How to Become a Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

by Laura Kipnis

29 September 2011

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

Of Course That Hurt

When Detective Becton asked Lisa, “Did he break your heart?”—meaning Bill—Lisa answered tearfully, “My husband is the only person who broke my heart.” Reading through the rambling, frequently incomprehensible transcript of her interrogation is like being confronted with obscure modernist poetry at its most incoherent, though you do get a distinct picture of what her internal state must have been like: an electrical storm of self-delusion crashing over a roiling ocean of romantic injury. There should have been a small-craft advisory for anyone in the vicinity.

At the outset of the interview, a disjointed Lisa tells Detective Becton that she and the man in question had “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.” She was trying to do damage control (“I don’t want to bring other people into it, if it’s not necessary”), so refuses to use Bill’s name and hedges around about whether they were lovers, implying that they couldn’t be since she was still legally married and not really “free” in that respect. Becton plays along, suggesting that they just refer to Bill as “Tim” if Lisa doesn’t want to reveal his name—Becton knew it already anyway, from Colleen—letting her know in the usual cop show fashion that if she cooperates he can go to bat for her with his superiors. He defers to her intelligence (“I can tell that you’re a very educated woman”), reads to her admiringly from her résumé, which he’d managed to obtain in the hours following the arrest (“You have a bachelor’s in science, an aerospace engineering in the Naval Academy [sic], a master’s of science in aeronautical engineering, and a degree in aeronautical and astronomical energy and engineering from the U.S. Naval postgraduate school”), and cajoles her with sympathy: “For you to be here something serious had to happen to you… Something had to happen for tonight to go down. And if you need help, you know… let’s face it, everybody needs help at some point in their life and you can’t always do everything by yourself.” He’s a regular station house Dr. Phil. “You have a lot going on inside of you. It’s either a lot of pain, a lot of anger, or it’s both. And right now you’re bottling it up a lot.”

As Lisa discloses more details about the relationship, Becton presses the consoling idea that Bill had been sending mixed signals—it’s always pathetically consoling to women when a man calls out another man for romantic bad behavior.

Lisa gratefully concurs: Bill had picked her up from the airport two weeks before, and you don’t do that for just anybody! Becton commiserates: “He’s showing you that it’s more than just friendship. But then he’s telling you that it’s just friendship, and actions speak louder than words.” They’re like two girlfriends decoding puzzling male behavior over margaritas. “You need to dump him out of your head,” Becton advises. “Girl, you’re just startin’ over!”

Becton has a less chummy agenda, of course; he wants Lisa to tell him where her car is parked so he won’t have to search every airport lot for it. Lisa, for her part, wants Becton to tell her what Colleen has said about her relationship with Bill (“Can you tell me what she talked to you about? That would help,” she wheedles), correctly surmising that if Becton’s heard about her from Colleen, then Colleen does indeed know about Bill’s relationship with her—knowledge that seems desperately important to Lisa. Evidently something in her makeup—pride? grief?—had prevented her from just asking Bill directly and sparing herself a lot of travail:

NOWAK: Did you tell her who I was?
BECTON: Yes, I mentioned your name. She says she’s never met you.
NOWAK: But she knows me?
BECTON: She knew of you.
NOWAK: Okay.

Becton testified at a pretrial hearing that the interview with Nowak was the hardest of his entire career. It was like a chess game and he felt overmatched: “I realized I was dealing with somebody who was more intelligent than I was— more educated.” This seems unduly modest given how masterfully he manipulated her, so much so that her statements to the police were later thrown out by the judge, who ruled her revelations were coerced. There’s no doubt that Nowak was a smart cookie—all those degrees!—and used to getting by on brainpower. Astronauts are technocrats, after all: if anyone knows that information is power it’s someone who’s been shot into orbit and kept there by virtue of astrodynamic calculations. Dazed and sleep-deprived, holding on to her fraying rationality by a thread, Lisa was still bent on using what info she had as a bargaining chip to find out what Colleen knew—she keeps promising Becton she’ll tell him where the car is later. (He accuses her angrily of thinking he has “stupid” written on his forehead.) But at another level she was clueless: she keeps asking to speak to Shipman— he seems to think if she can just talk to Colleen and explain, she can get her to drop the charges. Becton tells her that’s not going to happen. At that point Lisa is still clinging to the delusion that NASA might not have to be notified (she even wonders if she might be able to get back to work the next day), and Becton strings her along, telling her he hasn’t contacted NASA security yet. “I can step up to the plate and speak up for you,” he promises—if she tells him what he wants to know. Eventually he breaks it to her that the FBI has to be informed since the assault took place on federal property and involved federal employees, around which time reality starts sinking in, like a sledgehammer to the head.

Nowak’s motive for the stalking, according to the press, was that she “wanted to know where she stood in the love triangle.” But this isn’t entirely accurate: Lisa knew where she stood— she’d been jettisoned for another woman. What she wanted was for Colleen to know where she stood. If you follow her logic, which I admit to finding not entirely alien, the issue she’d fastened onto was timing. Bill and Colleen had met at the end of November. Bill told Lisa about the relationship at the beginning of January. It was now the beginning of February. When Lisa keeps telling Becton that Colleen doesn’t have all the “information,” what she’s apparently trying to say is that there was a period of overlap, during which neither of them knew about the other. In her words: “Of course there is a period of time when you find out you didn’t know what was going on, and of course that hurt.”

Of course that hurt. What a lot of personal carnage condensed into four little words. And was Colleen aware of this overlap too, or happily oblivious to the existence of this minor complication, this other interested party? This was Lisa’s question, and depending on the answer she would perhaps be in a position to convey a hurtful truth to the pretty young Colleen, who, according to her statement, did indeed think she and Bill had been exclusive for the previous two months. What exactly did Lisa want Colleen to know— that Bill wasn’t such a hero after all? Or was it that the affair with Lisa had continued even into January, even after Bill had said it was over? Such things have been known to happen—you work out together or go for a bike ride, someone showers at someone else’s place… “I mean, why only be honest with me, why not be honest with her also?” Lisa demands of Becton, her state-appointed confessor, about what she suspects has been Bill’s policy of selective truth telling. It was the galling in equality of it that allowed her to convince herself that confronting Colleen was in Colleen’s best interests. “If some people don’t know, then that’s not the right kind of situation… I very much wanted to set it right.”

If the road to scandal is sometimes paved with good intentions, the desire to think the best of your own intentions is another snare in the already problematic business of self-examination. Social psychologists have a name for it: “the holier-than-thou effect”—a self-inflating bias when it comes to assessing one’s own motives and sincerity. In Lisa’s case, the obsession with rectifying the information imbalance between her and Colleen soon overtook all self-protection and rationality, swaddling the festering romantic wound with a purpose—enough of one to propel her those 950 long, solitary miles to Orlando. She didn’t want to hurt Colleen, she insisted. She just thought that if Colleen had all the information... Then what? Would something have been altered? Was Nowak really thinking that some sort of enlightened three-way arrangement might get negotiated, if everything were out in the open? That’s what she seems to imply when she tells Becton that if everyone knows about what’s going on and “they’re all okay with it, you don’t have to make a choice if everyone’s okay.” Becton asks incredulously, “So if he was going to date both of you that would be acceptable to you?” Lisa says that it depends. This is too much for Becton, clearly more of a traditionalist about such things: “How can you tell me you’d be okay with this guy being with the both of you at the same time!”

Apparently Lisa was willing to share Bill, at least until her divorce came through (“I had no intention of forcing choices,” she tells Becton)— but first she had to find out what Colleen knew and when she knew it. How Lisa thought she’d elicit the relevant details at 4 a.m., dressed in her absurd garage-sale disguise, having first doused Colleen with pepper spray or incapacitated her with some other tool from her henchman’s arsenal— this she hadn’t entirely worked out. The road trip itself had the same dreamy logic: it was supposed to repair something, it was meant to assuage an injury. Lisa did tell Becton that she hadn’t decided in advance whether to clue in Colleen that Bill had misled them both. But why not spread the hurt around?

It was Becton who nailed it on the head: Lisa was obviously a lot angrier at Bill than either she or he cared to know. Whether or not Bill had been romantically confusing—and it wouldn’t exactly be a first in human history—Lisa, despite her placid exterior, had clearly forgiven him exactly nothing. Some part of her had to be aware that at the end of the day Bill would be exposed along with her, that they’d end up in the toilet together. Aside from their image-dependent public roles, they were both active military, and the military still has a funny way of court-martialing people for adultery. Sure enough, the toilet was just where Billy O. landed— a public laughingstock, the flyboy-lothario, his career in shreds along with hers. If I were Lisa, or anyone else who’d ever been abruptly jilted in a self-serving, mealy-mouthed way (especially for someone younger!), in some feral corner of my being I might not have been entirely displeased with this turn of events.

And why should she have forgiven him, by the way? Here we come to the heart of this scandal: forgiveness is the least innate of impulses. Or as psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, one of Freud’s inner circle, puts it in a bracing little essay on forgiveness and vengeance: “Only fools, hypocrites or sick people deny the deep and voluptuous satisfaction adequate revenge can give, deny the extraordinary feeling of liberation, indeed redemption from stifling psychic pressure, which follows successful revenge.” Reik scoff s at the idea that there’s anything “natural” about forgiving someone who’s hurt you, dismissing it as empty sentimentality. “On the contrary, it is a very unnatural reaction,” he insists. “Nothing could be more plausible and natural for people than to take revenge.” Forgiveness is a far weaker impulse than retaliation, which is, perversely, only strengthened by all the guilty attempts to repress it. And the fewer outlets modern culture makes available for vengeance—no more duels or honor killings, unfortunately— the more intense the repressed tendencies become. Forgiveness simply doesn’t exist in the unconscious, says Reik. There’s little emotional significance in these socially imposed acts of conciliation that we’re all supposed to perform for propriety’s sake, no matter how self-congratulatory they make you feel—the conciliation ritual is undoubtedly one of the biggest shams around.

The problem for society is that the desire for revenge is so intense it has to be sublimated into more socially acceptable forms. That’s the true origin of forgiveness, says Reik—it’s not noble to forgive, since at an emotional level forgiving someone is really just a backdoor attempt to humiliate the supposed object of your largesse: payback in another guise, gussied up as righteousness. Anyone who’s ever felt the warm bath of smugness that accompanies being the “better person” in such situations probably knows what he means, or might if self-transparency were remotely possible. “Yes, one must forgive one’s enemies,” Reik quotes Heinrich Heine approvingly, “but not until they are hanged.” Trundling from Houston to Orlando in her silver Saturn on her spurned lover’s mission, Lisa was a perfect object lesson in the emptiness of turning the other cheek.

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