[image: one of the first selfies I ever took with a flip phone with a camera, when I was 22. My youth emphasized by the fact that there’s a giant teddy bear in the background. Mostly I’m just thankful I’m not making a duck face, I don’t think that was a thing then.]
Yesterday I listened to Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk on shame in the digital age. The talk is really very excellent. In the first few minutes of listening I realized that in my mind, Lewinsky was neatly packaged up and described just as the media had presented her to me in 1998. I had received her public shaming and taken it at face value. Not something I’ve thought about much in the years since 1998, but were her name to come up, the first thing I would think would be about her poor choices. I am so thankful that I’ve had the chance to hear her speak for herself and to adjust my perception of her.
I have no personal experience with the type and intensity of public shame that she experienced, but early on in the talk she says, “Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22? . . . At 22, a few of you may have also taken wrong turns and fallen in love with the wrong person.”
She made a common mistake for those in their 20s. One I made: falling in love with the wrong person. While our contexts and results are worlds apart, her story resonates on some level. While Monica’s shame was on display for literally the entire globe, mine was mostly private in comparison. Mine was in no way the “digital shame” she talks about. Yet, hearing her compassion for herself was comforting.
Lewinsky describes the way she was branded by the media, ” Now, I admit I made mistakes. . . I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman.’ I was seen by many but actually known by few. And I get it: it was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.”
I once had one of those names thrown at me – one time, by one person. And I owned it for years – secretly, privately, shamefully- because I thought it was true. The last line of that quotation is haunting and heart-breaking. It is easy to remember a time I was “once unbroken.”
It took me years to realize I had to move forward, that going back to that time before brokenness was impossible.
The timing of hearing this talk and my intense emotional connection to Lewinsky’s compassion for her 22 year old self is not without significance.
In a few days I will turn the age my much-older first boyfriend was when we met 12 years ago. I was 20, he 32. It was a toxic relationship in many ways. I’ve only really been free for about four years.
I know I give weird importance to numbers and dates, so I expected this birthday to be odd. And it is. Mostly though: I keep thinking about how much of an adult 32 is. I keep thinking about how much life I’ve lived, how much I know compared to what a 20 year old knows.
Part of me was hoping I would somehow better understand what happened, how my trusting heart got so battered, when I arrived to the point of 32 years worth of knowledge.
But I find I have gained no empathetic insight. Instead I am met with the stark truth: My brain and all its basic functions have developed; I’ve had time to work out much of my baggage so I can avoid throwing it on others; I did my time sitting on a couch in an therapist’s office; I’ve learned about relationships and what it actually means to invest in someone’s life; I know to be truthful and honest and kind.
There is no plausible youthful naïveté excuse here at 32. We know better.
Surely, he must have learned similar things in his 32 years before we met. He had the time to learn.
And so now, so many years later when the damage done by his carelessness still impacts my life – his disregard for my value and worth seems all the more brazen when I’ve arrived at 32 and realize that one definitely knows better by now. I can no longer convincingly blame a sense of “youth” for his reckless, abusive behaviors. As of it were ever an excuse to begin with.
And, somehow, this is freeing. Shame is worth fighting -because no one deserves to be remembered or to remember themselves by the things that bring them the greatest shame. Somehow this knowledge of what it is to be 32 lessens the shame I feel for getting trapped in that spiral for so long. I can own my own mistakes, my rationalization of red fags. I can critique a culture that seemed to groom me for such a relationship. But I can also name the actions of others that were wrong.
I can say, “He should have known better. He should have behaved better. My 20 year old heart, naive and gullible it was, should have been safe in the hands of someone who had 32 years of wisdom and life.” It wasn’t, and I’m not entirely to blame for that.
I can live free of shame.