What’s the definition of a "good person"? I ask myself this question at least once a week. Last week, I asked myself more than usual as a locked jury failed to convict America’s former favorite father figure just in time for Father’s Day. Bill Cosby will forever walk with a shadow over his once pristine reputation. A few days ago he walked out of the courtroom on Saturday a free man after months of speculation on whether or not he has been guilty of sexually assaulting women for over 30 years. The Dr. Huxtable we knew and loved was gone, instead, he’s been replaced with a babbling, vastly aged man, disgraced and abandoned by his adoring public. Whatever childhood memory you had growing up watching Rudy and Theo and Claire convey a typical, everyday family is now besmirched with the stench of perversion and near-psychotic behavior. For most of America this was hard to swallow. But for me, it was not. Not in the least.
Prior to 1997 my father was just my dad. He told dad jokes, he made us help him wash his car on Sunday afternoons, he pinched the toe of our shoes to see if we needed a new pair. He brought home the bacon, watered the grass and took out the garbage. He assigned chores and doled out allowances. He did dad things. But after 1997, my father was replaced with someone else. This new person was strange and unfamiliar. He was shadowy and secretive. He was accused, tried and convicted of sexual assault and then, unlike Cosby, handed a prison sentence. Twenty years ago, I learned — at a very tender age — that fathers are people and people can sometimes be monsters.
Bill Cosby is not a superhero. He’s a performer. He’s well-poised, well-educated and well-spoken. None of these things disqualifies him from also potentially causing other people unimaginable harm. Among the accolades he received, the presidential honors, the sidewalk stars, sitcoms and stand-up specials, Bill Cosby was also raping women. We need to call it what it was. His countless medals of merit shined a glossy doubt on what otherwise would be considered an open and shut case. I have to admit this case stirred up some childhood memories I had long since forgotten about. The deterioration of someone you deemed impenetrable is hard to get over. But we have to remember how very common this scene actually is.
Ninety-three percent of sexual assault crimes in America are committed by an acquaintance — 35 percent of those cases are committed by a family member. Rape is not about lust or sexual attraction, it’s about power, ego and control. The face of rape is not that of some masked perpetrator wielding a weapon and lunging out of dark corners. It’s a familiar face, one that is trusted. It’s not just hurtful to entertain the idea that a man can be too prestigious or socially valuable to be a rapist, it’s also dangerous and unfairly influential.
For me, accepting that my father had committed such unspeakable acts involved an extensive grieving process. For several years preceding his conviction, I told people that he died. This allowed me to continue remembering the father I knew and also acknowledging that he was no longer my father. There is no play book to draw from when it comes to being the daughter of a sexual abuser. There are books about divorce, about mourning the death of a parent, about dealing with a parent who has been sent to prison for other types of crimes. But no one told me how to handle such a unique position. I learned early on that I could can either accept the uncomfortable truth or deny it completely. There is no halfway.
The open letter from Cosby’s daughter Evin reminded me of the emotional struggle. There was his faithful child, summarizing her memoirs briefly in defense of her father and her entire family. She was defending, essentially, everything she knew. Her father was the center of controversy for a long time and she was numb to it. The media seemed to love taking jabs at him. She recalled that when her brother, Ennis, was murdered in 1997 it was the first time a woman accused her beloved father of infidelity. She mentioned how that woman was eventually arrested for extortion. She went on to poke holes into some of the allegations that came to surface in the years following. I don’t doubt that she believes everything she wrote. But while some truths are easier to believe than others that doesn’t make them anymore true.
I won’t assume that all of Cosby’s supporters actually accepted the truth. Standing in someone’s corner is not the same as believing their innocence. We saw the PR-polished, ready-for-TV front that was presented, shielded by sunglasses or a camera-ready smile as they shuffled to and from the courtroom. We don’t know the conversations, the admissions, the bargaining that may have happened behind closed doors. After all, for the sake of appearances and emotional survival we can miraculously swallow things that may otherwise choke us to death.
Yet, to the women Cosby mistreated, molested and/or raped, his sheen and luster was nothing more than a dust cloud they had to find their way through in order to process the scope of what happened to them. It is possible of course that some of his accusers were falsifying their statements, perhaps some of them were jumping on a bandwagon after settlement money. But keep in mind the statistic that only 2-10 percent of rapes reported are found to be untrue. After 100 women recounted eerily similar experiences, some unable to find their breath as they sobbed through the retelling of events, his culpability became pretty clear. Still, it was the profile of a rapist that seemed to be his most important saving grace, in that he didn’t fit into it.
In the wake of the Cosby acquittal, in the wake of Donald Trump's presidency, it becomes painfully clear that sexual assault is not a serious crime. It's a horrendous and life-altering tragedy. It’s traumatizing and permanently debilitating and paralyzing, except only for the victims. What's worse is that for the women that have to endure this, it is repeatedly forgiven by the justice system and society. It is not considered a serious crime in this country. We are constantly, constantly bombarded with careless shrugs as we watch case after case — whether against a famous actor or a pimply college swimmer — gets brushed aside or dismissed for one reason or another. This flimsy and unjust process is built on the idea that rapists are villains who only exist in nightmarish scenes, instead of on the statistical evidence that rapists are friends, lovers, neighbors, teachers and yes — even fathers; that people you trust can be monsters and also smile and wave convincingly at a television camera or raise well-adjusted children or give famous speeches or break records or hold political office.
It’s likely that Cosby will again find himself in court, facing an array of additional accusations from another swarm of women that claims to have been assaulted by him. It’s very likely that he’ll walk free once again. After all, perception is currency in cases of rape — this we know for sure. But I have seen both sides and I know this cannot be about assigning righteousness or exemption based on pure nostalgia or good intentions. Our heroes can be heroes and still also be villains.
(Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage)
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