The Psychology Of Scandals

Around the time the married governor of a populous northeastern state resigned following revelations about high-priced call girls, a man I was having dinner with said that any man who claimed he'd never been to a prostitute was lying.

"Really?" I said, adjusting my expression into studied neutrality while speculating inwardly about what special services were required that he couldn't find anyone willing to perform gratis — after all, he wasn't bad-looking (though one also hears it said that men aren't actually paying prostitutes for the sex, they're paying them to leave afterward). While I can't claim to be someone who musters vast outrage about the existence of prostitution (the issue should be unionization), this admission still took me aback: for one thing, I barely knew the man; also the contention that "everyone does it" seemed miscalculated, since even if they do, they're not routinely confessing it to their female dining companions. Maybe he mistook me for the nonjudgmental type as I've occasionally written on what might be called "transgressive" subjects, which does sometimes lead people to share such things with me unbidden. This is clearly a mistake on their parts since I can be a bit of a gossip, not to mention the fact that I habitually stash revealing sociological tidbits like this one away in a mental filing drawer for possible use in as yet notional articles or books that I may eventually write, not being one of those scandalous nonfiction writers you keep hearing about who just make things up (or not usually), a subject we'll be getting to.

Presumably my dinner companion hadn't paused to consider the potential transmission routes of the implied self- revelation before dropping it into the conversation; most likely he wasn't thinking much at all, it just "came out" — after all, the amount of sheer unconsciousness on display in the average social interaction would definitely overload the capacities of any device invented to quantify it. In the absence of such a device, we have our internal cringe meters, which shrill more and more frequently these days, given people's predilection for confessing their grubby secrets to passing acquaintances or even complete strangers: on talk shows, in their umpteenth memoir, at twelve-step meetings — it's like a national compulsion. Which brings me to why I mention this conversation. Scandal and compulsive unbosoming have a distinct family resemblance when you think about it: people driven to publicize their secret desires, for shadowy reasons and regardless of their own best interests.

"No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." The author (no surprise) was Sigmund Freud, the world's great exponent on the art of self-betrayal, a topic that will prove relevant to our investigations. Notice how viscous he makes the whole thing sound: betrayal doesn't trickle or drip or bleed, it oozes, mucuslike (or worse). His point is that humans can't seem to help spilling unwitting clues all over the place about the mess of embarrassing conflicts and metaphysical anguishes lodged within, though the viscosity of the substance in question will interest anyone who's ever struggled to quash some delinquent libidinal urge — presumably this would be everyone. The fact is that people are leaky vessels in every sense, which seems like a good starting point for a book on the subject of scandals, or, more specifically, certain people's proclivity for getting into them.

Of course, it's not like they're getting into them alone.

Other people's massive public self-immolations are their problem, obviously, but we all live in society together and the boundaries between people are spongy, with the messy needs and inner lives of complete strangers colliding and intermingling in the murky intervenient "space" that scandal opens up. Someone decides to act out his weird psychodramas and tangled furtive longings on a nationwide scale, playing out his deepest, most lurid impulses, flamboyantly detonating his life — it's like free public theater. The curtain opens on a bizarre private world of breached taboos, chaos, and misjudgment; through some brew of inadvertency or compulsion or recklessness, an unspeakable blunder is brought to light. And who's the audience for these performances? All the rest of us: commenting on the action like a Greek chorus, dissecting motives like amateur psychoanalysts, maybe nervously pondering our own susceptibilities to life-wrecking inchoateness, at least that's where my mind instantly goes.

Take the abovementioned governor. Previously a crusading attorney general with a reputation for sanctimony and moral fervor — including prosecuting prostitution rings, including signing a landmark anti- sex-trade bill raising penalties for men caught patronizing prostitutes (as he himself would soon be) — he'd reportedly forked over some $80,000 on secret trysts at upward of $3,000 a pop. The resignation came amid threats of prosecution and impeachment, announced at a mortifying press conference during which he admitted to "private failings," accompanied by a miserable-looking wife draped in Hermes, valiantly bent on keeping up appearances though that ship had clearly sailed. It was a pretty gruesome scene, like watching someone swallow a hand grenade in real time, which obviously didn't impede anyone's enjoyment of the event. Speculation abounded regarding the couple's sleeping arrangements, past, present, and future. A right-wing radio host blasted the wife for not seeing to the governor's "needs," earnest op-ed columnists speculated about the governor's inability to really connect with another person, the late- night comedians had a field day ("To be fair, he did bring prostitution to its knees — one girl at a time"), a magazine cover displayed him in a full- length photo, an arrow pointing to his crotch labeled "Brain"… The projections flew like shrapnel.

My point is this. Scandals aren't just fiascoes other people get themselves embroiled in while the rest of us go innocently about our business; we all have crucial roles to play. Here is the scandal psychodynamic in a nutshell: scandalizers screw things up in showy, provocative ways and the rest of us throw stones, luxuriating in the warm glow of imaginary imperviousness that other people's life-destroying stupidities invariably provide. In other words, we need them as much as they need us. And speaking of that warm glow: if dancing on the grave of someone's shattered life and reputation weren't quite so gratifying, this would bode badly for the continuation of scandal, so it's lucky from scandal's point of view that other people's downfalls are as perversely fascinating as they are.

Please note that I speak as a scandal fan myself. I confess, I love these stories: the voyeur is tic glimpses into the detritus of other people's lives, the quirky plot twists and emotional carnage... Who doesn't love them — as long as you're not the one stuck explaining to your spouse why you won't be going to work the next day and federal marshals are in the den seizing the home computer. Yes, I understand these people have done bad things, injured those who love them and torpedoed their lives in lavishly stupid ways, but clearly such impulses aren't their problem alone. It's the universal ailment if, as appears to be the case, beneath the thin camouflage of social niceties lies a raging maelstrom, some unspeakable inner bedlam. Scandals are like an anti-civics lesson — there to remind us of that smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core which periodically breaks loose and throws everything into havoc, leading to grisly forms of ritual humiliation and social ignominy, or these days worse, since once the media get into the act, some of these poor chumps start looking more like bleeding open sores than actual humans, as gouged and disfigured as Old Testament lepers. Let's not forget, all joking aside, that society can get vengeful when you spit on its rules, otherwise known as the Reality Principle. Also that a certain amount of nasty glee on our parts is</em< an indispensible element of scandal.

This post is excerpted from the book HOW TO BECOME A SCANDAL: Adventures in Bad Behavior by Laura Kipnis, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 Laura Kipnis. All rights reserved.

Laura's book is can be purchased here.

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