How to Become a Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

by Laura Kipnis

29 September 2011

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

Hideous Stains

Colleen had flown back to Orlando late Sunday night from Houston, where she’d spent the weekend with Bill. They’d met at a party in Florida in November, the week after Thanksgiving (it was now early February) and started dating, but since he lived in Houston and she lived in Orlando, dating involved a lot of traveling and the accompanying hassles. Predictably, not only did Colleen’s return flight get in at 1 a.m., an hour late, but it turned out her suitcase had been lost too—the usual traveler’s nightmare—though it was supposed to be on the next flight, so she decided to just hang around until it came. Which is why it was well after 3 a.m. by the time she went outside to catch the parking lot shuttle, which is where she first noticed the strange-looking woman who was also waiting there—strange because she seemed to be wearing multiple layers of clothes and glasses with weird red frames that looked like they were from the eighties. It was Florida and nobody wears layers. Somebody’s gotta help this girl with her fashion sense, thought Shipman.

Colleen and Lisa had never actually met, but their lives had overlapped in some fairly intimate ways. When Colleen had landed in Houston the previous Thursday, Bill had picked her up at the airport and taken her back to his apartment, where she seemed to keep stumbling over annoying traces of Lisa. “Since when do you ride a purple bike?” Colleen queried Bill, who had two bikes stored in his bedroom. He said it belonged to someone from his bike team, and when she asked who, he admitted it was Lisa’s—they were training for a race together, so she was keeping it there. Colleen wanted to know if it was wise to keep Lisa’s bike if they’d split up. She wasn’t going to tell him to get rid of it, but it made her uncomfortable, it made her want to pull away from the relationship, because she was wondering if he’d really cut ties with Lisa. Bill said he’d get rid of the bike the next day, though he didn’t actually get around to it. Then Colleen used Bill’s computer to check her e-mail and saw that Lisa had done the same thing, since when she went to type her e-mail address into the fill-in field, Lisa’s e-mail address came up. Bill admitted that yes, Lisa had sometimes used his computer.

After things had started getting serious between them, Bill had told Colleen all about the relationship with Lisa, but he’d insisted that it was over and that Lisa understood the situation. She was even happy for him that he’d fallen in love; at least that’s how Colleen recalled Bill’s account of the breakup. From Bill’s point of view, that was as much as he needed to tell her—after all, they both had their pasts. In fact, the two of them hadn’t known each other all that long before their relationship was catapulted into the national spotlight, especially since Bill had spent half of December in orbit as co-pilot on the twelve-day Discovery shuttle and in preflight quarantine before that. Colleen wanted to know if it was really over with Lisa—she didn’t want some crazy lady showing up at her door trying to kill her!—and Bill assured her that it was, definitely. The detective taking Colleen’s statement perked up at that point and asked why she’d talked about someone killing her. Was there some problem with Lisa that she was aware of? Colleen said no, no problems, but you know how these things go. For one thing, it was a relationship Bill and Lisa had kept under wraps, and who knew how Lisa really felt about Bill’s breaking things off ?

The night after Colleen arrived in Houston, she and Bill went to a horror movie called The Messengers, about hideous dark stains that keep reappearing on the bedroom wallpaper no matter how many times you scrub them away. Given what was to come, it was an uncanny entertainment choice. Obviously you can’t ever entirely eliminate the stains of previous lovers either: around the house, on the wallpaper, in the bedroom—so it goes in serial monogamy and other varieties of romantic entanglement as practiced in our time. It was the next night that Bill accidentally called Colleen “Lisa” in bed, but they’d been out at a party and had a few drinks… For all that, Colleen had no doubt things were over between Lisa and Bill, at least that’s what she told the detectives when they queried her. She repeated it twice for emphasis: “No doubt.” It’s a well-known axiom that anyone who says “No doubt” twice in a row has some doubts. If one thing is clear, it’s that well before the parking lot confrontation these two women were in each other’s imaginations, which isn’t invariably a scandal waiting to happen, though when it comes to scandal geometry, the triangle is by far the most promising configuration.

I’m piecing this narrative together from transcripts of the police interviews, by the way, since unlike so many of the protagonists in recent scandals who feel compelled to explain their motives lengthily in television interviews or their subsequent memoirs, none of the principals in this case has thus far gone public, with the exception of Lisa, who at a two-minute press conference, looking as tremulous and unstable as a vial of nitroglycerin, apologized to Colleen “for having frightened her in any way,” read a platitude-laden statement (“The past six months have been very difficult for me, my family, and others close to me…”), and took no questions afterward. (As Nowak’s media consultant, Margaret Mackenzie, advises in her book Courting the Media: Public Relations for the Accused and the Accuser, “Apologize without accepting blame.”) The reticence was a futile gesture, since the press demanded and soon obtained the court documents (only Nowak’s psychiatric evaluations were excluded), a thorough reading of which not only reveals great nuggets of personal data about everyone concerned, but is also guaranteed to inspire a quick review of one’s own relationship-breakup behavioral excesses from junior high on—all DWDs (“dialing while drunk”), unannounced visits to an ex (“just in the neighborhood!”), drive-bys, Web-stalking, and so on—to assess the probability that at some future date an impromptu 950-mile road trip to rectify a romantic injustice or commit nighttime assaults on rivals real or imagined might suddenly seem like a great idea.

But how can you possibly know in advance what lengths you’re capable of, in extremis or otherwise? As psychologist Herbert Fingarette points out in his rather alarming 1969 study, Self-Deception, it’s not just that “spelling things out” to oneself is an acquired skill (like driving a car, as he puts it in a bit of avant la letter irony given the episode under discussion) but that there can be overriding reasons to avoid doing it and to avoid becoming conscious that you’re avoiding doing it. Additionally, as novelist J. M. Coetzee frets in a cautionary essay on “Confession and Double Thoughts,” it’s impossible to know whether the “truth” you discover in your occasional feeble attempts at self-examination is anything close to truth and not just some self-serving fiction, since the “unexamined, unexaminable principle” governing your conclusions “may not be a desire for the truth but a desire to be a particular way”— to seem rational and coherent to yourself, for instance. In other words, all the self-examination in the world isn’t going to help anyone bent on self-deception or when one part of yourself is bent on deceiving another part of yourself, which is no doubt true of any of us at least some of the time. That’s what having an unconscious means (and thanks for nothing).

Scandal protagonists who, unlike Nowak, do choose to retail their stories invariably have lengthy explanations or justifications for whatever they did or didn’t do that propelled them into scandal’s path; these explanations often even make a certain sense, or at least you see how they might in a hermetically sealed cognitive universe, i.e., the padded cell of your own imagination. But given the finely tuned equipoise between self-doubt and self-deception in the human psyche, how can any self-examination not be just an “endless treadmill,” as Coetzee puts it? Worse, how can you be sure that whatever’s perverse within yourself isn’t just feeding on itself, part of the same perverse pattern of self-delusion that’s galvanizing you toward the self-betraying act in the first place, while simultaneously producing convincing rationales for the self-destructive act or motive?

Given her stiff upper lip with Bill, Lisa was obviously gifted at public dissembling, though Bill doesn’t sound like someone who delved too deeply either. According to him, he’d broken things off with Lisa around the beginning of January, telling her he wanted to be exclusive with Colleen. Lisa seemed “disappointed,” Bill told the detectives, but she appeared to accept his decision—at least that’s what he told himself. But Lisa still wanted to stay close and she kept calling him a lot on his cell, even daily—sometimes more than daily—and he started not answering her calls, which apparently didn’t dissuade her. The messages she left were friendly, not hostile, the two of them were still training for a bike race in April and working out together at the gym, so in fact they continued to spend a lot of time in each other’s company. (It later emerged that Lisa was also doing a certain amount of behind-the-scenes jiggering of their schedules at the space center to ensure they’d do their mandatory flight training sessions together.) Bill had always thought of Lisa as just a really nice person, levelheaded, non-emotional; he’d certainly always assumed she was stable— he’d never even seen her angry in all the years he’d known her. He doesn’t make her sound like the world’s most exciting girlfriend: the spitfire tendencies seem to have been suppressed until that fateful weekend. She was shy, a bit private—maybe that was the problem, he now reflected, that she didn’t really have anyone to confide in. “We’re all full of theories,” he answered ruefully, when asked by the police if he had any theories about why she’d done it. But he’d never have predicted this. She’d even wished him a nice weekend earlier in the week, knowing that Colleen was coming to town, though by that point she’d already hatched the lunatic scheme to face off with her rival in Orlando.

Bill was certainly the trusting type: Lisa had keys to his apartment and knew the password to his computer, which he hadn’t bothered to change after breaking up with her. She was carrying copies of Colleen’s e-mails to Bill when she was arrested (“First urge will be to rip your clothes off , throw you on the ground and love the hell out of you,” was the most-quoted line in the news reports), meaning that she had snuck into his apartment to do a little reconnaissance when he was out and lifted Colleen’s e-mails from his computer. She’d also found flight details for Colleen’s weekend trip to Houston lying on the coffee table and had gotten hold of Colleen’s phone number, though Bill was sure that the only place he’d had it was on his cell phone. It turned out Lisa had gone through his phone bills and deduced which number was Colleen’s from how often he dialed it. Bill had no idea Lisa had been in his apartment; he hadn’t noticed anything amiss—either at his place or with Lisa herself.

Later he felt horrible and responsible: it was his fault for booking such a late flight for Colleen (he’d used his frequent flier miles), and he should have seen signs that something was off with Lisa. He flew to Orlando to be with Colleen as soon as he heard what had happened; she said she was freaking out and asked him to come, so he did. Bill was a stand-up guy, according to everyone he worked with; even his ex-mother-in-law said in press interviews that he was “wonderful,” despite his having divorced her daughter. (She also seized the opportunity to get in a few digs at Lisa about her supposed role in the demise of Bill’s marriage, though without quite coming out and saying there was an affair.) Feelings at work ran less positive when it came to Lisa, who rubbed some people the wrong way. The Johnson Space Center was a clubby atmosphere, and she struck a lot of her colleagues as standoffish—prickly and not particularly easy to get along with in situations where teamwork is called for, including in space, where she displayed “bad expedition behavior” according to a fellow astronaut. (One of the side benefits of getting yourself into a scandal is finding out what your colleagues really think of you.) And did the office mates suspect that Lisa and Bill had been an item for the past few years? Some had heard rumors or reported seeing them leave parties together, but everyone also knew that Bill now had a new girlfriend in Orlando, which can’t have been fantastically pleasant for Nowak, though she made sure to maintain that preternaturally cheerful face.

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