I remember watching I Spy back in the 1960s and I remember that I enjoyed Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in it. At the time I was too young to realize that having a black man in such a role was groundbreaking. I only knew that I liked the duo and how they worked together. Despite its popularity I was never a huge fan of Fat Albert in the 1970s. I would watch it on occasion and like most kids my age would bellow out “Hey-hey-hey” here and there. I didn’t understand the significance of a cartoon featuring African-American characters, but it also didn’t occur to me that there was anything unusual about it. During the heyday of The Cosby Show in the 1980s and 1990s I rarely ever tuned in to it. I would occasionally catch an episode but never went out of my way to watch it. I understood that the show was important in paving the way for African-American characters and appreciated it on that level; I just really didn’t watch a lot of television at that time. In the early 2000s my connection with Bill Cosby was his railing against young black men about keeping their pants pulled up and similar things and it seemed that this man whose philanthropic and artistic contributions to our culture changed the world was maybe turning into a conservative old man with no appreciation for the gifts the younger generation had to offer. Through several decades, even though I wasn’t an addict of any of his shows or comedy albums, Bill Cosby was an omnipresent part of my life and everyone in my generation. Most of the time he came across as a genuinely likeable man and he was always an inescapable presence.
Now the news stories of his reported sexual assaults and rapes of a large number of women are inescapable. Somehow, despite some of these stories being in the public arena for years, somehow they never took hold with the larger public. I don’t recall hearing these stories ten years ago and I’m guessing most people I know don’t either. At the time the accusations didn’t get the reporting and the airplay that they are getting now. The Internet was not as crucial in our lives then either. Now we have Facebook, Twitter, and dozens of other sites that people use to communicate instantly with each other. Now it’s much more difficult for a celebrity to escape scrutiny.
Another reason we may not remember is that nearly ten years ago when Andrea Constand brought a lawsuit against Cosby there were also about a dozen unnamed women set to testify that he had done the same or similar things to them. The case was settled out of court, which allowed the public to believe it was a shakedown, a woman using Cosby’s fame to make some quick money, especially with the others being anonymous at the time. Today, however, a good and growing number of those women are no longer anonymous, they are telling their stories publicly, and those stories are generally pretty horrific. Now we are facing the accusations as a nation and we do not know how to deal with them. Many people are in denial–he couldn’t have done that, he’s the country’s perfect father figure, he’s innocent until proven guilty–and refuse to even acknowledge the possibility that Cosby could be something less than the beloved father he portrayed as a character on his show. They don’t want to believe that the man who played Cliff Huxtable could be guilty of such things. It’s like that moment in many people’s lives when we realize our parents are human and we have to remove them from their pedestals, except that with a fictional father we expect the fiction to be not only perfect but immortal.
There is an important lesson in all of this.
As a child sex abuse survivor this is the crux of why this story is so important. It may not be the reason why the public is fascinated–in our culture we like to see our heroes destroyed and we are also fascinated by people who do things that we would never expect–but it is a hugely important lesson to take away from it. The reality of rape and all forms of sexual abuse is that the perpetrators are almost never strangers in a van, kidnappers, or others who enter someone’s home and violate them. Not that it doesn’t happen that way sometimes, but the vast majority of sex crime perpetrators are family members, close friends of the family, or others entrusted with our lives. They are people known to the victims. They are often close loved ones. They are often people admired by others. Simply put perpetrators are most often people we trust. Cliff Huxtable is in reality the perfect face to represent sex criminals. He is the loving father/uncle/grandfather/brother/friend and more, the one that because he is such a perfect picture, such a pillar of society, that we trust implicitly. And of course we don’t understand what happened when that trust is betrayed and we likely don’t know how to deal with it, either as the victim or those surrounding them.
We don’t want to believe that the man who played Cliff Huxtable could be capable of such criminal and immoral behavior. If he is capable of it, then anyone is. Something is wrong with the picture. He doesn’t look like a monster, even if he committed monstrous acts. The reality that we have never really accepted as a culture is that the people who do these things or worse rarely look like monsters. Stephen Collins played a minister on 7th Heaven and now stands accused of child sex abuse. Jerry Sandusky seemed like the perfect grandfatherly type who cared deeply about helping troubled teens and is now in prison for the rest of his life for abusing several boys. Sexual predators may have deformed souls, but that doesn’t mean they have deformed bodies like Frankenstein. We need to understand this. They look and act like any of us and they take advantage of people who trust them. If we don’t take anything else away from this story as a society we need to learn this simple truth.
Another underlying theme of this case and these kinds of cases that happen every day is the victim blaming. The thought is that Andrea Constand simply wanted to extort Cosby for money. It is being reported that one of the latest women to come out and accuse him, Linda Traitz, was in prison for fraud, among other things. The implication is that she, too, is simply out to defraud this good man of some money because he is rich and powerful. Victim blaming goes along with our inability to accept that those who seem like us–and often seem like the best of us–could do things that we cannot fathom. For the same reason, others question why any of these women waited so long to say anything, conveniently forgetting that most of them were willing to testify ten years ago and some of them had shared their stories over the years but were dismissed. The only reason they’re being paid attention to now is the sheer volume of the accusations. One victim can be easily dismissed for a variety of reasons. Fifteen or so makes that a little more difficult.
Often victims do not disclose their abuse for years because they feel alone, they feel they won’t be believed, they fear the power their abuser holds over them and the sway they hold over others, or any of a number of other reasons. When I found out someone else was abused by the person who abused me I was sad for them and horrified, but in another way it was a relief to know that it was not just me. It affirmed that I had not imagined what had happened to me. I wrote a play about my abuse and as I was writing it I had fears that welled up within me that if he found out what I was doing that he would kill me because he didn’t want that story told. There are many reasons victims do not come forward. It often takes years of processing to be able to come to terms with that kind of violation of one’s body and emotions. There is nothing unusual about these women taking years to come forward. As each new one does those who are still hiding the abuse can feel more comfortable that they, too, will be believed.
Bill Cosby will likely never be charged for the things he stands accused of, mostly because the statute of limitations has passed for these women, too much time has passed for witnesses and evidence to be available, and these kinds of cases are incredibly difficult to prove anyway. It’s possible, though, that their courage in finally sharing their stories could cause other young women to come forward who faced assaults in more recent years. It seems likely to me that the possibility of that happening is very real. If he was doing these things throughout the 1980s and 1990s it seems difficult to believe that he would have been able to stop the behavior in the 2000s. Serial sexual predators rarely can resist whatever it is that makes them do these things. Other victims may fear coming forward still, but as more details are released don’t be surprised if someone younger comes forward and new accusations are leveled that are much more recent. If that happens then Cosby may finally face the justice system that he has evaded for so long.
Addendum: October, 2018. Four years after this was written, Bill Cosby was tried and convicted in one case–the rest were too old. He was sentenced to three to ten years. His attorneys are working on an appeal.