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Monica Lewinsky’s Purgatory

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Ryan Lash/TED CC

Sophie Caldecott - published on 04/07/15

Relentlessly and cruelly shamed, she's already paid her price

“It is September of 1998,” Monica Lewinsky tells us in

; “I’m sitting in a windowless office room inside the office of the Independent Council… listening to the sound of my voice, my voice on surreptitiously taped phone calls that a supposed friend had made the year before. I’m here because I’ve been legally required to personally authenticate all 20 hours of taped conversation. […] Scared and mortified, I listen; listen as I prattle on about the flotsam and jetsam of the day, listen as I confess my love for the President and, of course, my heartbreak; listen to my sometimes catty, sometimes churlish, sometimes silly self being cruel, unforgiving, uncouth; listen deeply, deeply ashamed to the worst version of myself, a self I don’t even recognize.”

The experience she describes is probably as near to purgatory on earth as you’ll ever find. Her situation was a modern day re-enactment of the Scarlet Letter, a woman branded for life by a culture that has turned her name into a byword for sex and scandal without any thought of the woman behind the name.

Lewinsky was not unique in making a life-altering mistake at the age of 22, but unlike her, most of us don’t have to confront our faults so directly – not until we get to purgatory, anyway. Then we will see clearly, with all of the glory and horror that such clear sight entails. We will understand things we have striven our entire lives to understand, and we will see ourselves exactly as we are, free from all self-deception. It is bound to be painful; after all, one of the most difficult experiences in life is coming face to face with the hurt we have caused someone else, that awful moment as the realization hits you that your words or actions have had a harmful effect on someone.

Some people do seem to go through at least part of their purgatory on earth, and they deserve respect because they have been through a trial by fire that most of us have been spared. In his book on French life in the reign of Louis XIV, The Splendid Century, W. H. Lewis describes another such example. When the King’s favor passed from his mistress Louise de la Vallière to another woman, Vallière (who was still in love with the King) was forced to sit outside the room where the King’s trysts would happen so that public suspicion wouldn’t fall upon the new mistress, who had “a troublesome husband." As W. H. Lewis writes, “Small wonder that when at last [Vallière] summoned up courage to enter religion, the unsentimental Carmelites said that she had done much to expiate her sins in the last five years she had spent at Court.”

Stone throwing has become a lot easier in the age of the Internet. That’s not to say that the Internet is evil, rather that it is, like everything else in life, what you make of it; it reflects the best and the worst of human nature. Stone throwing happened before the time of Christ, and it has continued to happen ever since, under various different guises. It happens in online newspaper articles and on blogs, it happens in endless strings of comments on photos and videos, it happens on Twitter, under trending hash tags. It’s easier than ever to deceive yourself about the real impact that your words and actions have when you’re sitting alone behind a computer screen cloaked in anonymity, easy to forget that the web is far from a ‘virtual’ world and is, in fact, populated with living, breathing people.

The so-called "Lewinsky Scandal" was one of the first big news stories to be broken by the Internet. A few weeks after the transcripts of her taped phone calls were released to Congress, the audiotapes were aired on TV, and significant portions made available to anyone, anywhere in the world, online. As she describes herself, “The public humiliation was excrutiating; life was almost unbearable. This was not something that happened with regularity back in 1998, and by ‘this’ I mean the stealing of people’s private words, actions, conversations, or photos, and then making them public, public without consent, public without context, and public without compassion.” Here was a case of modern-day stone throwing on a global scale, and, as Lewinsky says, it was all too easy for the average onlooker “to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.”


By now we’re all pretty used to famous misuses of technology, whether in the case of female celebrities who are threatened by faceless misogynists claiming to have possession of stolen nude photos, or public figures who have had their private phone conversations tapped and their emails hacked. But with the advent of social media, it isn’t just celebrities who are the targets of digital abuse; the devastating impact of cyber bullying is clear from many instances of teen suicide. Apparently, the UK non-profit ChildLine has experienced an 87% increase in calls and emails relating to cyber bullying in recent years. This is why Monica Lewinsky’s story matters – as she says, “online we’ve got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis.”

A few years ago, a British journalist discovered that the troll who had been pursuing him with vile death threats and disturbing images for three years was his friend’s 17-year-old son; it turned out the teen was just thinking of it all “like a game thing." Cases like these make it very clear, if your own experience hasn’t already, that it’s a lack of empathy and an inability to see the people you are interacting with online as part of reality that is at the root of the problem. We need to teach our children that relating to someone online is just like relating to someone face-to-face.

The digital world has developed so fast that it seems to have left our social morality behind. Lewinsky’s message, that “we need to return to a long-held value of compassion,” is sorely needed. It is high time we made compassion, mercy, and empathy central to our online lives.


Sophie Caldecotthas a BA in Literature and an MA in Magazine Journalism from City University, London. She is a freelance writer and Headline Writer for Verily Magazine, and is in the process of founding a website called A Better Place Journal.

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