A simple question
“Should we get another bottle?” Cheryl Strayed asked after pouring what little wine was left on my empty glass. A few things about me before we go further: I’m not the kind of woman who will say no to French wine, ever, and I’m a big Strayed fan —me and a lot of people, it seems: having been on the New York Times bestselling list for a hundred and nine weeks with her memoir WILD, having authored an essay collection that has everyone, my tough husband included, cry their eyes out, and having her books translated into more than thirty languages around the world, it’s fair to say that a lot of people are Strayed’s fans. Have you ever shared a meal with someone you admire so much, you don’t want to breath for fear of missing out? That was me right there. Did I want another bottle? The answer was easy.
It was the other question Cheryl asked that caught me completely off guard.
We were in Chamonix, in the French Alps, studying creative writing with some big literary names in the United States. Cheryl Strayed was there to teach nonfiction. Our group of five was studying fiction under someone else’s guidance, but that didn’t keep me from emailing Strayed one morning and saying, “Care to join us for a meal this week? If you are not too busy, that is.” She wasn’t. She showed up to dinner in a beautiful knee-length gray dress, apologized for being a few minutes late, and sat on the chair beside me. A few hours and a couple of bottles in, my self-consciousness had begun to dissolve.
“Are you positive you’re not Sandra Bullock’s secret twin?” I asked Amy, the pretty brunette at the far end of the table. “You two look a lot alike,” I said.
Amy shook her head a few times. “I wish,” she said with a smile.
“Let’s go around the table,” Cheryl said. She seemed to be enjoying herself. “Who did they say you looked like growing up?”
“I probably have the most unfortunate answer here,” I said at once. “I used to straighten my hair when I was college—so they called me Monica Lewinsky.”
“And you thought that was bad?” Cheryl asked.
“Well, yes,” I said. “I mean: the way people talked about her.” I took the last sip of my wine.
Cheryl touched my arm. “All right, listen: you’re twenty-two when a tall, handsome, incredibly powerful man starts flirting with you. He says very nice things. He listens to you. He’s smart. Wouldn’t you have gone for it? I would.”
The conversation went on to Brazilian food (“Very spicy”), the wonder of little babies and hiking the French Alps, but I couldn’t shake Cheryl’s comments. She hit the nail on the head.
Yes, I would have gone for it. I had, in fact, gone for it a few times in my twenties: had done a couple of things that young women are often scrutinized for doing, whereas young men all but get a trophy. I went out with men who were committed. The cute dark haired guy in my senior year in college whose kiss was fabulous, but who only visited me late at night after dropping his cute girlfriend off at her parents. The intern who loved me but wouldn’t break up with his fiancé because if he did, “it would ruin what you and I have going” —his words. None of these men were extremely powerful politicians ruling the number one country in the world, of course; they were having trouble ruling their own lives. Cheryl Strayed didn’t know this but could have guessed that, like most people in their twenties, I did silly things, experimental things, hurtful things even, things I probably wouldn’t want to repeat. Then I moved on—got married, traveled the world, advanced in my career. I was allowed to live to my life as I damn well pleased.
Last month I came across Jessica Bennett’s essay on The New York Times about Lewinsky’s return to the spotlight. The article brought back memories of that warm night in Chamonix, when simply by being asked to put myself in someone else’s shoes, or dress, I was able to confront my own sexism, as well as the shame I carried for years for merely resembling a gorgeous, bright young woman who had been used as a scapegoat for a powerful man’s missteps. Just a simple question.
Monica Lewinsky wasn’t as lucky as me, and we all know what happened to her. Or we don’t, actually: until last year, she had hardly appeared in public for a decade. She was persecuted by the media, was judged and publicly humiliated by every American over the age of twelve. She moved to another country to escape scrutiny. “Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my mistake,” she said on her TED talk. “She should have been more careful is all,” a friend said to me on Facebook. Right. You know who else wasn’t, hmmm, careful? President Clinton. In the years following the affair, he has been assigned a number of diplomatic missions.He was named United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti in 2009. He is a public speaker in high demand and is paid incredibly high amounts of money for his appearances. His wife is Secretary of State and is running as a Democratic nominee for the presidential election in 2016. I’m sure it wasn’t all roses for them either, but if I had to guess, the reason why the Clinton’s years weren’t as murky or turbulent as Lewinsky’s, that is, the reason they didn’t have to spend the next decade hiding or apologizing for their existence is because Bill Clinton is not a woman.
Thank you, Cheryl, for the sweet reminder.
* Image: Damon Winter/The New York Times.