Last week I read an intriguing column by Heidi Stevens: Monica Lewinsky Has a Message We Need to Hear. Thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, views about sexual misconduct are beginning to shift. (You will remember that Monica Lewinsky was a White House intern whose affair with President Clinton triggered impeachment proceedings.)

Instead of quickly concluding that “It’s all her fault,” we’re beginning to hear more discussions about sexual predators and abuses of power. (See also Joyce Maynard’s reminiscence about her affair with J.D. Salinger in What Writing about my Abusive Relationship with J.D.Salinger Taught Me about Silencing Women’s Voices.)

Of course those ideas are nothing new. One of the best articles I ever read about sexual misconduct appeared in a 1991 article in Christian Century magazine: Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse by the Reverend Pamela Cooper-White. 

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I named today’s post #YouToo in order to make a point: stories don’t arrive with a built-in meaning. We all have the power create the meaning. (Yes, you too!)

I’m not talking about the nonsensical notion that a word or a narrative means whatever you want it to mean. I’m saying that life is mysterious and people are complicated. The meaning of an event can change as time passes – or as you move from one person’s perspective to another.

Sally remembers Grandma as a lovely person; her brother Greg thinks Grandma was mean. A marital dispute that felt like World War III looks silly years later – or we realize it was a harbinger of an inevitable breakup down the road.

Language doesn’t just record facts: it sorts and evaluates them, opening us up to new insights and fresh possibilities. Good writers make language choices that help this process along.

And that brings me to “Into the Clear,” a provocative 2000 New Yorker article about novelist Philip Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint. The author, David Remnick, recalled a 1998 conversation he had with Roth about the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton controversy:

Roth straightened and said, only half in jest, “Maybe [Clinton] should get on TV and talk frankly about adultery.” Maybe he could talk about the complexity of a long and difficult marriage, about frailty, and maybe he’d dare to ask if he is really so alone in his weaknesses. But there was, of course, no political sense in that.

Roth was right. Americans were eager to blame Lewinsky, or Clinton, or both. There was no “political sense” in exploring the forces that drove those two people into doing what they did.

But do we really have to be stuck there forever? Suppose Bill Clinton or Monica Lewinsky really had talked frankly about what led to the affair. We would have learned something.

That doesn’t mean we would have approved or excused what happened. I imagine it as taking a side step – and suddenly getting a whole new perspective. We’re adding to the meaning, not changing it. It’s an opportunity to dig into parts of the story we may have skipped over – and in that process we may gain understanding.

Perhaps we would even learn something about ourselves – about the forces in our own lives that sometimes trip us into abandoning our values, even if it’s just for a moment.

I am not asking you to reevaluate your opinion what Lewinsky and Clinton did (or what happened when Joyce Maynard lived with J.D. Salinger in 1972). But I am asking you to realize that language has the power to transform everything we know, think, and believe.

That doesn’t mean you have to do something big and serious. Language is fun (as every child babbling a string of nonsense words already knows!).

It does mean that language often offers us an opportunity to take that side step and discover a fresh perspective. We all need to make judgments about good-versus-bad and right-versus-wrong. But we can also ask questions that start with words like what, how, when, why, and what if. And we may come up with some amazing answers. Worth a try!

Philip Roth


2 thoughts on “#YouToo

  1. Darrell Turner

    Jean, this blog post seems to be more about literature than writing techniques, but I found it interesting nevertheless. Good fiction writing has the ability to put the reader in the minds of people who we might find repulsive in real life to help us understand what motivates them.

    One novelist who does this particularly well is Wally Lamb. I highly recommend all his books, and in particular “I Know This Much is True,” and “We Were Water.” They are long books, but they are very poignant books also. Wally Lamb helps me learn a lot about other human beings and makes me more compassionate and understanding. If you haven’t read him already, try him.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    I just put Wally Lamb on my reading list! I really like your point about literature. It’s interesting that a novelist – Philip Roth – and not a journalist was wishing that a real person – Bill Clinton – would have the courage to venture into unpleasant truths. Maybe we writers should get into the habit of looking to literature for ways to dig deeper into issues.

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