Two and a half years ago I found myself in a room of people defending Bill Cosby against rape allegations. The room was full of members of my family. Some of them remained quiet and listened, but others were very vocal about their support of the man they felt they knew after years, or entire lifetimes, of watching him on television. “It all just sounds too convenient,” one of them said. “How did all these women know to tell these stories all at the same time?” Another person piped in, “And if he did it, what took them all so long to report him? Why now?” Then there was the quiet voice in the corner who spoke just loud enough for us all to hear, “I can just tell he didn’t do it. I can look at him and see that’s not the kind of man he is.”
I sat in my chair wide-eyed. I don’t live in the same town as my family, and I had returned suddenly to say goodbye to my dying grandmother. I’m always wary of becoming the out-of-town daughter/cousin/sister who used her working class Midwestern work ethic to get a good job on the east coast, then comes back haughty and dripping condescension at her family’s perceived lack of sophistication. I knew people like that, and found them silly and insecure. To me, my family was just as capable of critical-thinking as I was, no matter how much schooling they’d had. I didn’t want them thinking I thought I was hot shit, but my family is familiar with my need to stick up for what’s right, no matter what. That pattern of behavior started long before I ever went away to college or moved to Brooklyn.
When the conversation in the room reached a fever pitch and no one would say, or admit, that Bill Cosby might be rightfully accused of sexually assault, I spoke up. I turned to the person who last spoke and said, “What do you think a woman receives for accusing a famous and beloved man of sexual assault?” This person sneered a little, and said, “Fame, duh. Why else do it?” I remained calm, though I felt anything but, when I followed up. “Can you give me some examples of women who have gotten famous after accusing famous men of rape?” The room went silent. Of course they couldn’t provide examples. There aren’t any, and their never have been. No women get famous from accusing famous of sexual assault or rape. It doesn’t happen. Another person spoke up, “I just don’t think Cliff Huxtable would do something like that.” This is where I lost my mind. I slammed my hand down on the table between us and screamed through clenched teeth, “Bill Cosby is NOT Cliff Huxtable! Cliff Huxtable isn’t real!” After a long beat of quiet, someone suggested we change the subject. I gathered my belongings to leave.
In that room, with my family, I had felt safe until I didn’t. At that point, I had been seriously working on a memoir about my girlhood, being sexually assaulted at the turn of the century, and learning what it meant to love my father who was incarcerated on rape charges. Some of my family members had read my work, and most of them knew about my experience. Which means they also knew that I hadn’t reported being raped for fear of not being believed. I had been scared to share these things with my family as a child, but less so as an adult. Suddenly, I was afraid again. The defenses they were throwing around for Cosby could have easily been applied to what had happened to me. Maybe they didn’t believe me after all. Maybe when I wasn’t in the room—and I was hardly ever in the room—they spoke about me the same way they spoke about the women who had accused Bill Cosby. I didn’t know whether my fears were ridiculous, or simply aligned with the way we can expect to hear people talk about women who dare to speak up about being raped in this country. But I didn’t want to be angry with my family, the people who loved me, and had loved me all my life. I looked for reasons to be sure they believed me. My mother said she did, and I believed her. I started there. I was startled when I found myself thinking maybe they believed me because the boy who raped me wasn’t on television.
A few days ago I was scrolling through my Twitter TL when I saw that Bill Cosby was finally going to court to face charges from one of the almost sixty women who had accused him of misconduct. He entered the courtroom flanked by his legal team, and the actress Keisha Knight-Pullam who’d played his youngest daughter, Rudy, on The Cosby Show. I felt sick to my stomach, immediately understanding the picture he was trying to paint for the court of public opinion: their favorite tv dad, going to face down the women who wanted to destroy our childhood image of him. I thought of my family, or at least, the people who had been in that room two and a half years ago. I wondered if this was working on them, as they were certainly in the target audience for such a stunt. Knight-Pullam clung to his arm and beamed. Later she went on the Today Show and stated that she “truly believes in innocent until proven guilty”, and she doesn’t think that her show of support for Cosby in any way condones sexual assault. I truly wonder if she could say that to the faces of his accusers without hearing how weak it sounds, how utterly unconvincing.
Two days after walking into court with his TV daughter on his arm, Bill Cosby exited court again, still flanked by his legal team, and let out a hearty,
“HEY! HEY! HEY!”
If you aren’t familiar, that is the catchphrase of the beloved cartoon character Fat Albert, who was also written and voiced by Bill Cosby. When I first saw that this had happened, I thought it was a joke. I assumed there was no way an adult man on trial for three charges of aggravated indecent assault would, upon leaving the courtroom for the day, do something so gross and cloying. My initial reaction was wrong. He did it.
Again I thought of those members of my family, I thought of how badly they clearly wanted to believe he was innocent, for whatever reason. Would they finally be starting to see the attempts at manipulation, and perhaps, look a little closer at their devotion to this man? On Thursday, June 15, 2017, the jury in the case against Cosby came back to the judge with a hung verdict. The judge has rightly sent them back to deliberation. There is no telling what will happen from here, but my hopes aren’t high. I know how this country treats the women who speak up and speak out. I know how this country reveres men for their artistic contributions, and considers the bodies they break along the way worth the cost. I know there’s somebody in that deliberation room right now who looks over at Bill Cosby and doesn’t see Bill Cosby. They see Cliff Huxtable. And that’s how Bill Cosby is going to get away with the bodies he broke.