Bill Cosby: An Obituary

The comedian was one the most influential people in my life.  He raped several people.


For the last several years of my life, I have mentally prepared myself for the death of Bill Cosby.  I am a person who usually rejects dead celebrity worship, but this would be one of the rare exceptions for me.  In the last ten years I have moved to multiple apartments in multiple states, packing all my belongings: computer, books, art supplies, mental bullet points on how to reflect on the death of Bill Cosby should the moment inevitably come while I’m at work one afternoon.  I have lived in Atlanta for six years now and only last year remembered to buy a fire extinguisher; it was before the Atlanta move that I started thinking how I’d talk about Bill Cosby dying.

What I’m writing here is a combination of things I’ve had to think about or the last few days, and things I’ve thought about for nearly a decade.  And ultimately it’s about how the former was hindered by the latter.  This is, for all intents and purposes, the memorial I knew I was going to have to write about a person who is no longer in my world anymore.

Before I go any further with this, I’m going to get a few things out of the way: while I’m about to talk about how certain events have affected me personally, in no way am I attempting to suggest that my thoughts compare to anything experienced by Cosby’s victims.  I am dropping legalese such as the term “allegedly” from the get-go for two reasons, those being that saying it each time is redundant and that what I’m saying here are my personal beliefs about a topic, which I’m going to state with my conviction.  I am a white male, which means my perspective on both sexual violence and the perceptions of black people in media and culture are not unique and certainly not definitive, though ironically by being a white male may be unfairly acknowledged as such.  For that, for any natural inability to understand another perspective, and most importantly for having been either unwilling or uninterested in discussing any of this sooner, I apologize.

As of the time I am writing this, sixteen women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault.

Bill Cosby was the first black man I ever knew, and would be the only black man I knew for much of the first part of my life.  I grew up in the admirably integrated town of Teaneck, New Jersey, but as a child, most of the black people I knew were other children.  I had no black neighbors.  My first black teacher would be in sixth grade.  Thanks to my parents’ record player I knew Bill Cosby even before I knew Levar Burton and even before Gordon, and if I have that wrong, I certainly don’t remember when I first watched Reading Rainbow or Sesame Street, but I remember climbing downstairs when I was five to go to the den and put Wonderfulness on the RCA hi-fi again.

As you will probably hear from everyone else in the media over the next few weeks, Bill Cosby was a 1980’s white kid’s introduction not only to diversity but to comedy itself.  Five-year-olds don’t get to listen to George Carlin or Richard Pryor and certainly didn’t get to go see Eddie Murphy’s Raw in movie theaters.  But they got to listen to and watch Bill Cosby.  He was the comedian that was okay to listen to.  He was America’s Dad.  He wore sweaters and liked Jello.  He has been repeatedly accused of drugging women and performing sexual acts on them while they were unconscious.

When I look back on every other interest I took in writing or television, I can trace that to listening to Bill Cosby.  I would listen to his material over and over again even into my teens.  I owe a significant portion of my interest in being a writer and an artist today to Cosby’s work.   The person I’m reflecting on today is one of the most significant creative influences in my life.  My dad gave me vinyl LPs of Cosby’s performances from before I was even born as gifts.  I bought my dad the DVD of Cosby’s last Comedy Central special for Christmas last year.  We have shared Bill Cosby with each other for the entire 33 years of my life.  Bill Cosby is a rapist.

And there it is right there.  If I am to legally quantify it, I suppose I should do so just once: I believe that Bill Cosby is a rapist.  I believe this because the preponderance of evidence clearly suggests it.  I believe this because multiple women have told almost eerily identical stories about their experiences with Cosby.  I believe this because those women have, at this point, absolutely nothing to gain and almost everything to lose in light of the way our society responds to people who accuse powerful people of terrible acts.  I believe this because to believe otherwise at this point is an act of denial that I couldn’t like myself as a person to ignore anymore.

I’ve thought of two comments over the last few days about this.  The first is a joke by Chris Rock about the second Michael Jackson trial, when Rock darkly quipped “you know how much we like Michael Jackson? We let the first young boy slide.” It’s a nasty and cynical observation that yeah, in light of Jackson’s second accusation, our rigid defense of him in the first one makes us look pretty naïve.  And maybe there’s still people who don’t believe it.  Or maybe we just don’t want to.  That’s what went through my head reading this second comment, from this amazing editorial by Amanda Taub:

Believing or even paying attention to the allegations against Cosby would have required us all to do work and make sacrifices, and we didn’t want to do that. Ignoring his accusers meant that we got to keep our happy childhood memories of the Cosby Show. Ignoring his accusers meant that we got to keep laughing at Cosby’s classic standup routines, which still hold up, even after all those years.  Ignoring his accusers meant that we got to keep Cosby as a powerful cultural figure.

Maybe I just don’t want to believe it.  Maybe I just want to pretend that there is a reasonable doubt.  Maybe I would really like to think that there’s a convincing argument that sixteen women have conspired to weave a web of deception and extortion against Bill Cosby, who already privately settled out of court with one when another dozen were willing to testify against him.  When he has not only refused to acknowledge the accusations but is now trying to silence reporters from asking about them.  Maybe it’s all a conspiracy.  Or maybe once again as a culture we let a rich and powerful person get away with horrible things because to do otherwise is really hard.

There’s an argument in all situations like this about the ability to “separate the art from the artist.” To be honest, I have never been able to take a side on that for very long.  That’s not an attempt at denial or disrespect of Cosby’s victims; it’s just an acknowledgement of everything I said earlier.  The work of Bill Cosby shaped my creative passions.  I have  listened to countless hours of his material, repeatedly.  These are facts that are incapable of being somehow undone.

But what I know is that all of that was the work of a person who is very different than the person I know about now.  I can’t pretend that the Bill Cosby I grew up loving exists any more than I can pretend my grandparents are still alive.  The Bill Cosby who lived up to his public persona–the Bill Cosby who didn’t rape over a dozen people–does not exist anymore.  In reality, he never did, and what I have are stories made in my head like the ones you made as a child holding a black and white photo on the mantle of a stranger in an army uniform.   But those are good memories, and I realize it will offend many to say that they are memories I intend to hold onto.

I wish I could say something that met the emotional or principled needs of everyone.  I can’t.  There are aspects of this, mostly those tied to race and gender, that I will of course never be able to share a perspective on.  There are those who would want a more direct and passionate call for justice, rage, or severity, and I imagine I will upset those people by not joining them.

I believe Bill Cosby is a rapist.  I realize I should have believed that sooner.  I know why I didn’t.  It will take me a while to deal with that, which is a task I have to take on with me and myself alone.  But at the same time, while in no way comparative to the hurt and pain others have endured, I am dealing with a huge loss in my life right now, but accepting that I am, and why I am, will be the first part of healing.