Confessed scandal fan Kipnis (Radio-TV-Film/Northwestern Univ.; The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, 2006, etc.) picks through the mortifying carnage of other people’s lives, exploring why we both relish and condemn bad behavior.
Divided in two parts, “Downfalls” and “Uproars,” this slight and easy-to-digest book covers four major popular-culture scandals of the last two decades. These include those of love-crazed, diaper-wearing astronaut Lisa Nowak; the dishonorable judge Sol Wachtler; whistle-blower Linda Tripp; and the “over-imaginative,” so-called memoirist James Frey. In the introduction, the author writes that “[b]ecoming a scandal is pretty much a piece of cake, especially these days. You don’t even have to leave the house to wreck your life anymore.” While it’s true that unwittingly vulnerable or gossipy e-mails can be forwarded to thousands of people, Kipnis asks if such an occurrence could ever be classified as an accident. What if, she wonders, the heart of scandal is self-sabotage? “Needless to say,” she writes, “lust has always been scandal’s greatest pal…[and] failed self-knowledge is scandal’s favorite theme.” Though the author is no sociologist, she is a highly entertaining writer who, at her best, crackles with witty one-liners (“Nowak’s feelings were just too incontinent: she was the quintessential leaky vessel”). One of the more interesting parts of her analysis concerns what psychoanalyst Theodor Reik called “the compulsion to confess.” It’s hard to deny that society has been saturated with spoken secrets, from reality television to therapy groups, and Kipnis hones in on the masochistic aspect of this vulnerability. She doesn’t go beyond a superficial exploration—or ever reveal anything remotely embarrassing about herself—but she does raise a few plum questions.
Light and fun.