I have no trouble believing that a beloved national figure who has brought joy and laughter to millions of people is a pervert in private.
In the last couple of years alone, we’ve seen a string of stellar reputations shredded to bits after allegations of sexual improprieties broke into the open after years of whispers, rumors, investigations and even lawsuits. It’s hardly an overstatement to say that societies are rocked when these things happen.
Last month, Canada recoiled when it was revealed that the country’s most high-profile interviewer, Jian Ghomeshi, was abruptly fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. after several women came forward to accuse him of brutalizing them during sexual encounters.
In 2012, Britain dropped its jaw to learn that BBC host Jimmy Savile of “Top of the Pops,” who was known for his extensive children’s charity work, had been sexually abusing children for more than 40 years. Savile, who had been the subject of several abortive investigations, was determined to have abused more than 450 children under the very nose of the nation that adored him. Too bad he died the year before the revelations came out.
Now it’s American entertainer Bill Cosby’s turn in this kind of ugly spotlight.
It must seem so weird for so many. Cosby, after all, is the paternal figure whose iconic sitcom “The Cosby Show” helped normalize the idea of the upscale professional black American family. He was the manchild who could talk with kids as a peer, even as he hawked them Jell-O pudding pops. He was the stern, up-by-his-bootstraps success story lecturing African American parents to do a better job of raising their children, and wagging his finger at their children to have more respect.
The rumblings about Cosby have been out there for years.
In 2005, the director of operations for Temple University’s basketball program, Andrea Constand, filed a lawsuit against Cosby, accusing him of drugging and fondling her in 2004. The case was settled out of court for undisclosed terms in 2006, but her attorneys, according to the lawsuit, included at least 10 other women who were witnesses to “prior sexual assaults.” One of the women was named; the others were identified as Jane Does 1 through 9.
Prosecutors declined to charge Cosby in that case, and in fact, he has never been charged in connection with any of the accusations.
His most high-profile accuser, after Constand, is Barbara Bowman, a married Arizona mother of two, who claims Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her beginning in 1985 when she was a 17-year-old aspiring actress. She has been telling her story repeatedly for the last decade. On Friday, the Washington Post published an essay by Bowman with the explosive headline: “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”
Bowman wrote that she was emboldened to tell her story after Constand went public with her accusations:
“When Constand brought her lawsuit, I found renewed confidence. I was determined to not be silent any more. In 2006, I was interviewed by Robert Huber for Philadelphia Magazine, and Alycia Lane for KYW-TV news in Philadelphia. A reporter wrote about my experience in the December 2006 issue of People Magazine. And last February, Katie Baker interviewed me for Newsweek. Bloggers and columnists wrote about that story for several months after it was published. Still, my complaint didn’t seem to take hold.
“Only after a man, Hannibal Buress, called Bill Cosby a rapist in a comedy act last month did the public outcry begin in earnest. The original video of Buress’s performance went viral. This week, Twitter turned against him, too, with a meme that emblazoned rape scenarios across pictures of his face.”
Bowman also repeated her allegations in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. He asked her why she didn’t take legal action.
“I tried,” she said. “I told my agent. She did not believe me. In ’89, a friend took me to an attorney. He laughed me out of his office. [Cosby] was Dr. Huxtable. He was America’s dad. Everybody loved him. I loved him. I wanted him to be my dad, and nobody believed me.”
There’s an almost mathematical rule that explains why it took so long for this scandal to get traction. The length of time it takes for the public to believe sordid allegations about Person A is in direct relation to Person A’s fame quotient, Person A’s power and Person A’s good works in the community.
In Cosby’s case, I don’t think the tipping point was simply that a man took the charges seriously, but that social media, especially Twitter, which has the power to amplify outrage, took up the charge.
Also, the accuser in this case was not someone you might expect to cast aspersions on a man such as Cosby. Buress is an African American comedian, who included the rape allegations in his stand-up act on Oct. 16 at Philadelphia’s Trocadero Club. According to an account by Dan McQuade in Philadelphia magazine, Buress was actually riffing about the patronizing way Cosby speaks to blacks.
“It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the ... smuggest old black man persona that I hate. He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”
Cosby unwittingly added to the momentum when he posted a meme generator on his website with the invitation, “Go ahead, meme me!” The resulting memes were brutal, and the generator has been taken down from Cosby’s site.
Cosby, it must be emphasized, has been charged with no crime, and over the weekend in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, he refused to respond when Simon asked him three times to address the allegations.
On Sunday, his attorney John P. Schmitt issued a statement calling the allegations -- all of them -- “decade-old” and “discredited.” “The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment.” Through Schmitt, Cosby thanked his fans and assured them that “at age 77, he is doing his best work.”
But if that was meant to put an end to the matter, it has not.
On Monday, a former actress and music industry publicist named Joan Tarshis told the Hollywood Elsewhere website that Cosby drugged and raped her twice in 1969 when she was 19.
“During those years as I grew into adulthood,” Tarshis told Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells, “I watched Cosby be praised by everyone from presidents to Oprah to the Jello Corp. It all made me ill, knowing first-hand there was something unbalanced about him. ... And though I knew I should say something, I still felt ashamed.”
It’s not clear what the fallout will be for Cosby and the entertainment companies he’s doing business with. Netflix is supposed to live-stream a Cosby comedy special the day after Thanksgiving. And NBC, home of “The Cosby Show,” was developing a new sitcom with him.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t see him starring in a new sitcom. Not while he’s already starring in a sordid drama like this.