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Monica Lewinsky Redefines Her Story In Anti-Cyberbullying TED Talk


After nearly a decade of self-imposed silence, Monica Lewinsky is making herself heard. People are still parsing the details of her TED conference speech last week. It seems, in some ways, to be getting the response Lewinsky wanted: to have the aftermath of her affair with President Bill Clinton considered from her point of view and to position herself as an advocate against cyberbullying. Her talk was titled "The Price Of Shame."


MONICA LEWINSKY: There is a very personal price to public humiliation. And the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.

CORNISH: Jessica Bennett spent time with Lewinsky while she prepared for her TED Talk and wrote about Monica Lewinsky's return to the public eye in this Sunday's New York Times. Jessica, welcome to the program.

JESSICA BENNETT: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So Monica Lewinsky, in her TED Talk, describes herself as, quote, "patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously." In what way?

BENNETT: Well, you know, hers was one of the first major stories to break online. My first job out of college was at Newsweek, where the story was supposed to have broken, but it actually got leaked to the Drudge Report. This was in 1998. And overnight everyone heard this tale. So she wasn't literally the first, but she was the first one of her scale.

CORNISH: And later in the talk, and sort of linking herself to the modern cause of cyberbullying, she speaks about Tyler Clementi. This was the Rutgers student who killed himself in 2010 after he was taped being intimate with another man - I believe by his roommate. Monica Lewinsky talks about her mom's strong reaction to this news story, and then she realizes that it brought back painful memories for her mom.


LEWINSKY: Reliving a time when she made me shower with a bathroom door open and reliving a time when both of my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death - literally.

CORNISH: Jessica Bennett, obviously this was an emotional moment in the speech, and this is a very emotional story that's resonated nationally. Is it fair, though, for her to make this comparison? Very different circumstances in these cases.

BENNETT: Yeah, it is different circumstances. The way she describes it is that her mother was so upset and she didn't quite understand why. And upon further reflection, she realized that her mother had sort of placed her in the position of Tyler. And she has talked about how she was suicidal in the past and really had to go through a lot of treatment and trauma therapy to get through this. So I think the way she would say it is that the Clementi case kind of reframed her story and allowed her to put it into this larger context.

CORNISH: It also allowed her to do that with a new generation -right? - who may not think of her in the same way. I mean, is that part of this reimagining of her image?

BENNETT: Yeah, one of the things that I noted was that a lot of young women in particular were really gravitating towards her. You know, I went with her to a lot of public events, and they would come up to her after and tell her how inspired they were. They were flocking to her as if she was some kind of icon. And that was something that was surprising to me.

CORNISH: You know, there have been a few high-profile people of media, including David Letterman and Bill Maher and - who have expressed remorse about the way they treated and talked about Lewinsky after 1998. And in your piece you even talk about having a tinge of guilt yourself about this, kind of being riveted by the details of the affair when you were in high school. What do you make of this idea of media guilt now?

BENNETT: You know, back when this happened, we didn't even have a language to talk about it. So words like slut-shaming or media gender bias, they didn't really exist then. So I was 16 at the time. I was too young to really understand the complexities of what was happening, but I was old enough to get that I wasn't on Monica Lewinsky's side, and neither was the culture. And I think that over time there's been some public reckoning. And it's been interesting to talk to media folks about this who covered it at the time and now even look back on their stories and think, huh, that wasn't quite fair. I think that a lot of the language that was used back then - you know, she was called a tart, a tramp, basically everything but slut, publicly - it would never fly today. You wouldn't get that on the air. You wouldn't get that in columns in The New York Times. And back then you did, with little criticism.

CORNISH: Finally, Jessica Bennett, is there an answer to the question of why now? What has Monica Lewinsky had to say about that?

BENNETT: Well, there's two things she wouldn't answer. One - why now? And two - about her finances. You know, she said publicly that she's coming forward because she felt like now was the time to reclaim her narrative. Of course the question on everyone's mind is, does this have to do with Hillary Clinton? And one could argue that she's getting out ahead of it.

CORNISH: That's New York Times contributor Jessica Bennett. She interviewed Monica Lewinsky ahead of her widely viewed TED Talk. Jessica, thanks so much for talking with us.

BENNETT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.