Laura Kipnis’ "theory of scandal" starts an interesting conversation, says Katherine Wootton, but ignores the impact on victims to concentrate on gossip and society’s response
Laura Kipnis, author of the polemics Against Love and The Female Thing, takes on another kind of social performance in How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior. As with her earlier books, Kipnis takes a common set of behaviours and their attending rationales, and teases them apart to uncover the individual and collective purpose and implied meaning.
Kipnis is looking to “develop a theory of scandal” – to understand its structure and function. Kipnis examines four familiar and widely reported scandals of recent years, with supporting shorter and smaller-scale examples, looking at both the performer of the scandal and the audience provided by their community and society. In the first section, ‘Downfalls’, she asks what happens to the individual psychologically that leads them to behave in such deranged way while still maintaining a seemingly cogent and cohesive sense of self. In the second, ‘Uproars’, Kipnis looks at the social response – the loud condemnation of the perpetrator – and the role such scandalous narratives serve given their popularity, as evinced by their recurrence.
Real scandals, which have “pathos and tragedy”, are distinguished from other crimes and misdemeanors by the fact that they take place in the public eye. What would otherwise be physical or sexual assault, lying, manipulation and exploitation become “free public theater” in which the audience is invited to both judge the perpetrator and revel in their own superiority. This social response is where Kipnis believes scandal has its importance – as a “social purification ritual” which reinforces cultural norms and morals. Surprisingly, however, Kipnis fails to address the issue of the other individual involved in the narrative of scandal – the victim.
First, in the ‘Downfall’ section, Kipnis discusses the stories of two notable people in highly respected professions, whose scandalous behaviour is reported within the context of their erstwhile high reputation. Lisa Novak was an astronaut who drove for several hours to assault a coworker’s girlfriend, and Sol Wachtler was a judge who assumed false identities to threaten and harass an ex-girlfriend, her husband and her daughter. Both Wachtler and Novak’s behavior is clearly criminal, but Kipnis focuses instead on the “creativity” the two aggressors exhibit and the significant self-delusion involved in their actions. Both Novak and Wachtler seem initially to have been spurred by jealousy and romantic rejection, understandable emotions in both cases, but their responses are nonsensical, almost soap-operatic performances – elaborate (costumed) plans which to any objective observer would clearly result in severe consequences, to which they, even after the fact, seem to be unable to explain.
Kipnis makes a strong argument for a “blind spot”, where an otherwise seemingly rational, intelligent and moral individual fails to examine their behaviour, and acts out a revenge fantasy. Kipnis sees this selective insanity as an exhibit of a self-defeating human tendency; a kind of watered down Freudian death instinct, which, instead of seeking annihilation, wants punishment. For Nowak and Clara Harris, who ran over her adulterous husband, penance is inevitable given their actions. Their method of revenge involves being caught and punished. For Wachtler, who, as a legal professional, would have known exactly what the consequences of his actions would be, an element of the action and subsequent punishment involves the attention garnered by his status – the public shame was part of his downfall.
=In focusing on the psychology of Nowak and Wachtler, the victims of these physical and emotional attacks are given very little attention. Kipnis includes some information regarding the facts of the events from the victim’s point of view, but they appear to be an otherwise absent player in the narrative of scandal which she dissects. Perhaps because as a social narrative, it is society that becomes the victim, as it is the rules of the society that are broken. The audience replaces the victim.
The difficulty with this perspective is that while yes, as the stories are reported and responded to in the media, they function as social narratives, they are still real events that actually affected real people. There is no analysis of the effect of these scandals on Colleen (whom Nowak attacked) or Joy (Wachtler’s ex-girlfriend). Clara Harris, who ran over and killed her adulterous husband, is used as a smaller example in the section on Nowak. Her daughter was in the car when she killed her husband. There is no thought given to how this changed her life, or how Wachtler’s kidnapping threats affected Joy’s daughter Jessica. Even if this elision is deliberate for the sake of dissecting the scandal exclusively as narrative, Kipnis should have made note of it.
In the subsequent section, Kipnis looks at the media castigation of Linda Tripp, during the Lewinsky scandal, and James Frey, when his memoir A Million Little Pieces was found to be more fiction than not. Here, the actors in these scandals exhibit only a disregard for, or misunderstanding of, social mores. Kipnis’ theorising is strongest here, where she has ample opportunity to dissect the general public response, pointing out hypocrisy and simplistic thinking, and making an argument for the repetition of a ‘scandal’ narrative as a kind of oft-repeated morality tale.
As with Nowak and Wachtler, Tripp is the agent of her own undoing. Her methods and actions left her open to wide-ranging criticism and disdain. In analysing the media response to Linda Tripp’s ‘whistleblowing’, Kipnis notices how the reportage leaned towards misogynistic interpretations (women are catty and duplicitous, out to get each other, etc) and implied a link between Tripp’s looks and personality: “Appearance and essence are hard to disentangle.”
In the public response to the story, as in any fairy tale, ugliness becomes a shorthand for moral turpitude. Kipnis examines the possibility that what was labelled ‘ugly’ is rather a face that is lying, the conflict between the feeling Tripp was attempting to portray versus her actual feeling; the discrepancy is perhaps what made the observer react negatively. Kipnis notes how both Tripp and Paula Jones both responded to public ridicule with plastic surgery, as if changing the face would in turn alter the public’s attitude. Kipnis also examines Tripp’s motivation, in her conflicting reports of her intention and loyalties, her expressions of disgust and her perhaps prudish attitudes toward sex. In looking at Tripp’s psychology, Kipnis wonders if Tripp’s attitudes were inspired by her philandering father. Tripp wanted to punish Clinton for his adultery; her betrayal of Lewinsky was a means to an end.
In this collection, James Frey seems the odd man out. While there was an uproar, it did not prevent Frey from publishing subsequent titles, nor was he met with the same vitriol or ad hominem attacks as Linda Tripp.
He embarrassed Oprah and was, in turn, embarrassed by her, thoroughly, on her show. Kipnis uses Frey’s case to talk about the maintenance and continuation of human mythology; in confessional memoirs people expose their weaknesses and humanity for money. In this genre, the beasts of older stories are replaced by “addictions and compulsions”. The audience wants to believe in these struggles and the “self-knowledge” that results. Kipnis notes the link between Frey and Oprah, as her success is predicated on her ongoing confessionals; the struggle/triumph narrative is one that sustains Oprah’s popularity.
Kipnis asks why Frey’s, and Oprah’s, audience believed his lying to be such an outrageous crime. She suggests that Frey is no different from any other memoirist, and that exaggeration and misremembering are a function of the genre. No one has perfect recall and writers are most likely to recount the most dramatic version of their story for the sake of narrative drive, and attendant financial recompense. Frey, she thinks, is punished for exposing on a very large scale the “commerce in self-hood”, which is exactly what Oprah profits from. The structure of the confessional narrative, the epiphany that follows the battle, is already a lie; life is not that tidy – and no one wants to know.
Kipnis’ idea of scandal as a kind of selective insanity, rebellion and social “purification ritual” is convincing, though her book is more like the beginning of a conversation that a finished argument. While her thoughts on the psychology of the scandalous individuals are interesting, the book’s most compelling sections are about how scandals fit in to pre-existing social ‘truths’ and reinforce a particular set of beliefs: the vengeful jilted lover, the adulterous husband, the two-faced friend.
Individual acts of violence, harassment, betrayal and dishonesty feed an on-going cycle of what is essentially gossip on a massive scale. But if these are meant to be morality tales for the masses, what exactly are the lessons learned? Nowak and Wachtler teach us what – not to be delusional? Tripp suggests that we not betray secrets? And Frey? Don’t lie – or rather, lie, but don’t get caught? Is anything being reinforced beyond a social tendency to mock weakness? Perhaps Kipnis is showing us that we love these stories, or the media does anyway, but the problem is exactly that we don’t look for the meaning behind the narratives we’re so eager to read. Who are we, that enjoy laughing at the delusional and the mighty that are fallen? Whose greatest insult is to call someone ugly? That want to read about and be deeply affected the most depraved accounts of humanity, but only if they are true?
There is plenty more to be said about the sense of exceptionalism that may inspire the perpetrators of scandal. Is there genuinely an innate possibility in all humans to completely ignore the consideration of consequences? Or is this a function of holding a particular role in society, where an individual is shown every day that their job, talent, or appearance sets them above and apart from everyone else? Kipnis is a companionable narrator, and juggles the gossipy headlines and more literary references (Slavoj Žižek, JM Coetzee) well.
Her interest is in the human failings that lead to scandal, and the role such stories play in reinforcing social norms, which leads her to focus on the perpetrator of the scandal and the social response, at the expense of the victim. Her sometimes flippant tone and mocking of what are genuine mental and physical illnesses also undermine her argument somewhat, as she is performing the same kind of social judgment that she attempts to analyze. Hopefully Kipnis has drawn attention to the subject, and we will have the future contributions from sociologists, anthropologists and psychiatrists that the subject merits.