How to Become a Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

by Laura Kipnis

29 September 2011

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

Justice for All

Angry women with driver’s licenses: let’s assume we haven’t heard the last from this constituency when it comes to future scandals, to be filed under American crack-ups generally, or attachment disorders in our time. (A woman who thinks she loves a man she deeply hates is not an unfamiliar phenomenon, as Diana Trilling remarked of a previous Mrs. Harris (Jean), who killed her lover, diet doctor guru Herman Tarnower, a few decades ago.) Clara Harris’s checkbook should be on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian in the wing devoted to artifacts of American family life. So should an equally agonized item found in Lisa Nowak’s car: a handwritten letter to Bill Oefelein’s mother thanking her for her encouraging notes about Lisa and Bill’s relationship. “Bill is absolutely the best person I’ve ever known and I love him more than I knew possible. Your kindness of supporting us, even under such circumstances as have existed in the past is nothing short of extraordinary,” Lisa had written in a neat girlish hand. She’s referring to her own marital situation, which, she reports, is “finally coming to a close with the formal separation and separate living arrangements accomplished”; she’s now in the process of completing the official divorce paperwork. Her own parents hadn’t been nearly as supportive, she confides, and it means a lot to her to have another mom to turn to. “It has been my privilege and honor to receive such special caring from you,” she effuses. Who knows whether this letter was meant to be mailed, or what Lisa’s relationship actually was with Bill’s mother; Lisa was, after all, in something of a delusional state. But she did tell Becton that she’d met Bill’s kids for the first time the previous month at his apartment—apparently she’d met his whole family. In the semiotics of relationships such events have been known to be taken as signs though, needless to say, such signs can be misleading and open to multiple interpretations, which can be crazy-making in itself.

The notable element in both these scorned-women-in-cars scandals is their economy, the way they manage to accomplish two opposite purposes simultaneously: first the infraction, then the punishment for it, neatly tied up with a bow. According to Reik, vengeance directed outward has a tendency to boomerang and be redirected inward, transformed into self-inflicted punishment for an unacceptable aggressive impulse. Not in every case, obviously: people get away with all sorts of things that we never hear about, that don’t make the front pages and don’t wreck their lives. It would certainly be useful to know what distinguishes those who get caught from those who get a free ride—at least it’s the question every prospective vengeance-seeker will want answered. Reading Reik between the lines for tips on extracting revenge, I believe his implication is that virtuous types are the group most likely to set themselves up for social punishment. Here’s a gloomy thought: the ruthless let themselves off the hook for their aggressions, while those with overactive superegos string themselves up on homemade scaffolds.

Whatever injuries their boyfriends and husbands dealt Nowak and Harris in the romantic realm, their self-inflicted injuries were a thousand times more devastating. You’d think that soliciting national ridicule and turning yourself into an emotional sideshow—not to mention twenty or so years in the slammer—would vastly outweigh the pain of a lover’s rejection. It’s like chopping off your hand to get over a headache, though people in acute pain sometimes attempt desperate remedies.

“Do you feel better?” Becton asked Lisa, winding up the interrogation, as if he hadn’t just spent five hours getting her to incriminate herself. Lisa says that she does, then wonders—still in the grip of her idée fixe despite the lengthy catharsis if she can possibly see Colleen. Reading this, you don’t know whether to scream at her or laugh, or just concede the fact that loss can have a way of deranging a person’s reality checks. However unbalanced her nighttime exploit may have been, it’s not so difficult to identify with the hope that trying hard enough will fix things, that carrying out some risk-it-all ordeal, making the dramatic gesture—crashing the wedding, kidnapping the beloved, incapacitating the rival—will make someone care again and give you back what you’ve lost, though it usually works out better in the movies.

In Nowak’s case, the attempted murder charges were eventually dropped, though the attempted kidnapping and battery charges stood; the Florida prosecutors were determined to milk the case for every shred of publicity. Nowak pled not guilty, was released on $25,500 bail, and eventually entered a temporary insanity plea. After a series of rather masterful legal maneuvers by her attorney, Don Lykkebak, who dismantled the state’s case piece by piece by getting much of the relevant evidence excluded, Nowak pleaded guilty to felony burglary and misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to a year of probation. (She could have faced up to life in prison if the attempted kidnapping charge had stood.) In the months following the arrest, Nowak and Oefelein were both dropped from the astronaut corps—a first in NASA history—and reassigned to their military positions. But you can see NASA’s dilemma: as we learned from Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, astronauts are NASA’s funding chips, kept around to personify the space mission when congressional appropriations are being handed out; if NASA hadn’t needed space heroes for public relations purposes, they’d have sent monkeys up there. The fact is that astronauts spend far less time in space than they do cutting ribbons at shopping malls and delivering high school commencement addresses: as sullied heroes, the tabloid caption “Lust in Space” trailing after them in perpetuity, Nowak and Oefelein wouldn’t exactly do for such occasions.

Colleen Shipman made her first public appearance at a deposition in June. Blond and petite, with a pointy, resolute chin (and not so large-nosed, despite her fears), she clutched the muscular Oefelein firmly by the arm, her trophy. (Shipman and Oefelein both left the military shortly later and moved to his home state of Alaska, where they eventually got engaged. They’ve also started a business promoting themselves as adventure writers and motivational speakers.) She looked good. A few months later, when Nowak’s lawyer petitioned to remove the GPS ankle monitoring bracelet she had to wear as a condition of bail, Shipman made another court appearance to voice her objections. “Absolutely not,” she protested, when asked by the prosecutor if Nowak should be allowed to remove the device. She’d been the victim of an assault, she said, and felt much safer knowing that Nowak was wearing the bracelet. Shipman also strongly objected to Nowak’s eventual plea deal, telling the judge that she believed she’d escaped a horrible death that night and that she still suffered from nightmares, migraines, and high blood pressure. Every stranger she saw was a potential attacker. She’d bought a shotgun and obtained a concealed weapon permit.

No forgiveness for her. It seemed like she was enjoying her moment in the spotlight.

When someone you love dumps you for someone new, puts pictures of her on his desk in the office you share (was this really necessary?), and lets everyone at work know he’s got a new sweetie, the premise is that you suffer a bit, then move on. You get over your pain in private instead of acting it out on the national stage for the mass entertainment of your fellow citizens. Nowak’s feelings were just too incontinent: she was the quintessential leaky vessel. The spectacle of a personality so flamboyantly turned against itself, meticulously organizing such lavish public humiliations right down to those diapers, the possibility that any of us might be driven to such lengths by an unexpected blow to the ego, was just too grotesque. No wonder we were laughing so hard.

Photo by Julie Kaplan

Photo by © Julie Kaplan

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, and 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

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