How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior

How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior

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by Laura Kipnis
     
 

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We all relish a good scandal—the larger the figure (governor, judge) and more shocking the particulars (diapers, cigars)—the better. But why do people feel compelled to act out their tangled psychodramas on the national stage, and why do we so enjoy watching them, hurling our condemnations while savoring every lurid detail?

With "pointed

Overview

We all relish a good scandal—the larger the figure (governor, judge) and more shocking the particulars (diapers, cigars)—the better. But why do people feel compelled to act out their tangled psychodramas on the national stage, and why do we so enjoy watching them, hurling our condemnations while savoring every lurid detail?

With "pointed daggers of prose" (The New Yorker), Laura Kipnis examines contemporary downfall sagas to lay bare the American psyche: what we desire, what we punish, and what we disavow. She delivers virtuoso analyses of four paradigmatic cases: a lovelorn astronaut, an unhinged judge, a venomous whistleblower, and an over-imaginative memoirist. The motifs are classic—revenge, betrayal, ambition, madness—though the pitfalls are ones we all negotiate daily. After all, every one of us is a potential scandal in the making: failed self-knowledge and colossal self-deception—the necessary ingredients—are our collective plight. In How to Become a Scandal, bad behavior is the entry point for a brilliant cultural romp as well as an anti-civics lesson. "Shove your rules," says scandal, and no doubt every upright citizen, deep within, cheers the transgression—as long as it's someone else's head on the block.

Editorial Reviews

Susan Dominus
…Laura Kipnis delivers consumers of high and low culture that rare twofer, taking material that self-respecting people are supposed to resist and treating it with such smarts that the reader feels nothing short of enlightened. Her book is filled with sensational subjects (Eliot Spitzer, Linda Tripp, James Frey and that notorious astronaut with the diaper), but Kipnis delivers all the thrills…Ostensibly about scandal, her book is most memorable as a convincing case for the ultimate unknowability of the self.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Two very public downfalls and two very public uproars guide us through the contemporary infernal regions of scandal: the downfall of “the lovelorn astronaut,” Lisa Nowak, and “an unreasonable judge,” Sol Wachter, and the uproar set off by Linda Tripp and James Frey. Familiar as they may be, Kipnis (Against Love) freshly illuminates her subjects’ plights, while scrutinizing the public delight in their misfortune, wearing her learning so lightly that the reader is easily seduced by her quick wit and her camouflaged erudition. Kipnis ties psychoanalysis and reality TV, detectives and literary critics, talk show hosts and sociologists, along with the scandalizers and the scandalized into a persuasive bundle: “Scandals aren’t just fiascoes other people get themselves embroiled in while the rest of us go innocently about our business,” she argues. “e all have crucial roles to play.” A deliciously flippant tone serves the reader the juicy details we savor so about scandal, while tossing in some timeless questions and speculations about the deeper meaning of it all (“free will, moral luck, the stranglehold of desire, the difference between right and wrong”) as though they were mere garniture. This is a dead serious book that’s an utter lark to read. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

“Scandal has never had it so good. . . In How to Become a Scandal, Laura Kipnis delivers consumers of high and low culture that rare twofer, taking material that self-respecting people are supposed to resist and treating it with such smarts that the reader feels nothing short of enlightened. Her book is filled with sensational subjects, but Kipnis delivers all the thrills.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A brilliant, funny take on our downfall-a-minute age.” —People

“Informative and extremely witty.” —Chicago Tribune

“Kipnis expertly rebuilds the tension of each case, unraveling the details of her subjects' downfalls so methodically that I held my breath….She treats her subjects with great humanity and an empathetic there-but-for-the-grace-of-God reverence.” —The Washington Post

“A must-read for anyone unable to look away from another's fall from grace. . . . Reading her clever book is like sitting in a front-row seat at Scandal Theory 101--and serves as a cautionary tale for those tiptoeing on the edges of indignity. . . . How to Become a Scandal is as transfixing and engrossing as the tremendously chaotic tales she recounts with exacting detail.” —Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

“Thrilling. . . Hypocrisy, hubris, and self-delusion are delightful intellectual tangles in Kipnis's hands.” —Bookforum

“Thought-provoking examination of scandals past and present. . . with the benefit of this provocative book, we can now understand why [scandals] will continue as long as human society exists.” —The Buffalo News

“Highly entertaining and wickedly smart.” —The Oregonian (Portland)

“A deliciously flippant tone serves the reader the juicy details we savor so about scandal, while tossing in some timeless questions and speculations about the deeper meaning of it all. This is a dead serious book that's an utter lark to read.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Those who think they are playing to an unseen audience often find that they are abruptly on stage without a stitch. Why do they need this validation and why do we so much enjoy providing it? In How to Become a Scandal Laura Kipnis investigates the dirty habits of the heart and illuminates the secret places of the psyche, speculating brilliantly and amusingly about the trouble to which people will go to get themselves exposed.” —Christopher Hitchens, author of Hitch-22

“Laura Kipnis is scarily smart and enviably funny, and with How to Become a Scandal she emerges as a Tocqueville for the age of Gawker. You'll never read Page Six in the same way again.” —Rebecca Mead, author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding

“Read Laura Kipnis's new book if you're hoping to become the object of a media feeding frenzy. Read it if you're hoping to avoid one. This is cultural criticism of a high order.” —Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy

“An extremely smart, funny, acid, and beautifully written meditation on a scary truth that we all try desperately to ignore: we are deeply divided animals, and we are drawn to the creation of our own demise.” —David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

“Excruciatingly fascinating and as fun to read as all the tabloid fodder we pretend we're not following, How to Become a Scandal deftly reveals our halls of infamy to be halls of mirrors. Laura Kipnis has written another fabulously intelligent book.” —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

“In the future, historians will have to read How to Become a Scandal if they want to understand this bizarre century. Laura Kipnis writes about the central conflicts in our society, the great comedies of manners, with the profound wit and broad sympathy that we used to find only in ambitious novels.” —Michael Tolkin, author The Return of the Player

“Laura Kipnis has the rare ability to keep her wits about her even as she treads into areas where most nice people would not go. As Kipnis so astutely observes, each epoch gets the scandals it most needs, but at their root is just the inexorable, inexpungible, humiliating fact of being human.” —Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men

“A brilliant original analysis of our culture's addiction to scandal. Kipnis illuminates her subjects with such wit and perception that she raises the art of critical writing to new heights. Brava.” —Patricia Bosworth, author of Marlon Brando

author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the Rebecca Mead

Laura Kipnis is scarily smart and enviably funny, and with How to Become a Scandal she emerges as a Tocqueville for the age of Gawker. You'll never read Page Six in the same way again.
Kirkus Reviews

Confessed scandal fan Kipnis (Radio-TV-Film/Northwestern Univ.; The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, 2006, etc.) picks through the mortifying carnage of other people's lives, exploring why we both relish and condemn bad behavior.

Divided in two parts, "Downfalls" and "Uproars," this slight and easy-to-digest book covers four major popular-culture scandals of the last two decades. These include those of love-crazed, diaper-wearing astronaut Lisa Nowak; the dishonorable judge Sol Wachtler; whistle-blower Linda Tripp; and the "over-imaginative," so-called memoirist James Frey. In the introduction, the author writes that "[b]ecoming a scandal is pretty much a piece of cake, especially these days. You don't even have to leave the house to wreck your life anymore." While it's true that unwittingly vulnerable or gossipy e-mails can be forwarded to thousands of people, Kipnis asks if such an occurrence could ever be classified as an accident. What if, she wonders, the heart of scandal is self-sabotage? "Needless to say," she writes, "lust has always been scandal's greatest pal...[and] failed self-knowledge is scandal's favorite theme." Though the author is no sociologist, she is a highly entertaining writer who, at her best, crackles with witty one-liners ("Nowak's feelings were just too incontinent: she was the quintessential leaky vessel"). One of the more interesting parts of her analysis concerns what psychoanalyst Theodor Reik called "the compulsion to confess." It's hard to deny that society has been saturated with spoken secrets, from reality television to therapy groups, and Kipnis hones in on the masochistic aspect of this vulnerability. She doesn't go beyond a superficial exploration—or ever reveal anything remotely embarrassing about herself—but she does raise a few plum questions.

Light and fun.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429930659
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
08/31/2010
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
224
File size:
621 KB

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Read an Excerpt


INTRODUCTION

I have become a problem to myself.—St. Augustine, Confessions

Leakiness

Around the time the married governor of a populous northeastern state resigned following humiliating revelations about high-priced call girls and secret wire transfers to off shore accounts to pay for them, a man I was having dinner with, an intellectual type who writes earnestly about political and cultural matters of the day in highbrow journals and erudite op-eds, said with much certainty, apropos these recent events, 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 Hermv®s, 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 an indispensible element of scandal.

Meet the Author

Laura Kipnis is the author of Against Love: A Polemic and The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, which have been translated into fifteen languages. She is a professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and has contributed to Slate, Harper's, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine. She lives in New York and Chicago.


Laura Kipnis is the author of How to Become a Scandal, Against Love, and The Female Thing. A professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, she has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the NEA. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, Slate, and?Bookforum, among others. She lives in New York and Chicago.

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How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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