ATLANTIC CITY — Monica Lewinsky transported the audience of more than 450 women at the 26th annual Atlantic County Women’s Forum on Thursday back to 1998.
Describing her bulky laptop and slow dial-up internet connection, Lewinsky, then 24, remembered reading the federal report that divulged the intimate relationship she had with President Bill Clinton when she was 22.
The online report and the news storms that brewed from it were one of the first viral phenomenons.
“Overnight, I went from being a completely private person to a publicly humiliated one, worldwide,” she told the audience at Golden Nugget Atlantic City.
Many people know Lewinsky’s story — she said her name appears in more than 125 rap songs.
“Without any royalties,” she joked.
But Lewinsky shared more of her personal struggles overcoming intense public shame and explained how she has worked to take back her narrative and advocate for a safer online environment.
“I’m actually proud that she’s up there talking because we all have a past,” said Debbie Rodgers, 47, of Turnersville, who attended the forum for the first time. Rodgers’ employer sponsored a table, but the fact that Lewinsky was speaking also influenced her decision to attend.
Lewinsky, who has stepped out of a decades-long, self-imposed retreat from the public eye, said she wants to add more compassion to what she sees as a culture of shame and an empathy crisis on social media.
“We all want to be heard, but let’s acknowledge the difference of speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention,” Lewinsky said.
Lewinsky also opened up about her mental health struggles.
Even though she had family support at the time she was making headlines, she said she had thoughts of suicide, with one mantra repeating in her head during the endless news cycle: “I want to die.”
“But by and large, I had been alone, so very alone, publicly alone,” she said. “Did I make mistakes? Sure, we can all agree on that, but swimming in that sea of aloneness, that was terrifying.”
She said the story of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who committed suicide in 2010 after he was the victim of a secret webcam video, inspired her to continue to share her story.
“(It was) time to stop living a life of opprobrium, time to stop tiptoeing around my past and time to take back my narrative,” she said.
Though there was no social media in 1998, there were internet gossip sites and news was shared through email.
“Can you imagine if they had all of this social media when this happened? People would have been attacking her,” said Karima Robinson, 40, of Winslow Township.
“It would have been ridiculous,” Rodgers agreed. “She was probably still attacked after that.”
But Lewinsky did acknowledge that social media has been used for good, such as the #MeToo movement, which she thinks could have given her a group and helped her feel less alone.
“I think that she transcends the generations,” said Brett Matik, who organized the event as co-chairwoman of the Greater Atlantic City Charities, which raised more than $75,000 from the forum.
In the past 26 years, the Women’s Forum has raised more than $2 million.