"Against Love", here         

 "The Female Thing", here         



How to Become a Scandal, by Laura Kipnis




Laura Kipnis's "How to Become a Scandal," reviewed by Ellen McCarthy

By Ellen McCarthy


Sunday, September 26, 2010



Adventures in Bad Behavior

By Laura Kipnis

Metropolitan. 209 pp. $24


In a recent blog post, Robert Wright, author of "The Evolution of God," tells of his return from a weeklong silent meditation retreat. He came back to the working world centered, mindful and teeming with goodwill toward all. Then he turned on his computer, saw a headline about Paris Hilton's cocaine bust and froze. It was a debased desire luring him to wallow in her misery, he knew, and so Wright resisted -- until he saw the word "video."

He clicked. How could he not?

Scandal-watching has become our most vibrant national pastime. Whole industries have grown up in the past decade to help us create, document and dissect the transgressions of the possibly rich and quasi-famous. While the rest of the magazine world has struggled, US Weekly and its ilk have flourished, elevating relative unknowns -- hey, Kardashians! -- to their cover spreads on the rare occasions when our real stars were being tediously well-behaved.

The grip of this celebrity-defamation vortex on Wright and the rest of society is a little scary and hugely fascinating. Did you hear that Snooki got locked up for drunkenly annoying people at the beach? Of course you did. Now: Can you explain why any of us care?

That's not, unfortunately, something Laura Kipnis sheds much light on in her new book, "How to Become a Scandal." Kipnis dismisses the type of flaps that make TMZ and Access Hollywood spin as "insipid, mass-produced, mind-numbing product." The author is more demanding in her definition of scandal: "I want shattered lives, downfall, disgrace and ruin, the rage of the community directed at its transgressors." She seeks not to explore the way our bottomless appetite for disgraced public figures is shaping society, but to provide an almost-academic "theory of scandal." It is, as she sees it, intellectually "virgin terrain."

To guide her inquiry, Kipnis, a cultural critic and professor at Northwestern University best known for her 2003 book, "Against Love: A Polemic," uses the stories of four "scandal protagonists" that particularly captured her interest. She recounts the tales of Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut who drove through the night -- supposedly wearing a diaper to avoid potty breaks -- to confront her romantic rival with a can of pepper spray; Linda Tripp, arguably the most vilified character of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair; and James Frey, an author who pulled the wool over Oprah's eyes with a riveting account of addiction recovery that turned out to be as much fiction as fact. Least notorious today is Sol Wachtler, a married New York state chief justice who brought his career to a spectacular halt by masquerading as a series of elaborate characters, including a seedy detective, to threaten his socialite ex-girlfriend.

Kipnis expertly rebuilds the tension of each case, unraveling the details of her subjects' downfalls so methodically that I held my breath, willing these people to avoid catastrophes that have long since passed. And she treats her subjects with great humanity and an empathetic there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I reverence. Kipnis knows that, for all of us, the edge is a little too close for comfort. She traces the psychological undoing of her chosen protagonists using police records, news reports and after-the-fact explanations from the subjects themselves. For all their delusion, Kipnis makes clear that these were people who did what they somehow thought they had to do.

A teasing highlight of the book comes in a parenthetical aside, when Kipnis notes that psychologists have found that schadenfreude is always most potent in "areas of what they call 'self-relevance.' " We delight in others' misfortune most blithely when it could've happened to us? Wow. I wish there'd been more on that.

In one of several distracting decisions, Kipnis opens with a lengthy anecdote of a married, sanctimonious governor caught with a high-priced hooker. Page 5 even has a picture of Eliot Spitzer, yet the author never uses his name. Is she protecting him while making pointed examples of the others? Later the book bogs down in philosophical discussions about the nature of ugliness and a dissection of misleading facial expressions. (This is in the Linda Tripp chapter.) The book is most effective as a collection of well-told parables, but in the end fails to offer any illuminating revelations about a world habitually riveted by the humiliation of others.

So, a confession: I almost always choose the longest supermarket line. More time to check out what other people have in their baskets and to make my way through this week's People magazine (which I don't buy, just devour from cover to cover).

Maybe soon Kipnis or someone else will tell me and Robert Wright -- and the rest of America -- about the spell that we're under.


Ellen McCarthy is a writer in The Washington Post's Style section.




September 24, 2010

They Did What?




Adventures in Bad Behavior

By Laura Kipnis

Illustrated. 209 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $24


Scandal has never had it so good: typically ogled, mocked, knocked down and dismissed, it’s at last being graciously invited to lie down on the couch. In “How to Become a Scandal,” 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. Her book is filled with sensational subjects (Eliot Spitzer, Linda Tripp, James Frey and that notorious astronaut with the diaper), but Kipnis delivers all the thrills.

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 ­naďveté. 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.

The particular obsession of her analysis is not why people have sex with the wrong people (which seems obvious), or tape-­record conversations in acts of betrayal, or exercise criminally bad judgment (as did the New York judge Sol Wachtler, sending lascivious notes with condoms enclosed to the 14-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend). What fascinates Kipnis are the elaborate ways those transgressors reassure themselves that they are not bringing colossal ruin upon themselves, that their dalliances will never see the light of day, that no one will ever trace the source of that condom-filled card.

At the heart of any scandal is a mystery, the mystery of the self, and Kipnis scours the transcripts of her chosen debacles, finding quotations that best illustrate the delusion enabling so many implosions. Lisa Nowack, the astronaut who put on a wig and pepper-sprayed her ex-boyfriend’s new lover, seemed to truly believe that all she wanted was to get that young woman’s attention, to convey the urgent information that their love interest had been seeing them both for some time. She was also under the impression that perhaps the police need not mention the episode — the wig, the BB gun found in her car — to her employer, NASA. Such rationalizations make sense, Kipnis says, only in “a hermetically sealed cognitive universe, i.e. the padded cell of your own imagination.”

Kipnis’s book is stuffed with such witty aperçus. “If there were a Nobel Prize for denial,” she says of the disgraced governor Eliot Spitzer, “Stockholm would soon be calling.” But for the most part, she treats her subjects with remarkable compassion, using their failings to illustrate our own potential for the same, ridiculing the idea that the rest of us are above sordid self-immolation. “All the self-­examination in the world isn’t going to help anyone bent on self-deception,” she writes, “which is no doubt true of any of us at least some of the time.”

What allows for scandal in Kipnis’s schema is every individual’s blind spot, “a little existential joke on humankind (or in some cases, a ticking time bomb) nestled at the core of every lonely consciousness.” Phrases like that illustrate both the author’s power as a writer and her own blind spot, some unchecked impulse to indulge in thorny syntax and extraneous flourishes. But in general, the verbal extravagance seems appropriate for the feverish pitch of her material. “Scandal loves your appetites,” she writes, “all of them, the more voracious the better.” In this book, the competing drives that result in scandal don’t live in some neuro­chemical haze; they’re corporal, engaging in martial arts. Anxiety is “fermenting in every social being’s gut”; all of us fall prey to self-destructive desires that are “deviously tunneling for freedom.”

Rather than feeling dated (what, no Tiger?), her 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.

Kipnis herself hovers quietly around the edges, perhaps as a personalizing stand-in for the rest of us, so wary from her research that she essentially disclaims any real potential for understanding her motives in choosing her subject matter. The scandals that fill the book “chose me as much as I chose them,” she writes. Why the personal fascination with the subject? Kipnis is off the hook for that one, she says — after all, how should she know? Ostensibly about scandal, her book is most memorable as a convincing case for the ultimate unknowability of the self.

Susan Dominus writes the Big City column for The Times.




Wednesday, Sep 1, 2010


 "How to Become a Scandal": Why America can't get enough scandal

Mel Gibson, Dr. Laura, Tiger Woods: What our fascination with public downfall really says about us


By Thomas Rogers


It was the road trip that launched a million Pampers jokes. In 2007, Lisa Nowak, a NASA astronaut and recently separated mother of three, drove from her home in Houston to Orlando, Fla., to seek vengeance on a romantic rival, armed with pepper spray, a BB gun, a folding knife, 4 feet of rubber tubing, lawn-size garbage bags -- and, supposedly, diapers, which the media concluded she had used to avoid pit stops on her drive. Even compared to celebrity scandals of the last few years, from Mel Gibson's racist tirades to Tiger Woods' infidelities, the Nowak story -- or as most people will remember it, the astronaut-love-triangle-diaper story -- is hard to forget, not only because of its irresistibly absurd details but also because, as Laura Kipnis argues in her extraordinary new book, "How to Become a Scandal," it exposes certain elemental truths about human nature. Jealousy, irrationality and self-sabotage can undermine even the most successful and rational of people. And most of us really love making jokes about absorbent undergarments.

Kipnis' books analyzes our relentless fascination with public downfalls through a handful of case studies: In addition to that of Nowak, Kipnis also dissects the bizarre story of former New York Chief Judge Sol Wachtler (who was arrested after impersonating a Texas private eye in order to intimidate his former mistress), author James Frey's public shaming by Oprah about the fabrications in his memoir "A Million Little Pieces," and Linda Tripp's betrayal of Monica Lewinsky. Kipnis is the author of the provocative polemic "Against Love" and the engaging feminist history "The Female Thing." This most recent offering is a brilliantly written, compulsively readable and remarkably insightful work about the resonance of scandal in American culture.

Salon spoke to Kipnis over the phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., about the meaning of Lisa Nowak's diaper, why we couldn't stand the sight of Linda Tripp's face -- and our insatiable hunger for public downfall.

What makes a good scandal?

There has to be some sort of transgression of behavioral norms. It doesn't have to be a lawbreaking offense -- as we saw in the Dr. Laura scandal. There has to be transgression but there also has to be a secret that's revealed and I think part of the pleasure of scandals is this exposé. It reassures us that there's a world of truth underneath the surface. I try to make the distinction in the book between celebrity gossip and scandal. I have to say that somebody releasing a sex tape by quote unquote accident is not what I would call a scandal. Gossip keeps us interested, but a scandal really touches on the trouble spots and social contradictions and existential problems we're all negotiating and can't figure out or reconcile.

They also reinforce appropriate rules of conduct in society. As the Mel Gibson incident showed, for example, there are certain things you just can't say in public.

These scandals show us where the lines of propriety are. There's the punishment of the transgression, but there's often a certain amount of vicarious pleasure we can take in the transgression itself. There's sometimes a little pleasurable frisson in seeing people violate rules. But in the Mel Gibson scandal there was also the pleasure of the eavesdropping. More and more of these private moments are being revealed through various forms of new technology.

The first section of the book explores the astronaut-diaper scandal from 2007. What made the Lisa Nowak story so fascinating?

It was about revenge and payback. This man had jettisoned her; she took this extreme action of trying to confront this new girlfriend, a response that most of us would censor ourselves from having. It was just so excruciating and humiliating if you had any moment of identification with her or empathy for her. But it also really revealed the importance of good props. I don't know how long the scandal would have played without the notable element of the diaper. You have this icon of American heroism; she's been to space, which is as high as you can get, and then she's supposedly in diapers, which is as low as you can get.

It was so fundamentally humiliating because it brings to mind bodily functions, which are such a fundamental taboo of our culture

The fundamental task of the adult human is self-management. We're supposed to be in control of ourselves and our bodily functions, which isn't always entirely possible. But the thing about the diaper was that it was also this incredibly great metaphor. What you see in the case of Lisa Nowak is this incredible incontinence: Her feelings were too incontinent; she couldn't contain herself. The diaper was the emblem for what happens in so many scandals, somebody who is, in some basic way, not in control of their emotions. And I don't think that's so unfamiliar for most of us. Even if you don't drive cross-country to confront your romantic rival, you may imagine it. Or have murderous fantasies toward him or her.

One of the notable traits of these scandals is the degree of oblivion, of not thinking ahead to possible consequences. A self-destructive imperative is underneath the surface in so many of these cases and I think that's part of what makes them so horrifying and fascinating.

And in the case of the Linda Tripp scandal, it reinforced popular ideas about both the precariousness of female friendship and physical ugliness.

One of the pleasures and horrifying elements of scandal is when they reinforce stereotypes that we're not supposed to have, like the stereotype of the toxic female friendship. One of the things I was interested in with Linda Tripp was all the joking about her ugliness. All the comedians' jokes were about her looks. It mapped onto her betrayal and ugly acts toward a friend, but  there was also something true about them; there was something distressing about the way she looked. What you start to realize is that there was something in conflict in the different regions of her face that made her expression register as off-putting to us. If you looked closely at her mouth when she smiled or talked, the upper lip raised up and she bared this row of attack teeth on the top, which registered subliminally as aggression. It looks like she's about to bite someone. This is somebody who if you look back on the story of her life and her upbringing, it was a really disappointing and troubled family situation. The lack of attractiveness almost seemed like a physical manifestation of her troubled past.

When you discuss James Frey, you write that, since a lot of our traditional scapegoats are now off-limits, we're left looking for new ones -- in this one case an author who invented part of his memoir.

The psychology of the scapegoat is similar to the psychology of what would be called projection, or projective identification. Everything you split off in yourself or disavow in yourself you get to punish someone else for having. I don't think James Frey acted that much more badly than other people do in relation to commerce. He was punished for writing a commercial book, which if you're familiar with publishing, is what authors are supposed to do. In the book, I use this piece that Oprah wrote for O Magazine on her weight gain, "How Did I Let This Happen Again?" as an example of a memoiristic piece of writing to show that nobody is totally capable of telling the truth about him- or herself. To various degrees it's all invention and fabrication.

There have recently been these twin scandals with a lot of parallels, the Jesse James and Tiger Woods adultery stories. Why were they so resonant?

Adultery is the main scandal topic of our time. Many people struggle with monogamy in practice, but we're fascinated by other people's inability to live up to the same vows. And it requires a certain amount of amnesia on our parts to be fascinated and outraged every time an adultery scandal breaks. The fact that we're surprised by the idea that a sports figure has a bunch of girlfriends is itself surprising.

In the cases of Tiger Woods and Eliot Spitzer, do you have to shut off some part of your own intelligence to think that this is not going to be revealed if you're in a public role that presumes you uphold ideals of family values? What does that say about humans' ability to compartmentalize or be capable of split consciousness? What I found interesting in the Tiger Woods scandal wasn't the adultery so much as the parade of women willing to come forward and reveal a lot of private information for their $ 10,000 from the Enquirer or their 10 minutes of fame.

Do you think that the Internet has changed the way we consume scandal?

There are now so many more venues and outlets that require this constant stream of scandalous product. There's also the speeded-up quality of everything and this instantaneous dissemination through cellphones and recording devices. I think the whole public private divide is undergoing a real transformation for all sorts of reasons that I think we won't be able to figure out for a while because we're in the midst of it.

Scandal and gossip have traditionally been linked to the feminine sphere. As you mention in the book, some people argue that women are more susceptible to disgust than men. Do you think that's true?

There's been this historic association between women and moralism, but I think that given the way gender codes are becoming reorganized, I'm not sure that women are more interested in scandal than men are. There's now so little distinction between politics and scandal. You could say beginning when Lyndon Johnson showed the world his appendix scar or when Reagan's colonoscopy records were revealed, politicians' private lives have also become increasingly public.

Thomas Rogers is Salon's Deputy Arts Editor.



















August 26, 2010

'How To Become A Scandal' Is Smart, But Timid

by Susan Jane Gilman


How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior
By Laura Kipnis
Hardcover, 224 pages
Metropolitan Books


If scandals teach us anything, it's that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. A priest can be a pedophile. An "All-American" golf pro can cheat on his wife. A sanctimonious politician — well, how much time do you have?

Yet Laura Kipnis' new book is like its cover.

The provocative title, How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, leads you to expect a lurid, splashy package with bold lettering. Instead, with its neat, white jacket, the book looks almost prim.

And this isn't misleading. Kipnis has taken on a big, titillating, inflammatory subject — rather timidly.

To be fair, How to Become a Scandal is spirited and smart. Kipnis is a professor attempting to break new ground in scholarship. "We lack any real theory of scandal," she writes. "There's no scandal philosophy or psychology ... intellectually speaking, it's pretty much virgin terrain."

Given how much bad behavior seems to be making the headlines these days, her call is timely. Why not try to understand what compels so many smart people to do stupid, immoral and degrading things — and what compels us, the public, to salivate over their downfall?

Scandals, Kipnis asserts, are a product of our own innate fallibilities — blindness, hubris, irrationality, appetite. Because they remind all of us of our most carnal selves, scandals trigger conflicting desires — to indulge and to punish.

When a few hapless figures are caught with their pants down, we get to live out our own taboos through them vicariously. At the same time, we get to experience a rush of indignation and righteousness. And so, perversely, scandals allow us to have our cake — and renounce it, too. "Culture needs scandal," Kipnis declares.

Her book profiles four tabloid stars in-depth: the lovelorn astronaut caught stalking her romantic rival in diapers. A New York judge jailed after bizarrely trying to extort money from his mistress. Linda Tripp, reviled, wire-wearing whistle-blower in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. And James Frey, of fake-memoir infamy.

Yet like her subjects, Kipnis doesn't always fulfill her best intentions. Although How to Become A Scandal takes an intelligent look at the psychology behind bad behavior, the second part gives way to deconstructions of Linda Tripp and James Frey, at which point the book's thesis blurs.

Kipnis also leaves many huge, American scandals unmentioned. "I've avoided the glitziest cases, which tend to become too encrusted with opinion to yield surprises," Kipnis writes. Fine — but this feels like a cop-out. Why not take on the most infamous scandals — and recast them with fresh insight? Isn't this precisely what new scholarship should do? Besides, you're discussing scandal! Don't pussyfoot around!

Furthermore, some scandals are not delicious. They expose true hypocrisy, rottenness and crime — again, think Catholic Church.

These scandals have not been greeted with secret "nasty glee" by the public — only horror — and a justifiable call for justice. They're a different breed to be sure — but Kipnis never addresses them. In How to Become a Scandal, she's launched a promising new field of inquiry. But she needs to expand upon it — and, like her subjects, grow bolder and more brazen.


Susan Jane Gilman is the author of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess.








Saturday, August 28, 2010, 10:47 AM

Nonfiction review: 'How to Become a Scandal' by Laura Kipnis


Nancy Rommelmann

Laura Kipnis 
Metropolitan Books
$24, 224 pages


Step right up, take a seat, every one of them front row. Ah, here's our cast now: A lovelorn astronaut driving cross-country wearing a diaper, thus avoiding pit-stops on her way to pepper-spray her former lover's girlfriend. Here's lisping literary fabulist James Frey, who basked in the commercial sunshine that is Oprah and was later pinned under her magnifying glass in what might be the greatest episode of Schadenfreude TV ever. And what pantheon of humiliation is complete without Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky's double-crossing, wire-wearing, dry-clean-averse gal pal, whose atrocious behavior was, as Laura Kipnis points out in her highly entertaining and wickedly smart "How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior," matched by her remarkable physical ugliness.

"It was a face that launched a thousand jokes," writes Kipnis, citing one by Jay Leno: "Linda Tripp told Monica Lewinsky ... she hadn't had sex in seven years. That means that at some point in 1991 some guy got drunker than any man in history." (Rim shot!)

Oh, mean, mean, yes it's mean, and yet I found myself smiling as I read how these people self-sabotaged and met their comeuppances. Should I feel bad about how good it felt to recall Tripp's catastrophic attempt at social redemption by telling a press conference, "I'm you! I'm just like you"? Kipnis says, no.

"The pleasure of knocking the excessively privileged and overly lucky down a notch or two can hardly be underestimated," she writes. "Scandalizers screw things up in showy, provocative ways and the rest of us throw stones, luxuriating in the warm glow of imaginary imperviousness that other people's life-destroying stupidities invariably provide." (For more on that, I give you "The Real Housewives" and "Jersey Shore.")

Kipnis, a cultural critic whose previous books have examined sexual politics and pornography, lays out the lavish details of each story. She includes Sol Wachtler, a former chief justice of the New York State of Appeals who committed adultery, extortion, blackmail and interstate racketeering but thought he might get away with it all by faking an inoperable brain tumor.

Tumors, diapers, Bill Clinton's cigar, Monica's thong: All, in Kipnis' words, "so cringe-making," and yet they linger in our collective memory, like embarrassing smells we nevertheless like to sniff, and perhaps need to, to remind ourselves, don't be that guy!

A strategy that Kipnis, who devotes half of "How to Become a Scandal" to analyzing the whys that can make us slide from social conformist to pariah, says is probably futile. "All the self-examination in the world is not going to help anyone bent on self-deception ... which is no doubt true of any of us at least some of the time. That's what having an unconscious means (and thanks for nothing)."

Shame, like any commodity, can be used to advantage, and here Kipnis boldly focuses on the sun queen herself, Oprah Winfrey, suggesting that the ups and downs of her weight and attendant self-recrimination is "skillfully calculated to hit us where we hurt," a ploy to win and keep a nation of yo-yo dieters by using the "I'm you!" to commercial advantage. As proof, Kipnis offers an issue of O magazine that featured Oprah's headline lament, over a 40-pound weight gain, "How Did I Let This Happen Again?"

"As Oprah knows, the marketplace craves infusions of shame," writes Kipnis. The issue was the biggest seller in years, and Kipnis heard it as breaking news on CNN, while she was at the gym.



September 02, 2010

Our Big, Fat, Juicy Scandal Addiction

From Tiger Woods to Dr. Laura, why we love to savor a good scandal


by Jessica Bennett


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.