How to Become a Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

by Laura Kipnis

29 September 2011

Image from the film poster for Scandal, Inc. (1956) 

Houston, We Have a Problem

Lisa told Chris Becton, the police detective who first interviewed her, that all she’d wanted was to talk to Colleen and to see what Colleen knew about her and Bill, but she was never going to hurt her. When asked if she thought squirting Colleen with pepper spray was likely to advance a conversation, she admitted, “That was stupid”—sounding as though she’d just then realized it. The police had also caught Lisa with a compressed-air BB gun that resembled a 9 mm handgun (loaded with BB shot and its safety off), a steel mallet, a folding knife with an eight-inch blade, four feet of rubber surgical tubing, and lawn-size garbage bags. The BB gun was just to get Colleen to talk to her, but she’d never have used it, she never even had it out. Her explanations for the other items were not entirely coherent; in fact, she seemed a little baffled by their existence, as though someone had planted them on her or they’d dropped from the sky. When the police eventually searched her car, parked at a nearby motel, they found more pepper spray, cartridges for the BB gun, latex gloves, MapQuest directions from Houston to Orlando that had been printed out two weeks before, copies of e-mails from Colleen to Bill, and hand-drawn directions to Shipman’s house (including longitude and latitude, in case she decided to get there by space shuttle). And those fateful diapers. Since Nowak had used a false name at the motel, paid cash, and had numerous deadly weapons in her possession, the police decided they had enough for an attempted murder charge.

And now comes the question on all of our minds: What on earth was she thinking? That this bungled attack on Colleen would win Bill back? That she wouldn’t get caught, exposed, and nationally humiliated? As with every major scandal, there were enigmas aplenty, and it’s the scandal audience’s task to piece together the incomplete, inconsistent, and illogical bits of data into a coherent narrative, filling in the gaps with projections and speculations of our own. One of the unacknowledged bonuses of scandal narratives is that they thrust us into unanticipated metaphysical and ethical discussions with one another about all the most pressing matters—free will, moral luck, the stranglehold of desire, the difference between right and wrong—topics that philosophers these days have turned into tedious abstractions but that the rest of us want a chance to converse about too. All scandals demand this participatory element, each of us constructing different accounts from the available facts, drawing on our respective experiences and temperaments misanthropy versus generosity, track records of romantic disappointment versus romantic triumph—with plenty of room to embellish freely.

And speaking of embellishment: about those diapers. A few months after Nowak was released on bail (to what must have been an entirely fresh form of hell) and the astronaut love triangle was still a hot item in every media outlet and raw-enough meat in the blood-spattered jungle of opinion and judgment that comprises the blogosphere, her large, blustery lawyer, Don Lykkebak, held an irate press conference to set the record straight. Nowak had not driven nonstop, he rebuked the assembled reporters, she’d spent the night at a motel along the way; the diaper issue was a “preposterous and scandalous story” fabricated by the police, spread irresponsibly by the media, and now Nowak would never get a fair trial because of all the diaper jokes. Predictably, the late-night comedians were still having the time of their lives, like a pack of jocular pit bulls with an injured lovelorn rabbit. Leno: “As you know, she went to court yesterday and was released on her own incontinence.” Letterman: “So this woman astronaut drives nine hundred miles wearing a wig and a diaper. This is one giant step for man, one giant leap to the nut house.” Leno: “And let me tell you something, ladies, nothing turns a man on more than a woman with a full diaper.”

Who could blame them? Bathroom elements in public: always prime material for public shaming rites. Though according to Lykkebak, Nowak had no adult diapers in her car, just toddler-size ones that dated from a couple of years before, when Houston was evacuated ahead of Hurricane Rita and Nowak and her family (which included five-year-old twins), camped in the parking lot of a motel that wouldn’t allow non-guests in to use the bathrooms, were forced to improvise solutions. Pressed by a clamor of skeptical questions, Lykkebak finally delivered an exasperated step-by-step account, in broadcast-tailored euphemisms, of exactly how someone might go about urinating into a diaper while in a parked car and attempting to maintain a semblance of privacy. The reporters tried hard to look serious, and Lykkebak tried hard to seem dignified, though you couldn’t help thinking that Monty Python could have done a lot with this premise. In fact, nowhere in the interview transcripts does Nowak admit to peeing into diapers on her journey to Orlando. But if she hadn’t, what was she doing driving around with used diapers in her car for two years, a hygiene-minded female reporter demanded of an increasingly sputtering Lykkebak, who seemed to take these questions as a personal affront, a technique that criminal defense lawyers presumably cultivate. Despite Lykkebak’s best efforts, the issue wouldn’t go away: if Nowak wasn’t a diaper-wearing nut she was definitely some other kind of nut, and a slovenly one at that.

Whatever the truth about the diapers (and scandal details don’t have to be true to be scandalous), they were a perfect symbol for falling afoul of social codes, for getting yourself in “deep shit” and winding up with your life “in the toilet”—given the wealth of such idioms, Nowak couldn’t have found a better motif if she’d tried. (Or… had she? The unconscious has its own particular sense of humor, not to mention a potty mouth, or so it’s been said; Freud wrote a classically unfunny book on the subject.) Real or invented, the diaper issue brilliantly distilled the scandalizer’s situation to its essence, since what’s an adult in diapers but someone whose self-management skills have critically failed?

Or to put it another way, self-management is what’s supposed to keep us out of scandals, and this is our fundamental social task. Consider the massive amount of managerial labor that goes into achieving and maintaining even the most basic levels of social normalcy, given the thousands of minute rules governing the body alone, rules that have been pounded into all of us from the crib beginning with toilet training, everyone’s introduction to socialization and the potential breach of which provides all the most colorful metaphors for public humiliation (as anyone who’s ever been a child and ever set foot on a playground knows firsthand). This is labor every normal citizen performs at every minute of every day, because even the smallest lapses can plummet hapless violators headfirst down the social ranks, leading to grisly forms of ritual shaming, despite the fact that the majority of these rules are unwritten and only ever articulated in the breach. Additionally, as everyone knows only too well, bodily control can be notoriously precarious at times, vulnerable to the grim realities of illness, aging, and the occasional bad oyster; yet even momentary surrender is potentially scandalous, and the more highly ranked you are the more ridiculous your body becomes. When the first President Bush threw up on Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa during a 1992 state dinner in Tokyo, what a scandal! Not only was it bandied about the news for months—how would it affect diplomacy between the United States and Japan, what about trade relations?— it lives on in the cultural memory to this day. In short, simply having a body is the first step on the road to becoming a scandal. (Which is why the out-of-control body—classically, slipping on a banana peel— is such a comedic staple, though in postmodern comedy bodily shame itself has replaced the pratfall. A TV sitcom like Seinfeld, purportedly “a show about nothing” but frequently about the permutations of bodily shame, could build an entire episode around Jerry’s being suspected of picking his nose in his car; in its successor, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry gets suspected of having an erection in wildly inappropriate circumstances, and so on.)

This is distressing, which may be why one senses a certain agitation in the nonstop mockery aimed at the “Star-Crossed Space Cadet.” What if self-sovereignty isn’t always as secure as one would like? What if you go around assuming you’re in the driver’s seat, then suddenly find yourself en route to Orlando on a crackpot romantic mission or in a police lockup being read your rights? These are a few of the many dilemmas Lisa Nowak presents us with. How someone previously rational enough to pass the battery of psychological exams inflicted on trainees before they’re admitted to NASA and blasted into outer space could suddenly become so deeply and flamboyantly unscrewed was an enigma the country pondered, and hastily deflected with a stream of lame jokes. “Houston, we have a problem” was the leading contender.

Houston, we have a problem. The jocularity made it far easier to ignore the pathos of the story, including the fact that plummeting astronauts have, after all, been a periodic source of national tragedy. The insistent levity surrounding Nowak’s spectacular plunge feels a little forced when you recall the decade’s other astronaut disasters, for instance, the 2003 explosion of the Columbia space shuttle, which killed three of Nowak’s former NASA classmates and which, it was later reported, Nowak had taken particularly hard. One of her close friends was on board, and she’d spent a lot of time with the friend’s now motherless son after the explosion. There was something unsettling about the relation between the two forms of downfall, just as something seemed a little off in the viciousness of the humor aimed at Nowak, in the determination to treat the episode as high comedy. No doubt every scandal is also a ledger of social anxiety, but this one vibrated with a particular unease.

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