I want to tell you I loved Bill Cosby for a long time. I loved him because as a kid, I watched The Cosby Show and I saw a family that was similar to mine–middle class, loving, imperfect. When I watched A Different World I saw what college might look like for a girl like me. Bill Cosby was, I thought, the warm, funny man who wore ugly sweaters and always had something kind to say. He was the Jello Pudding Pop man. He was a champion of black colleges and black people and even when he was admonishing us, I believed he was a good man with good intentions.
And then I didn’t. I started hearing rumors years ago but I didn’t want to believe them. I could not (or perhaps, more accurately, was unwilling to) reconcile the Bill Cosby I loved with the predator many people knew him to be. But eventually, I had to. Over the years, we have learned more and more about the man behind the intricately crafted Cosby myth. We have learned he is a serial rapist. He is a pathological liar and manipulator. He is an extraordinary hypocrite. He has used fame and wealth to both commit and cover up his crimes. He has been enabled by his wife and everyone in his professional and personal circles.
(Let’s take a moment to throw some side eye at Camille Cosby who has either been profoundly brainwashed or is just as bad as her husband.)
The faith I once had in Cosby angers and shames me.
Whenever we learn about the misdeeds of a powerful artist or public figure, we worry over what befalls his legacy. We have intellectual debates about separating art from the artist. I have participated in these debates but I can’t do it anymore. As I write this I realize that by even considering Cosby’s legacy or what he meant to me or anyone else focuses the conversation on him and the possibility of redemption instead of where it belongs–the women he hurt, the hypocrisy, the culture that allowed his criminality to thrive. It doesn’t matter one little bit that I once loved Bill Cosby or his work. I have to let that go. Anything he created stands on a foundation of deceit, manipulation and the worst of human nature. His “legacy” is irrelevant in the face of the crimes he has committed. As I’ve written before, we must choose humanity over legacy and over art or accomplishment.
This week’s New York magazine features thirty-five of the women Cosby assaulted. (Here is an archived version if the New York site is still down.) These women are offering deeply personal testimony. They are willing to withstand the inevitable, unbearable public scrutiny that goes with discussing sexual assault as a victim. They are standing up for themselves, for other women and men who have been victimized, for the truth. They are demanding to be heard. It is a brave thing they are doing.
Cosby has more than forty known victims. He has, in a deposition, attested to how he manipulates and incapacitates the women he assaults. Still, there are doubters. Still, there are people who refuse to believe Bill Cosby is a rapist. Time and again we are reminded that even in the face of overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence, too many people prefer to disbelieve victims of rape and sexual assault.
What is most striking about the New York magazine cover, beyond the visual of thirty-five women who have been violated by the same man, is the empty chair where all the women who can’t come forward might sit.
I recently read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, a book worthy of your time because we think we know about rape culture but Missoula shows just how powerful that culture is and how that culture thrives. It shows what it takes for a victim of sexual assault or rape to come forward. It shows how nearly impossible it is to get justice when you do report sexual assault and rape because our justice system is predicated on exerting as much energy as possible into doubting and discrediting victims who come forward while protecting the victimizers. It’s a harsh reality the book presents but one it is important to face. That empty chair stands for all the injustice Krakauer chronicles and much more.
It is so important for that empty chair to be there, so all of us who stay silent for whatever reason can know there is a place, waiting for us, if and when we are ready. I hope, above all else, that these thirty-five women sharing their stories will help more victims of rape and sexual assault feel ready to take their seat.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.