I’ve been thinking a lot about Bill Cosby. He is (or was?) truly a hero of mine.
For several years when I was a kid, my best friends were comedians: Steve Martin, Father Guido Sarducci, Gilda Radner, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Cheech and Chong. And Bill Cosby. They kept me company when I was lonely, they taught me about sex, and love, and the world.
And I loved them, every one of them.
That’s not an exaggeration: my relationships with all of those people, though utterly one-way, felt three-dimensional to me, and each was a very real presence in my psychic landscape. I could recite (shit, I still can recite) virtually every word from their various albums.
So the tragedies that have befallen many of them have affected me, profoundly. The deaths of Radner, Pryor, and Carlin were real losses to me.
I’ve been struggling with what to do with the tragedy of Bill Cosby for months now. I don’t have answers, but I do have questions.
First, foremost: is it possible – even conceptually, theoretically – that he’s the victim in all this? That it really is a set-up? I don’t think so. I don’t know how it could be. But I feel like, if only out of loyalty to my previous image of him, I have to hold on to the possibility that he might be.
But if he’s not the victim, if he is (was?) the predator it seems almost certain he was… then what is the meaning of that? My impulse, always, is to love, to seek to feel compassion, rather than to demonize, to feel anger. His story is, if the allegations are true, tragic, horrible. He appears to be at best, deluded, and at worst, deeply, profoundly, irremediably psychopathic. I don’t find it hard to sympathize with people caught up in harmful patterns of behavior. I do find it hard to sympathize with people structurally incapable of empathy, because… well, because there’s nothing there at the center for me to sympathize with, they’re less human than machines. Is the Cos a psychopath? Incapable of empathy? Or is he a sad man, caught up in his compulsions, denials, and narcissism? God knows I can relate to that possibility.
If he’s the former – as he seems intent on having us believe – I have no particular sympathy for him. I won’t stop listening to his comedy because – damn, it’s still funny, and, the truth is, what we’ve come to learn about him doesn’t change that. (Not like Woody Allen, whose films since he married Soon-Yi Farrow Previn have consistently thrust his decisions in my face, implicitly demanding my approval.) Cosby’s humor doesn’t require him to be “good” to be funny. It doesn’t require me to approve of him if I’m to laugh. So I still laugh, even if there are tears of sadness in my eyes as I do.
But if he’s the latter – if he’s a man whose weaknesses led him to behave reprehensibly – I stand ready to forgive. All I need is a little remorse. (Not much, even: if he said, simply, “I did this. It was wrong. I’m sorry. And I’m committed to doing what I can to do right by the women I wronged – and to use this as a teaching opportunity for those who’ve come to enjoy my humor, and my teaching.” If he said that? I’d be good, honestly.
None of this is, in any way, to take away from the suffering it seems he inflicted on an unknown number of women. I am horrified at what it seems they’ve been through, what he did to them, and I wish them healing and recompense, if such things are possible. But I confess: they don’t occupy my thoughts like he does.
They weren’t part of my family. Bill Cosby is. And it’s to him that my thoughts turn in the midst of all this.