If I have learned anything since then, it is that you cannot run awayfrom who you are or from how you’ve been shaped by your experiences.Instead, you must integrate your past and present. As Salman Rushdieobserved after the fatwa was issued against him, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it,rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as timeschange, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” Ihave been working toward this realization for years. I have been tryingto find that power—a particularly Sisyphean task for a person who hasbeen gaslighted.
To be blunt, I was diagnosed several years ago with post-traumaticstress disorder, mainly from the ordeal of having been publicly outedand ostracized back then. My trauma expedition has been long, arduous,painful, and expensive. And it’s not over. (I like to joke that mytombstone will read, MUTATIS MUTANDIS—“With Changes Being Made.”)
I’ve lived for so long in the House of Gaslight, clinging to myexperiences as they unfolded in my 20s.
But as I find myself reflecting on what happened, I’ve also come tounderstand how my trauma has been, in a way, a microcosm of a larger,national one. Both clinically and observationally, something fundamentalchanged in our society in 1998, and it is changing again as we enter thesecond year of the Trump presidency in apost-Cosby-Ailes-O’Reilly-Weinstein-Spacey-Whoever-Is-Next world. TheStarr investigation and the subsequent impeachment trial of Bill Clintonamounted to a crisis that Americans arguably endured collectively—someof us, obviously, more than others. It was a shambolic morass of ascandal that dragged on for 13 months, and many politicians and citizensbecame collateral damage—along with the nation’s capacity for mercy,measure, and perspective.
Certainly, the events of that year did not constitute a war or aterrorist attack or a financial recession. They didn’t constitute anatural catastrophe or a medical pandemic or what experts refer to as“Big T” traumas. But something had shifted nonetheless. And even afterthe Senate voted in 1999 to acquit President Clinton on two articles ofimpeachment, we could not escape the sense of upheaval and partisandivision that lingered, settled in, and stayed.
Maybe you remember or have heard stories about how “the scandal”saturated television and radio; newspapers, magazines, and the Internet;Saturday Night Live and the Sunday-morning opinion programs;dinner-party conversation and watercooler discussions; late-nightmonologues and political talk shows (definitely the talk shows). In TheWashington Post alone, there were 125 articles written about thiscrisis—in just the first 10 days. Many parents felt compelled todiscuss sexual issues with their children earlier than they might havewanted to. They had to explain why “lying”—even if the president didit—was not acceptable behavior.
The press was navigating unexplored terrain, too. Anonymous sourcesseemed to emerge almost daily with new (and often false or meaningless)revelations. There was a new commingling of traditional news, talkradio, tabloid television, and online rumor mills (fake news, anyone?).With the introduction of the World Wide Web (in 1992-93) and two newcable news networks (Fox News and MSNBC in 1996), the lines began toblur between fact and opinion, news and gossip, private lives and publicshaming. The Internet had become such a propulsive force driving theflow of information that when the Republican-led Judiciary Committee ofthe House of Representatives decided to publish Ken Starr’s commission’s“findings” online—just two days after he had delivered them—itmeant that (for me personally) every adult with a modem couldinstantaneously peruse a copy and learn about my private conversations,my personal musings (lifted from my home computer), and, worse yet, mysex life.
Americans young and old, red and blue, watched day and night. We watcheda beleaguered president and the embattled and often disenchanted membersof his administration as they protected him. We watched a First Lady andFirst Daughter move through the year with grit and grace. We watched aspecial prosecutor get pilloried (though some thought he deserved it).We watched an American family—my family—as a mother was forced totestify against her child and as a father was forced to take hisdaughter to be fingerprinted at the Federal Building. We watched thewholesale dissection of a young, unknown woman—me—who, due to legalquarantine, was unable to speak out on her own behalf.
How, then, to get a handle, today, on what exactly happened back then?