinsky replied in her essay: “Thanks, Beyoncé, but if we’re verbing, I think you meant ‘Bill Clintoned all on my gown.’ “
Sexual affairs are happening all over the world at this very moment – with politicians, world leaders, famous actors and people you know personally. Yes, affairs and other indiscretions are disgusting and immoral, but you can hardly be surprised anymore when you hear about them (looking at you Vance McAllister, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, Donald Sterling). After all, you don’t publicly execute people for these everyday offenses between two consenting adults, and yet that’s basically what the world did to Lewinsky.
In 2014, it appears that Lewinsky is finally claiming both her freedom and the new identity she deserves: survivor and crusader.
The powerful story here isn’t the cigar and the blue dress with semen on it, it’s that after 16 years of relentless bullying and a past that won’t go away, Lewinsky has figured out a way to use the experience to help others by taking ownership of it.
Lewinsky spoke about the fact that she may be the first person ever at the center of an Internet cyberbullying event, and that it was the case of another victim of similar bullying, Tyler Clementi, that made her own suffering “take on a different meaning.”
“Perhaps by sharing my story, I reason, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation.” In the same way that a sitting President can sooth a community struck by a hurricane, mudslide or mass shooting, I have no doubt that Lewinsky could help a victim of cyberbullying get through the pain and humiliation – and be instrumental in encouraging him or her to stay strong.
One of the most powerful tools you have in life is the truth, and here’s the truth: Regardless of what she says, people will judge. Pundits will pontificate, project and wonder aloud about political motivations in the timing. We will wonder if this will hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016 or if Lewinsky was paid by the Republican National Committee to unburden herself like this. Go down that road and you miss something way more powerful than politics – a lesson in humanity and personal power.
In Vanity Fair, she wrote that it’s time to “stop tiptoeing around my past – and other people’s futures. I am determined to have a different ending to my story. I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give purpose to my past.”
By telling her story, she’s doing exactly that. It takes remarkable courage to confront your humiliating mistakes and painful past, and still hold your head high.
It’s in our failures that we often find our strength. Good for you Monica Lewinsky, you found your strength. I for one will be cheering you on.