PARK CITY — Once widely mocked and reviled for her infamous affair with a sitting president of the United States, Monica Lewinsky shared her personal insights on the experience Saturday as a message against online bullying and harassment.
In January 1998, a 24-year-old Lewinsky found herself becoming a household name overnight as the most private details of her life, both real and imagined, spread like wildfire through the apparently unending reaches of the internet. Her name, image and reputation became a target for vile and hateful barbs from countless anonymous strangers.
"Overnight I went from being a completely private person to being completely publicly humiliated," Lewinsky told the audience in a packed auditorium.
Now, 20 years later, Lewinsky is urging a return to compassion and empathy toward others and calling for the "blood sport" of online shaming that plagues children and young adults across the world to end.
Lewinsky was met by loud applause and a standing ovation at both the beginning and the end of her remarks as a speaker for the Park City Institute at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
But the choice to bring Lewinsky to Park City to speak was not so warmly received by some.
In the weeks after Lewinsky's appearance was announced, the Park City Institute found itself a target of criticism and anger over the choice, especially online, explained Teri Orr, the institute's executive director.
In response, the organization chose to remove only the most hateful or inappropriate comments, leaving the rest of the negative responses to allow for debate.
Lewinsky shared her reasoning behind breaking a decade of self-imposed silence, her efforts to curtail online bullying and answered questions from the audience about overcoming the darkest period of her life.
As she began her presentation, Lewinsky asked everyone in the room who had ever made a mistake to raise their hands. With a chuckle, hands shot up across the auditorium. But they dropped again when Lewinsky asked if anyone's mistake was known by everyone else in the room.
Acknowledging her deep regret for the mistake she made as an intern for then-President Bill Clinton, Lewinsky said she became "patient zero" for losing one's reputation instantly and globally.
"When this happened to me, there was no name for it," she said. "Today we call it cyberbullying, slut shaming and online harassment."
The sometimes irreparable impact of online assault became clear to Lewinsky in 2010, she said, when 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi took his own life after his roommate secretly recorded him in an intimate situation with another man.
She also saw the repercussions of her own experience as her mother grieved over Clementi's death, and realized where her parents' grief came from.
"She was reliving a time when both of my parents feared I would be humiliated to death, literally," Lewinsky explained.
Clementi's death also underscores the dangerous way online bullying fuels teen and young adult suicide risks, she said.
Lewinsky's presentation also included an anti-bullying video titled "In Real Life," in which actors spewed remarks taken from actual instances of cyberbullying at each other on New York City streets to the horror of passers-by. The video ends with a question, "If this behavior is unacceptable in real life, why is it so normal online?"
The video was also shared with a group of Park City-area students during a meeting with Lewinsky earlier in the day Saturday. Orr and Lewinsky praised the response from the group, saying the video had a powerful impact.
Following her prepared remarks, Lewinsky answered questions submitted on notecards by audience members, including about steps they can take should they witness online bullying, or how they can care for a loved one who has experienced it.
Lewinsky urged the audience to report instances of cyberbullying, to respond online instead with a kind comment toward the target of the harassment, or to simply tell that person they are important and loved.29 comments on this story
Asked whether anyone has ever apologized to her since she broke her silence, Lewinsky said there have been some, and the number of people approaching her to talk about what happened has increased over the past several months.
She noted that doesn't include "any of the main players" in the scandal, but didn't elaborate.
As Lewinsky concluded her remarks, Orr assured her on behalf of the audience, "we are sorry about what happened to you." Lewinsky smiled even as tears filled her eyes, pressed her hands together in a silent thank you, and left the stage.