A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
We all relish a good scandal—the larger the figure (governor, judge) and more shocking the particulars (diapers, cigars)—the better. But why do people feel compelled to act out their tangled psychodramas on the national stage, and why do we so enjoy watching them, hurling our condemnations while savoring every lurid detail?
With "pointed daggers of prose" (The New Yorker), Laura Kipnis examines contemporary downfall sagas to lay bare the American psyche: what we desire, what we punish, and what we disavow. She delivers virtuoso analyses of four paradigmatic cases: a lovelorn astronaut, an unhinged judge, a venomous whistleblower, and an over-imaginative memoirist. The motifs are classic—revenge, betrayal, ambition, madness—though the pitfalls are ones we all negotiate daily. After all, every one of us is a potential scandal in the making: failed self-knowledge and colossal self-deception—the necessary ingredients—are our collective plight. In How to Become a Scandal, bad behavior is the entry point for a brilliant cultural romp as well as an anti-civics lesson. "Shove your rules," says scandal, and no doubt every upright citizen, deep within, cheers the transgression—as long as it's someone else's head on the block.
"Laura Kipnis delivers consumers of high and low culture that rare twofer, taking material that self-respecting people are supposed to resist and treating it with such smarts that the reader feels nothing short of enlightened . . . One might think that increased wariness in this privacy-free era would offset whatever moral erosion has occurred in the last 20 years, leaving culture with the same net number of blockbuster scandals per election cycle. Instead, we're flooded by them, as every other superstar seems to fall to a combination of sleaze and naïveté. With each incident, we're forced anew to try to fathom how it could have happened, with no convenient or definitive analysis for reference. Into this breach steps Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University and the author of Against Love: A Polemic and other books, with her 'scandal psychodynamic,' ready to outline the relationship between the transgressors and a judgmental society. That scandals are public affairs, she argues, is hardly incidental, especially when news of a golfer's crashed Escalade can go viral by lunchtime. Surely, she says, transgressors need the exposure as much as the culture needs scandal . . . [H]er examples serve as case studies for the ages. In Kipnis's hands, Linda Tripp, who claimed that patriotism led her to record the conversations with Monica Lewinsky that exposed Bill Clinton, is not just a symbol of feminine betrayal, but of the two-facedness essential to most scandals, the divided selves revealed when the public eye alights. Perhaps it wasn't Tripp's facial features that provoked such widespread harshness, Kipnis says, but rather the disconnect between what she was saying—that she was only trying to do the best thing—and her own complicated motives, a denial that played itself out in Tripp's expressions with painful results. This point, once explained by Kipnis, will forever inform the way you watch anyone simultaneously squirm and smile before Chris Matthews . . . [The] book is most memorable as a convincing case for the ultimate unknowability of the self."—Susan Dominus, The New York Times Book Review
"From politicians to actors to athletes, scandals have been known to break up marriages, destroy careers and act as conversation starters. Kipnis, a Northwestern University professor, uses four scandals as a way to discuss the American culture and which behaviors we allow and which we punish. She also tackles the question of why the public can't seem to get enough of other people's business . . . Informative and extremely witty."—Amy Guth, Chicago Tribune
"Kipnis expertly rebuilds the tension of each case, unraveling the details of her subjects' downfalls so methodically that I held my breath . . . She treats her subjects with great humanity and an empathetic there-but-for-the-grace-of-God reverence."—The Washington Post
"Kipnis' search for a 'theory of scandal' proves successful and wonderfully self-implicating . . . With this book as our guide, we might for a more profound—even merry—cast to our roles as punishers or penitents."—Bookforum
"Laura Kipnis has done it again! Who knew it could be worth revisiting national bad dreams like Linda Tripp's smile or Oprah's diets? Kipnis unpeels meaning the way Freud would, if he'd had a sense of humor."—Jonathan Arac, author of Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel
"American culture has produced so many juicy, delicious scandals in recent years—it's a scandal that we don't have an adequate theory of scandals to account for them. Just in time, Laura Kipnis arrives to scandalize us all, not only by providing riveting accounts of mind-boggling national scandals but also by explaining (with snark and sympathy, as circumstances dictate) just why these scandals boggle our minds, time after time after time. For anyone who's ever asked, ‘What were they thinking?,' Laura Kipnis has the strongest answers available without a prescription."—Michael Bérubé, author of The Left at War
"No one should resist the latest adventure in bad behavior from professional provocateur, Laura Kipnis. While Against Love needled us with uncomfortable truths about marriage, relationships and love fatigue, this new work convinces us that ‘scandal watching' in the US is a spectator sport. With this book, as with others by Kipnis, you may love it, you may hate it, but you MUST read it."—Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity
"A brilliant original analysis of our culture's addiction to scandal. Kipnis illuminates her subjects with such wit and perception that she raises the art of critical writing to new heights. She makes you laugh and think. Brava."—Patricia Bosworth, author of Marlon Brando
"Read Laura Kipnis's new book if you're hoping to become the object of a media feeding frenzy. Read it if you're hoping to avoid one. Either way, it will leave you delighted and ten times smarter about the workings of our media-celebrity complex. This is cultural criticism of a high order."—Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy
"Those who think they are playing to an unseen audience often find that they are abruptly on stage without a stitch. Why do they need this validation and why do we so much enjoy providing it? In How to Become a Scandal Laura Kipnis investigates the dirty habits of the heart and illuminates the secret places of the psyche, speculating brilliantly and amusingly about the trouble to which people will go to get themselves exposed."—Christopher Hitchens, author of Hitch-22
"Laura Kipnis has the rare ability to keep her wits about her even as she treads into areas where most nice people would not go. She's done it again in this funny and sympathetic book about scandal: why it keeps happening, and why each time we find it so incredibly fascinating. Each epoch gets the scandals it most needs, but at their root, as Kipnis so astutely observes, is not anything particular about fame or the culture or ‘the Internet,' but just the inexorable, inexpungible, humiliating fact of being human."—Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men
"How many times have you watched the latest scandal unfolding on TV and said, ‘How could he be so stupid' or ‘What was she thinking?' Laura Kipnis gives you the answers and, along with them, a theory of why scandal, like rock and roll, is here to stay."—Stanley Fish, author of Save the World On Your Own Time
"Not only is this enormous fun, it is also a very smart book, rich in insight and psychological truth. How to Become a Scandal probes searchingly into our self-destructive impulses and our delight when others play them out. Laura Kipnis has written a very satisfying and rewarding account of one of our major obsessions."—Peter Brooks, author of Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature
"In the future, historians confused by the way we have turned politics into a series of puppet shows will have to read How to Become a Scandal if they want to understand this bizarre century. Laura Kipnis writes about the central conflicts in our society, the great comedies of manners, with the profound wit and broad sympathy that we used to find only in ambitious novels. Sociology is rarely so entertaining."—Michael Tolkin, author The Return of the Player
"This is a dead-serious book that's an utter lark to read."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Reviews from Goodreads
HOW TO BECOME A SCANDAL (Chapter 1)
THE LOVELORN ASTRONAUT
If any one scandal in recent memory provides an illustrated manual in the art of leaking massive amounts of unconsciousness in public, it was the case...