My Dear Readers,
Recently, there have been a number of news reports regarding sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby from 40 years ago. In these allegations, sixteen women have publicly stated that Cosby, now 77 years old, sexually assaulted them with 13 of them asserting that he drugged or attempted to drug them prior to the assault.
There are some notable similarities among the alleged victims: at the time, they were young, white, without family attachments, being plied with drugs, responding to the fear that no one would believe them, and dealing with the possibility of living their lives traumatized and suffering in silence.
Now, I am not associated with the incidents. I haven’t met the women making the allegations, nor have I ever met Bill Cosby. However, as a mental health clinician treating victims of sexual assault, as a black man who has fought to move from “surviving to striving” in America, and as a father of two, I felt that I could not be silent on this issue.
Perspective 1: Mental Health Clinician
I recently received an email from a patient I have been seeing for the last five years. She has survived a series of repeated sexual assaults she endured in early and middle childhood by a paternal figure.
During this time this patient, who I shall call “Bobbi,” (for confidentiality purposes, this is not her real name) has learned to advocate for herself, obtain balance within, and project calmness. In doing so, she has gained a full sense of empowerment and the ability to strive in her life, and not simply survive the traumas and the horrific acts she experienced.
In Bobbi’s email she shares the following:
“I just listened to Thomas, Jack and Benny discuss Bill Cosby and the accusations of rape. Their lack of knowledge about women being raped surprised me. Statements like ‘Why would a woman wait 30 years to disclose it? One girl said she couldn’t keep silent anymore.’ Jack said, ‘The women are just doing it for the money. I don’t understand why they waited so long.’ Benny said, ‘I believe he did it.’
“Dr. Kane, I was so tempted to say something. I kept quiet about a rape for almost 40 years and I didn’t want money. I didn’t want to shock them or divulge information that I have only shared with you. The conversations discouraged me. It reminds me of the way people think and their lack of knowledge.
“I don’t think they realize how rape affects a woman. How it robs a person of life and joy. They seem to think once the rape is over, the woman goes on with a normal life.
“I am going to go into a sewing room and shut the door. This kind of foolish talk I hear sometimes is so discouraging. I don’t think society understands the continuing pain of being raped.”
It is not for me as a mental health clinician to speak for those victimized by such traumatic experiences. I believe that Bobbi has provided a clear statement as to the difficult experience of those who have been raped and the ignorance of family members and society as a whole on this subject.
At the moment, what concerns me is Bobbi “going into a sewing room and shutting the door.” I fear that she may be retreating into a world she has fought valiantly to emerge from.
It is statements made in ignorance and the lack of understanding victims’ experiences that places Bobbi and many like her at risk of reliving the trauma of their experience. It is in the role of therapist that we help victims move from the pit of surviving to be able to strive in the journey we call living.
Perspective 2: Black Man: From Surviving to Striving in America
One characteristic that we all share, regardless of race, is that as we are birthed into this world, we come in screaming at the top of our lungs, gasping for air with the goal of “survival.” Hopefully, we are received into this world by loving parents and a supportive network. No longer attached physically to our mother’s bodies, we are now “free”.
However, that’s where the commonalities stop. Where white males often take their place in the dominant society, black males continue as in birth to scream either at the top of their lungs or in silence to survive in a society where they are for the majority, viewed with suspicion, uneasiness, and with caution.
As black males go through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, they learn a reality that will follow them to their deaths:
Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take
I’ll be watching you.
Every single day
Every word you say
Every game you play, every night you stay
I’ll be watching you.
-Every Breath You Take by The Police (1983).
Life under the microscope, although inequitable and frustrating, is the norm for black males in America. Gossip, innuendos, whispers, stereotyping, rumors, outright lies, and half-truths make black males susceptible and vulnerable to attack, especially from a dominant majority who, due to intergenerational transference of conscious and unconscious racism, commit actions which destroys careers, devastates one’s professional/personal standing in the community, or devalues the individual psychologically.
The most valuable asset that a black man has is his reputation. It is his honor. It speaks for him. If it is seriously questioned, his life and the wellbeing of his family may be in jeopardy. It is normal that at times, one’s reputation can take a hit, or be subjected to jokes, but when there are major allegations of “inappropriate sexual behavior,” regardless of the longevity or timeline of such allegations, a response is most definitely required. As a result, it is unacceptable for Bill Cosby, when provided the opportunity to respond publicly, to simply refuse to respond. Instead, he has chosen to allow his attorneys to address the “innuendos.” John P. Schmitt, one of these attorneys, recently said:
“Over the past several weeks, decade old discredited allegations against Mr. Crosby have resurfaced. The fact that they have been repeated does not make them true.”
So, Bill Cosby refuses to personally respond, but he is willing to send in his legal team to respond on his behalf? Why? It’s not that he is incapable of speaking on his own behalf. This is a man who has earned a doctorate in education and is a master at performing in front of the camera. So Bill, the question is this: as you maintain your innocence, why won’t you speak to us?
Perspective Three: Fatherhood: Parenting What You Preach
For the last two decades, Bill Cosby has called upon those of us in the African-American community to take responsibility for ourselves and serve as leaders, teachers and models for our children. For four or more decades, Bill Cosby’s image has been of America’s jovial, pudding-loving patriarch whose family-friendly brand of comedy has tickled generations of viewers.
Today that image has been tarnished as allegations continue to come forth. The African-American community, for the most part, has been silent. While publicly, a variety of support continues to exist, privately, people are talking and wondering.
Within the psychological self, it is natural to feel confused as to what is being said about Bill Cosby. However, if we really want to be honest with ourselves, then we would want to acknowledge that we are actually not confused at all, but conflicted. We are struggling to reconcile the Bill Cosby we know of today versus the Bill Cosby of 40-50 years ago that is being portrayed in the allegations. Is he the same person? Perhaps. He’s not perfect. He is human and therefore fallible. He can, and like the rest of us, does make mistakes. The real question is this: is he willing to take ownership and responsibility for actions he may have committed many years ago?
Bill Cosby’s reputation has been tarnished. His legacy, despite spending millions of dollars in legal fees and public relations costs, will forever be remembered in the context of these sexual allegations, and the questions remain:
- Have 17 vindictive, angry women, feeling rejected and seeking revenge, sought to discredit Bill Cosby?
- Is a hostile media industry determined to take down a hard working black man?
- Why did these women wait for decades to bring these allegations public?
As a psychotherapist who specializes in working with survivors of sexual trauma and other forms of abuses, I choose to respond to the third question. These women did not come forward for money, or publicity, or fame. They came forward to set themselves free from a burden that was never theirs to carry. They no longer have to live in fear of what they experienced. They are now free to live with their fear and continue to live their lives.
Despite what individuals, communities or the greater society choose to believe, these women are by their actions empowered and now able to let go of the past, live in the present and look forward to the future. They are free, and can breathe the fresh air.
“Free at last, Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
Until the next crossroads… The journey continues.