Archive for January, 2011

How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, by Laura Kipnis   no comments

Posted at 8:27 pm in Book review

To all appearances, Lisa Nowak was both accomplished and sane, a holder of multiple advanced and highly technical degrees: and an astronaut, which means, inter alia, a survivor of the rigorous psychological testing given to prospective members of the space program. So it was surprising when she showed up in Orlando–having driven 950 miles from Houston, apparently using diapers along the way–and, wearing a bizarre disguise, attacked Colleen Shipman, her rival for the affections of fellow astronaut Bill Oefelein. (Amusingly, to her colleagues in the space program, one of the more mystifying aspects of this story was that she managed to find her way to Orlando without getting lost.) How could this possibly happen? And surely, nothing like it could ever happen to us.

Not so, says Laura Kipnis, who in How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, makes an intriguing–and convincing–case that we’re all much closer to public disgrace than we think.

Who among us is not guilty of the occasional bout of bizarre, blatantly rude, manic, self-sabotaging behavior? Mostly though, it’s not spectacular enough–or we’re not famous enough–for it to qualify as scandalous. I can think of occasions, say, when–lunch way past due and confronted with an elaborately rude stranger–I’ve publicly exhibited banshee-like behavior that I would be very loathe to have recorded on videotape. Lapses of self control, fits of bad temper, self-delusion: they’re all part of the human condition, and given the right set of circumstances, can manifest themselves in particularly explosive ways.

Generally, though, people blow up their lives only under distinctly exacerbated circumstances. Kipnis evokes a great deal of sympathy for Nowak, whose marriage had recently broken up, who had obviously been a great deal more in love with Oefelein than he had ever been with her, and who had recently lost a close friend in the Columbia shuttle disaster. (She had been caring for her friend’s motherless child, which would have put a significant strain on anyone.) Oefelein for his part seems to have waited until weeks into his relationship with Shipman to break things off with Nowak; and a sort of idée fixe had taken hold of her, that she must apprise Shipman of this, and find out when Shipman knew what she knew. Why she needed to do this in disguise, in the middle of the night, in an airport parking lot, using pepper spray, not even Nowak can explain–but then none of us, Kipnis argues, can say what we’re ultimately capable of.  By the end of Kipnis’ tale, it is impossible to see Nowak, and the wholesale destruction of her career, as anything other than tragic.

Kipnis lends a similar perspective to the other scandals she describes (which tend to be notable, distinct from the more garden variety scandals in which actors yell racist slurs and have public outbursts)–the eminent jurist Sol Wachtler, imprisoned after a bizarre episode in which he wrote extortionary notes to an ex-girlfriend under an assumed personality, and James Frey, publicly pilloried (most notably by Oprah, whose own actions were distinctly  weird) when aspects of his best-selling memoir turned out to be fiction. The only subject for whom–in my eyes, at least–Kipnis does not manage to drum up any sympathy at all, is Linda Tripp, who remains as staunchly repulsive as ever. Manic, even dangerous behavior: well, ok; the wholesale betrayal of a friend and–I would argue–her country: emphatically not ok.

Scandal, though always a popular topic, has not been the subject of much theory. Kipnis here makes an elegant (if, to my taste, excessively Freud-laden) attempt to remedy the situation, in a book that ultimately does not so much chronicle our differences as reveal our similarities. Scandal, Kipnis argues, both unites us and shows our society for what it really is; it allows us to laugh together while exposing the fault-lines of our culture. So scandal is not just endemic, but necessary to the human condition. And there, but for some really crappy luck, go you or I.

Written by Lorin on January 9th, 2011

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