PHILADELPHIA – Monica Lewinsky called herself “patient zero,” the first person to ever have her reputation “completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet.”
It’s unknown what patient number Tyler Clementi was when, 12 years later, he took his own life out of embarrassment after his freshman roommate at Rutgers University secretly videotaped him kissing another man and streamed it online.
While Clementi’s death hit home with Lewinsky, it hit her mother even more.
“I wondered why,” Lewinsky said. “Eventually, it dawned on me: She was back in 1998, back to a time when I was periodically suicidal, when she might have easily lost me, when I too might have been humiliated to death.”
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In her first major public speaking engagement, at the Forbes Under 30 Summit at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Monday, Lewinsky was poised, confident and, at times, emotional, as she talked to 1,500 young leaders about reputation, cyberbullying and the online community’s “compassion deficit and empathy crisis.”
In 1995, at age 22, Lewinsky, a White House intern, began an affair with her then-boss, President Bill Clinton.
“At that time, it was my everything,” she told the crowd, that is, until the affair became public in 1998. It spurred an impeachment trial for Clinton and a public shaming for Lewinsky that made the scarlet letter appear rosy pink in contrast.
Although the media frenzy was pre-Google, pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter, Lewinsky said the traditional media were for the first time “usurped by the Internet,” especially by sites like the Drudge Report.
“Around the world this story went, a viral phenomenon that you could argue was the first moment of truly social media,” she said.
Lewinsky did not recognize the woman she was portrayed as, “the creature from the media lagoon.”
“I lost my sense of self. Lost it,” she said. “Or, I had it stolen because, in a way, it was a form of identity theft.”
Lewinsky went through anxiety, depression and self-loathing. Her mantra was: “I want to die.”
“When I ask myself how best to describe how the last 16 years have felt I always come back to that word: shame,” she said. “My own personal shame, shame that befell my family and shame that befell my country. Our country.”
Lewinsky said cyberbullying is a vast, expansive territory.
“There is no way to wrap your mind around where the humiliation ends. There are no borders,” she said. “It honestly feels like the whole world is laughing at you. I know. I lived it.”
What got her through was the compassion shown to her by her friends and family.
“We shared a lot of gallows humor,” she said. “A lot.”
Lewinsky told the room filled with young people of good repute that she was there, in part, to illustrate how delicate a construct reputation is, especially in the Internet age.
“It’s been said it takes a lifetime to build a good reputation but you can lose it in a minute,” she said. “That’s never been more true than today.”
Lewinsky said she’s chosen to speak out now because somehow – “who the hell knows how?” – she has survived one of the worst public shamings of the digital age.
“Having survived it myself, what I want to do now is help other victims of the shame game survive, too,” she said. “I want to put my suffering to good use and give purpose to my past.”
Although many attendees of the summit came into yesterday morning’s session wondering why Lewinsky was on the bill, few questioned it when she was done. She received a standing ovation.
Elaine Hsiao, 28, a Forbes 30 Under 30 winner in the Science and Health Care division, said she and her friend Leon Hong, 28, both of Los Angeles, were impressed by Lewinsky.
“It was just so personal,” Hong said. “We kind of came in here thinking, ‘Oh, why is Monica Lewinsky coming?' and then came out thinking, ‘Oh, that was the most important talk of the morning.’ ”