Who put the Freud into schadenfreude?

Rodney Tiffen, The University of Sydney

Laura Kipnis How to Cause a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behaviour, Melbourne, Scribe, 2010 (224 pp). ISBN 9-78192164-082-7 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

The back cover of this book displays the high praise it has received—‘pointed daggers of prose’ said the New Yorker, a ‘dead serious book that is an utter lark to read’ thought Publishers Weekly, while Christopher Hitchens thinks it illuminates ‘the secret places of the psyche, speculating brilliantly … about the trouble to which people will go to get themselves exposed’.

I must say I found the book’s insights underwhelming and its prose overblown, but it explores some interesting scandals.

The bulk of the book recounts four scandals from the recent American past, and the author has chosen them well, and captures and conveys the bizarre fascination of each. Three of the four have a sexual element. None of them is directly political, or involves entrenched corruption. None involved investigative reporting, but each received heavy media coverage because their juicy elements made them newsworthy. From this coverage, Kipnis draws her portraits.

The first two involve extra-marital affairs going wrong. The first arose from an affair between two astronauts, both having broken up from their first marriages. The male astronaut, Bill Ofelein, a former Top Gun pilot, broke it off when he met another woman Colleen Shipman. He thought that the break up with his former lover, Lisa Nowak, was amicable, as they continued to see each other at work every day. That was until Lisa drove almost 1000 miles one night from Houston to Orlando in order to attack Colleen (whom she had never met) with capsicum spray, and then assault her in the airport car park. According to the police report, Lisa used nappies, what NASA calls ‘urine collection devices’, so that she wouldn’t need toilet stops, to ensure she arrived in time to accost her prey. The before and after photos of the heroic astronaut and her post assault police mug shot capture the personal unravelling. The lurid details were a media feast, the obverse of Tom Wolfe’s popular portrait of heroic astronauts having the Right Stuff.

The lurid details were a media feast.

The second involved a prominent and puritanical judge, Sol Wachtler, who is seduced into adultery by his wife’s step cousin, Joy Silverman, wealthy, younger, attractive, and breaking up from her third marriage. After some years, Sol breaks off the affair, telling her falsely that he has a brain tumour. But when she takes up with a new lover, and taunts Sol that he is richer and more handsome, he becomes obsessively jealous. He starts stalking Joy and, even more fantastically, invents a persona, a private detective who makes threatening phone calls to her. Eventually this previously upright judge is arrested, pursued by a district attorney, Michael Chertoff, who later was George Bush’s secretary of homeland security, and who at one stage assigned 80 agents to the case. After a period in prison, Wachtler wrote a book about it all, and told a TV interviewer ‘If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone’, which, in a style characteristic of her authorial interventions, Kipnis concludes has ‘an alarming ring of truth about it’.

The third case centres on one of the bit players in the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Linda Tripp was one of Monica’s work colleagues, twenty four years her senior, who pretended to befriend her, became her confidante, and secretly taped her conversations as she talked about her sexual relations with Clinton. Tripp had already discussed with her friend, the right-wing activist and literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, the possibility of writing a tell-all book about Clinton’s peccadilloes, so for her the arrival of Monica was manna from heaven. At the request of the Office of the Independent Counsel, Kenneth Starr, who was pursuing what seemed an open-ended investigation into anything he could find wrong regarding Clinton, Linda wore a concealed microphone to lunch with Monica, and that Office’s agents then confronted them. Linda justified her personal betrayals of Monica in terms of her patriotic duty to save the country from a philandering and unworthy president.

When all this became public, including transcripts of her tapes, Tripp became a figure of hatred and ridicule. She was overweight, and her face looked rather contorted when she smiled. Comedians made fun of her and a spate of ‘ugly’ jokes surrounded her. Some argued the face betrayed her character. She achieved as great a political success as she could have hoped for, the disgrace and impeachment (but not removal from office) of the Democratic President. (Kipnis, carelessly and misleadingly in my view, labels her a whistleblower.) But it was accompanied by an acute and intense public humiliation. After it all, Linda lost a large amount of weight, had a makeover, and underwent plastic surgery.

Tripp became a figure of hatred and ridicule.

The last scandal involved an even more intense public humiliation process. James Frey had authored a best selling memoir of his descent into alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, self-loathing, prison and eventually his personal redemption. His book received a further giant boost, when Oprah Winfrey lauded it in the most gushing superlatives. Unfortunately an investigative website went through Frey’s claims and found several of them were self-aggrandising inventions. Oprah initially stood by him, but eventually he returned to her show, this time to receive a venomous denunciation in inverse proportion to the previously lavish praise. ‘Watching Frey’s return visit to Oprah was like watching a dying insect writhing in a stream of bug spray—people who’ve molested their own children have appeared on the program and been subject to less moral opprobrium’ (p. 164). Oprah’s sense of betrayal was palpable, and the nation’s media and commentariat shared her outrage. In the following weeks, Frey was subjected to the full fury of their rhetorical inventiveness.

However, this is the least satisfying of Kipnis’s four cases, principally because the weight swings away from recounting the story towards the author’s musings on what it all means. She makes a long and unenlightening excursus on the nature of truth, and concludes that all memoirists and writers create fictions to at least some extent. ‘We all tailor ourselves to the requirements of the market place’ (p. 176), ‘Even the most compelling memoirs are artifice, not truth; they’re words on a page’ (p. 199). Does it follow that this dissolves all questions of truth or accuracy?

She raises the interesting issue of, when there is so much villainy in the world, why there was such seemingly disproportionate outrage over Frey’s offence. But again her answers are disappointing. She begins the chapter by observing that ‘No one likes a bullshit artist, though we’re surrounded by them—no doubt we are them: it’s the modern condition’ (p. 152). Then we are told, ‘Every once in a while we eviscerate a phony or two and parade their entrails through town on a stick, a sacrifice to the authenticity gods’ (p. 154). The climactic argument of the chapter is that ‘Scholars [unnamed] suggest that the scapegoat figure derives from a real situation that must have often occurred in early human or primate history, when a group of men or apes, pursued by nasty carnivores, were able to save themselves by sacrificing one member of the group. This pattern persists through time, surmise the [still anonymous] scholars, because it’s grounded in a basic human need survival—and because scapegoats continue to be socially useful’ (p. 159).

This book contributes nothing to our understanding of scandals.

These quotes indicate the nature of the author’s theorising. What the New Yorker called her ‘daggers of prose’ fly in all directions. Scandals ‘are embedded in our collective lives: they may even be the marrow of collective life’ (p. 13); ‘the Scandal GNP’ (p. 18); ‘As scandal prowls the land on the lookout for likely candidates …’ (p. 28). Elsewhere we learn that ‘Blind spots are the rabbit holes of scandal’ (p. 10). The feeling grows that we are being asked to digest metaphorical myxomatosis.

The only theory from which the author draws some observations is psychoanalysis. She quotes Freud ‘No mortal can keep a secret’ (p. 3). (Like several of her generalisations this one is clearly false.) She is particularly drawn to the work of Theodore Reik, ‘one of Freud’s inner circle’. Reik tells us that ‘Forgiveness is the least innate of the impulses’ (p. 55). She likes his speculation ‘that some collective universal guilt feeling is what prompts all this public unbosoming’ (p. 108). Here and in her discussions of social masochism, she seems to think that, at least subconsciously, those who become caught up in scandals have chosen to be so, and blurs the lines between the perpetrators of scandals, their pursuers, and the audience.

Although all her cases are taken from upper middle class America around the turn of the 21st century, Kipnis is not inhibited from generalising about the universal role of scandals across cultures and through time, presumably because they all share the same ‘scandal psychodynamic’ (p. 3). And in all this, scandals reveal ‘something true about the human situation, truer than the usual truisms’ (p. 195).

There is one reason for buying this book—it has four good yarns—but analytically it contributes nothing to our understanding of scandals.

Rodney Tiffen is Emeritus Professor in Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. His book, Scandals: Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia (UNSW Press, 1999) is sadly bereft of ‘daggers of prose’.