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I hit the computer. Time for a little self-Google. (Oh, dear reader, please do not judge.) My heart sinks. There’s an explosion on Google News. I know what this means. Whatever day I’ve planned has been jettisoned. To leave the house—and risk a photo—only ensures that the story will stay alive.
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I moved to England to study, to challenge myself, to escape scrutiny, and to reimagine my identity. My professors and fellow students at the London School of Economics were wonderful—welcoming and respectful. I had more anonymity in London, perhaps due to the fact that I spent most of my waking hours in class or buried in the library. In 2006, I graduated with a master’s in social psychology. My master’s thesis examined social bias in the courtroom and was titled “In Search of the Impartial Juror: An Exploration of Pretrial Publicity and the Third Person Effect.” I liked to joke that I was trading the blue dress for blue stockings, and the degree provided new scaffolding to hang my life experiences on. It would also prove, so I hoped, to be a gateway to a more normal life.
You could argue that in agreeing to participate in an HBO documentary called Monica in Black and White I had signed up to be shamed and publicly humiliated yet again. You might even think I would have been inured to humiliation. This encounter at Cooper Union, after all, paled in comparison with the 445-page Starr Report, which was the culmination of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s four-year investigation of the Clinton White House. It included chapter and verse about my intimate sexual activities, along with transcripts of audiotapes that chronicled many of my private conversations. But the “B.J. Queen” question—which was included in the show when it aired on HBO in 2002—sat with me for a long time after the audience left and the taping wrapped.
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With every man I date (yes, I date!), I go through some degree of 1998 whiplash. I need to be extremely circumspect about what it means to be “public” with someone. In the early years post-impeachment, I once left a front-row seat along the third-base line at a Yankees game when I learned that my date—a guy whose company I thoroughly enjoyed—was actually in another relationship. It was only a green-card marriage, but I freaked that we could be photographed together and someone might call the gossip rags. I’ve become adept at figuring out when men are interested in me for the wrong reason. Thankfully, those have been few and far between. But every man that has been special to me over the past 16 years has helped me find another piece of myself—the self that was shattered in 1998. And so, no matter the heartbreak, tears, or disenchantment, I’ll always be grateful to them.
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I would never be so presumptuous as to equate my own story with Tyler Clementi’s. After all, my public humiliation had been the result of my involvement with a world-renowned public figure—that is, a consequence of my own poor choices. But in that moment, when I felt the depths of my mother’s anguish, I wished I could have had a chance to have spoken to Tyler about how my love life, my sex life, my most private moments, my most sensitive secrets, had been broadcast around the globe. I wished I had been able to say to him that I knew a little of how it might have felt for him to be exposed before the world. And, as hard as it is to imagine surviving it, it is possible.
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Yes, I get it. Hillary Clinton wanted it on record that she was lashing out at her husband’s mistress. She may have faulted her husband for being inappropriate, but I find her impulse to blame the Woman—not only me, but herself—troubling. And all too familiar: with every marital indiscretion that finds its way into the public sphere—many of which involve male politicians—it always seems like the woman conveniently takes the fall. Sure, the Anthony Weiners and Eliot Spitzers do what they need to do to look humiliated on cable news. They bow out of public life for a while, but they inevitably return, having put it all behind them. The women in these imbroglios return to lives that are not so easily repaired.
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In September of 2010, the culmination of these experiences began to snap into a broader context for me. A phone conversation with my mother shifted the lens through which I viewed my world. We were discussing the tragic death of Tyler Clementi. Tyler, you will recall, was an 18-year-old Rutgers freshman who was secretly streamed via Webcam kissing another man. Days later, after being derided and humiliated on social media, he committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.