If Monica Lewinsky is living proof of anything, it's that suffering is good for the soul.
The barest glimpse of her in HBO's new documentary, "Monica in Black and White," is sufficient to reveal the startling effects of her remarkable transformation.
With the restrictions in her immunity agreement with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr now expired, Lewinsky is free to discuss openly her experiences in the Clinton White House; her relationship with Linda Tripp, the former Pentagon assistant who secretly tape-recorded her conversations; and her interactions with the FBI, among many other details of her drag through the Washington mud pits.
The film was shot over three days last spring, when Lewinsky fielded ostensibly unscripted, uncensored questions from students in the auditorium of New York City's Cooper Union University. The result is a surprisingly intimate exercise in the oral tradition, one that attempts to recover more than carrion and scandal from a political fiasco.
There are few factual revelations here, no shouting matches or testy standoffs, though a few rather untoward questions do lend a sense of authenticity to what must have otherwise been a fairly controlled atmosphere. Still, even in tears, Lewinsky is more poised than we have yet seen her.
One audience member, for example, asks Lewinsky what it's like to be known as the queen of oral sex. Her response is more reflective and strong-minded than anything the old Lewinsky would have ventured: "It's hurtful and it's insulting."
Boom. Take that.
A wide-eyed intern may have fallen down the rabbit hole four years ago, but she has emerged as somebody else. The reconstructed Monica is here, and Alice doesn't live there anymore.
The girl in her is gone. The plastic smile, the kittenish coif, the unspoiled face, the eagerness, the empty brass -- all are gone. In a tawdry parody of Camelot's dark side, Lewinsky was playing a brunet Marilyn Monroe to Clinton's JFK. Now, she's just Norma Jean -- weary and deflated, yet somehow nuanced and obviously more complex and more intelligent than anyone gave her credit for being.
As you listen to this newly mature, reflective, even at times witty young woman talk about her life, and as you process her attempts to explain what was long ago explained away by the Clinton defamation machine and the "vast right-wing conspiracy" (which made her its pawn), you realize that history has devoured this nominal vixen.
Her story is not her own and probably never will be. She has told it -- or attempted to, despite the gag orders, distortions and intimidation -- through biographer Andrew Morton, television interviewer Barbara Walters and Vanity Fair magazine, to name a few.
After seeing this film, one has the sense that she will spend the rest of her life telling it, retelling it, reliving it and atoning for it. She will reveal herself anew each day, and the vultures will tear out her liver. That is her curse and the thing that makes Lewinsky a truly tragic figure.
That's also what makes this latest attempt at self-consciousness such a laudable theatrical endeavor. It doesn't always succeed, but this is life as a work of art -- or at least a tentative first step on the way.
Finally, some of the grit, the substantial person, is coming through to tackle the way jaundiced posterity will remember her. Although Lewinsky was paid by HBO, it still must have taken guts to stand up to scrutiny on camera and reclaim her image from the circus.
She deserves some credit for doing so and for once, a little respect.
(Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism.)
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.