It’s been three earth-shaking weeks since Joan Tarshis went public with her account of being drugged and raped years ago by Bill Cosby. His reputation is suddenly in tatters, and something fundamental has changed for her as well.
“I feel validated,” she told me by phone Monday from her home in Woodstock, N.Y. “I feel empowered that I could get this off my chest and out of my stomach, where it lived. I feel a lot lighter.”
And frankly, she’s also in a little bit of shock.
“I never thought in a million years that anything like this was going to happen, that he would be rocketed off his pedestal. I just thought, well, he’s going to take his image to his grave and he’s going to die with everyone thinking he’s the all-American father.”
Tarshis has alleged that she was assaulted twice by Cosby in 1969, when she was a 19-year-old aspiring comedy writer. The first assault occurred, she said, at his bungalow on the Universal Studios lot when he was starring as a P.E. teacher in “The Bill Cosby Show.” She met him while working on material for the comedian Godfrey Cambridge. Cosby invited her to write with him, gave her a cocktail, and the next thing she knew, she said, she was being undressed and raped.
The second assault, she alleged, took place at the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York. She was in New York at her parents, and Cosby called her there to invite her to a performance at a theater on Long Island. Her mother, bursting with pride that her daughter was working with such a successful entertainer, was thrilled to pick up the phone and hear Cosby calling to invite her daughter to his show.
“I was repulsed by the thought of seeing him again, but I saw no way out,” Tarshis wrote in an account published last month on the website Hollywood Elsewhere. “I couldn’t tell my mother what he had done. Or what I had let happen.” She believes Cosby drugged her drink on the way to the theater, where she became woozy and had to return to the limo. “The next thing I remember was waking up in his bed back at the Sherry, naked. I remember thinking, ‘You old [expletive]. I guess you got me this time, but it’s the last time you’ll ever see me.'”
It might have been the last time he saw her, but she would be forced to see him again and again -- on TV shows, in commercials, on the news as his career blossomed and reached a peak in the 1980s and ‘90s with his hit series “The Cosby Show.”
(Cosby’s attorney has said the comedian, who has denied assaulting women, would not address “discredited” claims. Tarshis had told a few friends about the incidents 20 years after they happened, but she did not go public with her story before last month, so it's not clear how this story is "discredited.")
“I didn’t write comedy again after that,” Tarshis, 66, told me. “It just really soured me.” Instead, she became a publicist for comedians, then musicians, before settling into a career as a freelance magazine writer. Her big break came in 1995 when she wrote a piece for Parade magazine about the importance of donating organs after she donated a kidney to a friend.
Tarshis told me that for many years, she really didn’t know how to think about what had happened to her. When Whoopi Goldberg, one of Cosby’s few high-profile defenders, suggested recently on “The View” that the women allegedly raped by Cosby should have gone to the police and been tested with rape kits, Tarshis said she didn’t even grasp that she had been raped. (And in any case, rape kits did not come into common use as a law enforcement tool until after 2000.)
“Rape happened in a dark alley with somebody that you didn’t know, with a knife held to your throat and they say, ‘If you make a noise, I will kill you,’” Tarshis told me. “I didn’t know what this was, except it was something horrible. If I had been raped by someone I didn’t know, I think it would have been easier to deal with than somebody getting awards from the president of the United States, and Oprah, and the Navy, and being invited to be on college board of directors. He was always winning something, donating something.”
Now the news about Cosby is all bad. And the scandal continues to snowball, with no end in sight.
Last week, my colleagues Kate Mather and Richard Winton reported that Judy Huth, a 55-year-old Los Angeles woman, filed a sexual battery lawsuit against Cosby claiming that he assaulted her at the Playboy Mansion in 1974 when she was 15. (Cosby’s attorney called the claim “patently false” in court documents and said that Huth, whose attorney is Gloria Allred, had tried to extort the comedian.)
Mather and Winton also reported that Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced his detectives would investigate any complaints against Cosby, even ones that exceeded the 10-year statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions. "We don't turn people away because things are out of statute. You come to us, especially with a sexual allegation, we will work with you," Beck said. "We address these things seriously, and it's not just because it's Mr. Cosby."
On Monday night, CNN is scheduled to broadcast “The Cosby Show,” a somewhat ironically titled hour-long special hosted by Don Lemon, which will feature a group interview with five of the 16 women who have alleged they are Cosby victims, including Tarshis.
One of the deepest lessons of this scandal, lost on none of the alleged victims, is the way that Cosby, who faced allegations for years, was able to use his tremendous power and prestige to bat them away.
The oft-maligned National Enquirer began reporting Cosby sex assault allegations in 2000, and published at least five separate pieces. And yet the publication also pulled its punches. In 2005, Cosby offered an exclusive interview in exchange for the tabloid killing a story about a former model named Beth Ferrier, who said she had a consensual affair with Cosby, but that in 1984, after a comedy show in Denver, he drugged and raped her, then left her alone in a car.
The actress and model Janice Dickinson said lawyers made her remove a section of her memoir in which she accused the comedian of drugging and raping her. (Cosby's attorney has denied that.) Temple University employee Andrea Constand claimed Cosby drugged and assaulted her at his Philadelphia home in 2004. A prosecutor said he believed Cosby had assaulted Constand, but did not think he would have been able to persuade a jury to convict. Constand filed a civil lawsuit against Cosby, but the terms of their out-of-court settlement were private.
Finally, things cracked open after Barbara Bowman, an aspiring actress who was briefly mentored by Cosby in 1985, wondered aloud in a Washington Post headline, “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”
Tarshis was emboldened to come forward after reading Bowman’s essay. She wrote about her experience and sent her essay to her friend Jeffrey Wells, who posted it Nov. 16 on his Hollywood Elsewhere website.
Later that night, Tarshis said, she got a call from a wire service editor who said, “Hang on, because your life isn’t going to be your own this week.” Her phone began ringing the next morning -- TV news producers, reporters -- and never let up for two weeks.
“It was very busy, very confusing,” she said. “I booked all my interviews myself. I would double book people and not remember who I just spoke to. I never would have done that to a client as a publicist.”
Since then, she has made several appearances on CNN, including one with Lemon in which he awkwardly suggested that she might have foiled Cosby by biting him when he forced her to have oral sex. (Tarshis said she was not offended; Lemon was hammered on social media for being insensitive and apologized on air the next day.)
Now that she's had some time to think about the magnitude of the claims against Cosby, she hopes that he will have what she calls a “spiritual awakening” and come to grips with the accusations against him. Already he has lost a Netflix special, and a planned NBC sitcom has been scuttled. On Dec. 1, he resigned from Temple University's board of trustees. Last week, the Navy withdrew his honorary title of chief petty officer.
"If he's a narcissist and a sociopath, he's probably blaming this all on us," said Tarshis. "We're the ones that have done him wrong. And if he isn't, he's probably not sleeping too well. I feel sorry for the guy. Isn’t that crazy? I feel sorry for him, and his children and his wife. To do this repeatedly, he must have something in him that’s in a lot of pain. I hope he gets well.”
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