Everything you think you know about James Frey is wrong. You're wrong about Eliot Spitzer, too, and Linda Tripp, and any number of those nutty and libidinous rogues in our public pillories. According to Laura Kipnis's coruscating new study of scandal, what we talk about when we talk about transgression is in a terrible muddle. We can't explain why one public figure's infidelities outrage us while another's are ignored; why some can rehabilitate their reputations while others are permanent pariahs. "We lack any real theory of scandal," writes Kipnis, whose taxonomy of misbehavior leads us "like latter-day Darwins in the Galapagos of human peccadillo," tramping through the tabloid muck in search of specimens.
And what specimens she finds. She gleefully conjures up the ghosts of scandals past: Amy Fisher, the "Long Island Lolita"; "Astro-nut" Lisa Nowack, the spurned (and diapered) astronaut who stalked and pepper-sprayed her romantic rival; "Love Gov" Eliot Spitzer; and Linda Tripp, "Iago in a skirt." As she revisits the scurrilous details, she finds that scandals (and the scandalized) can behave even more oddly than we had assumed. What gets the public's blood boiling isn't corruption, cruelty, or arrogance, Kipnis argues. The unpardonable root offense is the innocuous-sounding "failed self-knowledge," which the author calls "scandal's favorite theme." The issue becomes, in a sense, the failure of humiliated public figures to hide (or at least recognize) their motives.
Why else would Linda Tripp's "ugliness" be so harped on? According to Kipnis, we recoiled from Tripp's face not out of misogyny, but because we were able to instantly, if unconsciously, discern her real reasons for befriending—and betraying—Monica Lewinsky. Kipnis cites "facial psychologists" who argue that an ugly face "isn't something you're born with, it's an emotional distortion transformed into a physical one." She then goes further to suggest that Tripp, otherwise shrouded by vast quantities of blowsy blonde hair and oversized glasses, was repeatedly given up by her "renegade" mouth. When Tripp went on Larry King to insist that her actions were prompted by her "maternal" concern for the young intern, the public saw a "tight rictus" and bared teeth of "unacknowledged aggression." According to Kipnis, Tripp's unconscious "syntax of unnerving smiles"—along with her protests that she was trying to protect Lewinski—became intolerable to viewers primarily because they were so patently false.
This is conjecture of the most subjective, unscientific, and thrilling kind. Hypocrisy, hubris, and self-delusion are delightful intellectual tangles in Kipnis's hands. The more baroque the neurosis, the more she savors the dissection. She shines particularly in her analysis of Sol Wachtler, former chief justice of the New York court of appeals and possessor of a personality so complex he seems to require his own entry in the DSM-IV. After dumping his mistress, the married Wachtler created a pair of inexplicably high-maintenance alter-egos (one a tubby, toothless detective on his death bed) whom he used to stalk and blackmail her.
Why Wachtler would stalk a woman he'd broken up with is just one of the curious questions at the heart of the story. But the subsconcious, we know, is sneaky, and Kipnis's Freudian diagnosis is as imaginative as Wachtler's bungled gambit. Kipnis suggests that Wachtler feigned "an exaggerated heterosexual fixation" (stalking) to conceal his real secret, and that "the punishment [he] solicited from society" was intended for another "crime" not on view. Kipnis presents "evidence" of the unnamed "crime" which dare not speak it's name: Wachtler was a "trim and snappy dresser"; he was fascinated by a phallic snake tattoo; he had an intense friendship (turned equally intense enmity) with Andrew Cuomo; he seemed "asexual."
Kipnis's preference for insinuation feels priggish here, given her boldness elsewhere. Still, however indirect (and unverifiable) her claims, they reveal that there's much more in the trajectory of transgression than merely being bad, getting caught, and suffering the consequences. Sometimes the scandalous crave punishment. And sometimes (as Kipnis tries to argue in a mostly unpersuasive defense of James Frey), we are scandalized because we need to expel a member of the community who threatens our cherished illusions.
Throughout, Kipnis exposes "the crucial roles we all have to play" in public outrages and ritual humiliations, and she's refreshingly short on compassion. She's interested in understanding our baser instincts, not in appealing to our better angels, and the book is all the more fun for it. She relishes that "smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core," and her search for a "theory of scandal" proves successful and wonderfully self-implicating: "Scandalizers keep 'forgetting' about social consequences, and scandal audiences keep 'forgetting' about how routine such lapses are," she writes. "This ability to both know something and not know it at the same time appears to be a common trait uniting these two ostensibly disparate groups." For both groups, a trip to the stocks is inevitable—in some deep way, humans are drawn to punishment as an experience and as a spectacle. But with Kipnis's book as our guide, we might find a more profound—even merry—cast to our roles as punishers or penitents, enjoying how pitilessly scandal illuminates us at our most muddled, troubled, and true.
Parul Sehgal is a nonfiction editor at Publishers Weekly.