Monica Lewinsky has waited 20 years for the Me Too movement.
“I’m so sorry you were so alone,” Lewinsky wrote in a recent essay for Vanity Fair, recalling a message she received from a leader of the Me Too movement. “Those seven words undid me.”
Lewinsky’s essay in the magazine’s March edition describes how she grappled with isolation and trauma after her affair with then-President Bill Clinton became public in 1998. Only recently, with the help of the Me Too movement against sexual misconduct, has she felt less alone. A private exchange with a leader of the movement was powerfully reassuring, she wrote.
“Somehow, coming from her ― a recognition of sorts on a deep, soulful level ― [those words] landed in a way that cracked me open and brought me to tears,” Lewinsky continued. “Yes, I had received many letters of support in 1998 … But by and large I had been alone. So. Very. Alone. Publicly Alone ― abandoned most of all by the key figure in the crisis, who actually knew me well and intimately. That I had made mistakes, on that we can all agree. But swimming in that sea of Aloneness was terrifying.”
Lewinsky’s poignant essay describes how it felt to be the infamous centerpiece of a scandal that rocked a presidency: The investigation; the onslaught of media stories and cruel “Saturday Night Live” skits; her own mother being forced to testify against her; and seeing details of her sex life and personal life displayed to the world.
My trauma expedition has been long, arduous, painful, and expensive. And it’s not over.Monica Lewinsky
“To be blunt, I was diagnosed several years ago with post-traumatic stress disorder, mainly from the ordeal of having been publicly outed and ostracized back then,” she wrote. “My trauma expedition has been long, arduous, painful, and expensive. And it’s not over.”
Lewinsky, now 44, said her experience would have been different if it had happened today. With the rising Me Too movement, Lewinsky wrote that she would have been “instantly welcomed into a tribe.”
Isolation is such a powerful tool to the subjugator. And yet I don’t believe I would have felt so isolated had it all happened today. One of the most inspiring aspects of this newly energized movement is the sheer number of women who have spoken up in support of one another. And the volume in numbers has translated into volume of public voice. Historically, he who shapes the story (and it is so often a he) creates “the truth.” But this collective rise in decibel level has provided a resonance for women’s narratives. If the Internet was a bête noire to me in 1998, its stepchild ― social media ― has been a savior for millions of women today (notwithstanding all the cyberbullying, online harassment, doxing, and slut-shaming). Virtually anyone can share her or his #MeToo story and be instantly welcomed into a tribe.
The Me Too movement also has helped Lewinsky confront her own story and address it with more nuance. She’s still trying to grasp grey areas of consent between her and Clinton. While she believes what happened “was not sexual assault,” she said it was a “gross abuse of power.”
“I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern,” she wrote. “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances ― and the ability to abuse them ― do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)
“I want to be thoughtful,” she continued. “But I know one thing for certain: part of what has allowed me to shift is knowing I’m not alone anymore. And for that I am grateful.”