Other Voices

There’s nothing so intoxicating as when a mentor singles you out,shining the warm light of approval all over you.

When that mentor is an older man and you, the student, a youngwoman, you’ve just mixed up a potent sexual-charge cocktail. Don’tdrive home. Your depth perception is probably compromised, and if youcrash, you’re going to need a really good lawyer.

This older man could be a professor, religious leader, director orother accomplished authority figure. Or this man could be the leaderof the free world. Just for example.

It seems you can’t throw a cat without hitting a story aboutMonica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who may or may nothave engaged in untoward relations with President Clinton. We maynever know exactly what transpired between the two, but it hascaptured the world’s attention more than any other of the president’salleged dalliances with the opposite sex.

Among other factors, it’s Lewinsky’s tender age — 21 at the startof the alleged affair — and the gaping power imbalance between thetwo that make this story so gripping.

I don’t think that I’m the only woman in Lewinsky’s age range whocan relate to her, or at least to the media’s suggestion that thisyoung woman was plucked from intern obscurity, made to feel specialby an important older man. She may have been so taken with theattention that she dispensed with ethical conduct, tossing it intothe air like that stupid-looking beret we’ve all seen her in amillion times. Or maybe nothing happened, and we’re all just wantonlyspeculating.

In any case, the Pygmalion complex is powerful and omnipresent.Just think Woody Allen, Pablo Picasso, Frank Sinatra, Donald Trump,Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty.

What ego candy does this situation offer the man? Perhaps itreinforces his vitality, makes him feel wise and fatherly, provideshim an adoring, pliable and easily impressed sexual partner. I canonly guess. What I do know is that when someone you respect or evenidolize doles out attention and perhaps even the possibility forcareer advancement, it’s an overwhelming feeling.

In one case, a college writing teacher invited me to lunch afterclass. He praised my work and offered to help me get a paid summerwriting job to supplement my meager ice-cream-scooping income. When Ileft that lunch, I felt what could only be described as a monstercrush. My heart was pounding, and I wanted to tell everyone. I hadbeen chosen, and I was so flattered that I fell in love, not in asexual way but in a grateful way, like a drowning woman falls in lovewith a lifeguard.

Illustration by Norman Rockwell for “Louisa May Alcott; MostBeloved American Writer,” Women’s Home Companion, December 1937-March1938. From “The Norman Rockwell Treasury,” 1979.

That professor never made any sexual advances toward me. In fact,he did nothing but continue to encourage me and bolster myconfidence, forever removing me from a life as the world’s mostdisgruntled ice cream scooper. Still, I always felt this odd sexualtension, a compulsion to wow this man with my work and a sudden,unexplainable need to get up early before his class to iron myclothes and put on lipstick.

There have been other male mentors more inclined to cap off ourmutual respect with the old Eliza Doolittle shuffle. I have resisted,maybe in large part for fear of being a sucker, of falling for themyth that sleeping with a talented man somehow imbues me with histalents. It does not. I know this to be true.

I dated an astrophysicist for three years, and you don’t see mesmashing any atoms; I still have trouble with long division. I fellin love with a singer and remained really, really tone deaf. Aftersix months with a financial planner, I was still bouncing checks andusing unread bank statements as note paper. If brilliance by osmosisworked, there would be a lot of supermodels around with rock ‘n’ rollcareers.

Still, it’s a tempting shortcut. And why wouldn’t someone talentedbe an appealing mate? I’m not dismissing that. I’m simply saying thatit’s easy to confuse an infatuation based on flattery and fantasywith a viable relationship.

That brings me back to Lewinsky. Whatever she did or didn’t dowith Clinton behind closed doors did not make her the leader of thefree world or the recipient of someone’s long-term affection.

It did make her confused, reportedly “emotionally embattled,”famous, and the proud owner of one very busy lawyer.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer forThe Jewish Journal.

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