It was the story no respectable tabloid could pass up: middle-aged mother of three, respected professional, highly decorated in a field dominated by men, suddenly overcome by love-stricken feminine rage and driving 950 miles without stopping to confront her romantic rival. Though she was armed with pepper spray, a BB gun, a trench coat, and a wig, it was the diapers that would forever cement 43-year-old astronaut Lisa Nowak’s place in history. Not wanting to make a pit stop, Nowak used Pampers instead; according to police reports, three soiled ones were found rolled up in the back seat of her car.
The jokes, you’ll recall, were just too easy: “Astro-Nut,” the headlines screamed. “Houston, we have a problem,” late-night TV taunted. Yet the more she was humiliated, the more we reveled in her downfall. Diapers, really? How could anybody stoop so low? It didn’t matter that her lawyer said the diaper story had been fabricated by police—or that, in the world of NASA, using them while in flight is actually quite common. Nowak had painted a soggy image onto the national psyche, and we couldn’t wait to hurl it back at her in disgust.
The question is why. It’s no secret we are a society consumed by scandal—from politicians to sports stars to radio hosts, an entire breed of pseudojournalism has erupted from this national pastime. But what is it about scandal that so titillates those of us who can’t look away? Does watching Nowak’s downfall makes us feel better about ourselves? Is it simple senseless gossip? Or is it that, in some twisted way that nobody wants to admit, we can relate, a little bit, to her public humiliation? You’d think, considering the vast amount of the cultural landscape The American Scandal takes up, that social scientists would have examined many of these questions. But the reality is that there are few theories about why we love scandal, which is where Laura Kipnis comes in. A media studies professor at Northwestern University and a self-admitted scandal fiend—“I confess, I love these stories,” she says—her new book, How to Become a Scandal, aims to resolve why we just can’t get enough of John Edwards’s mistress or Tiger’s text messages. “These are people who are just self-destructing on the public stage,” says Kipnis. “I was trying to understand what drove them, but also why I couldn’t look away.”
Kipnis does this not through an examination of Paris Hilton’s sex tapes or Lindsay Lohan’s pantyless photos—celebrity scandal, she says, isn’t true scandal—but through a detailed look at scandals that she finds, well, more artful. “The most compelling scandals are those when some secret is revealed, best through some inadvertent means,” she says. Think James Frey, the deceptive writer whose fakery, blasted wide open on an Oprah telecast for the world to see, she says, “everyone took personally.” Or the whistle-blower Linda Tripp, a woman who so defied social conventions—recording girl talk with a friend, participating in scandal merely so she could inject herself into it, having political motivations—that, as Kipnis puts it, “the entire country burst out laughing.” (It didn’t help, she says, that Tripp wasn’t particularly attractive to look at.) There’s the bizarre story of Sol Wachtler, former chief justice of the New York State Court of Appeals, who served 11 months in prison after pretending to be a private investigator in order to intimidate his former mistress. And then, of course, there’s Nowak, whose humiliation was so great and her descent so fast that it was simply impossible to look away.
All of these scandals, says Kipnis, reveal something about us. Greed? It’s about wanting something more than what’s allowed. Cheating? It reminds us of that age-old doubt about monogamy. Lust? Revenge? Payback? All of us have been there. Which is probably why we love to watch it so much as it plays out in the public sphere. “He did what?” we say, shaking our heads and feeling better about ourselves because we haven’t screwed up quite so badly. Yet we also play a role in making a scandal a scandal. Philanderers may act out their psychodramas in public, but we surely keep the scandal going by engaging in it, all little investigators ourselves, peeling away the layers of hypocrisy. “Part of the interest,” says Kipnis, “is that scandal makes us all into detectives. We get to be the armchair psychoanalyst, and then [we] also get to be the judge, and the jury.” It may be others who screw up their lives on the national stage, but we’re the ones in power, hurling the epithets, delivering the scrutiny like, as Kipnis puts it, “a big collective superego.” It’s sadistic, it’s pleasureable—and ultimately, it keeps the scandal hot.
All of this, of course, pre-dates The National Enquirer: think Hester Prynne, or biblical stoning, or the threat of being placed in stocks in the town square. But scandal is simply easier these days: a misdirected e-mail can mean potential ruin, the personal affairs of an astronaut are suddenly front-page news. Today, scandal doesn’t just make news, it is the news, mingled with entertainment, made permanent on the Web, and virally spread to every corner of the globe. And ultimately, we need scandal as much as scandal needs us. It helps us purify, expel those operating outside the norm, leaving the rest of us feeling cleaner, better, more morally pure. Until, of course, we’re the ones facing it.