One of the unexpected gifts of the #MeToo movement has been the chance to reckon with some of the most important stories about gender and power of the past few decades—the ones we collectively flubbed at the time. “In today’s atmosphere, there would be more people who would understand my story,” Anita Hill told an audience in December. Now comes Monica Lewinsky’s tender, searching essay in Vanity Fair in which she concludes the same thing: “I don’t believe I would have felt so isolated had it all happened today.”
If there’s news in the essay, which arrives 20 years after Lewinsky’s name became a late-night punchline, it’s that she seems to be rethinking some of the ways she has written and spoken in the past about her relationship with Bill Clinton. Writing in the same magazine four years ago, Lewinsky sounded confident about her agency. “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship,” she wrote in 2014.
In the new essay, she sounds less sure about the brightness of that line. The #MeToo movement, she writes, has made her see how “problematic” the relationship was in the first place. Yes, she consented, but “the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege.” What does consent mean, exactly, in a situation where one party is a 22-year-old intern and the other is literally the most powerful man in the world? The relationship was not assault, but it was a “gross abuse of power.”
The essay is a testament to Lewinsky’s strength and sensitivity but also to the way the #MeToo movement keeps nudging at the borders of our understanding of the relationship between sex and power. It is not just about catching (alleged) criminals like Harvey Weinstein but about interrogating all kinds of negative friction in relationships between men and women—bad sex and creepiness and power imbalances. Lewinsky, it seems, is riding that learning curve along with the rest of the country.
She writes that she was diagnosed several years ago with post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming mainly from her public ostracizing in the late 1990s. Years of therapy are practically visible on the page, with the mentions of shame and reframing and crisis and healing. “You cannot run away from who you are or from how you’ve been shaped by your experiences,” she writes. “Instead, you must integrate your past and present.”
But the most intriguing bit of therapeutic insight is when Lewinsky describes the president as a kind of national father figure. Citing cognitive linguist George Lakoff, she argues that Americans often cram their understanding of their country into family metaphors—Founding Fathers, “sons and daughters” sent to war. The impeachment debacle was not just a personally disastrous event, Lewinsky writes. It was also a “family” drama, exacerbated by Clinton’s role as patriarch. Since Clinton himself was the cause (or a cause) of the trauma, he could not perform the fatherly role of soothing and stabilizing. Our “Nurturer in Chief,” she writes, became a kind of absent father.
It’s worth comparing Lewinsky’s thoughtful neo-Freudianism to another recent meditation on presidents as father figures: Ivanka Trump’s answer this weekend to an interviewer who asked whether she believes the accounts of the women who have accused her father of sexual misconduct. “I believe my father, I know my father,” the senior White House adviser told NBC News. “So I think I have that right as a daughter to believe my father.”
Ivanka’s assertion that she has the “right” to believe her dad reads as a telling slip: It’s not that she naturally believes him or can’t help but believe him. No one says, “I have a right to believe the Earth is round.” Rather, she is claiming a kind of religious liberty, to believe without evidence, or in this case, against evidence. She has placed a bet on her father, and she stands to lose a great deal if her trust has been misplaced.
In arguing that she shouldn’t have to answer uncomfortable questions about her boss because he also happens to be her dad, Ivanka seems to be trying to exploit the exact cultural impulse that Lewinsky laid out in her essay: our desire to view the president, however un-nurturing he may be, as a kind of national patriarch whom we should know and trust and love despite his flaws. Ivanka, by testifying to the purity of her filial faith in Trump’s goodness, sets up an annoying tautology; it’s a strange twist on the “as a father of daughters” crutch that many male politicians attempt to lean on as evidence of their own feminism. She seems to want to frame the question of Trump’s sexual misconduct, to borrow Lewinsky’s words, as a “family drama” unrelated to the broader cultural reckoning about sex and power. She is attempting to build a barrier between the personal and the political, after she and her family have spent the past several years running roughshod over the traditional boundaries between a president’s family and his staff.