I spent a good portion of the morning reading the New York Magazine article, along with the individual accounts of the 35 women who were sexually assaulted or molested by Bill Cosby. I was struck by many thoughts, the first of which was that Cosby is an actual monster.
Of an alleged forty-six—the others yet to come forward. May never come forward. It is a staggering number. But even if it were only one, Cosby would still be a monster.
What stood out to me was the similarity between the accounts, of Cosby preying on women who for various reasons were emotionally vulnerable. Or women who dared to have ambitions, which Cosby seemed to take as an invitation to exploit them. Women who looked up to him and trusted him as as a father figure.
An actual monster.
The same theme repeated itself. Cosby inviting the woman to dinner, or to a show. Cosby inviting them to a hotel room, or a dressing room. Cosby offering them a drink, or a pill—several times under the pretext that it was medicine for a headache or cold. And then groping them. Molesting them. Assaulting them.
In his room, Cosby handed Lasha a blue pill — he said it was an antihistamine for her cold — and a double shot of Amaretto. […] Lasha says the comedian led her to the bedroom and gave her another shot of Amaretto. She lay down, and then he climbed in bed beside her. She remembers him humping her leg, grunting. Then she blacked out.
Cosby challenged Shapiro to a few pinball games, and then to a competition: whoever lost the next game would need to swallow a small pill. After Shapiro took the pill, she passed out. She woke up in bed, naked, with Cosby inside her.
Cosby handed Steuer a drink and insisted she perform an improv exercise, pretending she was a queen with oatmeal covering her face. She began to feel woozy. Her next memory is of Cosby standing above her — her clothes off — in a bathrobe.
So many of the stories are like this. But then there were the ones that, if possible, seemed to take Cosby’s monstrosity to another level—emphasizing his role as a predator.
He knew that Valentino’s 6-year-old son had recently died, and he told Valentino’s friend that he thought she could use some cheering up. Cosby offered to take them to the steam baths and then out. They accepted the invitation and met Cosby for dinner. “I was just sitting there, letting them talk,” Valentino says. “I was sitting there looking glum, not participating.” Cosby reached across the table and put a pill next to Valentino’s wine glass, and he told her to take it. It would make her feel better, he said. She swallowed the pill, and later another one. Cosby also pushed two pills on Valentino’s friend.
Who—what—other than an actual monster, would capitalize on someone mourning the death of her child, preying on her vulnerability to build trust, and then rape her? I would say this is the stuff of a comic book villain, except that even comic book writers—where they don’t know better than to use rape as a plot device—wouldn’t imagine someone so heinous.
Several of the women, those who were assaulted decades ago, spoke about how they didn’t process what had happened to them as rape, because rape was the sort of thing that happened at knife or gunpoint in a dark alley. It seems incomprehensible now, but for these women at the time, date rape as a concept hadn’t yet gained any traction.
“I couldn’t put a name to it. I didn’t say accosted. I didn’t know what to call it. The difference between this and somebody else’s rape in the dark alley is that his face would be before me every week on TV.”
“There’s much more of an awareness now. Date rape, in my day, there wasn’t such a thing. There was no word for it.”
A line is still drawn between date rape and…let’s call it “alley rape”, under the pretext that only the latter is violent. But all rape is violent, whether the perpetrator uses a gun, a knife, or a quaalude. Or some psychological advantage—status, age, rank—that gives them power over the victim. Violence is by definition, “an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power”.
And sometimes, it wasn’t much different than a dark alley scenario. I imagine the perpetrator in the alley feels an incredible sense of entitlement, that his target—or women more broadly—owe him something. That he has some right to take something from them, because of his power, wealth, status, or just because he’s a man.
Moritz was getting ready to appear on the Tonight Show when someone opened the door of her dressing room. Cosby stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He stood above Moritz and unzipped his pants. He pushed his penis into her mouth. “It was automatic. It was like he did this with everyone that was on a show with him backstage.
An actual fucking monster.
Several of the women referred to their cognitive dissonance at being victimized by a man with such a wholesome image—a television father who was invited into millions of living rooms over more than a decade. This, in addition to his power as a Hollywood insider, prevented them from coming forward. Because who would believe them? And when this story first started trickling out ten years ago, many of us didn’t believe them, assuming it was some ploy to siphon money from Cosby, or for some inexplicable reason to smear his reputation.
All rape is violent, whether the perpetrator uses a gun, a knife, or a quaalude.
As I realized these accounts date back to the 60s, another thought came piercing through the haze. The truth of the matter is that these revelations haven’t tarnished the image of Cliff Huxtable, and changed him into a monster. Rather, the image of Cliff Huxtable was built around an actual monster. A monster playing his best role yet, as a beloved family icon and upstanding public figure.
Bill Cosby has been playing a long con with the entire country for close to fifty years. To read these women’s stories makes it seem like it was all part of some grand game. In his arrogance, he has even gone so far as to tilt his hand on several occasions. “You have to be careful about drinking around me,” he said to a woman in the audience at a recent show in Ontario.
I started to wonder if the character of Cliff Huxtable, loving father at home, and at work an OB/GYN whose patients we seldom if ever meet, wasn’t some sort of sleazy, self-satisfied nod to his double life as lovable icon and rapist. Daring his audience to see him for what he was, just as he implicitly dared the survivors to come forward, smugly confident they would not.
These revelations haven’t tarnished the image of Cliff Huxtable, and changed him into a monster. Rather, the image of Cliff Huxtable was built around an actual monster.
Bill Cosby is only one man. One man who assaulted as many as 46 women. He does not exist in a vacuum, a single cancerous space completely isolated from Hollywood as an institution. How many other Cosbys are there—casual, matter-of-fact, entitled—committing sexual assault and disappearing survivors behind the curtains of their power and influence, and our culture of silence?
Then I came to the story of Jewel Allison, which pulled me from abstraction. Her encounter with Cosby was similar to many others. An invitation to his brownstone, a glass of wine, disorientation, followed by flashes of images indicating that something terrible had happened. But Ms. Allison’s account stood out to me for how her experience intersected with race.
“I had a few moments where I tried to come forward. I’ve picked up the phone more than once over the course of two decades. This is before the women started coming forward in large numbers. But I was just too scared, and I also had the extra burden of not really wanting to take an African-American man down. I’ve always been very closely involved in the Black community. And for me to come forward and basically destroy this very positive image of, as few as we have, of African-American men in America, it was just too difficult to do at that time.”
Like the other women, she felt coerced into silence, not by any overt threat, but by the symbolic threat of Cosby’s power as a celebrity, and the inevitable repercussions for her life and career. The average rape survivor is likely to face a backlash for coming forward, but to speak out against such a powerful figure is to risk the complete annihilation of her character, as a public spectacle.
But unlike the other women—most of whom were white—Ms. Allison also felt torn between her own personal agency and a sense of responsibility to a broader community. Part of the Black experience in the United States is often a feeling that everything you do is under scrutiny, not only a judgment of you as an individual, but that somehow your actions and character also say something about all Black people. This is not some baseless pathology, but something deeply rooted in how Black people are represented. Ms. Allison knew that to expose Cosby as a monster would also invite a searing indictment of Black Morality as a whole—which here in the U.S. is forever on trial.
More specifically, and perhaps inconceivably to most, Ms. Allison felt some responsibility to Bill Cosby himself. She understood what it meant that he had achieved so much as a Black man in a racist country and industry, and couldn’t bring herself to be the one to possibly take it away from him. She understood that although Bill Cosby was a monster playing the role of a respectable, successful Black man, against the odds, his importance as a symbol to other Black Americans was great. It is difficult to even imagine anyone taking on that burden, of denying herself justice out of a deep-seated sense of moral obligation to her community.
It becomes even more difficult to stomach when you consider that Bill Cosby cultivated a secondary reputation as the self-appointed Redeemer of all Black People, the Beater of Black Brows. That this man could stand in front of college graduates, amongst others, and preach to them about values, while secretly being a career rapist, is beyond comprehension. It suggests Cosby fell for his own ruse, confusing the role he had been playing for decades, with the real monster he actually was. Or perhaps there was no confusion, and in the absence of Cliff Huxtable from television, the monster had to devise a new persona as a public moralist, in diametric opposition to his true self.
So imagine being Jewel Allison, and having to watch this man—her rapist—attack and condescend to the very community for which she was willing to sacrifice her own agency, and psychological well-being. I can imagine it felt like a second violation, a glare through the fourth wall, chiding her for not speaking up, and still daring her to do so. The symbol she sought to preserve in the collective consciousness of her community had become instead a toxin, eating away at it from the inside.
Jewel Allison’s story highlighted for me—again—the double burden of being a Black woman in the United States. While I can only imagine what she experienced—what any Black woman experiences—her story renewed my own sense of obligation as a Black man to keep my eyes and ears and heart open to those experiences. And to provide any support I can.
In the absence of Cliff Huxtable from television, the monster had to devise a new persona as a public moralist…
Bill Cosby is a monster, one that has finally been dragged out into the light, hopefully to face justice. But he is also a symbol, no longer of wholesome family values, but of an ugliness allowed to exist in plain sight, while we avert our gazes or attempt to explain it away. If there is anything positive to take away from all of this, it is the hope that it signals a paradigm shift in how we, as a society, address the culture of rape. How we listen to women—and men—who confide in us their pain and humiliation.
The response to Cosby’s monstrous exploits has been massive. Perhaps 10 years too late, it has become the cover story of a major magazine, and a trending topic on social media. By way of the #TheEmptyChair hashtag on Twitter, (referring to the image on the magazine cover, representing unnamed survivors) other women have felt empowered to tell their stories.
But it is not enough for those who have been survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories. It should not be their burden to bear alone. We—all of us—have to acknowledge, deconstruct, and ultimately dismantle the culture of rape so that fewer and fewer people even have these stories to tell.
We all have to remain vigilant, and listen. Even when there seems to only be silence.