In the summer of 2018, I taught a week-long workshop for The Writer’s Hotel, a conference in New York. My group of creative nonfiction students each brought the first 5,000 words of a completed memoir manuscript to the group for feedback. One of those students, Kate Nason, was an elegant woman about my age with a long swingy bob and trendy black-framed glasses. Her story was about how she reclaimed her life after it was shattered by her husband’s affair with their babysitter, and her account of it was so compelling that I was disappointed when I turned the last page of the excerpt. I wanted to keep going.
There was just one big problem that I could see — her babysitter was Monica Lewinsky, whom her husband had met when he was the drama teacher and she was a student at Beverly Hills High School.
In 2015, New York magazine ran an article titled Every Rap Song That Mentions Monica Lewinsky. There were 128 of them, and that number could have doubled by now. Since Monica became a household word in 1998, she’s never really gone out of style. And this month, a brand new pop culture product went on offer. According to the New York Times, “Impeachment,” part of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story series, constitutes “the most personal — and arguably the most prominent — chapter in her rehabilitation.”
You should have seen how hard I tried to figure out a way to watch this show. I don’t have FX so a Hulu nightmare ensued, and so far, I’ve only caught episode 1, along with 140,000 commercials. It’s episode 4, premiering September 28th, I really want to see. According to Kristi Turnquist in The Oregonian:
Lewinsky is at her most touching in an Episode 4 scene, in which Lewinsky recalls her infatuation with Andy Bleiler, who she says she first met while he was working at her Beverly Hills high school. Lewinsky tells Tripp how her affair with Bleiler, who was married, inspired her to move to Portland to attend Lewis & Clark College, and that the affair continued when Bleiler and his family also moved to Portland.
Yeah, and you should hear what Bleiler told his wife about why they were moving. Hint: it wasn’t “so I can continue my affair with my former student while she becomes our family’s number one babysitter and your new pal.”
About two years after it went up on YouTube in 2015, I got around to watching the Monica Lewinsky TED talk everyone was talking about. You know it, probably — as of today, it has close to 20 million views. “At the age of 22,” Monica begins, “I fell in love with my boss. At the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences.“
“I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously,” she explains, referring to the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi to add weight to her message: “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.”
I may have been late to the party, but I know a good thing when I see it, and Monica’s message about shame and forgiveness really resonated with me. A book review I wrote in 2017 leads with “The best thing to come out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal since Lewinsky’s own magnificent TED talk…” (I’m referring to Gabrielle Zevin’s Young Jane Young, really a fun book.)
To this day, I believe and support what Monica was saying in that speech, but it also has to be noticed that she might have pulled off one of the most successful re-brandings in recent history. From the world’s easiest target — ask those 128 rappers — she morphed into an anti-bullying and #metoo hero, becoming virtually bulletproof in the process. Ultimately, this transformation culminated in her signing on as producer of the retelling of her story which is on television now.
It is certainly possible to feel sympathetic to both women: Monica, a celebrity-era casualty of a public feeding frenzy, and Kate, a more ageless type victim of her husband’s and his mistress’s betrayal. The problem is that as that mistress, Monica has a few things to answer for that strain the edges of the “young, dumb, and in love with her boss” explanation.
At the Writer’s Hotel
Part of the section Kate brought to the workshop was an introduction that attempted to prepare the reader for the elephant in the room, and to contextualize it in a way that offered as much empathy as possible to Monica (called Mallory in the book, so Kate wouldn’t get PTSD from typing her name over and over). Kate too had been involved with a teacher in her teens, she revealed. She knew all about young and dumb. She also affirmed Monica’s right to tell her story, and the positive message she had delivered with her TED talk. But couldn’t she also have a chance to tell her story, even if it might not conform perfectly to the current party line?
That story starts many years before Kate met Monica, when Kate was a young art history graduate building a career in the L.A. art world. It moves on to her rather misbegotten first marriage, which ended not long after she was raped when she was nine months pregnant. (Her husband just couldn’t handle it. Really.) Then a cute young blond guy came into her life with a guitar and a bag of weed to cheer her up. She was pretty sure she shouldn’t marry Andy (called Charlie in the book), but the tenth time he asked her, she said yes.
A few years and another baby later, Andy told her he wanted to move to Portland, Oregon. She was mystified by this sudden urgency about moving and loath to give up her life, work, and friends in Los Angeles. Indeed, as she suspected, she was pretty unhappy in Portland. She did get a lot of support from a former student of Andy’s who was now an undergrad at Lewis and Clark. Monica became a good friend and all-around family factotum, showering her kids with gifts, helping out with meals, never forgetting a birthday. Kate and Monica were so close that they talked on the phone almost daily after the latter went off to Washington for an internship.
The affair lasted seven years in all and Kate found out about it around the same time Hillary Clinton learned of her husband’s parallel indiscretion. After all the secrets exploded, Kate had a terrible experience with the media, with reporters and photographers camped out on her block for weeks and chasing her up and down the West Coast. It was ten years before she recovered sufficiently to want to tell her story. And another ten to get it down on paper.
As I can tell you with confidence, writing a memoir is one of the most potent ways to reclaim your life after a tragedy. No longer a victim of circumstance, you are now in charge of the story. (Kind of like Monica and that TED talk!) If you do a good job, all the characters in the story will have both good and bad to them, even you. If you do a really good job, your story will be a page-turner and despite whatever trauma or tragedy you’re narrating, your reader will get not only a few hours of entertainment but something positive or interesting to think about from reading your book.
Kate did do a really good job with the book now called Everything is Perfect, which I was finally able to read in its entirety because we remained in touch after the Writer’s Hotel. I rooted for her when she found an agent and her memoir went out on submission.
And guess what happened. Thirty-six different editors said the book was unputdownable — but unfortunately they couldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. Due to the, um, Monica situation.
Finally Audible bought it for audio only, Kate recorded it, and it came out in early August. You can buy it here. You’d probably rather read it on paper, but you can’t. At least not yet.
With the pandemic cooling off, sort of, and my four walls having long since closed in, I put on my travelin’ shoes and hied myself to Kate’s house a few weeks after her pub date. I hoped I could help her figure out what to do, how to take advantage of this TV show to shine some light on her book, maybe finally get a print deal. There’s no one who loves solving other people’s problems more than I do.
So for the next couple days, Kate, her new husband Tad, and I all sat around reading Google alerts and drafting op-ed pieces. Her husband is good! He wrote the best lede:
My name is Kate Nason. Ring a bell? Yes, I thought not. I was on the front pages of most newspapers, I was in Time and Newsweek and my husband at the time was the brunt of many late-night talk shows. Yes, he and I were the “it” couple for a brief moment. But I was not part of this it couple because people loved us. No, we were a laughingstock.
I had the bright idea that Kate should approach Skyhorse, the publisher who loves things no one else will touch, like Woody Allen and Blake Bailey. They actually were interested, but cooler heads prevailed, pointing out that Skyhorse’s marketing angle would likely be just what Kate had worked so hard to avoid— emphasizing the most salacious aspects of the story and making it all about taking down Monica.
We got together with another book critic friend of mine, the infamous Campari Girl, and spent a few days at beautiful Cannon Beach self-medicating and taking long walks. Kate was trying to find her old copy of “Monica’s Story,” the 1999 as-told-to by Andrew Morton, so we could revisit Monica’s original version of events. No luck, so we downloaded it to a Kindle and I read aloud every section that mentioned Kate or her husband. There were plenty. In a section that may give us some hints about the upcoming Episode 4, we hear Monica’s friends and family’s view of the situation.
Once Kate and her children joined Bleiler in the fall of that year, 1994, the dynamics of the relationship changed significantly, in a way that Monica’s friends found difficult to accept, or even to understand. Although she and Bleiler split up again—this time at his prompting—she began to become friendly with his wife, and often baby-sat for the couple as she also did for Andy’s uncle. … She was seen almost as part of the family, while she in turn liked Kate and adored the children.
Her mother, who was increasingly anxious about her daughter’s obsession, explains her behavior thus: “She was able to compartmentalize her sexual relationship with this man and her love for the wife and the children…. In the grown-up, adult world that split is obvious, but at her stage of development she did not see it.”
Also enlightening was a passage describing Monica’s forging a letter on Lewis & Clark stationery, promising Andy a job. Further on, Kate was amazed by the assertion that she and Andy had sold their story for big bucks. In fact, she spent the next few years in dire financial straits as a single mom.
I don’t know that this little storytime session was the healthiest thing for Kate, but fortunately there was still some Campari, and the sun was going down into the Pacific right outside our window, and I had a plan to fuck up some clams for dinner.
Back to Our Show
After I got home, I obsessively read articles about Impeachment. I screamed when I saw that that the adorable Beanie Feldstein was playing Monica! And get this, from the Times piece:
Feldstein recently broke down the relationship that she developed with the Impeachment producer, noting that she feels she has more of a friendship than a working relationship with Lewinsky. “I made it very clear to her when we started filming that I saw myself as her bodyguard,” the Ladybird actress explained. “I was like, ‘I’m putting my body in for you. I’m going to protect you. I have your back. I know your heart. And that’s my job.’”
Well, I’m no Beanie Feldstein, but I know Kate’s heart and I have her back and dammit, it’s my job. You know what I hope? I hope some brave publisher steps forward to bring Everything is Perfect to print, and that Monica supports Kate’s right to tell her story. No one knows better than Monica Lewinsky how essential it is to speak your truth, and to be believed.