There’s been a lot of hype all over the internet lately about Bill Cosby and his alleged crimes. This post is not about the question of whether or not he committed them. If he did, it is tragic. If he didn’t, the accusations against him are tragic. Either way, it affects a specific group of people, and none of them are me, which probably makes it none of my business.
What I am interested in is the cultural response to the story. Over and over I have seen people wondering whether it’s still okay to love The Cosby Show, or to laugh at Cosby’s stand-up jokes. It seems that, if Cosby is a rapist, it casts a pall over everything he has ever produced, and has every chance of ending his career. “Did it have to be Cliff Huxtable?” asks one article, while another asserts that “these revelations cast America’s once-favorite sitcom dad in terrible light.” Netflix, TV Land, and NBC all jumped the sinking Cosby ship within a matter of days, canceling shows or pulling reruns. Theaters began canceling his upcoming appearances. “Run away,” says the mainstream media, “we don’t want to be seen to associate with an accused rapist!“
It reminds me very much of the reactions early this year when the accusations against Woody Allen took center stage. People who loved his movies suddenly seemed to be ashamed of that love, or to feel the need to never watch them again. In fact, a personal appeal from the alleged victim, Dylan Farrow, asked for exactly that: for people to stop celebrating Woody Allen’s films. It’s as if the overall cultural response is to say, “Well, if someone is a rapist, that means nothing they’ve ever done can be enjoyed or celebrated, because that would be supporting them, and supporting them is the same thing as supporting rape, and we certainly don’t support rape.”
Again, I’m not interested in arguing about whether any of these allegations are true or not. There are plenty of articles out there arguing both sides of all these stories. I am interested, primarily, in the cultural response to the phenomenon of rape.
My interest in this issue stems from my own personal history. Those of you who have read certain previous posts on this blog know that I spent my childhood experiencing incest at the hands of my father. Those of you who have read my memoir know that this allegation on my part is a hotly contested issue, denied by both my father and the rest of my immediate family of origin. See, my father – much like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, doesn’t “look like” a rapist. He’s a nice guy. He’s friendly, and charming, and funny. And on top of all that, he’s a Christian Missionary, deeply devoted to his faith, who has had a positive impact on the world in many ways – spending years flying an airplane into remote jungle villages to bring medically emergent patients to hospitals.
Dylan Farrow asked the world to stop celebrating Woody Allen’s career: “So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormentor. Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?” The plea makes sense to me. I know how painful it is, to be reminded of one’s abuser, to stand witness to them being adored. I remember the terror, the panic attacks, the nightmares that I would have after reading my family’s newsletter, or hearing from my grandmother about their latest visit.
I used to get so angry at my grandmother, when she would invite my father into her home. How could she continue to welcome him, after I told her what he’d done? It felt like betrayal, like she was siding with him. Eventually I asked her not to tell me, anymore.
I used to have this fantasy of sending a letter around to the churches that support my father’s missionary work, detailing the abuse (graphically) and shocking them into “seeing who he really was” and ending their financial contributions. I couldn’t stand the idea that the whole world thought well of someone who had shattered my life, and left me with wounds I thought would never heal.
Only, the wounds did heal. Not quickly. Not easily. It took work, and dedication, and my scars will always show what I lived through. But eventually, I healed. And in my healing, I realized that my longing to vilify my abuser in the eyes of the world was a manifestation of my woundedness. It was a broken part of me, wanting to break something in return. It was a part of me that felt invisible, wanting to demand attention and recognition.
Now, from the place of healing, from a place of wholeness, it no longer bothers me that my grandmother loves my father. It no longer bothers me that churches across the country hold him up as an example of godliness, and send financial contributions to his work. Because I can see, now, that what he did to me doesn’t make his work in the world any less valuable.
Now, if I was worried that he was still perpetrating these crimes, it would be another story. I wouldn’t have the peace I do now. But I made my splash – I made my noise – and I believe there’s no way he could get away with it now. Even though my family of origin doesn’t believe my story, some part of them is on alert, now. And so I am convinced that, currently, he is having a positive impact on the world. He goes to church. He pays his bills. And he works to make the world a better place. Why shouldn’t that be supported, or celebrated?
Bill Cosby is in his 70’s. To my knowledge, no one has come forward saying “he raped me last week.” The allegations are all about old crimes. And if he’s not currently committing crimes, why should his appearances be cancelled? What’s more, if the allegations are true, why does that have an impact on our memories of “The Cosby Show”? Cliff Huxtable was a great character. Is that any less true, if the actor who played him was committing rape? Woody Allen is an award-winning director. Does it make his movies less brilliant if he molested a child?
What I’ve read on the internet seems to indicate that it does matter. That if Bill Cosby is a rapist, Cliff Huxtable is no longer a great character. That if Woody Allen molested Dylan Farrow, he shouldn’t be given awards for his movies. That committing a sexual crime casts a pall over everything else a person ever has done or ever will do over the course of his or her life. This jump from “a person committed rape” to “that person is a rapist and their every action is tainted” speaks to a phenomenon I’ve become more and more aware of over the course of the past year: the “othering” of rapists.
Imagine with me, a scenario in which you are handed the files of two criminals. One of them got into a drunk driving accident and killed a family of 4. The other one raped his daughter throughout her childhood. You are given the task of choosing one of these criminals to be pardoned, while the other one will be executed. What do you choose?
Leaving aside the fact that this is a gods awful choice that no one should ever have to make, and also leaving aside the unlikelihood that you or I would ever be faced with such a choice (c’mon, willing suspension of disbelief, here!), really think about it for a minute.
My gut reaction would be to pardon the drunk driver, and execute the rapist. And I’d bet good money that your initial reaction is the same as mine. Why? Why does drunk driving that kills seem more palatable than incest? The victim of the incest is probably very psychologically damaged; he or she would probably have to work very hard to heal and move into wholeness…but at least it’s still a possibility. That family of four, on the other hand, has no road to healing — they are dead. It’s final.
Here’s what I think: I can imagine myself as that drunk driver. I can picture it – I’m over at a friend’s place, drinking wine and watching a movie, and I have a few more glasses than I should. I don’t realize how tipsy I am until I’m already behind the wheel, and I think “Oh, I’m not going far. It’ll be fine.” And then suddenly a whole family is dead, and it’s my fault. It doesn’t seem likely that this would happen in my life – I tend to be a very responsible about my alcohol consumption in general, and even more so when I know I have to get behind the wheel…but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Raping someone, on the other hand, especially a child, takes a lot more work for me to imagine myself doing.
Is that because I’m less likely to be a rapist than a drunk driver? I’m not so sure — I really don’t think I’m likely to become either. I think, rather, it’s because for some reason, it’s easier to look at the drunk driver and say “this could have been a good person who made a mistake,” than it is to say the same thing about the rapist. Because if rapists could be “good people,” then it gets really hard to put them in a box far, far away from the rest of us…a box marked “evil.”
Look, I am in no way saying that rape doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. It matters immensely. Dylan Farrow’s story of PTSD, of an eating disorder, of cutting…it breaks my heart. Not only that, but it is achingly familiar. I know firsthand how much it matters. The immense pain and suffering that sexual abuse caused in my life cannot be denied – the PTSD. The cutting. The suicide attempts. The inability for many years to maintain healthy relationships. I could, and have, spent hundreds of pages talking about how deeply I was affected, not only by the incest itself, but by my family and community’s insistence on holding my father up as a paragon of virtue. I understand the loneliness that comes from feeling like the only one who can see the “true” “bad” man behind the “good” image.
Of course rape matters. It matters immensely. I would never deny the impact, the pain, the terror or the grueling journey back into wholeness that results from rape. But I am here to say the words that I have fought long and hard to understand, the words that still feel controversial to share: committing rape isn’t the only thing that matters about the person who committed it. Life isn’t so simple, and humans aren’t so one-sided.
What my father did doesn’t make him evil. It doesn’t negate all the times that he was a good father – the sweet moments we had when he’d make popcorn for the family on a sunday night, or teach me how to do things like use a soldering iron or play FreeCell. It doesn’t negate all the lives he saved, flying medical emergencies out of tiny jungle villages in a bitty-little airplane…people that would not otherwise have been able to reach the hospital in time. All of the reasons that people have to doubt my accusation — all of the things that make my family of origin hold him up as a good man and a good father — they all hold true. And none of them are any less true because he raped me. The sweet moments we shared aren’t any less sweet. The lives he saved aren’t any less alive. Being a rapist doesn’t taint everything he has ever done in his life.
If Woody Allen molested Dylan Farrow, as she claims, it is a tragedy. And it doesn’t make him any less of a brilliant director. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t win awards, or that people shouldn’t watch his movies. And if Bill Cosby raped all those women who are accusing him, it is a tragedy. And it doesn’t make the Cosby Show any less lovable. It doesn’t mean that Bill Huxtable wasn’t a wonderful character that made us laugh and cry, and taught us all so much.
Rape is a tragedy. It is always a tragedy. And it has a terrible impact. But I don’t believe that it’s an entire identity…that it needs to taint every action in a person’s life – either the victim or the perpetrator – unless we let it.
I think you have to go a little bit crazy, to rape somebody. And I think that’s why we are so afraid of it, why we need to draw a box around “the kind of person that could rape somebody” and mark it “evil” and mark it “other – not me”. Because we, as a species, are afraid of our own crazy. Insanity is something we can’t predict or control. It’s something we can’t protect ourselves from. And that terrifies us, and so we cast it away. We don’t want to think that a “good person” could be a rapist, because that means that you or I could somehow go that crazy, be that person, commit that unthinkable crime. We want the rapist to be someone else, someone inherently bad, someone we could never become. We want that kind of madness to stay far away from us, and so we slap a label on it and point to it and call it “bad.” The very fact that we have an idea of “what a rapist looks like” proves my point, even as Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and my missionary father defy that stereotype.
We forget, in this process of “othering,” the principle of psychological projection: that everything we see in the world is a reflection of ourselves.
I think that everyone has the potential to go crazy. I think that everyone has the potential to kill or to rape. And I think that scares us. It’s certainly not a comfortable notion, this idea that I have within me the capability to lose control and harm or even kill another human being. It’s not who I know myself to be. I love peace. I practice non-violence. I believe in love, and balance, and hugging trees. And I am a human, a member of a species that makes war against itself, a member of a species in which murder happens, and rape happens. I am not different from the other humans, and the humans who rape and murder are not different from me, no matter how much I try to tell that story; to put them in a box marked “other”.
I think it’s dangerous, to put any humans in their entirety, including rapists, in a box and mark it “bad”. I think it shows a refusal in us to take ownership of our own potential for crazy. I’m not saying we’re all rapists…I’m saying that rape is an action, not an identity, and that we all have the potential to commit crimes we would never dream ourselves capable of. And I think it’s important to hold that potential consciously, because it’s the things you shove behind you that tend to sneak up and bite you on the ass. I think that by denying our own crazy, by denying our own potential to rape or kill, we put ourselves in more danger of doing exactly that. I think the best way to avoid losing control is to take a good hard look in the mirror, and recognize that it’s possible that you and I and those we hold dearest are just as capable of rape and murder as anyone else.
So I choose not to draw a box around people who have committed rape, and call everything they’ve ever done, “bad”. I choose not to start hating The Cosby Show, and not to start hating Bill Cosby. I choose not to vilify Woody Allen. And I choose not to hate my father. Instead, I’m going to use all the energy that I would be pouring into that hatred, to work to bring more consciousness to my own being, to the ways that violence lives in me. It’s true that I’ve never raped, and never murdered. But I’ve betrayed a confidence. I’ve said something malicious about another being. I’ve taken things that don’t belong to me.
In the end, I don’t think it’s for me to point fingers at anyone for anything they’ve done. In the end, I don’t think it’s mine to judge someone’s entire life based on one aspect of that life. In the end, I think all I can do is define my own values, and work to live in integrity with them. I choose to value consciousness. I choose to value embodiment. I choose to value non-violence. And I choose to look in the mirror, long and hard and often, and bring my behavior more into alignment with my own values. Because my own behavior, unlike the behavior of others, is something I can change.
So the next time you see an article about Bill Cosby, or Woody Allen, or whoever is next, what will you choose? Will you draw a box around them, call them “other”, and turn away from things you used to love? Or will you use it as a reminder to look in the mirror, and check in with your own integrity?