How To Survive a Public Shaming With Katie Hill
S1: Do you remember when that kind of hit you, where all of a sudden you just felt shame?
S2: Oh, the moment is completely unforgettable. It’s when my staff walked into my office with just completely ashen faces and turned her phone towards me. And it was it was one of the naked photos.
S3: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Duhigg.
S4: Each week on the show, we try to solve listeners problems, and usually those struggles are pretty relatable, their family conflicts or worse troubles or how to lose weight. But this week’s listener is going through an experience that very few people can relate to.
S5: My name is Katie Hill, former congresswoman from California and currently the author of She Will Rise.
S4: If you know the name Katie Hill, it’s probably not just because she was elected to Congress in twenty eighteen at the age of 31. Katie was one of the youngest women ever elected to the House of Representatives, and she did so by flipping a historically red district in California to blue. She was brought into Nancy Pelosi’s circle and she seemed destined for a bright future in the Democratic Party.
S1: But then, just a year after she was elected, everything began to fall apart.
S2: My estranged ex husband, he decided to release naked images of me. And so those were those were published on Red State, which is a right wing blog, and in The Daily Mail. And it revealed that I had had a relationship with a woman who had worked on my campaign. And ultimately it just kept coming and it kept coming.
S1: These photos, they dribbled out for days on blogs and social media, creating this huge firestorm. She was a rising star in the Democratic Party. Nude pictures of Hill and the campaign staffer were published online who identifies as bisexual. She was noticeably absent from the halls of Congress today. To some people, Katie was the embodiment of cyber exploitation, a victim of a vengeful ex-husband. Others, though, said Katie was a victimizer herself. The House Ethics Committee announced that it was investigating Katie for being involved with a male member of her congressional staff, which is an allegation that Katie has and continues to deny. But she did admit to having a romantic relationship with a female subordinate who had worked on her campaign, and that wasn’t technically against congressional rules, but it seemed uncomfortably close to situations of other bosses who had slept with their employees, indicating all of this, the attacks in the nonstop questions from reporters, it all felt completely overwhelming.
S6: My initial reaction was, you know, of course I can survive this, you know, especially if you look at who our president is and just so many scandals that especially male politicians have survived. But it was just this sense that it would never end. I started to feel more and more like a like a pariah, like people couldn’t trust me. And just this overwhelming weight of knowing that so many people had seen these photos and had this horrible view of who were what I am that was not consistent with the way that I saw myself and the work that I was trying to do, that it just felt so insurmountable.
S3: So Katie retreated at first, holing up in her apartment, and then eventually she resigned her seat in Congress.
S5: To my family, my friends, my staff, my colleagues, my mentors, to everyone who is supported and believed in me, I am so, so sorry. And to every little girl who looked up to me, I hope that one day you can forgive me.
S1: It’s been a year now since that all happened.
S7: It’s taken me, you know, every bit of time since then to sort of internalize that and try to figure out how to how to kind of reclaim ownership of myself and my image and and what that means for me. And it just felt like something that I could never get away from.
S1: And she still can’t get away from it. Just hours after we talked to her, in fact, there was an announcement that Katie’s story was being turned into a Hollywood movie starring Elisabeth Moss. But even then, there was this flurry of controversy when someone identifying themselves as Katie’s former staff posted a tweet saying how disappointed they were about the movie and and telling people not to glorify Katie. For over a year, it’s felt to Katie like she can’t escape, like everything she does simply serves up a new dose of public shame. How do you survive that nagging worry that every stranger you pass has seen naked pictures of you?
S3: How do you go on when your privacy has been violated this way? On this week’s show, How to Survive a public shaming. After the break, we’ll bring on an expert, Jon Ronson, to talk to Katie about her situation and about how others have gotten past scandals of their own. Stay with us.
S1: To understand what happened to Katie Hill, it’s worth deconstructing how most public shaming is unfold these days to people who are both famous and and those who aren’t. So we turn to Jon Ronson, a British journalist and author and a documentary filmmaker.
S8: But I’m here to talk about a book I wrote about public shaming. So you’ve been publicly shamed before we talked about Katie’s situation.
S1: Jon wanted to tell us about another story that sort of shows how these public shaming play out. The woman in this story felt like most of the world had turned against her overnight. Her name is Lindsay Stone.
S8: She was that lovely person. She worked with adults with learning difficulties. She loved her job. They all loved her. She took the a trip to Washington, D.C. And she had this sort of douchy joke that she would share with her friends, that they would post on Facebook photographs of them doing the opposite to what side was saying so they would smoke in front of a no smoking side or or step on the grass in front of a sign saying keep off the grass and so on. So they went to Arlington.
S1: That’s Arlington Cemetery, where we bury American soldiers. And at the cemetery, there’s a sign that says silence and respect. And so Lindsey took a jokey photo like she always does.
S8: Lindsey took a photo of herself pretending to shout and flip the finger, put it on Facebook, and then a month later, it just blew up.
S9: Photo backlash. This snapshot of a local woman is getting her a lot of heat online and with her employer newsletter. Five’s Kimberly Bookman is live in L.A. with the story.
S8: And she stayed in every night getting more and more depressed. Anxious insomnia shouldn’t go out for a year and a half. Suicidal. Oh, my gosh. Yeah, she was alone. She was completely alone. She would sit there every night reading every comment written about her. I read some of the comments that she got. Lindsay Stone hates the military and hate soldiers who have died in foreign wars. You should rot in hell. Just pure evil Jesus.
S1: And I think I think for people listening, it’s very easy to say, like, oh, we’ll just stop reading the comments.
S8: But for for Lindsay, reading the comments was like her imperative. I talk to Monica Lewinsky about this once. You know why she found herself reading the comments and why so many same people do. She said, I guess I was in shock. Maybe there’s a twisted need to read the comments as a form of self-preservation to be prepared for what may come down the pike like Lindsay Stone and Monica Lewinsky.
S1: Katie Hill also read all the comments that people posted online about her, tried not to, but yeah, right.
S5: And I do wonder how much of my decision was really impacted by, you know, the toll that it takes on you mentally, that you’re not even making clear decisions. You’re making ones that are based on what feels like a survival mandate made of like, how can I keep going through this? How can I how can I just keep facing this every single day?
S1: What was the lowest moment for you? Like like what was the sort of rock bottom moment during that period?
S7: I was suicidal. I, I was you know, I was drinking a bunch of wine by myself and I basically had kind of locked myself in my apartment during all of this because I didn’t, you know, feel like I could I could face anybody. I was taking a bath. And I you know, I basically had a very close experience with suicide. And that was kind of the moment when I when I also knew that this wasn’t something that was sustainable for me. And I that was kind of what I knew that I I couldn’t keep going with this.
S1: When you decided to resign from Congress, did that feel like did that feel like you had a decision or did it feel like that was the only option?
S7: Um, it was a decision, but it also was just a very isolating thing. And I know there were these threats. There was they were saying that there were just hundreds of images and text messages and there was a file, basically a sabotage file that that hadn’t gone public yet.
S1: Right. Just a few images that had come out.
S7: Right. So I guess that’s why it felt like there wasn’t a real option.
S1: You know, it sounds like now that you’re in a place where you are surviving this scandal, but but obviously your career as a as a congresswoman didn’t survive it. Yeah. When you look back. Do you wish you had done anything differently?
S7: Um. I guess I wish that I had given it more time before I decided to step down, like maybe I had, you know, stepped away for a bit, said that I’m going to take some time with this.
S10: But you know, the truth is, I feel like since I resigned and what I’ve been doing since in terms of trying to help other women get elected and that I have sort of the it gives me sort of a clean slate. Right. That that I know that I took the. You know, the the ultimate punishment, as it were, right, I actually this happens still sometimes there are certain people who, like, reviewed my book and said, well, you know, she doesn’t apologize enough during it. And I’m like, how much more can you apologize? Like, what more can you ask for than the fact that I stepped down?
S11: What do you do when you’ve already apologized to when you’ve already suffered? But still people want more blood. What do you do when it feels like the entire country won’t ever let you forget what happened? We’ll look at another case study in public shaming that might offer some lessons after this quick break.
S4: If you like this episode, you might want to check out another episode called How to Say the Right Thing at the Worst Time, which features a woman who lost her brother in law to covid-19 and wrote in asking how to comfort her sister. From a distance, we turn to a grief therapist who experienced her own tragic loss and learned what to say and what not to say to someone who is grieving. You can find it in all of our episodes by subscribing for Free to our podcast feed.
S1: We’re back with Katie Hill and our expert, Jon Ronson. Jon had told us that there’s this one particular scandal he studied that reminded him a lot of Katie’s situation.
S8: It’s kind of an extraordinary story because you would think this was a story where somebody would never survive the shaming. And not only did Max Mosley survive it, he survived it with with aplomb. He actually ended up being more popular after his scandal that he’d been before.
S1: The person Jon was talking about, Max Mosley, is a Formula One racing executive in Britain, and his scandal happened over a decade ago.
S8: He wasn’t a particularly well known person, but what was most famous about him was his surname, because Max Mosley’s father, Oswald Mosley, is one of Britain’s most notorious figures. He was the head of the British Union of Fascists. Hitler. What sort? Moseley’s wedding. And so Max is his son. Yes. Max Mosley says that his son and at first he he did pretty well and in unshackling himself from the scandalous name. So all was fine in Max Mosley’s life until March 2008. He went to the stand out on the front cover of the News of the World with a headline. Formula One boss Max Mosley has thick Nazi orgy with five hookers. So somebody had secretly filmed Max Mosley, in the words of the News of the World, romping with five hookers at a depraved Nazi style orgy in a torture dungeon. Oh, my gosh. Yeah, this was kind of rough, as you would think, given given his family history. This was like a slam dunk for the News of the World. But then something happened. Firstly, he thought, everybody knows sex is weird. And then at a second thought was that the News of the World had made a fatal mistake because while the orgy was definitely German tinged, they were wearing German uniforms. It was a Nazi themed. There was no there were no swastikas. So Max Soos, the News of the World and the News of the World. Barristers and editors were forced to go through every frame of the video footage and there was nothing Nazi whatsoever.
S1: And he ends up winning the suit.
S8: And in coming out of this, like more popular than ever before, more popular than ever, he became a kind of hero for for taking on the bullies of of the tabloids and, yeah, refusing to just refusing to be shamed. Our shame worthiness lies in the space between who we are and how we present ourselves to the world. As soon as Max Mosley said, yep, that’s me, that’s me. In those photographs I detest and I don’t feel in the slightest bit ashamed about it, he narrowed the gap. And why did Max survive when so many other people don’t survive? What were the ingredients? One of them, I think, was that he just he refused to feel ashamed.
S3: So if we go just by Max Mosley’s playbook, our first rule for surviving a scandal could be this refuse to feel ashamed. But of course, that’s much easier said than done. And it can be really complicated because just figuring out if you ought to feel ashamed is sometimes really hard, especially when you’re in the middle of something like this.
S1: And I want to make clear, Kitty, we are not comparing you to Maximus and non Nazi German themed origins. Right. But but it it does seem like there’s there’s an echo here of what you went through of someone taking private photos and and making them public. Yes. So similar thing. Right. When you hear that story, Katie, what do you think?
S5: It’s absolutely accurate. If you refuse to be shamed then or you refuse to be ashamed, then you can’t really be shamed. And I think there’s a part of it that has to do with do you feel guilty about whatever it is that has happened? And I often think about that in terms of whether if I hadn’t had, you know, this relationship that was with somebody that, you know, had worked on my team, and if there wasn’t this power dynamic element to it, then, you know, would I have felt any shame at all? And I’d like to think that the answer would be no. But I don’t know. I mean, I yeah. I mean, I think. Part of my comeback, as it were, is trying to own that and say, no, I’m not going to be ashamed of this. This is a relationship that I had that I at the time did not feel was problematic. And the fact that it’s seen as a problem is not coming from somebody who felt like a victim, but as somebody from somebody who was vindictive and somebody who was trying to make it a problem to make sure I understood what you’re saying.
S1: It’s because the the relationship you had with with someone who was working on your campaign. And so so there were these questions about was it appropriate for you as her boss to be in a relationship with her? And that that that gave you a little bit of a feeling of of maybe there is something shameful, maybe they’re right in some corner of your mind. And that makes it harder to say, you know what, like I didn’t do anything wrong. Yeah, a few guys. Yeah. John, what do you think about that? I mean, it’s a lot easier to say. I am not going to feel ashamed.
S8: I’m not going to let this get to me than to actually do it takes an enormous strength of character to transcend the massive amount of humiliation you’ll feel when naked photographs are suddenly all over the place. It does take it takes a lot to to get over it, which is, you know, a reason why it’s so impressive that, you know, Katie’s responding in the way that she is, because, of course, you know, for most people, you were an outline. You were like an outline in a crime scene. And now what you’re doing is filling in the outline with with with nuance and humanity and so on.
S1: This is another lesson when we bring nuance to a situation, when we help people see us as a real person rather than some object of scandal, that’s at least some small way of reclaiming who we are. That’s one of the reasons why Katie decided to write a book to let people know who she is beyond those photos or what they might have heard. But, of course, Katie faces a challenge that Max Mosley never did.
S5: She’s a woman, you know, most people who who sort of just refuse to be shamed or refused to to bow to any kind of scandal, they they are men. I mean, I’m having a hard time thinking of. Of a woman, part of me wonders how much of that is that men are, you know, there’s a there’s an amount of confidence of we belong in these positions of power where women are new to it and are therefore we have this we deal with imposter syndrome on a day to day basis anyway. And so when something like this happens, then you do face this question of like, well, maybe I shouldn’t have been here in the first place.
S1: Data backs this up. Political scientists have found that women are more harshly punished for any kind of perceived or real unethical behavior, much more so than men. There’s a real double standard in society, particularly when there’s a scandalous rumor that’s floating around. John, let me ask if you had if you had known Katie while she was going through this and had been her adviser, based on all the research you’ve done and how much you’ve thought about this, what would you have been telling her to do in the days and weeks after those photos appeared?
S8: I’m really impressed with how you said, you know, is there a woman who’s been in a similar situation who survived in a similar way? And the obvious woman comes into my head is Monica Lewinsky. She was ridiculed and nobody was blaming Clinton. Everybody was she was blaming Monica. And it was all misogyny and objectification. Because the fact is, at the root of your situation, Katie, was it was a consensual sex scandal. You were a victim of revenge porn. And as I say, if you’re a man, a man would survive.
S1: Katie, let me ask let’s say Jon had been with you when this news first broke and he said, look, here’s my advice. Do it. Max Mosley did go out there and say, yeah, you know what? Those are photos of me. I am a bisexual woman who’s in a consensual relationship with with a woman and with my husband. And I have nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s I don’t know. I don’t understand what you guys are talking about. Yeah. First of all, do you think you could have done that?
S5: You know, it’s interesting because I think that was the piece of advice that I never got. Right. That was that just basically saying don’t apologize and and just say, you know, just to say this is what it is. And I’m not sorry. I think that’s the reason. And again, I can’t help but wonder how much of it has to do with the timing. You know, like I had been I had been one of the people who called her Al Franken resignation.
S10: And I’d been one of the people who was very outspoken about how we need to hold people to the same standards within our own party as the other.
S8: And can I ask I could ask another question, given everything that you’ve been through, would you have acted differently about the Al Franken situation?
S5: I think it’s possible. You know, I waited a little while on Al Franken, and I think the part that moved me with him was that there were so many women who are coming forward.
S12: You know, when you when you have that much of a pattern, it’s hard to to dispute. But, yeah, I do think I think it’s possible that I would have said that it needs to that maybe resignation wasn’t wasn’t the only option and that perhaps more of a, you know, a genuine apology and an attempt to make amends is the appropriate response. Because I think that since this all is so, so new for us, just in general in terms of asking for men to to be accountable for these kinds of things, that, yeah, perhaps they did jump jump the gun with that.
S1: Here’s our next big idea. If you’re living through a personal scandal, it can be helpful and really healing to point out when there’s hypocrisy, to point out how society is treating you differently because you’re a woman, how other people, even presidents, have been let off the hook for far worse.
S13: But in that same spirit, sometimes that means we also have to acknowledge our own hypocrisy, acknowledge that in the wake of having gone through something awful ourselves, we realized that we might have judged others too harshly in the past or that we didn’t look closely enough for their nuances.
S5: Because I guess that’s the other concern, is that if you don’t feel guilt or remorse or or questioning yourself and at least a little bit, then what does that make you? So I don’t I don’t know that there’s a right answer, but I do know that no one, no matter what you’ve done, deserves this level of public shaming that has become fairly normal.
S8: What the reason by public shaming went out of fashion in the 50s and public punishments was outlawed, as far as I could tell from going through the archives was because the great American thinkers of the time, like Benjamin Rush, were arguing that they were too brutal. You know, I found a I found a woman who was being publicly whipped for adultery and she was pleading with the judge to change her sentence. And it was for her to be whipped in private. In public. Yeah. So it is it is worthy of thoughts that we are routinely doing something these days that was stopped for.
S1: Being too brutal in the eighteen fifties, the thing is, if you genuinely feel like you’ve done something wrong, you should apologize and you should make amends. But what John is saying is there’s a better way to achieve justice than intense public shaming. Let me ask Katie, what advice would you give if a if a woman came to you and said, you know, I’m going through something similar and I, I have all my crisis consultants, I know what to do for outward facing, you know, PR. But like, I, I feel suicidal. I feel terrible. I feel so guilty and so self-loathing. Yeah. What advice would you give her about how to survive this?
S5: You say you’re not alone, but you need to have somebody there with you. That’s to me the key is that you literally need a best friend or a family member who’s going to be with you constantly and just love you no matter what. Did you have that I did. And I if you know, if I hadn’t, I don’t I don’t know what I would have done.
S8: I’ll tell you something I said a lot of shamed people do to get better. They they reach out to other shamed people.
S5: It’s true. Monica Lewinsky reached out to me and that was a huge help for me. Right.
S1: What did Monica tell you?
S5: Stay strong. You’ll get through it and you’re not alone. And, you know, I feel like I tried to pass that forward to when Andrew Gillham had his scandal. I reached out to him and he’s become a friend since then.
S12: And there’s just there’s not a ton of people who you who have been through something similar. And you really do look for support.
S4: Here’s the last thing. Lean on other people, not just your support system, but those who have been through similar situations who will understand what you’re going through and how the public’s response can often outlast the scandal itself. And when you see someone else hurting, reach out to them. Let them know that they aren’t alone. Because at the end of the day, we help other people and ourselves by using empathy to overcome shame, and that goes for all of us, even those of us who are just bystanders gawking at a scandal as it unfolds. We should try to be empathetic to which sometimes means not piling on and refusing to participate in the shaming.
S1: We’ve been talking about how to survive a scandal as if that burden exists on the person who’s at the center of the scandal. But maybe the real answer is how to survive a scandal is that the rest of us stop looking at the photos, that we stop going on social media and kind of gleefully taking joy in someone else’s embarrassment and shame.
S8: It’s completely understandable why a bunch of people on social media thought we can better the actual justice system, particularly when it comes to sexual assaults, you know, where the real justice system is so powerless that unfortunately, you know, with our new type of justice, we’ve brought an awful lot of problems. So I think really the way to get beyond this is for shamers to be thinking twice about their actions to be may be waiting a few days because so frequently, a couple of days after we’ve told somebody to shreds, new information comes out, which makes us realize that we kind of got it all wrong. Or maybe, as in Katie’s case, the story was significantly more nuanced than originally seemed. So my best advice for creating a world where savings are better, unless horrific, is for people to just wait, to just be patient and curious and hear more about the person at the heart of the transgression, rather than feel buoyed by administering instant cold judgment.
S1: Kitty, how are you doing now? It’s been a year since where suicide was something that you were seriously contemplating. How do you feel mentally now?
S5: Thank you. I feel really good, to be honest with you. I it’s just been such a traumatizing year generally. But I guess one of the things is it’s brought me closer to my family and it’s made me really appreciate life and how short it is and how, you know, it’s it’s not one thing that defines you that you you get to make meaning every single day.
S14: And, you know, that’s something that I plan on working on.
S15: Thank you to Katie Hill for sharing her story with us. You should look for her book. She will rise. And thank you to Jon Ronson for sharing his research. His fascinating book is named So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. And we also wanted to note if you or anyone you know are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide or need help immediately, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time at one 800 273 talk. That’s one 800 273 8255. Or you can find help at Suicide Prevention Lifeline dot org. Are you trying to deal with something that’s happened in your past? If so, you should send us a note at how to add slate dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. How does executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produce the show in Merritt Jacob as our engineer? Our theme music is by Hannah’s Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of Audio. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.