Talking Taylor Swift, Sue Klebold, and Monica Lewinsky: A Contemplation of Resilience and Compassion

If you read that headline, you’re probably either scratching your heads and wondering what these three women have in common or you’re a Swifty about to write me an angry message about how dare I put Monica in the same sentence as Taylor.

In the last two months, I’ve gone down the podcast rabbit hole. And the podcast I like most is the Ted Radio Hour on NPR. Each podcast has a broad theme that is elucidated by several different stories by people from all walks of life, from all over the world. I was listening to the podcast on “To Endure” today, the day after the 2016 Grammys at which Taylor Swift made a notable stand against Kanye West during her acceptance speech for Album of the Year for 1989. And I was listening to “To Endure” just a few days after Sue Klebold (mother of Columbine Shooter, Dylan Klebold) spoke with Diane Sawyer about her son and her new book, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. On the “To Endure” podcast, about people surviving against all odds, the final speaker was Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky was famously branded “The Other Woman” for her 1998 affair with then-President Bill Clinton.

Merriam-Webster defines “resilience” as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Or the definition I like:

“Reliance is the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.”

During her interview, Monica Lewinsky talked about resilience being like a muscle. It’s something that can be built, that can be trained, that can be improved. It isn’t something we’re either born with or we’re not. Resilience can be cultivated.

Psychology Today names a few factors that make someone resilient. Among them are a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. While not on the list from Psychology Today, I also believe that a network of loyal, dedicated friends, family members, and trained professionals is essential to an individual’s ability to recover from trauma. Much as someone who’s been in a severe car accident will recover with the aid of their support network, so will individuals who’ve been through an emotional trauma.

What I’m presenting to you are three women who on different levels, have dealt with and continue to deal with, public ridicule, shame, and/or rejection. Three women who have demonstrated resilience and reclaimed their stories to write an ending that asks for compassion and empathy.

Taylor Swift at the 2016 Grammy Awards

Let’s take the case of Taylor Swift. In case you’re new to the Kanye-Taylor Feud, let’s back it up to 2009. At the VMA’s, Taylor Swift went on stage to accept her award for Best Female Video. During Taylor’s speech, Kayne West took the microphone from her to famously declare, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time…one of the best videos of all time!” In the intervening years, Kayne and Taylor seemed to have been on better terms until he revealed these lyrics from the song “Famous” off his forthcoming album, Life of Pablo.

“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why, I made that bitch famous / God damn / I made that bitch famous.”

Taylor, in classic Taylor fashion, did not respond right away. Much as in 2009, her friends and family responded right away, rushing to her defense. Taylor finally broke her silence at last night’s award show with this mic drop:

“I want to say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.”

Here’s why Taylor is an important part of the resilience conversation. Not only is Taylor a major celebrity, meaning her every move and her every word are documented for public consumption, she’s also been publicly humiliated not once, but twice. What do you even do when someone steals the microphone while you’re accepting your award on the live broadcast of an awards show and the other person proceeds to explain why you don’t deserve it? What do you do when someone releases a song talking about how they’re going to get with you ‘cause they made you famous? While Taylor is hardly the first person in the world to go through public shaming(see So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) and certainly not the first celebrity, both times she’s handled it with more grace and maturity than most people would. I’m pretty sure my first response if someone ever did that to me would not be to stay quiet and think of something dignified to say. It would be the much less eloquent, “Fuck You.”

It used to be Taylor was ridiculed for her steady stream of boyfriends. These days it’s for having a pack of female friends at her side. Known as her “squad” and inspiring #squadgoals, Taylor and her friends present a picture of beautiful, talented, successful, rich, and thin women. But they also present a picture of female solidarity. And nowhere is this more on display than in the immediate responses her friends gave after the news of Kanye’s lyrics broke. Taylor Swift’s bestie, Selena Gomez, said in an interview about Taylor: “At the end of the day, you can just do what you do. She’s killing it and she kind of always has been.” Model and Taylor Squad Member Gigi Hadid tweeted: “My attendance somewhere does not mean I agree with everything being said in the music playing there. My friends know of my loyalty.” Even Taylor Swift’s brother, Austin Swift, Instagrammed a video of himself throwing his Yeezy sneakers in the trash.

What we can learn from Taylor is what we can learn from Monica Lewinsky and Sue Klebold. You may be having your worst day ever (or the worst day in the history of worst days), but you can survive. You can continue. You can move on. Especially if you have people who love you surrounding you.

Sue Klebold’s New Book

April 20th, 1999 was Sue Klebold’s worst day ever. It was the day her son, Dylan Klebold, and fellow student, Eric Harris, opened fire at Columbine High School, killing twelve students and one teacher, before taking their own lives. In her interview with Terry Gross, Sue Klebold describes that as the reports of what was happening at the school began to come in and that her son was involved, she prayed.

“I knew the greatest mercy I could pray for was not for my son’s safety, but for his death.”

It’s been almost seventeen years since that day at Columbine High School and Sue Klebold and her husband, along with the parents of Eric Harris, have been relatively quiet in the intervening time. Which is what makes this interview so important: how do you survive something like that? How do you get by, day by day, knowing that you raised a murderer? What do you do with the pieces of your life?

One thing Sue Klebold did was to try and understand and in her understanding, help other parents reach out to and help their own children. During her grieving process, Sue sought out a support group for the survivors of suicides. She was also diagnosed with breast cancer two years after Columbine, which she says actually inspired her to live. Faced with the possibility of her own death, she describes feeling a calling.

I have work to do. There are things I want to learn and things I want to accomplish and I want to do this for Dylan and for those who died and I really have to do that.

Since Dylan died, Sue has been an advocate for helping other parents deal with their children’s mental health issues.She describes returning to work after the massacre and a co-worker learning from Sue’s story to keep pressing and digging when her own daughter began to exhibit some strange behaviors. That mother eventually uncovered that her daughter had been raped by a stranger. Sue’s calling to help other parents led her to pen her memoirs about Dylan and Columbine. All proceeds from her book will be donated to charitable organizations and research that support mental health issues.

As for Sue herself, despite her overwhelming grief and shame, out of the darkness came a desire to understand:

“So I examined and I questioned and I blamed, and to this day I do it still — occasionally I fall back and think, “If I had done this, if I had not done this.” But over time, with all the research I was doing into behaviors and losses due to suicide, I really began to see that these things were things within Dylan’s brain and his thinking, and that I might’ve in some way inadvertently contributed to his perception of something at a given moment, but I did not believe and still don’t believe that I caused this or caused him to have this perception of himself and his worldview.”

Sue Klebold lived every parent’s nightmare. Not just the death of a child, but also discovering that you are the parent of a murderer. One can only imagine the depths of failure that Sue must have felt as a parent. But her ability to move past her own failure and turn what she learned into a way to help save the lives of other children, is truly remarkable.

As Sue Klebold explains, “I want people to know that even family members of people who do horrible, heinous things are still human beings, and that perhaps by meeting me and seeing that I am not a crazed person, that maybe it will broaden their understanding and they will have a little bit more compassion for someone else.”

Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton

Monica Lewinsky was twenty-one when she first became an intern at the White House under President Bill Clinton.

At the age of twenty-two, I fell in love with my boss. At the age of twenty-four, I learned the devastating consequences. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my mistake.

As a twenty-six year old, it is easy for me to imagine being Monica. It is easy to think about how gut-wrenching that situation was for her. A situation of her own doing, perhaps. But young adults are known for nothing, if not their ability to do stupid things from time to time and to get into trouble. Most of us emerge with a slap on the wrist and a lesson learned. Monica emerged with a shadow that would follow her for the rest of her adult life. She had trouble getting jobs, even volunteer positions. She’s been called every terrible name in the book. Just like Sue Klebold, her name and her identity are a liability.

“I was seen by many, but actually known by few.”

On the podcast, “To Endure”, Monica describes moving back home after the news of the scandal broke. Her mother sat by her bed at night and forced her to shower with the door open. She also says that:

“If someone had described the experiences which I ultimately went through, I would have assumed that I would have been out the first day.”

Monica has largely lived away from the spotlight since 1998. But in 2015, she gave a Ted Talk and has turned her mission to helping others understand that they can endure and survive traumatic experiences. As she says, “it may not be painless, quick, or easy, but you can insist on a different ending to your story.” She now celebrates “Survivors Day” which is the anniversary of the worst day of her life, the day she learned about the FBI investigation. She says that the day, rather than “being a marker of the worst day of my life, was a marker of the day that I survived.” About her experiences since the scandal, Monica says:

“I’ve seen some very dark days in my life. It was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends, professionals, and sometimes even strangers that saved me.”

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” All three of these stories ends with a desire for compassion. For understanding the humanity inside another human being, whom you might be tempted to label a slut, a whore, a homewrecker, a villain, a monster. It’s easy to write what you think about someone on the internet without ever knowing them or their story. It takes you two seconds to write “whore” next to the blinking cursor, but the time to erase the label from the heart of the person you affixed it to, could be years or even decades, if it ever comes off at all.

As Monica Lewinsky concludes, “The most important thing that I’ve learned is that we are all so much stronger and so much more resilient than we can ever imagine…We are more resilient and we have a well of compassion for others in ourselves which can help us bounce back.”

No matter who you are, if you’re out there struggling, know that you can keep going, that you can survive, that you are resilient, and that you will get through your darkest days.

(Quotes for Sue Klebold are taken from her interview with Terry Gross of NPR. Quotes for Monia Lewinsky are taken from the Ted Radio Hour Episode “To Endure”)