Excerpted from Chapter 1: The Lovelorn Astronaut, from How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by © Laura Kipnis, published in paperback August 2011 by Picador USA . Published by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
If any one scandal in recent memory provides an illustrated manual in the art of leaking massive amounts of unconsciousness in public, it was the case of the “Celestial Love Triangle.” Scandals come and go, but this one was like a gift from the gods to scandal lovers everywhere, though perhaps in a worrisome too-close-to-home sort of way for anyone who’s ever been unceremoniously dumped then contemplated some kind of dramatic gesture in the feeble hope of rectifying things, not that I know anyone like that personally.
“Astro-Nut!” screamed the headlines. “Star-Crossed Space Cadet!” “Crazed Nutbucket!” As scandal narratives go, it was canonical, a masterpiece. If the essence of scandal is social downfall, Horatio Alger in reverse, nothing says downfall like the descent of a national icon. Especially one who’d been to space—you can’t get much higher than that. And then caught in diapers, what more lacerating public shame? As someone deeply shame-prone myself, I always perk to attention when someone else is being put through the public shame machine; I imagine it’s similar for any scandal aficionado. (According to psychologists who research schadenfreude, malicious glee at the misfortune of others is always greatest in areas of what they call “self-relevance.”) The post-arrest pictures were grotesque: the once-feted lady astronaut looked like a lunatic—dark rings under her eyes, hair sticking out in every direction, a strange flush to her cheeks. What a contrast to the earlier shots of her prettily poised, waving and beaming in her orange bemedaled flight suit, a plucky heroine returning from a thirteen-day space jaunt as a mission specialist on the NASA shuttle Discovery just the summer before, a role model for young girls everywhere.
Needless to say, the before-and-after pictures ran everywhere, side by side, a graphic how-to in self-destruction and an invitation into the realm of human paradox (scandal’s favorite hunting ground), where dualities run amok: where rationality and irrationality battle, love and hate contend, and the line between fantasy and reality can get tenuous. Every scandal perches on a scaffold of such antinomies, which is what gives them their dramatic arcs, their front-page potential.
The story went like this. On February 5, 2007, Captain Lisa Nowak, forty-three, a married mother of three, had been arrested at 4 a.m. at the Orlando International Airport, after driving all night from Houston to Florida, some 950 miles, in order to confront Colleen Shipman, a thirty-year-old air force captain who worked at the Launch Support Squadron at Cape Canaveral. Shipman was Nowak’s alleged romantic rival for the affections of Captain William Oefelein, forty-two, a fellow astronaut whose NASA nickname was Billy O. Nowak was in disguise at the time, in a trench coat and wig. As if this weren’t enough to propel the story into the headlines of every newspaper in the country and keep it there for weeks, the diapers did it. The police reported that Nowak had used diapers to pee in during her road trip so she wouldn’t have to make pit stops; three used ones were found rolled up in a garbage bag on the backseat of her car. Follow-up stories helpfully explained that this wasn’t as weird as it initially seemed since diapers are actually a familiar item for astronauts, who wear them during launchings and space walks when they can’t get out of their pressure suits (who knew?), though NASA terminology for them is “urine collection devices.”
As scandal prowls the land on the lookout for likely candidates, it’s bound to be drawn to national heroes, but note the role that good props can play in the selection process. Diapers: what a brilliant piece of set design, speaking of leakiness. The great scandals often do have some iconic element that lingers on in the public imagination long past the shelf life of the scandal itself—recall Bill Clinton’s cigar, Monica’s thong, O.J.’s glove… We’re symbol-using animals, foraging through whatever detritus the culture tosses our way to cobble together makeshift morality tales and life lessons, everyday tutorials on social normalcy. Clearly the diaper angle with its dual connotations of the geriatric and the infantile—neither especially flattering!—wasn’t about to disappear anytime soon from the cultural landscape. It was just too good, the cringe-making high point of a supremely cringe-making story. The sadistic possibilities were too rich, and scandal would be nowhere without the pleasures of collective armchair sadism.
New scandals break out all the time, and the tale of the plummeting astronaut was soon succeeded by the next self-organized downfall, but the important thing to note about scandal in our time—and I mention this as a public service for anyone who may be on the verge of getting himself into one—is that the Internet is scandal’s new best friend. Consider the grainy image of a distraught Lisa Nowak pacing back and forth and sobbing at the Orlando airport police station, as captured by the camera hidden in the ceiling of the holding cell where she was placed after her arrest. A uniformed cop who brings her a glass of water asks a few preliminary questions. “None of what you say is going to leave this room,” he assures her, as recorded on the video footage now posted on the Web. Later that afternoon when detectives inquired of an obviously jittery Colleen Shipman, who’d just a few hours earlier been assaulted and pepper-sprayed by a strangely dressed woman in the Orlando airport parking lot, whether she’d ever heard her new boyfriend, Bill, mention the name “Lisa,” and Colleen, trying to be helpful—for she was the helpful type, frequently apologizing for not remembering more precise details about her ordeal—replied that Bill had accidentally called her “Lisa” in bed recently, it’s doubtful that she foresaw the day when the transcript revealing this salient bit of bedroom blundering would likewise be released and posted on the Internet, where it will probably remain for all of eternity. So that’s the thing to remember about scandal these days: nothing ever goes away.
Before scandal snuck up and clubbed her over the head, Lisa Nowak hardly seemed like the kind of person who’d end up at the top of everyone’s list for the most inexplicable public flameout of the year. Despite the high-profile career, she was actually pretty ordinary. She read mysteries and did crossword puzzles and had a standard-issue bad suburban marriage, living outside Houston with her husband, Rich, a flight controller at the International Space Station, though they’d recently separated after nineteen years. She’d been depressed and lost a lot of weight following the separation, both contributing factors, her lawyer would later argue, in her temporarily losing her marbles. Though Nowak had collected an impressive array of advanced degrees in highly technical-sounding fields and had been through Naval Test Pilot School, among the many things that surprised her co-workers at the Johnson Space Center when the scandal broke was that she’d somehow managed to navigate her way from Houston to Orlando by car—she was notoriously bad with directions. An astronaut with no navigational skills—it sounds like a bad midseason replacement sitcom premise. But what an ideal metaphor: Nowak had lost all sense of direction; some inner global positioning system had catastrophically failed. Whether humans are supposed to come factory-equipped with these devices or are responsible for acquiring one along the way (and who’s to blame when yours suddenly gives out midcourse) were some of the larger questions hovering at the edges of this story.
Then there was Bill Oefelein, a former Top Gun pilot, handsome in that bullet-headed, all-American way and perfectly cast in the role of romantic pivot. Like Nowak, Oefelein had also been in long-term marital Siberia, in his case coupled to his former high school girlfriend, Michaella, though after sticking it out for seventeen years they’d split up a couple of years before. He told police that he and Lisa had been involved for the last two or three years but that he’d ended things once he met Colleen. It was unclear whether he and Lisa had been seeing each other during his marriage, and the police didn’t press him on it (or not on tape). The relationship with Lisa had been “somewhat exclusive” for a period of time, though “nobody prohibited anything,” as he put it enigmatically. She was one of his best friends at NASA, they’d had a relationship, and she was now an “ex”... but he hadn’t really considered her his girlfriend, he said, at least he’d never used the word. He sounds like a guy groping around to define something he hasn’t entirely defined in his mind and is now being asked to spell out for a retinue of police, which can’t be the world’s most comfortable situation. Or maybe he just sounds like someone realizing a little late in the day that other people are largely unfathomable, one of those distressing facts of social and romantic existence that most of us have probably had to contend with at some point or another too.