monica lewinsky discovers the existence of power

Monica Lewinsky has a new article in Vanity Fair called “Emerging from the House of Gaslight in the Age of #MeToo.

She finally met Ken Starr, after all this time.

At the same moment I stepped toward the Man in the Hat and began to ask, “You’re not . . . ?,” he stepped toward me with a warm, incongruous smile and said, “Let me introduce myself. I’m Ken Starr.” An introduction was indeed necessary. This was, in fact, the first time I had met him.

I found myself shaking his hand even as I struggled to decipher the warmth he evinced. After all, in 1998, this was the independent prosecutor who had investigated me, a former White House intern; the man whose staff, accompanied by a group of F.B.I. agents (Starr himself was not there), had hustled me into a hotel room near the Pentagon and informed me that unless I cooperated with them I could face 27 years in prison. This was the man who had turned my 24-year-old life into a living hell in his effort to investigate and prosecute President Bill Clinton on charges that would eventually include obstruction of justice and lying under oath—lying about having maintained a long-term extramarital relationship with me.

Ken Starr asked me several times if I was “doing O.K.” A stranger might have surmised from his tone that he had actually worried about me over the years. His demeanor, almost pastoral, was somewhere between avuncular and creepy. He kept touching my arm and elbow, which made me uncomfortable.

I turned and introduced him to my family. Bizarre as it may sound, I felt determined, then and there, to remind him that, 20 years before, he and his team of prosecutors hadn’t hounded and terrorized just me but also my family—threatening to prosecute my mom (if she didn’t disclose the private confidences I had shared with her), hinting that they would investigate my dad’s medical practice, and even deposing my aunt, with whom I was eating dinner that night. And all because the Man in the Hat, standing in front of me, had decided that a frightened young woman could be useful in his larger case against the president of the United States.

Understandably, I was a bit thrown. (It was also confusing for me to see “Ken Starr” as a human being. He was there, after all, with what appeared to be his family.) I finally gathered my wits about me—after an internal command of Get it together. “Though I wish I had made different choices back then,” I stammered, “I wish that you and your office had made different choices, too.” In hindsight, I later realized, I was paving the way for him to apologize. But he didn’t. He merely said, with the same inscrutable smile, “I know. It was unfortunate.”

Of COURSE he kept touching her arm. I mean, what he did in the meantime was preside over the Baylor University sexual assault scandal.

She goes full psychoanalysis.

ne useful viewpoint is that of cognitive linguist George Lakoff. In his book Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, Lakoff observes that the connective fiber of our country is often best represented through the metaphor of family: e.g., “our Founding Fathers,” “Uncle Sam,” the concept of sending our sons and daughters to war. Lakoff goes on to argue that, “for conservatives, the nation is conceptualized (implicitly and unconsciously) as a Strict Father family and, for liberals, as a Nurturant Parent family.” Addressing the scandal itself, he asserts that Clinton was widely perceived as “the naughty child” and that, in line with the filial metaphor, “a family matter [had turned] into an affair of state.” Thus, in many ways, the crack in the foundation of the presidency was also a crack in our foundation at home. Moreover, the nature of the violation—an extramarital relationship—struck at the heart of one of humanity’s most complicated moral issues: infidelity. (You’ll forgive me if I leave that topic right there.)

The result, I believe, was that in 1998 the person to whom we would typically turn for reassurance and comfort during a national crisis was remote and unavailable. The country, at that stage, had no consistent, Rooseveltian voice of calm or reason or empathy to make sense of the chaos. Instead, our Nurturer in Chief, because of his own actions as much as the subterfuge of his enemies, was a figurative “absent father.”

Remember when George Lakoff was going to get Howard Dean elected or something? Haha.

The government isn’t my family. If it is, it’s like your mom’s abusive child molester boyfriend.

It’s crazy that people really do relate to the government in that way, though. So much gross symbolic identification.

The reason this is difficult is that I’ve lived for such a long time in the House of Gaslight, clinging to my experiences as they unfolded in my 20s and railing against the untruths that painted me as an unstable stalker and Servicer in Chief. An inability to deviate from the internal script of what I actually experienced left little room for re-evaluation; I cleaved to what I “knew.” So often have I struggled with my own sense of agency versus victimhood. (In 1998, we were living in times in which women’s sexuality was a marker of their agency—“owning desire.” And yet, I felt that if I saw myself as in any way a victim, it would open the door to choruses of: “See, you did merely service him.”)

That’s an indictment of sex positive feminism if there ever was one. A political idea based on internal feelings without consideration of power relations is pretty useless on its face. Despite living in the Panopticon, people are missing key concepts like disciplinary power. You need some theory of the subject, an account of where desires come from. If you stop at “Well, she wanted to” without understanding how central the manipulation of our desires is to society, how can you change anything? You’d be ignoring one of the most important aspects of how power actually functions. “False consciousness” is not a new problem. Tumblr has no hope of reinventing Marxism.

Given my PTSD and my understanding of trauma, it’s very likely that my thinking would not necessarily be changing at this time had it not been for the #MeToo movement—not only because of the new lens it has provided but also because of how it has offered new avenues toward the safety that comes from solidarity. Just four years ago, in an essay for this magazine, I wrote the following: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)

Now, at 44, 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. 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.)

But it’s also complicated. Very, very complicated. The dictionary definition of “consent”? “To give permission for something to happen.” And yet what did the “something” mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? Was the “something” just about crossing a line of sexual (and later emotional) intimacy? (An intimacy I wanted—with a 22-year-old’s limited understanding of the consequences.) He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college. (Note to the trolls, both Democratic and Republican: none of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened. I meet Regret every day.)

“This” (sigh) is as far as I’ve gotten in my re-evaluation; I want to be thoughtful. 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.

Something prevented these basic observations for the last TWENTY YEARS! Socially, it’s that important to say that she wanted it. Feminism is whatever women choose! Own it, girl!